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D - 17: Were there Roman Tourists?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

If we were setting sail two thousand years ago, would we meet a Roman cruising party like us on the AFAED? Did the Romans travel for leisure?

Idealized Roman Villa on the sea where “1% of the people stole the beach from everyone”

We know that people during medieval times did not move from home unless they went on a pilgrimage or war. Their horizon of experience was the next town. Going away was considered dangerous, people did not speak other languages, the infrastructure on the road was lousy and nobody had money anyway. Of course, this statement does not hold true for the merchants of Venice, Genoa or Pisa who ventured beyond their horizon looking for exotic goods and the next big deal. These were maritime cultures which depended on the sea for survival thus had a different perspective. Nor was it true for the knightly warriors who always looked for adventure and loot somewhere. But 95% of people stayed home and never travelled.

According to common wisdom, tourism started with the “Grand Tours” tradition in the Renaissance when young nobles travelled through Europe to learn how to run their states best. Later, the English upper class picked up the habit. Lord Byron is one of the best examples. When Robert Cook found the first travel agency in 1841, this rite of passage was institutionalized and became a big business. Rail transport and steam ships accelerated the development. By the end of the 19th century, tourism as we know it today was born – albeit for the rich and famous only. The rest had to wait for after WW II.

The Roman equivalent to St. Tropez - Baiae 13 km west of Naples – part of it below sea level

But how was it in the Roman Empire? From 200 years of excavations we learnt that the rich and wealthy loved having secondary homes both in the mountains and at the sea. The partially sunk town of Baiae near Naples is one of these early holiday resorts. Almost every important Roman citizen (Caesar, Cicero etc.) owned a spacious villa there. But was it for leisure or because Puteoli, Rome’s most important naval base was just around the corner?

Rome was a big, rich Empire with the necessary infrastructure to govern it. There were 50’000 miles of military roads, countless Inns for travelers, regular ferry services on the big rivers and thousands of captains accepting paying passenger on their commercial ships. There was always a lot of government and army related traffic. Provincial Governors came and went, always with their large retinue, army generals took command of their Legion somewhere far away, scribes travelled from Rome to keep account of what was going on, there was a messenger service “cursus publicus” for sending letters. The Empire also had a common language, a common religion and common culture. You need to look no further than to the architecture of provincial towns to see how unified Roman culture was. All of them are mini Romes. The pre-requisites for leisure travelling were in place.

Roman Empire superimposed on the United States of America - it was big!

The Roman culture was very open to new ideas. The Greek culture had a particularly big impact. The Roman elite was also curious about what was happening abroad. Caesar’s book on the conquest of France (De Bello Gallico) was not only an exercise in self-praise but contained a lot of information on the Gauls, their culture and customs. If nobody had asked questions, Caesar would not have written about these subjects. The same can be said about Arminius and other Roman writers from whom we have a detailed description of Roman life and the peoples on the Empire’s borders. Roman culture was curious and inquisitive. Anything that was useful was copied, adopted and incorporated. Their curiosity was no different than ours.

Marcus Tullius Cicero who was brutally beheaded by Marc Anthony in 43 BC

One source which helps us to answer the question is Cicero, the famous orator and writer at the end of the Roman Republic. Many of his letters have survived. What surprises always is from how many different places he wrote. He was out of town for a wedding, on a business trip, visiting a friend or spending some time in his villa in Baiae. For one year we know about he was in 50 different locations – one per week!

The rich and wealthy Romans loved to travel. They would not climb mountains or dive to the bottom of the sea as we do. There were enough challenges in their daily lives. But they loved to retreat to a cooler climate in the mountains during the summer season and spend the winter on the sea in more temperate weather. They would not do sports or swimming or sunbathing. Having a tan was a sign of having to work in the sun thus was not desirable. White skin showed status – still does in China today.

The Romans loved to party though. We know about many exuberant if not excessive parties since they attracted the criticism of fellow Romans. But Romans wanted to meet other interesting people, mingle and grease the social ladder. In places like Baiae the entire Roman elite met and entertained. It was the best place to offer his services, declare his loyalty or to ask for a favor from someone important and high ranking. Travelling to these places was a good career move.

Roman Diner Party

There were however three serious restrictions to a proper tourism industry

A. Travelling was too time consuming. Nobody could travel more than 20 miles a day. It took a long time to get somewhere. No good idea when you have limited time available – Romans had no holidays

B. The knowledge about other places was not widespread. Whilst books did exist, they all were manuscripts and only accessible to a privileged few. In the absence of the printing press, there was no mean to distribute knowhow. Maps or The Lonely Planet for ordinary people did not exist – we do not even talk about Booking.com or Tripadvisor

C. There was no money. The rich called the shots. The less wealthy got “Panem et Circenses” (bread and shows) in their home towns

Modern Villa with Sea View

A wealthy Roman may well have been familiar and enjoyed a view of the sea as shown on the photo above – minus the swimming pool of course. But once there, they would stay for a month at least. The activity of traveling was a means to an end not a means by itself.

We thus would not have met a travelling party like ours on another boat. But we would have met wealthy Roman holidayers in their villas on the sea. Looking at our tan, however, they would considered us unworthy for an invitation. Real people were pale. Sniff!

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