Pagan Holiday
Pagan Holiday

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La Dolce Vita by the Bay of Naples

If Rome was the New York of antiquity, then the Bay of Naples was the Hamptons.  Every summer, the Mediterranean heat (with its attendant banes of typhoid and malaria) emptied the imperial capital of its bella gente, and the entire fashionable world allied forth to recreate itself one hundred miles south, by the craggy, sun-drenched shores of Campania. That was where, within sight of the smoking funnel of Mount Vesuvius, surrounded by a hypnotic sea of diamond blue, the Emperors had built their luxury palaces, the millionaires their most sumptuous villas.  Every patrician owned two or three slices of Neapolitan real estate, and many boasted half a dozen: According to the Greek geographer Strabo, who visited around 10 AD, the whole gorgeous beachfront south to the Sirens’ Point (now Sorrento) presented a continuous glistening wall of marble-colonnaded mansions—each one lavishly frescoed with images of Neptune, arching porpoises and gangly octupi.  The Romans loved to swim in these warm,  protected shores, far from the sea-monsters and evil sprites that prowled deeper waters, and the sculpted courtyards of their retreats, engraved with the patterns of waves, all had direct pathways leading down to sandy coves. Even more fabulous developments crept up and down the jagged cliff-sides, crowding one another out for the most commanding sea views. Some had five tiers, with sculpted gardens that stretched for acres. The most ostentatious villa was built by a status-crazed retired army general named Lucullus, who had a private tunnel carved through a mountain to fill his fish pond, an engineering eye-sore that earned him the nickname “Xerxes in a toga.”

In this ancient enclave of glamour and privilege, the many meanings of ‘holiday’ were first explored.  At first, the Bay provided a sun-drenched setting for otium—a sort of cultivated leisure, relaxation through self-improvement.  Celebrity residents like Julius Caesar, Pompey and Mark Anthony—the CEOs of the Republic—had taken time out from their hectic schedules in Rome to read poetry, write philosophy, debate with fellow aesthetes, work out on the beach. This ‘active vacation’ by the sea put Juvenal’s classic healthy-mind-in-healthy-body formula into practice. But by the imperial era, wealthy Romans were given less opportunity to participate in politics, and the pleasures of the flesh took precedence over those of the spirit. Soon enough, on hot summer nights, the hills of the Bay were echoing with the sounds of drunken carousing, as revelers jaunted from one cove to the next, quaffing fresh oysters at nude swimming parties.

The town of Baiae (pronounced Bay-eye) had become the world’s first great seaside resort, with a reputation for truly Herculean debauchery—a free-for-all atmosphere that resembled less a Martha Stewart soiree than spring break at Daytona Beach. By these steamy shores, the mythic connection between sexual abandon and the seaside, which is such a staple of tourism advertising today, was first forged. Even in the late Republic, Cicero was using Baiae as a rhetorical metaphor for licentious, depraved behavior; the prudish Emperor Augustus, although he had a vast villa nearby, frowned on his aides and Senators dropping by the town for a dose of its sensual delights.  It was already a lost battle.  The scholar Varro complained that in Baiae, “unmarried women are common property, old men act like young boys, and lots of young boys like young girls...”  Martial wrote a satire about a chaste Roman wife who spent too long in Baiae’s famous hot baths, lost her inhibitions, and ran off with a handsome slave boy: “She came to town Penelope/And left it Helen of Troy.” Such lapses of the once-austere code were commonplace in Baiae. It was “as if the location itself demanded vice,” mourned the old moralist Seneca, noting that otherwise respectable citizens found themselves inviting prostitutes out on barges, garlanding the waves with rose petals and competing with one another in drunken singing competitions.

In the first century A.D., egged on by the excesses of Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, the Bay of Naples really came into its own as the great classical theater of the senses—a “Crater of Luxury,” where Romans of all classes came to let down their hair, attending a sophisticated literary debate one night and a sandy group-grope the next.  Protected by jagged cliffs, caressed by cool sea breezes, citizens could get down to prodigious bouts of eating, drinking and fornication.  This was the logical setting for ancient literature’s most famous feast, the dinner given by a shameless paragon of bad taste, Trimalchio, in the Satyricon by Petronius.  The exclusive world of patricians was infiltrated by nouveaux riches, and spiced up by raunchy pockets of ancient low-life. The port of Puteoli, where much of the fragmentary Roman novel is set, added an enticing element of rough trade to the scene: Upper class revelers often went slumming with sailors, footpads, actors, pimps, thugs and sleaze-balls. Noblewomen went incognito as prostitutes. Nero himself liked to explore the seediest waterfront taverns in disguise.

This round-the-clock bacchanal was notorious around the Empire, and tourists came in droves—to participate in its pleasures, but also to gawp at the elite at play. Travelers could rent rooms in the many boarding houses that were clustered near the shore; they could hang out in beach restaurants and popinae, or bars; and when they wearied of self-indulgence, they could select from armies of multi-lingual guides to show them the more edifying attractions: As in any seaside resort today, from Copacabana to Bondi, the sybaritic decadence was leavened by more noble acts of sightseeing. Geographically isolated, this arc of southern Italy had been settled by Greeks when Rome was just a village, and there was a smorgasbord of key locales here on the grand cultural trail, to be visited either on foot, in a litter, if at all possible, by sailing boat. Every self-respecting social climber had to acquire at least one trophy yacht, so that whole days could be blissfully whiled away sailing in sun-drenched circles.  Silk-canopied ferries, rowed by teams of slaves, went out to the islands of Capri and Procida, whose magically steep shores rose on the horizon like monstrous shark fins; day-trips ran to weather-beaten Doric temples, overgrown shrines, the Vineyards of Bacchus, where sea nymphs were said to climb from the waves to nibble on grapes each night.  The idyllic little city of  Neapolis—Naples—was the world’s first artists’ colony, where Romans could meet world-famous writers or attend a raucous poetry reading.

And yet, on the dizzying roundabout of high fashion, conspicuous consumption and self-gratification, nobody could quite forget that this was also the land of Vesuvius. The earth regularly shuddered with tremors, plumes of gas steamed from volcanic vents, and the sulfuric scent of potential disaster hung over the same hot baths where oiled lovers slipped off for secret trysts.  Partygoers never seemed to worry over-much; in fact, the ominous proximity of the Underworld felt almost appropriate, since for the Ancient Romans, death and pleasure were always inextricably linked.  The great eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD was only a momentary interruption to the carnal hurly-burly.  A fraction of this gilded coastline was petrified for posterity—along with some 15,000 luckless Pompeiians—but the fiesta went on the next season with added determination. As one cheery song goes in the Satyricon:

“O woe, woe, man is only a dot:
Hell drags us off and that is the lot;
So let us have a little space,
At least while we can feed our face.”

Who could stay away? Any red-blooded Roman traveler, setting out on the Grand Tour would have paused on the road for an infusion of home-grown, meat-and-potatoes decadence.

*        *        *

Two thousand years later, the Bay of Naples still survives as one of Italy’s sunniest pleasure gardens.  Glamorous resort towns like Sorrento, along with the vertiginous islands of Capri and Procida, are regarded as pearls of the Mediterranean, backdrops for Grace Kelly and the Talented Mr Ripley, where the voluptuous delights of summer can be enjoyed to the full.  

The city of Naples—geographically, the most logical base for a visit—has not fared quite so well. Roman Neapolis has bloated into the largest and most troubled corner of Southern Italy, while once-thriving towns like Puteoli and Baiae have withered or disappeared. It’s as if the world has been on a vendetta against Naples for antiquity’s sins:  For century after century, it has attracted the A-list of rapacious world conquerors, leaving it today the poorest city in Western Europe, the most backward, the most crime-ridden. It even managed a cholera epidemic in the 1970s. It is also deliriously beautiful.  Seen from the water, the baroque waterfront shimmers like a color-saturated mirage, its exuberant tutti-frutti framed by medieval fortresses.  But of all the world’s great cities, only Rio de Janeiro looks so alluring from a distance, and so wounded up close.

This baffling contradiction was already proverbial in the eighteenth century, when Naples was described as “a paradise inhabited by devils”—especially by northern Italians.  The stereotype of Neapolitans, one local noble complained, was of “ignoramuses, assassin, traitors, pederasts… charlatans and buffoons,” whose criminal tendencies were innate. Today, the local reputation has hardly improved: the men of Naples are said to be lazy, spoiled machistas (an old Italian joke: Christ must have been Neapolitano: He lived at home until was thirty, thought his mother was a virgin and was convinced he was God).  The women are supposedly enslaved by ancient superstitions, addicted to lotteries, obsessed with death.  Everyone is under the thumb of the brutish local mafia.  Drugs, extortion, miseria are the grist of news reports from the city.  Goethe had famously gushed, “See Naples and die.” Northern Italians have changed that to Vedi Napoli e scappa—see Naples and run away.

And anyone whose first glimpse of the city is the central railway station—as it is for almost all modern travelers coming from Rome—might be tempted to agree.



We stood on the crowded Naples train platform and stared, open-mouthed.

With its shattered floor tiles and nebulous gloom, Napoli Termini looked less like a gateway to the legendary Crater of Luxury than a prison detention center in Panama City, circa 1935.  An army of pickpockets was circling around arriving passengers in the shadows, like overfed vultures taking their pick of abandoned lambs. We had no idea where to even find a hotel in Naples, so made a quick dash towards the railway tourist office.

While Les was minding the bags by the door, a character with dried blood on his face came up and stood two feet away, peering at her with a cheerily predatory expression.  His left hand kept working furiously below his trousers, until a policeman shooed him off.

When I came out to check what was going on, Les had a look of puzzled shock that I was familiar with from other travel debacles, landing in Third World hellholes without a clue. 

“I thought traveling in Europe was going to be easy,” she said. “You know: No terror.”

I watched a trio of Dickensian cutpurses licking their lips at the sight of us.

“They say Europe ends at Rome city limits.”

It was some consolation, I supposed, to realize that we were still at one with the wandering ancients: Arriving in a strange town has always been the most delicate moment of travel, and it wouldn’t have been any easier for those Roman peregrinatores who didn’t have their own mansions lined up by the Bay, or friends to immediately stay with.  Worn out by the hot, four-day journey on the Appian Way, caught in the world’s first summer traffic jams, they had to confront the most urgent order of business: To go wandering the unfamiliar streets—none of which had numbers or even names—in search of a hospitium, ‘house of hospitality.’  At night, the confusion was even worse, since only the main crossroads were lit. The torches were often mounted behind masks, like rows of jack’o’lanterns—creating a rather spectral ambience, one imagines, coming home from a dinner party with a belly-full of Falernian wine.

Those first few hours in an unfamiliar city were a vulnerable time then too, when travelers were forced to rely on the dubious charity of locals. 

“There are shysters!” one Greek guide book writer warned darkly, “who wander the city and swindle the well-to-do strangers who come to town...”

Today, in almost every city on earth, the modern tourist industry has spawned grass-roots organizations to save the fresh-faced traveler from being torn apart by wolves.  Here in Naples, with its gruesome crime rate, a mysterious local ‘business association’ had set up a special booth to direct new arrivals amongst the humble hostelries of the city. 

We were a little unnerved by the railway station, and exhausted—my excuse was the after-effects of a bottle of red wine called ‘Tears of Christ’ I’d drunk the night before, recommended for its “sulphurous and gunpowdery tang”—so against my better judgement, I went inside.

A woman in a low-cut frock smiled knowingly—did I even detect a leer?—pocketed my cash deposit and scribbled the address of the ‘Hotel Casanova’ on a piece of paper.

“Solid Italian name,” I shrugged.

Rocketing away from the station in a taxi, peering through a miasma of pollution, my initial impression that Naples was just like some frayed Latin American capital only seemed confirmed. The shadowy streets stretched out in a endless span of fume-blackened buildings dating from some regrettable architectural cul-de-sac of the nineteenth century; row after row of shops sold machine parts, paper, old clothes, pretty well anything that people couldn’t use.  Amongst it many claims to fame, Naples also has the highest population density of any city in Europe, and every single inhabitant seemed to be out there on the streets, riding a Vespa at maximum velocity.  The traffic was truly a wonder to behold: In Rome, the river of motorbikes speeding down narrow streets had seemed insane enough, but here in Naples, chaos was elevated to a weird and compelling art.  Red lights were ignored—they were mere decoration, to brighten up the streets. The aim was to keep the flow going, to press on, to fill the surging veins of this vast, unwashed animal of a city. Pedestrians stepped out blind from the curb and were carried along, vessels in the urban blood.

There are shysters!” The words were ringing in my ears as I noticed the taxi driver take a peek at us in his mirror and then turn off his meter.  Here we go, I thought, the traditional welcome.

In fact, Italian language books should include the following, highly useful translation under ‘Arrivals:’

-- Signor, your meter appears not to be working.

-- Oh, the Albanian-made piece of rubbish!

-- In which case, signor, might I note your taxi license number?/p>

-- Ah, I have left my documents at home.

-- Damnable luck... but do I spy a carabiniero, so that we might discuss this matter in more detail?

-- Unnecessary!  The machine is working again just fine.

Watching the taxi driver speed off—flinging choice epithets from his window—I began to see why contemporary guide-book writers, trying to be positive, refer to Naples so cautiously, as the “black sheep in the family of Italian cities,” the “ugly duckling of the Med,” a city of “hidden treasures,” “a diamond in the rough.”  Maybe Naples really was an entire city populated by thieves, derelicts, drunks and desperadoes.

And if we’d wanted that, we could have stayed at home in the East Village.



In the chthonian gloom of the Hotel Casanova’s foyer, the crone hidden behind a metal grille looked suspicious at our arrival.

“You want the room for the whole night?”

A bald, elderly businessman in a three-piece suit, with a twenty-year-old secretary on his arm, brushed past, tossing his room keys on the desk and giving us a cavalier wink.  At the top of dark stairs, our room looked out at a well-made brick wall; the air was heavy with a sweet chemical odor, presumably aimed at deterring roaches, yet the bath hadn’t been scrubbed in years.

As it happens, the rooms of the Hotel Casanova were uncannily like the cellae of Roman hospitia, or boarding houses, that have been excavated in Pompeii: Small, airless boxes, with a couple of straw-covered pallets for beds, and an intricate mosaic of graffiti all over the walls (one choice example: Innkeepeer, I pissed in the bed. Yes, I admit it. Want to know why?  You forgot the chamber-pot). These were the standard, third-rate lodgings that Roman tourist would regularly have to accept.  Although spa towns like Baiae had far more comfortable hotels, with dozens of porters, cleaning staff and cooks, it was common to end up in a more modest inns for several nights (overbooking during peak periods was not restricted to Bethlehem).

And rudimentary decor wasn’t all the Hotel Casanova had in common with the ancient hospitia.  Most of the cheaper Roman hotels were run by women who doubled as madams; like the drunken, castanet-playing innkeeper Syrisa in Virgil’s poem, they always offered a night of passion with one of the staff as part of the room service.  Similar to the backpacker hostelries of Bangkok today, a lone male traveler would get a late-night knock on the door from one of the slave-maids, and every Roman bedstead boasted a figure of Priapus to watch over the proceedings.  Any woman working in an ancient hotel was regarded as a prostitute by the authorities; barmaids, waitresses and cleaning girls were forbidden to bring charges for rape in Roman law, since it was considered that their lifestyles made it inevitable.

On special occasions, a traveler might be treated to the services of the innkeeper herself—a sobering thought, as I recalled the crone down below.

In the Hotel Casanova, I checked the bed—no used condoms, at least. Somewhere down the dank hall, a couple were in the middle of a blood-curdling screaming match (on the other hand, being Italians, maybe they were just discussing the weather).  From Les’ expression, I could see she wasn’t entirely thrilled with the accommodations.  But the Tears of Christ were seeping through my brain like acid.  Why not crash here one night? I wondered.  We’d certainly stayed in far worse places.  Then again, she hadn’t been in la condizione de maternita, as some Italians coyly put it, in those days.

When the hot water tap let out a brown spurt, gurgled and ran dry, Les drew the line.

“It’s a rat-hole!”—her favorite Anne Bancroft quote from To Be or Not to Be—“We’re going to get our deposit back.”

“Are you sure?” I lay down exhausted on the sagging bed. “They might put some mafia hit-men onto us... toe-cutters... knee-cappers...”

“Tone, we talked about this: No squalor.”


“Not if we can avoid it. Minimal squalor.”

Two hours later, we were going through the whole unnerving ritual of arrival again, picking a new pension out of the telephone book.  This time, we went for a place on the top floor of an old apartment building, reached by an antique mahogany lift.  By dumb luck, we hit pay-dirt. 

With a theatrical flourish, the aged patrona revealed a room with a huge window, which looked out between two other tall buildings, across the docks, to Naples Harbor.  The water was shimmering in the afternoon sun, an impossibly bright blue mirror of light.  In the far distance sat Vesuvius itself—ever since the last eruption in the 1940s, broken into two camel humps.  As for me there was something about that remote eroded form that was improbably calming.

This was the same view travelers had been coming to see for over 2000 years; the warm sun was streaming in, lighting up Classic Italian Hotel Room #2, the sort of place people stayed in old Lina Wertmuller movies and Merchant Ivory period pieces, with O Mi Bambino Caro playing over and over in the background.  Silk curtains flapping in the sea breeze. Light ricocheting off the white tile floor. Compared to everything else in Naples, it was indeed the earthly paradise.

The fact that the short old Signora who ran the place was clearly insane hardly bothered us at all.



What is it about finding a decent hotel in Europe? Why should it be so difficult? It’s an age-old question, especially here in the Mediterranean—where rooms, since darkest antiquity, have been inevitably small and ‘quirky,’ their ambiences shaped by the disordered personalities of their owners—and a building block of comedy long before Fawlty Towers was conceived.

Even back in the fifth century B.C., the Greek playwright Aristophanes took a bleak view of traveler’s inns. The central character in The Frogs, Dionysus, is planning a visit to Hades, so he asks the demigod Hercules, who went there on one of his Twelve Labors, for some travel tips. Most importantly: On the highway to the Underworld, which is the inn “with the fewest bedbugs”?  Down by the gloomy River Styx, Charon—Hell’s ferryman—recommends a hotel inauspiciously called “the Last Resting Place.”  After staying at this infernal lodge, the protagonist is chased by its two terrifying landladies, who think he’s skipped out on them without paying the bill. They threaten to knock his teeth in, throw him off a cliff, and slit his throat with a billhook...

The truth is, the Landlady from Hades is alive and well and working in Naples—running our Classic Southern Italian Hotel Room #2.

Signora Crispi was a stocky old doorstop of a woman, who spoke in a deep yet half-muffled rasp, disturbingly like Marlon Brando in The Godfather. 

“Where are you from?” the words would come out slowly, with vaguely menacing lilt.  “Nuova York...  Oh… che bella... I had a cousin... he went to America... never heard from him again... boy with no manners... capiche?”

She ran her eight-room pension with an iron fist, aided by her middle-aged son—a stunted man-child with a disturbing propensity to drool—and two skull-faced cleaning women, who always wore white lab coats and looked like they should be swabbing a mental hospital in Siberia. It was a little disconcerting to stumble out of our sun-filled room early in the morning and confront this spectral bunch, cigarettes hanging from their pale lips, all staring blankly at our door.

It turned out La Signora was a ‘hands-on’ landlady.  She wanted to know your business.  Where you were going that day.  What you’d done.  Who you’d spoken to.  At first it seemed like a quaint and amiable Neapolitan trait, the grand-motherly affection of a career patrona for lost and wandering souls. Just the sort of heart-warming, intimate feature you’d expect from an Italian pension (and we’d be able to tell people when we got back home, “Oh, we found this charming little place in Naples...”) Soon enough, things were getting out of hand.  The Signora started bustling into our room at every opportunity.  Offering extra towels. Bits of advice.  Did we have soap? she’d wheeze. Oh, she thought she’d forgotten the soap.  Back again: Did we need a fresh bath mat? Another light bulb? She was insatiably curious, eyes darting amongst our belongings under the pretense of solicitude. We had the distinct sensation that we might return one afternoon to find the Signora and all her crew in our room, trying on our underwear.

If Les stayed in the room to do some drawing, it would drive the Signora into a claustrophobic frenzy, knocking on the door every fifteen minutes.

“Oh, Signorina... cara mia... when are you going to go out?  We have to clean the floor... capiche?”

Les tried to explain that she wasn’t going anywhere, that it didn’t matter about the cleaning, we’d do without if for a day.

Non importa!” Les exclaimed on the fifth attempt.

“Doesn’t matter?” the Signora bellowed, in her tobacco-raw voice. “It matters to me!”

Trying to distance ourselves from La Signora’s prying eyes only made things worse. We started to transgress.  Every day, it seemed, we’d do something wrong. “Antonio... caro mio... would you remember... to turn off... the lights? Yesterday... you left the bathroom switch on... you wouldn’t believe the price of... electricity... in Napoli...” “Antonio... amore mio... you forgot to close the window... you know if it rains... that can be a disaster... capiche?” The shriveled little Signora would grate all this out, hands clasped as if in prayer, so sorry she apparently was to disturb us, yet it would take twenty minutes to disengage from her clutches.  There was something about her—maybe it was her rasping capiche?—that chilled the blood, and struck terror into the stoutest heart. Each day, we’d try to creep into our room unnoticed, only to be caught in our tracks by the ghastly wheeze from some shadowy corner.

“Oh, Antonio... please... I beg you... remember to close the curtains... when you go out... the Neapolitan sun... is so intense... it spoils the bedspread... capiche?”  

It was driving us batty, but we weren’t going anywhere, and the sinister little Signora knew it. Where else in Naples could you find a room with a view of the harbor at an even vaguely modest price?

Nowhere. Nowhere, but the Hotel Hades.



As we dove into the streets every morning, dodging motorbikes careering onto the sidewalk, it was a struggle to remember that in Roman times, Naples—Neapolis, the New City—was considered the most relaxing of the Bay’s many seaside settlements, “the city of idle repose,” conducive to meditation and the composition of poetry.  “Peace untroubled reigns here,” raved the poet Statius to his wife in 93 AD, “and life is leisurely and calm, with quiet undisturbed and rest unbroken.”  It was a low-key resort, with only one famous temple—of Parthenope, one of  the Sirens who lived on the rocky cape of Sorrentum nearby. Women with the wings and claws of birds, they sang the lovely songs that lured sailors to their deaths.

By Statius’ time, Neapolis was renowned all over Italy for its artsy Greek flavor, which turned it every summer into a thriving writers’ retreat. Famous authors descended on the town for the season, giving public and private readings of their latest work in the local auditoriums. The most famous full-time resident was Virgil, who composed most of his mammoth Aenid—the Latin answer to Homer’s Iliad—here. Virgil was the world’s first literary celebrity, but publicity-shy.  He was famous for slipping out from his crowded poetry readings to avoid his admirers; he even ran from fans in the street, ducking into friends’ villas or strangers’ houses, like a rock star after a concert. But his popularity put Neapolis on the literary map.  Throughout the first two centuries AD, all the literary heavies of Rome came south for seasonal visits. As a result, all the machinery of modern literary life can be recognized in Neapolis. There was a grueling routine of recitationes, or readings—most of which last for a full night, and some for three whole days. There were local publishing houses (manuscripts were copied onto papyrus scrolls by teams of slaves); grants (via gifts from wealthy patrons); critics who savaged authors and one another.  Researchers could consult vast private libraries—one, with 300,000 scrolls, had once belonged to Aristotle himself in Athens.  Wealthy aristocrats threw banquets for their favorite writers, while impecunious poets had more bohemian, pot-luck meals.  One invitation survives:

Artemidorus provides cabbage, Aristarchus salted fish,
Philodemos one small liver, Apollophanes some pork.
Let’s dine at four sharp! I wish
For garlands, slippers, scent and talk.

Martial describes a less picturesque version of the literary life, as he is pursued by an aspiring young poet:

 You read to me as I stand, you read to me as I sit,
You read to me as I run, you read to me as I shit.
I flee to the baths; you boom in my ear.
I head for the pool, you won’t let me swim.
I hurry to dinner, you stop me in my tracks.
I arrive at the meal, your words make me gag.

Poetry competitions were immensely popular, and every four years Neapolis hosted the prestigious Sebasta in the city’s largest amphitheater. Readers stood on a dais and orated; those with poor voices sometimes hired actors to read their work, but stood alongside to make the appropriate hand gestures themselves. The riotous crowd atmosphere resembled a modern American Poetry Slam—every mot juste was greeted with exclamations of delight and approval; choice metaphors provoked eager roars; rhetorical flights demanded standing ovations—although, instead of financial reward, poets competed for a crown made from leaves of corn.

The Sebasta’s status was such that Nero chose Neapolis for his artistic debut, reciting his epic poem on Troy to the accompaniment of the lyre. Despite his “weak and husky” voice, he granted encore after encore, urged on by his own trained teams of applauders (called laudencenci, these professionals were soon standard at Roman readings: They were briefed in advance on the text, so that they could erupt into fits of ecstasy at the most evocative literary flights).  The audience was forbidden to leave while the Emperor Nero was on stage, even though his concerts went for thirteen hours.  It’s said that a laboring woman were forced to give birth in the auditorium; one old man supposedly feigned death to get to the bathroom during a marathon show.

*        *        *

These lofty literary pleasures seem unusually distant in modern Naples, where not a single stone from Neapolis remains standing. In particular, its last two centuries as a gritty industrial port have erased all hints of the quaint Roman city, transforming its entire physical shape. Like an enormous blood cell dividing itself, Naples has split in two: The rich have retreated to the pure-aired hills of Montesanto above the original city, where they live in handsome mansions with sea views and palm trees.  The poor still wallow around the port down below, squeezed into gloomy alleyways and jerry-built tenements, battling consumption, poor diets, darkness and damp.

We were staying down amongst the Morlocks, as it were—although like most impoverished, traditional outposts, the mean streets of Naples could also be calendar-book picturesque. Every morning from the Signora’s window, you could watch the women across the street lower buckets on ropes, to be filled with fruit; old men in singlets sat with grandchildren on their balconies, singing snatches of opera.  The Hotel Hades was on the fringe of the Spanish Quarter, famous for its lines of laundry poetically hung across streets so narrow the occupants on opposite sides could chat; it’s also the place where teams of enterprising pickpockets shadow visitors’ every move, ready to relieve them of burdensome belongings.

In fact, this modern waterfront area of Naples felt less like the literary colony of old than the reincarnation of antiquity’s rough and ready port, Puteoli—where one short-term resident, the seedy narrator of the Satyricon Encolpius, expressed the timeless philosophy of economic redistribution: “We understood between ourselves that, whenever opportunity came, we would pilfer whatever we could lay our hands on, for the improvement of the common treasury.”

Puteoli was full of  sleazy all-night bars, whose names were inscribed on awnings, and Roman tourists knew that they drank here at their own risk. Juvenal describes a typically desperate clientele of contract killers, fugitives, hangmen, coffin-makers “and one castrated priest who’s passed out on the job, still clutching his drums.” Jostling for cheap cups of wine were naval officers from the naval station of Misenum, who behaved with all the modesty and restraint of GIs on r-and-r in South Korea. Wealthy Roman tourists sometimes brought teams of bodyguards to protect them—or push them home blind drunk in wheelbarrows—but usually, leaving Puteoli’s night-spots was an unnerving prospect. Gangs were known to roam the back alleys. These were comprised of young men from rich families who were looking for a thrill after a late-night party—the club kids of antiquity—beating up pedestrians, hurling abuse, smashing storefronts, groping women. But in the wee hours, genuine ruffians also held up stray wanderers at knifepoint.  Newcomers were particularly vulnerable to such mishaps.

As the second century novelist Heliodorus observed: “Ignorance in a foreign country makes the traveler blind.”

Also by Tony Perrottet:

The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games

The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games

What was it like to attend the ancient olympic games?

As the summer Olympics return to Athens, Tony Perrottet delves into the ancient world and lets the Greek Games begin again. The acclaimed author of Pagan Holiday brings attitude, erudition and humor to the fascinating story of the original Olympic festival, tracking the event day by day to re-create the experience in all its compelling spectacle.