Sometime in the second century A.D., an Alexandrian businessman wrote from Rome to his brother in Egypt as follows: “I am well. This is to let you know that I reached land on Epeiph 6 [June 30] and we unloaded our cargo on the 18th of the same month. I went up to Rome [from the port at the mouth of the Tiber] on the 25th of the same month [July 19]. . . . We are daily expecting our sailing papers; up to today not one of the grain freighters has been cleared. Remember me to your wife and dear ones.” There were enough ships in that fleet of carriers to transport 135,000 tons of Egyptian wheat annually. Wheat from Egypt, olive oil from Spain, wine from France, carved stone coffins from Athens - these and dozens of other products were hauled back and forth across the Mediterranean by a merchant marine larger than any Europe was to know again until the eighteenth century. Traders used the roads as well, but to a much smaller extent, since carriage on land was either by donkey or oxcart, both as expensive as they were slow. The roads in the first instance had been built for the government, and the officers of the government remained their chief user on a regular basis.
Nor did trade stop at the boundaries of the empire. The Roman upper classes had developed a taste for exotic luxuries, and during the peaceful and prosperous first two centuries of the Christian era, they had the money to indulge it. The shippers of Alexandria sent long fingers of trade down the east coast of Africa as far as Zanzibar and across the sea to India; from the one they brought back ivory and myrrh, from the other spices and cotton fabrics, as well as silk that had been shipped there from China.
The demand for silk, that luxury of luxuries, became so avid that it finally brought into contact the two great civilizations of the ancient world, Greco-Roman and Chinese. In the second century B.C., China began dispatching silk caravans on a more or less regular schedule from within the Great Wall deep into Chinese Turkestan. There the loads were transferred to local middlemen who carried them across the desert and through the mountains to Persia, where Syrians and Greeks took them over for the last leg to the Mediterranean. In A.D. 97, the court of China sent an envoy, Kan Ying, to Mesopotamia; he or a successor reported back that the people there were “honest in their transactions, and there are no double prices” - probably the first and last time that has been said about Near Eastern tradesmen. Groups of Greco-Roman merchants made their way into China, for the court records report that in “the ninth year of the Yen-hsi period, during the Emperor Huan-ti’s reign [A.D. 166] . . . the king of Ta-ts’in, Antun, sent an embassy which, from the frontier of jih-nan [Annam], offered ivory, rhinoceros horns, and tortoise shell.” The account goes on to comment sniffily that the embassy had brought the emperor no jewels. Ta-ts’in is the Chinese name for the Roman Empire, and Antun is Antoninus, the family name of Marcus Aurelius, but what arrived was almost certainly no official body, simply a clutch of traders attempting to buy their silk directly from China instead of through middlemen.
But trade and the government were by no means responsible for all the movement on the roads and sea lanes. There were plenty of people on the go for other reasons.
To begin with, there were those traveling for their health, headed for a sanctuary of the healing god Asclepius. These centers were to be found all over Greece, on the islands of the eastern Mediterranean, in the Greek cities along the coast of Asia Minor, in those of southern Italy. As early as 291 B.C., one had been established on the Tiber Island in Rome. In the days of the empire, three had become the most prestigious: those at Epidaurus in Greece; on the island of Kos, where Hippocrates had been born and founded his school of medicine; and at Pergamum, which reached its height in the middle of the second century A.D. when Galen, the most renowned physician of the day, practiced there, on and off, for many years. The procedure was the same in all. The patients entered the sanctuary, took a ritual bath to purify themselves, went into Asclepius’s temple, prayed, and then spread a pallet and lay down on it to spend the night. Their dreams revealed to them the help they sought. In a few notable cases, the cures were miraculous: The patients awoke the next morning hale and hearty. More often they were given some prescription, usually spelled out plainly, occasionally enigmatically. There was rarely anything exotic about these; for the most part they involved the taking - or not taking - of certain baths or exercise or foods, applications of unguents and salves, downing of doses of special drugs.
Asclepius’s ministrations were for the severely ill. For the merely ailing and particularly the hypochondriacs, there were the aquae, the mineral springs. These were as well patronized in Roman days as European spas in our own; in some cases, one is the descendant of the other. Aquae Calidae has become Vichy; Aquae Sextiae, Aix-en-Provence; Aquae Sulis, Bath; and so on. Their ancient clientele was every bit as sure they did one good as today’s is. “Many throughout Sicily,” wrote Diodorus, a contemporary of Caesar and Augustus, “who are troubled with their peculiar ills go [to Lipari] . . . and by using the baths become healthy again in incredible fashion.”
Then there were the crowds en route to the great festivals that had achieved international repute. The traditional Greek games, the Olympics in honor of Zeus or the Pythian in honor of Apollo, lasted almost as long as the Roman Empire itself. And out-of-towners must have poured into Rome by the thousands when the ludi were on, or gladiatorial shows were being given, and by the tens of thousands for such events as the opening of the Colosseum.
Lastly, we must add the vacationers, all those who could afford to flee the heat of the cities during the summer for the cool of the sea or the mountains. Rome’s upper crust started the annual migration at the coming of spring. Since the resort hotel was unknown in ancient times, they moved from one to another of their private villas. Cicero, merely a moderately wealthy man by the standards of his day, had no less than six: three along or near the lovely Bay of Naples, one on the coast north of there, and two in the hills not far from Rome. His neighbors along the Bay of Naples included some of the greatest names in Roman history - Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, the celebrated bon vivant Lucullus, among others - whose establishments put his to shame. Augustus’s stepfather owned one where he once entertained not only Caesar but Caesar’s retinue of 2,000. The most stupendous of all was the villa Lucullus built at Naples - and he had another, only slightly less sumptuous, just twelve miles to the west. Augustus maintained at least four in the area. His successor Tiberius spent most of the last ten years of his life at a monumental establishment on Capri. Nero was staying at his villa at Baiae, on the western arm of the bay, the night he attempted to drown his mother; he finally had her assassinated in the bedroom of her own place a few miles away. Baiae, as a matter of fact, was one of the favored spots; with its abundant hot springs, it was spa as well as summer resort. The villas of the wealthy lined the shores and spangled the hills roundabout, while in town were rooms and lodgings for the rank and file. Pleasure seekers of all kinds flocked there and, as will happen, gave the town a reputation for impure as well as pure delights. The respectable elements of society sailed decorously on the nearby Lake Lucrinus during the day; at night, the smart set invited shady women aboard their yachts, went bathing in the nude, and “filled the lakes with the din of their singing.” “Unmarried girls are common property, old men act like young boys, and lots of young boys like young girls,” snapped Varro, Cicero’s learned contemporary. “Why must I look at drunks staggering along the shore or noisy boating parties?” complained the moralist Seneca a century later. Who wants to listen, he grumbled, “to the squabbles of nocturnal serenaders?” Martial composed a sardonic little poem about a certain couple:
The wife, even worse than her glowering husband
never strayed from virtue’s paths,
until she came to the Lucrine Lake
and heated up in Baiae’s baths.
It put her on fire: she left him flat
to run off with some young boy;
she came to town Penelope,
she left it Helen of Troy.
The straitlaced Augustus, though he often vacationed in his villas in the neighborhood, never showed his face in town and took a dim view of those who did.
With the onset of the heat in May, Rome’s high society left their seaside establishments and moved to the cool of the hills. The Alban and Sabine hills that ring Rome on the east and southeast were dotted with country retreats. In the neighborhood of Tusculum alone, there were four belonging to various emperors and ten times that many to private citizens. For in the prosperous years of the Roman Empire, this sort of indulgence was not limited to the wealthy; the middle class as well had country refuges. The farm in the Sabine hills that Horace got from his patron Maecenas, where he rushed gratefully on every possible occasion, was no grandiose villa but a modest bit of land with a modest rustic-style house. Martial, who started his career living in a garret three flights up, eventually acquired a little cottage surrounded by a few acres some thirteen miles as the crow flies from where Horace’s had been located. Though we call these establishments farms, many were as purely ornamental as the glamorous estates of the millionaires. Martial pokes fun at a second-rate lawyer who made a poor but sure living off a clientele who paid him in produce - until he bought a piece of farm property to retire on, and then things suddenly were reversed:
So, Pannychus, you’ve bought some land
with a ramshackle hut whose roof needs supports,
with a view on a roadside graveyard, and
you’ve deserted your city estate, the courts.
Your seedy gown paid steadily, if not well - but the millet,
barley, wheat, and rye,
that when practicing law you used to sell,
now you’re a farmer, you’ll have to buy!
When the owners of such “farms” set out for a weekend in the country, they had to carry their own food with them. Take the one that Martial saw on the Appian Way in a cart groaning under a load of cabbages, leeks, lettuce, fowl, and so on:
Is he homeward bound
from the country air?
It’s the other way round-
he’s going there!
To go by sea or by land - this was the first issue a traveler had to resolve. In most cases the choice was simple: He favored travel by sea over land as much as we do travel by air over the train; it spared him long, scorching days in a jolting carriage or on shanks’ mare. Since there were no regular passenger lines, he would make his way to the nearest port and patiently put up there until he found a freighter headed to where he wanted to go, preferably one of the big merchantmen that hauled bulky commodities like grain and oil between distant ports. Running as much as 180 feet in length and able to carry 1,000 tons of cargo and accommodate hundreds of passengers, they offered safety and, with their ample decks, relative comfort. Ancient freighters, even the largest, were equipped with only a handful of cabins for use by VIPs, friends of the owner or shipper, and such; anyone else, including well-heeled travelers, willy-nilly took deck passage. They came aboard carrying collapsible shelters, which they set up as sleeping quarters at night, carrying provisions for the length of the voyage, and accompanied by one or more servants - only paupers or fugitives traveled without at least one servant - to take care of the housekeeping involved. The ship supplied only drinking water. Since the sailing season was limited to the late spring, summer, and early fall, and since the Mediterranean climate is comparatively mild, deck passage was usually no great hardship. Neither was the length of the voyage. With just ordinary luck with the winds, ancient sailing vessels could get from Naples to Alexandria in two weeks, from Naples to Athens in a week, from Athens to the west coast of Asia Minor in a few days. However, because of the prevailing northerlies in the eastern Mediterranean, the voyage home was a much slower business; Alexandria back to Rome, for example, could take as much as two and a half months.
If his destination lay inland, the traveler came as near as he could by sea and then resigned himself to exchanging his comfortable spot on the deck for the rigors of the open road. During the first and second centuries A.D., land travel in one respect was better than it was to be at any subsequent time till the coming of the railroad: A web of paved, all-weather highways linked the farthest corners of the empire with the capital; rain simply made a traveler wet, it did not mire him for hours or days in a sea of mud. These splendid roads marched along, mile after mile, over open desert, along the shoulders of ravines, up to and across mountain passes. Strategically placed along the main routes were inns or posting stations where bed and food were to be had and beasts and vehicles could be hired. The beasts were generally donkeys or mules (horses, expensive to maintain, were for the army or races). The vehicles varied from light two-wheeled gigs for fast travel to heavy four-wheeled affairs with arched cloth or leather canopies looking very much like our Conestoga wagons. There was even a carruca dormitoria, a “sleeping carriage,” the ancient equivalent of today’s car trailer. None of them, light or heavy, offered any joy ride since all had wooden wheels with iron tires and no springs. The wealthy, though they could do nothing about the discomfort of a ride, devised ingenious ways to mitigate its monotony. We have already mentioned Claudius’s carriage fitted for shooting dice; Commodus had one equipped with swiveling seats, enabling him to catch the sun or a cooling breeze or merely change the view; Pliny’s indefatigable uncle had one with room for a stenographer and his gear. Those who wanted to avoid being jounced about at all costs, and cared nothing about time or expense, used litters rather than carriages. The traveling litter was fitted with a canopy and draw curtains; the rider lolled on cushions in shaded ease as six or eight husky bearers plodded along, averaging fifteen to twenty miles a day. Ordinary carriage travel averaged twenty-five to thirty.
When night began to fall, the traveler hastened his pace to reach a city, or if he was in open country, the next roadside inn before dark. In either case, he was rather worse off than his counterpart today. The ancient world had nothing that we would dignify with the name “hotel”; there were only humble inns, which offered the very minimum in food and lodging and usually doubled as houses of ill repute. The rich arranged their itineraries so that they could either stay at their own country houses or be put up by friends or relatives; moreover, in case of need, they could count on hospitality from local governors or mayors. “Lucius Memmius, a Roman senator in a position of considerable importance and honor,” runs a letter penned in 112 B.C. by some clerk in Egypt’s foreign office at Alexandria to the mayor of an Egyptian town, “is sailing [up the Nile] . . . to see the sights. Receive him in the grand style and see to it that, at the usual points, lodgings are prepared . . . and that the gifts, a list of which is attached below, are presented to him.”
Those who were traveling on government business had the enormous advantage of having the facilities of the cursus publicus, the government post, available to them. This was another of the superbly useful pieces of Roman administrative machinery created by Augustus. It encompassed a network of more or less well-equipped inns at given intervals all along the major routes with, in between, simple hostels that could take care of the minimum requirements - bed, a bite to eat, change of carriage or animals. The intervals depended on the terrain and on the density of population, but in general, an effort was made to have inns available every twenty-five to thirty-five miles, that is, the length of an average day’s travel. In between would be one or two hostels, again depending upon the terrain, more in mountainous areas, fewer on the flat. Hand lists were drawn up that detailed all the stopping places along the routes and the distances between them. There were also maps designed specifically to show not only the location of such places but what they had to offer. A copy made in the Middle Ages of one of these has survived, the so-called Tabula Peutingeriana. Done on an elongated parchment that is no more than thirteen inches wide but over twenty-two feet long, it presents a map of the Roman Empire as distorted as if seen in a trick mirror. The cartographer’s aim was to give a schematic picture of the Roman road system in a form suitable for easy reference. There are lines showing routes; names of cities, towns, and other stopping places; numbers indicating the distance in Roman miles between them. Alongside many of the names stands a little colored picture symbol that, just like those in our guidebooks, shows at a quick glance the facilities afforded. A schematized picture of a four-sided building with a court in the center stands for an inn of some consequence, a picture of the front of a house with a twin-peaked roof for a less pretentious country inn, a single-peaked boxlike cottage for a very modest inn, and a name without any picture probably means that the simplest form of hostel was to be found there. Anyone carrying a diploma, a travel warrant signed by the emperor, would make his way, sleeping, eating, and picking up fresh vehicles and animals at the various inns and hostels, presumably in every instance the best the area boasted, at the government’s expense.
The traveler without one of these magic pieces of paper had little choice: He might put up at one of the inns of the public post if its official guests had not exhausted its resources; otherwise he took whatever he could get. In either event, it was not very much - most of the time, a tiny cell of a room which might have to be shared with as many as half a dozen others and whose furnishings were generally limited to a bed, chair, and chamber pot. On occasion, even some of these essentials were missing, as we gather from a message that an irate guest scratched on the wall of his room in an inn at Pompeii: “Innkeeper,” he wrote, “I pissed on the bed. I did wrong, I admit it. Want to know why? There was no chamber pot!” The facilities for washing up were minimal, but at least in towns that was no problem since there were always the public baths.
Things were not much better when it came to meals. Ancient eating places, whether belonging to inns or independent establishments, were wine shops rather than restaurants, and more often than not, wine shops that catered to no very distinguished clientele - sailors, muleteers, slaves, the general run of street drifter. A traveler might send his servant out to buy food or might go himself to one of these eating places. If he was in a hurry he could stand at the snack bar, with its marble-topped counter that opened onto the street, and down his meal then and there. If he had more time and was not choosy about his dinner companions, he could walk through the shop to the rooms at the rear, where table service was provided. At counter or table, he had to be on his guard to get his money’s worth. The Roman physician Galen states bluntly that restaurateurs were not above using human flesh in their so-called pork roasts and stews. Whether this is true or not, there is no doubt whatsoever that overwatering the wine was a widespread malpractice; the ancients always added a certain amount of water to their wine, but unscrupulous innkeepers would put in more than the recipes called for. Martial, who spent a fair amount of time in Roman wine shops, has a number of pungent epigrams on the subject, for example:
The rains this year left sopping wet
the grapes on every vine.
So, barkeep, don’t you try to say
there’s no water in your wine.
Traders, officials, soldiers, throngs heading for a healing sanctuary or a festival, vacationers - all were on the road to accomplish something at the end of their journey. There was yet another form of traveler nourished by the long years of the Pax Romana, the one for whom the journey was its own end, the tourist. “Since many [these days go on voyages] and even set forth upon the seas to Egypt to visit the artistic creations of man,” reads a papyrus found in Egypt, “I too made a voyage.” No longer, as in times past, did one have to be a monarch or high dignitary or nobleman to afford such a pleasure. It lay within the compass of many. Businessmen who had made their pile took the grand tour, while traders found the time for trips to see the notabilia of the area in which they happened to be, and functionaries toured the lands where they were stationed.
What drew them to undertake the hardships of the road? Just as today, it was above all else the magnetism of the relics of man’s past. We make the rounds of Europe’s cathedrals; they made them of Greece’s temples. We trek to where Washington passed a night, where Napoleon’s house stood, where Saint Paul was killed, where Saint Peter was laid to rest; they trekked to where Alexander the Great passed a night, where Socrates’s house stood, where Ajax committed suicide, where Achilles was buried. We make our way to famous galleries to view the great art of the past; they went to famous temples because the temples of the ancient world doubled as museums. A temple in Asia Minor had on display specimens of barbarian clothing, Indian amber, elephant tusks; a temple of Apollo, god of healing, exhibited a special kind of dentist’s forceps; at Rome one could see Caesar’s sword on view, appropriately enough, in the Temple of Mars, or the dagger that a would-be assassin unsuccessfully tried to use on Nero displayed, equally appropriately, in the Temple to the Goddess of Luck. We go to places where we are solemnly shown splinters of the True Cross, the bottles in which Lucretia Borgia kept her poisons, the very spot where Saint Paul’s head bounced three times after his decapitation; they went to where they were shown the prow of Odysseus’s ship, the very crag to which Zeus chained Prometheus, the egg from which Helen of Troy was hatched (Zeus had visited her mother in the form of a swan). We flock to England for a visit to Shakespeare country; they flocked to Asia Minor for a visit to Homer country, the site of Troy (the standard tour included the strip of beach along which the Greek ships had been pulled up, the plain where Hector and Achilles had rampaged, the tomb of Patroclus, the cave where Paris gave his fateful judgment, and so on). In Egypt, they went to see the same things we see today, the pyramids, Sphinx, Valley of the Kings, and other testimonials to the greatness of the age of the pharaohs.
The ancient tourist did his sightseeing unencumbered by the miscellaneous gear that loads down his counterparts today (if he had anything to take along, the ubiquitous slave companion would do the carrying). He was not even burdened with a guidebook. Not that this most useful form of literature did not exist. From at least the second century B.C., there were available such titles as The Athenian Acropolis, Spartan Cities, and Guidebook to Troy, and in the second century A.D. Pausanias, the Karl Baedeker of the ancient world, published his excellent and detailed Guidebook of Greece. But these were for background reading; in any case, being handwritten on leather or papyrus like all ancient books, they were too valuable and bulky to lug around. As a consequence, the sightseer in Roman times was even more dependent on local guides than we are.
The chief problem was that, like their modern descendants, once launched on their patter they could not stop. “The guides went through their standard speech,” grumbles one of the characters in a sketch Plutarch wrote about a group seeing the sights of Delphi, “paying no attention whatsoever to our entreaties to cut the talk short.” A writer of satire has a character in one of his pieces pray fervently: “Zeus, protect me from your guides at Olympia, and you, Athena, from yours at Athens.” It was not only that they never stopped talking; it was also what they talked about. They had the weakness, traditional in their profession, of preferring a gaudy tale to sober information. They particularly liked to connect whatever they were showing with the heroic days of mythological times, to point out the very spot on the road where Penelope had agreed to marry Odysseus, the very bones of a monster Hercules had killed, the very point on the beach where Aeneas had landed, and so on. “Abolish fabulous tales from Greece,” snickered Lucian, “and the guides there would all die of starvation, since no tourist wants to hear the bald facts even for nothing.”
The opportunity to see great works of art or historical buildings is what draws a tourist to a site. Once there, however, he enjoys diversion, welcomes any variation from the standard round of visiting churches, museums, and monuments. In ancient times as now, the locals had special performances to provide a change of pace for a footsore sightseer. One of the high points of the tour of the pyramids was to watch the men from a nearby village shinny up from the ground to the very tip - a real stunt in those days, when the sloping faces, with all their original stones intact, were absolutely smooth. Farther up the Nile, where the sacred crocodiles were kept, the priests had taught them to come when called and on command to open their jaws and let their teeth be cleaned.
The greatest performance of all, however, was put on by nature, not man. At Thebes in Egypt, not far from the Valley of the Kings, stands a colossal statue consisting of a base, a throne, and a seated male figure. We now know that it represents Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned about 1400 B.C. The Greeks and Romans, however, preferred to believe it was a likeness of the mythological Memnon, child of the goddess of dawn. At some time, probably about 27 B.C., an earthquake broke the statue across the torso, and the upper part fell to the ground. The remainder developed a unique feature - the ability to utter sound. At daybreak - not any other time of day - it made what was described as a sharp cracking noise. The conviction arose, no doubt fostered by the local guides, that these sounds were Memnon’s way of talking to his mother. There were some who looked for a rational explanation of the phenomenon, but in that age of rampant superstition, they were voices in the wilderness. For the thousands who flocked there, the statue was actually talking. They kept flocking right up to the end of the second century A.D., when for some reason it shut up. Just about this time Emperor Septimius Severus had the piece that had fallen down replaced, and it may have been this that struck Memnon dumb. It has been suggested that the sound was caused by the sudden increase of temperature at sunrise, which heated air trapped in holes in the broken surface, causing it to expand and in escaping produce a sound. So, when the reconstruction covered up this surface, the mysterious voice was abruptly silenced.
We know that those who were there took what was happening as a marvel because of another tourist characteristic that has not changed one whit during the course of the centuries - the compulsion to leave one’s name in places one has visited. Memnon’s legs and base are almost entirely covered with graffiti, the work of two centuries of visitors, including eight governors of Egypt, three district governors, any number of army officers, two judges, a priest, even the empress Sabina, Hadrian’s wife (though the emperor was there too, he did not inscribe, perhaps, as we gather from a graffito left by one of his entourage, because that day, Memnon failed to perform). One, a self-styled “professor and poet,” was so moved that he effused in verse:
He has learned to orate, he has learned to keep quiet;
the force both of words and of silence he knows.
At the sight of the dawn, of his saffron-robed mother.
he utters a sound, and more sweetly it flows
than the clearest of speech ever voiced by another.
This poem did Falernus, professor and poet, infuse
With a quality worthy of a Grace or a Muse.
Some others too were moved to verse, usually on the same near-doggerel level, but most contented themselves with a brief attestation of faith. “I heard the wonderful Memnon, along with my wife, Arsinoe,” followed by the date and including the name, is typical.
Memnon, as Egypt’s principal drawing card, boasts the greatest concentration of sightseers’ graffiti. But there are plenty of others - in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, on the Sphinx, the pyramids, the walls of various temples. The land of the Nile, it so happens, is where the bulk of them are found, but that is chiefly because the great tourist attractions in other parts of the ancient world - the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the statue of Zeus by Phidias at Olympia, and the like - have all completely disappeared.
Having visited the sights at a given place, witnessed whatever performances the locals had to offer, perhaps scratched his name, the ancient tourist was ready for that most gratifying of tourist activities, shopping.
Not too much information about ancient shopping is available, but there is enough to reveal that, by and large, only the objects of the hunt have changed, that the tastes and desires and purposes involved were much the same as now. The religious-minded Roman lady touring in Egypt brought back a container of Nile water to use in the service for Isis, just as the visitor to Italy today returns with a rosary. The amateur art lover came home from Athens with a replica in miniature of the great statue of Athena by Phidias, just as we come back from Florence with one of Michelangelo’s David. Those who could afford it did not content themselves with miniatures; they ordered full-scale reproductions to adorn their town houses and country villas - a lucky thing for us, since the originals of most of the great Greek masterpieces have disappeared, and these copies are all that is left to show us what they were like. For those who just wanted a souvenir of a place, there were appropriate things available, as we can tell from specimens the archaeologists have dug up. In Afghanistan, for example, they found a glass vessel decorated with the scene of the harbor of Alexandria; surely it was taken to that far-off spot by some local who, having made the long trek to the great metropolis, wanted a memento of it. From Puteoli, the resort and port just north of Naples, come examples of a typical tourist gimcrack - little glass flasks bearing a picture of the city’s waterfront with the key sites identified by labels: “Lighthouse,” “Nero’s Pool,” “The Oyster Beds,” “Woods.”
Very likely, the ancient tourist shopped for locally available specialties. Anyone visiting Egypt had to pass through Alexandria and confronting him on all sides would be irresistible buys in products from Africa and the Far East. The traveler to Syria could pick up Syrian glass or Near Eastern carpets and embroidered textiles. In Asia Minor, he could get fine woolens and linens. In Greece, there were the excellent fabrics woven at Patras. If he got no farther than Athens, he could settle for a jar of the prized Mount Hymettus honey. We have only a very few vague references to the shopping habits of the Greek or Roman traveler, but they seem to indicate that he - or his wife - could no more pass up a bargain than we can. “If my health improves,” writes a Greek living in Egypt to a friend, sometime in the third century B.C., “and I go abroad to Byzantium [the modern Istanbul], I’ll bring you back some fine pickled fish.” Both tuna and turbot were caught there, and either made as welcome a gift to someone living in second-century-B.C. Egypt as caviar or champagne to us.
There was one factor that must have held the shoppers’ enthusiasm somewhat in check: the customs charges. The Roman Empire maintained stations not only at all ports and frontiers but also at the boundaries between provinces, since duty was payable even on goods crossing from one province to the next. Beasts of burden, wagons, luggage containers, and objects of personal use during the voyage were exempt. Everything else was dutiable - right down to corpses being transported for burial elsewhere. On most items the rate was not stiff, only 2 to 5 percent, but on the very things that tourists would find enticing, such as silks, perfumes, spices, pearls, and other exotic luxuries, it was 25 percent.
However, as always, it helped to know the right people. “Send . . . a bathing costume as quickly as possible,” runs a letter written in 257 B.C. by some person to the secretary of the minister of finance of Egypt, “preferably of goatskin or, if not, of sheepskin. Also a tunic and cloak and the mattress, blanket, pillows, and honey. You wrote me you were surprised that I didn’t realize that all these items were subject to duty. I’m aware of it all right, but you are perfectly able to arrange to send them without any risk whatsoever.”