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Books: On Tour with the Ancients Volume 55 Number 6, November/December 2002
by Louis Werner

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(Courtesy Random House) [LARGER IMAGE]

Few tourists set off to see the ancient sites of the eastern Mediterranean with a five-month pregnant companion, nagging doubts about how fatherhood might change his life...and 30 pounds of travel testimonies by Greek and Roman authors. For that matter, few tourists write travel books of their own to honor a vow they have made to Juno as a pledge for a safe return. But that is what Tony Perrottet has done in the delightful Route 66 A.D.: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists (New York: Random House, 2002; $25.95), which details his long, wending way from Rome to Naples, to Greece, to Turkey, to Egypt in the footsteps of such luminous Roman tourists as Hadrian, Tiberius, and Nero, who did in fact make the trip in A.D. 66.

As Perrottet explains with the easy grace of a fine amateur classicist, the Pax Romana imposed across the Mediterranean in the first two centuries of the Christian era put an end to civil unrest and made possible for the first time the concept of tourism for the leisured class, and with it all the accoutrements still known in the travel industry: peregrinatores, the tourists themselves; mystagogi, the nonsense-spouting guides; periegesis, the guidebooks to out-of-the-way places; unacceptable beds and meals that hurried tourists have no time to complain about; souvenir stalls selling dubious replicas; and guest registries, usually in the form of graffiti in the most inappropriate places.

While only one guidebook in the true sense survives from ancient times (Pausanias' Description of Greece, dating from the second century A.D.) many Greeks and Romans left behind letters, poems, plays, and epigrams dealing with their travels--not as soldiers, administrators, or statesmen--but as tourists plain and simple. Seneca, Juvenal, Pliny, and Apuleius are only a few who have left us vivid accounts of Greece, Turkey, and Egypt--places they knew about from reading Homer and Herodotus. Perottet does a wonderful job of keeping these accounts, fragmentary as they are, before us as he sets out on his own tour of the same sites. Most might think that modern travel is nothing like it was in the old days, but Perrottet lets us know that customs agents, innkeepers, and Nile boatmen never change. The confabulations spoon-fed by guides at the Great Pyramid to Herodotus in the fifth century B.C. were much the same as those half swallowed by Pliny 600 years later and again by me and you two thousand years after that.

Perottet is an engaging guide along the entire route, even after Stendahl syndrome--numbness from seeing too many monuments--sets in. His ample citations from the ancient writers and travelers from Agrippa to Virgil, always witty, always apropos, cure what might have ailed the typical book of this sort, and what certainly ails the modern tourist frantically thumbing a dog-eared copy of Fodor's as he races up the Marble Way at Ephesus.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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