Pagan Holiday

The Grand Tour of Antiquity: A Photo Gallery


Imperial Rome was the New York of its day—a vast, gangling, bloated organism, teetering on the verge of complete logistical collapse, far and away the largest concentration of humanity the world had ever seen. With over one million inhabitants by the end of the first century AD, it was ten times the size of classical Athens, and immeasurably more spectacular. Living in this teeming city, the self-ordained Capital of the World, was hopelessly addictive: For the intrepid Romans about to leave on their Grand Tours, a journey that would take them away for years, the prospect of departure was bittersweet.

Southern Italy

If Rome was the New York of antiquity, the Bay of Naples was the Hamptons. Every summer, the wealthy of the capital traveled to the craggy,sun-drenched shores, where they could relax in their luxury villas and enjoy the pleasures of the world's first seaside resorts. On hot Italian nights, the hills of the bay would echo with the sound of drunken carousing, as revelers jaunted from one beach to the next, quaffing fresh oysters at nude swimming parties. The town of Baiae became famous for truly Herculean debauchery, with prostitutes sailing off-shore in barges, garlanding the waves with rose petals and competing with one another in singing competitions. "Unmarried women are common property," complained one straight-laced visitor. "Old men behave like young boys, and a lot of young boys like young girls."


For cultivated Romans, Greece was the ultimate culture trip—an unforgettable vision of the Old World, sprinkled with olive groves and bathed in summer light. As the very wellspring of civilization, every inch of Hellenic soil was steeped in history and myth: Ancient tourists sought out the hallowed glades where the Gods had romped and legendary heroes, from Hercules to Ulysses and Agamamnon, once fought. The dry, craggy mountains above were riddled with sacred grottoes, the playgrounds of nymphs and sprites; Greek temples were full of wondrous relics; while Arcadian villages still practiced religious rites that could be traced back to the Homeric age. Today, Greece's allure is still potent. In fact, Roman travelers would have sympathized with the author Henry Miller who visited in 1939: "Greece is what everybody knows," he raved. "Even as a child or an idiot or a not-yet-born. It breathes, it beckons, it answers."


The sun-bathed outposts of the Greek islands may now be invaded every summer by northern European tourists, but the culture-loving Romans were uninterested in the empty Aegean beaches, inhabited as they were only by illiterate goatherds and fishermen. The lonely sands of the islands merely reminded them of the grave. Instead, the first tourists sailed on merchant ships from Piraeus—generally sleeping on deck, gazing up at the stars while sipping a glass of Falernian wine—to make landfall at the islands of Delos and Rhodes, which were full of mythic associations. At Rhodes, they could still admire the remains of the famed Colossus, the giant metal statue that had fallen to earth during an earthquake. (Pliny the Elder reports climbing inside the shattered giant, broken at the knees, which he still regarded as one of the Wonders of the World).

Turkey (Asia Minor)

Turkey—the Roman province of Asia Minor—was the perfect place for ancient tourists to relax from the rigors of travel. The coast was populated by sophisticated Greeks, and dotted with regal cities like Ephesus and health spas like Pergamum, which were far wealthier and more glamorous than Athens. Romans would unwind in magnificent bath houses, take in the gladiatorial shows at sumptuous amphitheaters, and enjoy invitations to magnificent banquets—with every pleasure raised to an Oriental peak of luxury. Today, Turkey is still a vacationer's paradise, while the ruins along its coastline are actually more impressive and better-preserved than most sites in Greece.


For any ancient Roman traveler, Egypt was the climax of the Grand Tour. This mysterious land was a true sightseer's paradise: It offered overpowering ruins of unspeakable age, a religion full of ghoulish mummies and jackal-headed gods, and an exotic living culture—the same elements that have hypnotized travelers ever since. Egypt is also the section of the ancient tourist trail that is easiest to physically trace. Modern travelers still follow the same logical itinerary along the Nile River as the Romans once did—gazing in awe at the same hieroglyphic-covered monuments within the same parched landscape.

Other Editions Available:

US edition

US Hardcover Edition, Now published in the US in paperback as Pagan Holiday

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.