Tourist Troubles in Ancient Rome

Jerry Toner

Ancient tourists faced an array of difficulties and dangers as they made their tour of the highlights of the empire.
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Tourist Troubles in Ancient Rome


The first issue they faced was logistics. Many of the practicalities of planning a journey can be found in the fourth-century account left by Theophanes, whose journal offers an extraordinary quantity of detail about his trip from Egypt to Antioch and back again. We are told where they stayed each night, what provisions were bought and how much was paid for them, and who they entertained and in what fashion. The wealthy would take a variety of slaves to do the actual work on the trip (Theophanes is unclear about the number he took). A steward would oversee the daily affairs, such as the organisation of the slaves and the purchasing of provisions. A chef and his team of assistants, such as a butcher or a sausage-maker, would enable the wealthy tourist to entertain at various points on the journey. Barbers, cobblers, wardrobe masters, might also be taken along, to say nothing of the unskilled labouring slaves who did all the heavy lifting.

Road Travel

The Roman road network was an extraordinary achievement, with the major roads managed by the state, the viae publicae, amounting to some 67,000 miles. The busiest sections of the roads were paved with stone and were wide enough for two carriages to pass easily. Tunnels cut through natural obstacles and bridges crossed otherwise impassable rivers and ravines. Stones were set up at intervals to help travellers mount their horses for the simple reason that the Romans did not have stirrups. The road network was used by the Cursus Publicus, the State Post, set up by the emperor Augustus to enable speedy communications for his messengers across the empire, but available only to those carrying a diploma signed by the emperor, his agent or a provincial governor.

Those lucky enough to have such a chit were able to stay free of charge in the inns located every thirty miles or so, where they could take a meal, stay overnight, change horses, and have damage to wheels fixed. But even then they would need a map to help plan their route. We are lucky to have a medieval copy of a map of the State Post, known as the Peutinger Map. The distorted physical dimensions of the map (it is about one foot wide and twenty-two feet long) make it seem as if it were simply not a very good map, but this was not designed to reflect the physical layout of the Roman empire accurately. It was a practical shorthand similar to the London Underground, which bears only a vague likeness to the actual geography of the city above ground. The ancient map helpfully had a pictorial guide to the quality of the establishments on the route. A sign of a building with a courtyard meant that it was a high class inn, whereas a drawing of a simple box house with a single peaked roof symbolised a modest establishment at best, while no image at all signalled an inn of the most basic kind.

Travel by road meant using a carriage with wooden wheels and it was clearly bumpy. A number of innovations eased the discomfort of the journey. Sleeping carriages for overnight travel were fitted out with mattresses and warm blankets. Movable seats allowed the traveller to move out of the sun or into a place where there was a cooling breeze. Those who enjoyed playing dice could even have a gaming board fixed to the carriage, as the emperor Claudius did.

Beggars and Bandits

Beggars seem to have been a problem at some locations. The section of the Via Appia at Aricia, south of Rome, was notorious for the large crowd of them who waited there because the steep hill meant that carriages had to slow to a crawl. This gave them the opportunity to mob travellers and surround their vehicles with loud pleading. As the carriages sped away down the hill, the beggars are described as blowing kisses to those who had given them some money to get rid of them.

Bandits were a more dangerous but not uncommon problem for tourists. Epictetus advises safety-conscious travellers not to venture out alone along a road, but to journey in company with officials. Certain semi-habitable areas, such as forests and semi-deserts, were clearly more dangerous than others and any civil war would lead to an upsurge in soldiers who had either deserted or been defeated and turned to banditry to survive. Travellers could go missing. Pliny the Younger describes how the equestrian Robustus and Metilius Crispus vanished and Cicero complains in a letter to Atticus that he failed to receive one of his letters because his friend, Lucius Quinctus, was robbed on the journey.

Sea Travel

The road network was built primarily to enable a quick military response to any threat, whether internal or external. Travel for most ordinary people, and traders with heavy goods to transport in particular, was almost always faster, cheaper and more comfortable by water. The huge grain ships heading to Rome to feed its underemployed crowds took with them hundreds of paying passengers, who slept out on the decks in tents and prayed to the gods for their safe arrival. Smaller merchant ships would ferry a handful of travellers. In one example, about a third of the passengers were women and in order to separate themselves from the leering sailors they set up a screen by hanging up a piece of torn sail.

The great danger of sea travel was shipwreck. Storms could quickly overpower the crew’s ability to control the vessel and drive it onto rocks. Cargo could be thrown overboard to lighten the load, and even the ship’s tackle, but all the passengers could do was pray to the gods for help. Sinking out at sea meant almost certain death. Those on board would tie whatever jewellery or gold they had onto string and hang it about their necks so that when their corpses were finally washed ashore they would carry on them the fee for burial – the thinking being that nobody who came across a dead body and profited from it would begrudge sprinkling a little sand onto the body. Sometimes, the passengers would offer their hair to Poseidon if he helped them reach dry land and would then gratefully submit their heads to the barber to be shaved in fulfilment of their vow to the god.


Finding good accommodation could be difficult. The lack of street names made it hard to find places that had been recommended by other travellers. An example from Terence describes a man asking a local for directions to an inn. He is told to go past the house of Cratinus, the millionaire, turn right at the temple of Diana, then just before the town gate, right by a watering pond, opposite a little bakery and next to a carpenter’s shop, he’ll find it.

Inns were commonplace but mostly seem to have been fairly basic. One description of a bedroom tells of pillows stuffed with reeds instead of feathers, so full of fleas and bugs that they almost seemed to move of their own accord. Large spiders hung from the beams and every so often a lizard would drop from the ceiling. In a piece of graffiti in Pompeii, an occupant admits, ‘I pissed in the bed, I admit it. I’m sorry. Why? you ask. Well, there wasn’t a chamber pot.’ Not surprisingly, sickness was commonplace and one source recommends powdered antimony or, for stomach upsets, eating barley soup.


As with any modern tourist trap, the most famous ancient sites could be packed with visitors. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, crammed into Olympia for the five days of the festival there. Driven partly by a pious desire to pay homage to the god, they were also enticed by the pageantry, the thrill of the contests, the famous temples and the artwork they contained, such as the sculptor Phidias’ colossal statue of the god in the Temple of Zeus. The size of the crowds meant that a variety of service providers also poured into the site, such as hawkers, tour guides and prostitutes. There was something of a party atmosphere, but the crowds, heat and lack of amenities made it a physically demanding trip.

Long-winded tour guides were also a common bugbear for tourists. One author complains at how they accost you and promise to show you all the sights for only a modest fee, but then rattle off their prearranged programme, expounding on every last inscription, and completely ignoring you even if you beg them to shut up. They were also known to make things up. The guides at Troy would lead their groups to the cave where Paris had delivered his judgement in the beauty contest that had started the whole war, to the place from which Paris fired his fateful arrow at Achilles, and to a few scattered stones which they claimed were the altar where King Priam fell.

Mass tourism with its delays and queues may be a phenomenon of the modern world, but the scale of the problems faced by the traveller has greatly reduced. Driven by their piety, their desire to see the great sights of Greece and Egypt, and to revel in the Roman control of all these places in its empire, the Roman tourist was prepared to risk it all to tour the ancient world.

Dr Jerry Toner is Fellow and Director of Studies in Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge, and author of How to Manage your Slaves, Release Your Inner Roman, and his latest (along with Marcus Sidonius Falx), A Grand Tour of the Roman Empire.

Aspects of History Issue 12 is out now.