Sunday, May 25, 2003

Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists

"Augustus Caesar and his citizens were the very first leisure travelers", points out Tony Perrottet, the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists "During the Pax Romana, from about 30 B.C. to 200 A.D., sightseers set off in droves to visit the wonders of their world, lounging in sumptuous seaside resorts and admiring attractions such as the Pyramids and the Parthenon."

The Romans loved to cluster by the beach, especially the Bay of Naples with its extravagant villas and legendary bacchanalian banquets. "But, why must I look at drunks staggering along the shore or noisy boating parties?'' the philosopher Seneca asked.

At pagan temples visitors forked over hefty donations to huckster priests to see a Gorgons skin, a Cyclops skull or the relics of Homeric heroes. Roman sightseers battled freelance tour guides called mystagogi (''those who explain the sacred places to foreigners''), whose aggressive harangues were no less exasperating than those of today. At every ancient site, souvenir vendors pressed forward with engraved glass vials, knockoff silver statues or lucky charms, as did fast-food vendors selling nuts, figs and cut-rate sausages of dubious quality.

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