Modern Things Romans Would Love #5: AirBnB

How coincidental these two entries follow each other. You see, it is difficult to travel without having people to take you places or places to stay when you get there.

Roman hospitium, hospitality, is truly the stuff of legend. You might not think it given how often they showed themselves to be an elitist shower of xenophobes and racists who considered anyone not Roman as an unwashed, uncultured barbarian. They didn’t even really like Greeks, whose land they respected so much many Greek cities went untaxed for long periods of time and whose culture they loved so much they basically nicked it around 200BCE. They were, though, considered a bit shit, ponderous and effeminate. Skim-reading what Romans thought of other people, you’d get the idea they didn’t like them at all.

A reconstruction of a typical Roman carriage from the Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne. (Credit: Maduc Cyron)

But just like your old Uncle Graham they didn’t like “people” plural, collectively. Graham will drone on and on about how much he hates immigrants but he always says “Good morning!” to Ahmed, the Syrian refugee who lives upstairs. He even takes parcels in for him sometimes. Graham thinks Ahmed’s a good lad and won’t hear a word against him, but all immigrants are bastards. Yeah, Uncle Graham and Romans – very similar in that regard.

So, this concept, hospitium, is likely another thing they ‘borrowed’ from the Greeks. Roughly translating to hospitality, it’s another Roman concept that doesn’t necessarily translate directly today. Today we consider hospitality a basic civility, in Roman times it was more a divine duty. You could, say, absolutely fucking hate Illyrians (people from, roughly, modern day Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina – The Balkan region), you could despise them with all your might. If one of them knocked upon your door seeking hospitium, though, then it was a sacred duty to provide for them, feed them, clothe them if need be. That’s not to say all Romans were afraid to upset the Gods. Some of them were definitely heathens and would turn people away. But it would possibly be frowned upon by your friends and acquaintances.

The many Roman Roads, like this between Antioch and Chalcis, made travel around the Empire a lot easier. (Credit: Bernard Gagnon)

In this way many a Roman household was an AirBnB and, to make things better, they would have been free. Well, they were ‘free’ in that no currency was paid. Just as in modern times, if something is free usually you are the product. If you were an exotic traveller, particularly one of relative importance (and if you’ve the wherewithal to travel across the Roman Empire to visit the Eternal City itself you were probably not a scrublord) e.g. a diplomat or a trader, then they could tell their friends and acquaintances how they had been hospitable to such a rare and exotic person. It could be you were an important Roman from another part of the Empire, stopping off at a small villa between Rome and Capua. Well in that case you may be important to know, you may be a good client or patron, you may well be asked favours – after all your custodians were so hospitable it would be impolite to not, say, buy a few amphorae of wine or oil from them. Maybe you’re a crazy religious cultist, in which case your hosts could find out about your strange customs and gossip about them later, eventually leading your stupid eschatological, messianic cult to become the state religion. Still, it wouldn’t cost you a penny.

So, AirBnB, the subletting of room in one’s property to guests from anywhere and everywhere. That ain’t a modern concept, Curious Idiots. It’s surprisingly ancient – again the Romans probably nicked it from the Greek concept of xenia or sacred hospitality – likely not after the wars and invasions but earlier still, as Etruscan (pre-Roman) culture was heavily influenced by Greek culture. So hundreds of years before the Romans did it, the Greeks had their AirBnBs.

And we like to think we’re so fucking clever.

You can check out our previous entry of why Romans would have loved travelling and tourist tat so much here.

Or you can move on to number 4, Bipartisan politics.

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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