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Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, by Tony Perrottet

Title: Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists
Author: Tony Perrottet
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 416 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history, travel
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is not the sort of book I typically read, but I’m so, so glad I took a chance on this one. It’s completely delightful — Perrottet has a wonderfully accessible tone, and he melds history and the present day together in a fascinating weave.

Tony Perrottet, a travel journalist and lifelong lover of the classics, decides to go on one last final adventure when his girlfriend falls unexpectedly pregnant. He had, previously, always avoided the Mediterrannean as overcrowded and overhyped — but then he hit on the idea to embrace the mania and follow the trail of the first generation of international tourists. The book opens with a magnificent description of the unveiling of Agrippa’s world map, an enormous marble creation which displayed, for the first time, the world as they knew it in all its glory. Europe, Asia, and Africa, from Britain to India, Germany to the cataracts of the Nile, all laid out in a public gallery for first century Romans to peruse at their leisure. Even more importantly, at least for purposes of tourism, it showed the roads and shipping lanes which connected the empire. Suddenly, everything seemed so close — and so off they took, in droves. Perrottet arranged his journey, pregnant girlfriend in tow, to mirror theirs: starting in Rome, then south to the Bay of Naples, the peninsula to Brundisium and thence to Greece, to chart all the sites of the once-great empire, then island-hopping across the Aegean, travel by land up the coast of Asia Minor to Troy, then down to Egypt for Alexandrian indulgence and a Nile cruise.

Throughout the book, Perrottet hops back and forth between the experience of the ancients and his own. He tells us what excited first-century Romans, where they partied and where they studied. In so many ways, you can see how little has changed: they have the same complaints about greedy hoteliers and foreign food, road conditions and overpriced souvenirs, they seek out the best wine and the finest dining, they carve their initials on monuments — all motions that tourists today still go through in their millions. The priorities of the ancients don’t always align with ours, and what the sites meant to them was different, thanks to religious and cultural drift, but still — the humanity of them shines through across two thousand years of history. More than anything, Perrottet brings that commonality across.

The section on Rome was particularly fun for me, because I’ve been almost everywhere he mentioned. I went to Italy with a school group when I was 16, and while I wish I’d been older, to better appreciate it all, it’s still vivid in my memory. The Forum Romanum, the Coliseum, the coast at Baiae, the isle of Capri, the sandy streets (and looming mafia presence) of Pompeii, the tightly-reined terror of Naples. I have my own torturous tale, of thinking I was in for a day of shopping and then finding myself having to trek three miles uphill to Tiberius’s villa at the absolute highest point on Capri. I know what those places look and sound and smell like, and so this section of the book was a wonderfully nostalgic trip for me. And yet, there was still new information for me, both from the historical and the modern perspective. Pagan Holiday provides some delightfully salacious details that high-school students don’t get told when visiting sites, particularly in regard to the carnal indulgences of Baiae. Perrottet also actually stayed in Naples, where as we were herded carefully in and out, and the characters inhabiting that degenerated city that he draws for the reader are unforgettable. By and large, though, we walked a lot of the same steps, and it made me miss Italy terribly.

The rest of Perrottet’s journey, though, was unfamiliar territory to me. Perrottet makes Greece sound both like a great experience and like a significant challenge. I imagine it’s a lot more of the latter now than it was ten years ago, when he wrote this book, and, thanks to the Greek economic instability, it’s likely to stay that way for a while longer. But still, Perrottet finds the ancients awakened for him across the country, from the erudition of Athens to the bizarre ways in which the Spartan military legacy has lived on in Mani, from the ghosts of athletes at Olympus to the wilderness of Arcadia.

Of all the places Perrottet discusses, he most put a fire in me to visit Ephesus and its environs in Turkey, which he describes as a better-preserved, more lively, and less aggressive version of what you’ll find in Greece. He also states that Turkey is better traveled by land than by sea, which is encouraging for this hydrophobe. I had no idea that Ephesus was nearly equivalent to Pompeii as an archaeological site:

Nowhere else is the ancient Roman world so vivid, the intervening centuries so transparent; nowhere in Greece or Italy makes it so shockingly clear that the past actually happened. You couldn’t just see the ancients enjoying their holiday pleasures; you could hear and smell them.

I want that memory in my life. And, like Perrottet, I would love the chance to visit the anticlimactic ruins of Troy. His description of how Troy was already a tourist trap in the first century is pretty fascinating, since, of course, Troy was already 1200 years in the past for them. The Romans had a passion for all things Trojan, thanks to their cultural myth of being descended from Aeneas and other heroes who escaped the Fall. Perrottet connects their obsession with their fallen heroes to a story from World War II: not far from the site of Troy was where the battle of Gallipolli took place, a disastrous endeavour with heavy losses on both sides. In one of the book’s more poignant sections, Perrottet visits this site, finding on its memorial the name of an uncle of his who died there. He walks this recent battlefield, to which he has a personal connection, with Homer’s words ringing in his head.

I think my patience, much like Perrottet’s girlfriend’s, would have worn out somewhere in Egypt (even without the pregnancy factoring in). Of everywhere the author described, the process of traveling seemed least pleasant there — even worse than the terrible weather in Asia Minor and the desperately frenetic attitude of Greece — and I can only imagine it’s gotten worse in the intervening decade, given the current political circumstances in Egypt. I know they’re trying to lure tourists back in with assurances of safety and luxury, but frankly, I’m not buying it.

Part of it comes from having heard horror stories from a friend whose tour guide literally abandoned her group in the desert. That seems, from Perrottet’s descriptions, to be in-line with what tourists can expect throughout the country. I also was astonished to learn that, even a decade before the Arab Spring, terrorist attacks were so common in Middle Egypt that they shut down cruises on the Nile and that trains routinely expected to be shot at on the way to Luxor. I am curious, though, about how the Alexandrian scuba-recovery project is going, if any progress has been made on that front in ten years. And still, no matter the current climate, there is something tremendously compelling about the oldest extant places in the Western World. I remember, on a much smaller scale, visiting the Etruscan burial mounds in Italy, three thousand years old, and being completely bowled over by the age of them. To stand in the middle of something so profoundly ancient is an astonishment to the senses, almost incomprehensible. Egypt is another couple thousand years removed from the present than the Etruscan complexes are. Seeing those sites must be absolutely tremendous.

Perhaps the best part of the Egypt section is the tale of Perrottet’s very own personal mummy’s curse. After he literally pokes the mummy of Pharaoh Thutmose III — under invitation, by the way, of the curator — a series of disasters provokes a side-quest, to appease the ancient ruler’s spirit. I really enjoyed the way Perrottet wove this story in; it doesn’t overwhelm the narration, but the thread is there, and it mixes an appropriately ancient air of superstition in with the all-too-cynical mundanity of modern travel concerns.

I should very much like to read more travelogues of this kind in general and from Perrottet in particular. I appreciate how much detail Perrottet put in and how devoted he was to making sure his research was solid. I liked that he told us where his stories came from (and I now really want to find the account of Germanicus’s grand tour, that ended in his untimely death). And yet he never loses sight of his own stories, his own experience, and his own take on things. His insights are wonderful, personable, and often quite touching, yet always with a wry sense of humour attached as well. At the end of his trip, cruising down the Nile and suffering from archaeological oversaturation, he reflects:

…we decided to skip a few land visits. All we wanted to do was wallow in the pool and stare at the riverbank. I felt a little ashamed of this philistine behavior, until I read that Julius Caesar and Cleopatra had enjoyed the same sort of trip. Caesar was exhausted after years of battle. Cleopatra was heavily pregnant with his son. Of course, Julius had just conquered the entire known world. But apart from that minor detail, the parallel seemed fairly apt.

I recommend this book to any travel junkies or classical enthusiasts — there’s plenty here for both sets, and if you exist in the overlapping portion of that diagram, you’ll be in literary heaven. If I ever have the money (and the regions are ever completely safe to travel in again), I would love to re-create this same journey. It sounds like a blast.

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Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 400 pages
Genre: biography
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This is a very strong biography, and Schiff does an admirable job rescuing Cleopatra’s reputation from the vagaries of history. Her story as the world commonly knows it is one of erasure and revision. The men who wrote her earliest biographies were not only men but her enemies, Romans eager to blame her for the downfall of the Republic.

Unfortunately, just due to the fragmented nature of the historical record, that means Schiff does spend a lot of time defining her subject in the negative — talking about Cleopatra by talking about who and what Cleopatra wasn’t. And that does become tedious in places. I can’t blame Schiff for this — it’s the nature of the beast, and as someone who spends most of her life with her head in the 16th century, I know how many frustrations there are when it comes to trying to circle in on what the truth might’ve been. It does, however, make for a bit of roundabout reading. She also has to spend a lot of time on Caesar and Antony’s lives, despite her frequent assertions that Cleopatra wasn’t defined solely by her relationships with them. I don’t know that there’s a way around that — her readers need to know the political entanglements of the time, and those entanglements were largely engineered by those specific men — but it is a bit of an odd juxtaposition with her intended goal.

I like the book best when it’s extrapolating Cleopatra’s probable life based on what we do know about the culture of the time, about Alexandria, about other leaders of her ilk. Those are the passages that come most to life and which show Cleopatra nearer to who she probably was: a clever, resourceful woman holding onto her survival — and that of her country — with both hands. Schiff spends considerable time on Cleopatra’s likely education, on the social culture of Alexandria, and on the conflicts between the native Egyptians and the Greek immigrants. That structure created a fascinating dichotomy both within Alexandria and between Alexandria and the rest of Greece; I enjoyed learning more about how Cleopatra, grateful to the native Egyptians from her period of exile, worked further towards ingratiating herself towards them and towards improving their lives than had previous Ptolemies. She learned their language, adopted their religion, took part in their rituals, all to a far greater degree than anyone else in her dynasty had. It made her unpopular with the Alexandrians — a new level of political turmoil to add to the swirling charybdis Cleopatra had to negotiate — but it gave her a lot of support in other ways and from other quadrants.

Another fascinating political narrative is that of the East. So often, Rome in this period overshadows the history of what was going on elsewhere, which is a shame, because the machinations of Parthians, Armenians, Anatolians, Judaeans, Nabataeans, and other peoples of Mesopotamia, the Arabian peninsula, and the eastern Mediterranean are well-worth consideration. Cleopatra’s ongoing feud with Herod — as well as the complex and murderous dynamics of his family, to which Schiff devotes some time — is a narrative all in itself, and one which directly refutes claims that Cleopatra seduced every man who dropped into her path.

I also like this book because of the ways in which it remains so relevant. The shaming of women’s sexuality, the body-policing, the castigation of an independent woman, the naked fear of a woman in power — these things still resonate so clearly. The vitriolic criticisms of Cicero would not be out of place in conservative mouths today. As Schiff deftly notes:

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence — her ropes of pearls — there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her threateningly attractive than fatally intelligent.

This is still true. So much about modern culture imbues women with the idea that they are only worth as much as their body, that their sexuality and ability to bear children defines them — the source of all virtue and all vice, depending on how it’s used. And, of course, men get to decide whether you’ve used it properly or not, now as then; modern women are subject to the same binary judgment as Cleopatra was, cast as the vile, ambitious seductress opposite proper, devoted, modest Octavia. In that way, this book is importantly feminist; we need more of this version of history in the world.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism about this book being dry and boring — and, well, it is a non-fictionalized history. There’s a lot of difference between this book and, say, Hand of Isis, Lily of the Nile, or even the particularly dense Masters of Rome series. But one should not be judged by the other’s standards. Cleopatra: A Life is a bit dry in some places, perhaps, but definitely not boring. It is a comprehensive and engaging biography which clears away the accumulated detritus of centuries’ worth of defamation. Well worth the read.

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Classical Compendium, by Philip Matyszak

Title: Classical Compendium: A miscellany of scandalous gossip,
bawdy jokes, peculiar facts, and bad behavior from the ancient Greeks and Romans

Author: Philip Matyszak
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 192 pages
Genre: history / nonfiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

Matyszak has a great approach to history. He displays it not as staid, overworn stories of famous individuals, but as the real experience of ordinary people — sex, violence, whiny complaints, and all. Matyszak’s Rome is not a land of starched white togas and squeaky-clean marble; his is the Rome of garish dyes and roughspun tunics, of squabbling neighbours and petty disputes, of bad behaviour and its often quite public shame, and, most importantly for the reading experience, of dry wit, frank judgments, and explicit language. I’ve previously read Matyszak’s Legionary, and I hope to read more of his books in the future, because I so appreciate his voice.

In the Classical Compendium, Matyszak has combed the annals and anecdoates for the best tidbits, juiciest gossip, and weirdest tall tales out of Greco-Roman history. And there is, no doubt, some strange stuff in there. Matyszak’s scope includes travel, the military, religion, love affairs, animal lore, odd jobs, criminal records, and even the customs surrounding death in the ancient world — and some of most notable suicides and murders. He also sprinkles the text with traditional jokes from ancient Greece, many of which could be told today without anyone having the slightest feeling of anachronism.

You’ll learn about silphium, a plant worth its weight in gold for its medicinal uses, which included cough syrup and fever relief, as well as birth control and abortifacent; it went extinct sometime in the first century. You’ll find aphrodisiac recipes, and love poems guaranteed to win a woman’s heart — alongside invective poetry guaranteed to drive her away, if that’s your aim. Pompey had trouble with elephants, chameleons live on air, dogs got crucified once a year, and Julius Caesar had a horse with toes. Augustus Caesar imposed strict morality on his people, but couldn’t govern his own family (as anyone who’s watched I. Claudius knows). You’ll learn about some of the ancient world’s most bizarrely specific jobs, like anti-elephant infantrymen, pig igniter, theatre shade operator, professional informer, and phallus manufacturer. If you have someone you desperately need to curse, the ancients have some delightfully specific recommendations. Everyone from commoners to emperors sought advice from the oracle, for questions as big as whether to go to war, as small as “Will I retrieve the mattresses and pillows I have lost?”, and as universal as “What have I done to deserve this?”

What all of these tidbits bring to life is the idea of an ancient world that was full and lively, in some ways as sophisticated as our own, lacking only our technology. It’s a treasure trove, the gems of which illuminate a world long gone, alien to us in some ways, but alarmingly familiar in many others. Matyszak’s books are fantastically educational, but eminently readable and entertaining as well. This isn’t a stuffy recitation of dates and famous names; this is people, as they were and as they still are. And that, to me, is the very best kind of history.

This book got 4 stars instead of 5 mostly because I wish there had been more things in here that I didn’t already know. I would say the book is probably half-and-half information that was new to me versus information that I’ve picked up somewhere along the way, either in school or just in my own trawling of historical topics. I also think that, because this book relies more heavily on the primary sources, there’s less of Matyszak’s sense of humour coming through than there was in Legionary, and I missed that. The Classical Compendium is, well, exactly what it says: a miscellany, bits and pieces out of the original authors or generally summarised, without a lot of connective material or commentary. Still, it’s thoroughly delightful, and a wonderful historical reference book. Every lover of the ancient world should have this on her shelf.

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