Modern Things Romans Would Love #6: Travel and Tourist Tat

Whilst free travel was obviously a thing in the prehistoric power vacuum across the expanses of European land, the notion of having a wander to some far off shore to experience the culture (likely the prostitutes) and bring a little something back to the family (likely an infection) – was never really an option.

Rome sort of opened up a huge part of the world for that sort of thing. I don’t want to say they invented ‘tourism’ but I certainly think it’s up for debate. For the first time in European history a vast stretch of the world was littered with caravans and supply lines onto which one could latch and travel long distances. For the first time in history one system of rule and government dominated sites and cities of differing historical and cultural significance, opening them up to being visited. The Roman empire was heavily decentralised, the provinces run by their own rules, but being a Roman citizen was like a passport unto itself, and offered many benefits, the most important of which would be legal protection. You were ‘safe’ to travel.  

It was almost a rite of passage for wealthy Romans, especially in the imperial family, to visit the ancient cities of Greece. The pyramids of Giza, having stood for thousands of years before the Romans even formed a relationship with the Ptolemys, never mind took full control of the country, must have been a hell of a visit for a Roman. From the natural springs at Aquae Sulis (modern Bath) in Britannia, across the mountains of the Iberian Peninsula, via the brothels of Gallia Narbonensis, across the Alps – via which the venerable Hannibal brought his armies and war elephants – to the ancient temples and statues of Greece and through to places in the East like Alexandria in Egypt, or Antioch in modern Turkey, the Romans had a huge amount of culture and history in their domain that they could visit.

The Great Pyramid of Giza
The Great Pyramid of Giza was old by the time the Romans would have visited it. Credit: Nina Aldin Thune.

The Empire took in a huge number of places older, bigger and more impressive than most things your average provincial Roman had seen. In fact, after visiting and pacifying much of Greece the awestruck Romans were so taken by the grandeur in their building that they basically nicked it. To an extent the Ancient Rome we know of, with its vast buildings, columns, impressive architecture, is a response to insecurity caused by the Greeks. This intellectual culture stared right in the eyes of these Latin warlords and said “Mine’s bigger than yours!”

So, caravans, boats and the rights of citizenship meant anyone rich or just pioneering enough could go and visit these places for themselves.

Some places even built themselves some greatness to make them a place Roman tourists would want to visit. Herod the Great’s Jerusalem was a city deliberately built with grandeur to put it on par with the cities of Rome, Greece and Egypt. Travel and tourism had really become that much a part of Romanised culture.

Two pale columns in Roman Jerusalem
Even today, the ruins of Roman Jerusalem still stand. Credit: Gary Bembridge.

But wait! There’s more! Archaeological evidence from across the Roman world has dug up trinkets from various other parts of the world; Jewellery, figurines, carvings, etc. Basically they found everything but fridge magnets, keyrings and postcards. Not only did Romans have a penchant for travelling the world – sometimes for leisure, sometimes for education and sometimes because they had to because they were soldiers – but they also liked to bring back trinkets for their families. Roman-era tourist tat actually existed. So the next time Aunty Joyce brings you a shitty little bottle of sand from whatever shitty Spanish resort she went and got fucked by a twenty-something rep at, have some respect. For Aunty Joyce for pulling a man like that, and also for the fact that tourist tat is an ancient rite.

Feel like travelling back? Check out our last entry, gender and sexuality liberation.

Or move on to number 5, one that ties in nicely with this one, why Romans would have loved AirBnB

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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