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Holidays and tourism in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Appia Antica Regional Park
Appia Antica Regional Park


Ancient Romans, just like us, were doing a lot of recreation every spring and summer. The richest started peregrinatio in spring, that is trips to their homes outside the city. Cicero e.g. he had six villas where he could go to relax, if he had time, felt like it or felt tired of the big city living in Rome.

The most beautiful villas of the richest Romans were on the Gulf of Naples. It was a very fashionable place and those who belonged to the most important circles in Rome had to own a house there. It was just right to be present at this fashionable resort. Nowadays, you can easily visit Campania, booking a tour.

Patrician also had to own a house in the mountains (Cicero had a villa in Arpinum). The whole elegant world of Rome owned and maintained at least two villas: one on the coast for cool and pleasant spring days; and the second one in the mountains for the summer when the coast was drowning in the sun and it was impossible to bear it. In addition, it was also appropriate to have several other houses to diversify your vacation and not to spend them only in the same places. The most fashionable place to own a house was the section of the coast on the Gulf of Naples from Cumae to the Sorrento peninsula. Here the house stood next to the house. Here they had their villas Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony and Lucullus. They were large estates with palaces. During the Empire, the Emperors’ possessions were also here: Nero, Octavian August, Tiberius. The nouveau riche also built their villas here. The most expensive were plots of land and houses on the very coast with access to the bay, while houses on the mountain slopes were cheaper. Here, the estates were also larger.

But not only the rich spent their holidays in the Gulf of Naples. Ordinary, average Roman citizens also came here. They could spend time in public bathing areas and beaches and in spas (hot springs). It was possible to rent a small boat and go to the sea. You could also go to the amphitheatre to watch gladiators fights, for a walk in the park or to the marina in Puteoli. Just like today, they bought cheesy souvenirs, dined in seaside bars and carelessly rested on the beaches. The most famous summer holiday destination was Baiae near Naples. It was the favourite seaside beach of the Romans. Here you could find decent and less decent entertainment, for example: in the evening, young people took courtesans on elegant boats and went out to the bay having fun until the morning. In addition to Baje, you could visit Puteoli (an important commercial port), Naples (an intellectual centre where Greek institutions and schools were maintained, with the Greek way of life). The cultural elite flocked to Naples: musicians, poets, writers and sculptors. Many of them had their summer houses here. Despite the passage of hundreds of years, the area on the Gulf of Naples was still a paradise for holidaymakers and visitors.

With the onset of summer heat, the wealthy company moved from the coast to their mountain villas and estates. They were most often located in the hills surrounding Rome from the east and south-east. So it was not far from them. On the slopes of the mountains, among the countryside, were the estates of Roman emperors and wealthy patricians. The villas here were elegant, exclusive. Calm, cool, shade and comfort were important. Bedrooms in the mountain villas were shaded all day, arcaded walkways were often dug half into the ground (more shade and coolness), gardens and courtyards had fountains and ponds, a cold and hot bath and a swimming pool, sometimes heated, was mandatory. The largest villa in this area was the villa of Emperor Hadrian. There were two theatres, three bathing complexes and libraries in the imperial estate. It was a mini-city for several thousand people. The Roman “middle class” also had its small summer cottages here, where it rested during the holidays. These country houses were modest, but cosy and their own.


The most popular tourist regions during ancient Rome were: Greece, Egypt and Asia Minor (Syria and Palestine). The Romans travelled mainly east to explore what was the old world for them. The people of the provinces, in turn, fled to Rome to see the capital of the Empire.

The city was one of the greatest tourist attractions in the ancient world. You could see places related to the legend of Romulus and Remus, the Temple of Vesta, rich art collections, imperial palaces on the Palatine, forums, public baths, circus arenas. From Rome, tourists set off to visit Greece and Egypt. They could get there by sea through the Strait of Messina. On the way, they visited Sicily. Here it was worth seeing Syracuse with the temples of Artemis and Athena, the crater of Mount Etna and Lake Palików (volcanic pond).

In Greece, the following route was travelled: Delphi, Athens, Corinth, Epidaurus, Olympia, Sparta. What attracted Roman tourists to Greece was idyllic, rural and backwardness in relation to Rome. The program of the trip around Greece also included the islands of Delos, Rhodes and Samothrace. From Rhodes, it was only a step to Asia Minor and the greatest tourist attraction: “the land of Homer”, the site of the Trojan War. The tiny city of Ilion, built on the ruins of Troy, has become a mecca for tourists from Rome who want to see the place where “it all began”. The guides showed tourists every place connected with the Trojan War. Apart from the “land of Homer”, the tourist could also see Knidos with the famous statue of Aphrodite, Ephesus and Smyrna in Asia Minor.

The great attraction was Egypt– a tourist paradise. The gateway to the exotic world was Alexandria, which could be reached by sea from Rome in a few days. Then, a trip through Egypt could be made by sailing the Nile. In Alexandria, tourists admired one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, i.e. the lighthouse. Apart from her, everything was here: palaces, temples, Muzejon, or “scientific research institute”, where you could study literature, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. From cosmopolitan Alexandria, the tourist travelled up the Nile to see the province and “real Egypt”. So on the way, there was Heliopolis with the oldest temple of the god Re and Memphis with the temples of Ptah and Apis. There were great pyramids nearby. Even then, in antiquity, it was one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world. You could still see the famous Labyrinth, and then go to Abydos and visit the temple of the god Seti. The trips ended with visiting Thebes and the Valley of the Kings. The most persistent tourists went to Aswan during the First Cataract. This is where the ancient world of tourism ended. Then there were only the sands of Sudan. Tourists did not venture there.

In the times of the Roman Empire, tourist traffic was already high. Masses of people headed to Rome to see the Eternal City and the capital of the world. The Romans travelled to Sicily, Greece, Asia Minor and Egypt to admire the old world and see historical sites, places where the history of Rome and people began. Even then, as well as today, the words Pliny the Younger (beginning of the 2nd century CE) remained valid:

We travel long roads and cross water to see what we disregard when it is under our eyes. This is either because nature has so arranged things so that we go after what is far off and remain indifferent to what is nearby, or because any desire loses its intensity by being easily satisfied, or because we postpone whatever we can see whenever we want, feeling sure we will often get around to it. Whatever the reason, there are numbers of things in this city of ours and its environs which we have not even heard of, much less seen; yet, if they were in Greece or Egypt or Asia […] we could have heard all about them, read all about them, looked over all there was to see.

Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 8:20: 1-2

It is worth mentioning who such Roman travellers usually were. They were patricians – antiquities, poets, writers or lawyers who had enormous amounts of money. They treated such an expedition as a further stage of their education. It was believed that only seeing the great monuments of the world and the possibility of discussing or communing with Greek philosophy at the Acropolis would allow them to become fulfilled and enlightened people.

Finally, it should be added that the oldest guide in the world is the work of Pausanias from around CE 160, entitled “Wandering around Hellas”. This guide to Hellas in 10 books contains Pausanias’ account of his numerous journeys – it describes the individual lands of Greece: monuments, local cults. The style of Pausanias is very rich, he develops individual descriptions, supplementing them mainly with historical and mythological information. The work of Pausanias is a valuable historical source. It is used by geographers and archaeologists to locate ancient towns, art historians, reconstructing the appearance of ancient temples and other buildings. His work is also used by historians of ancient religions due to information about little known or otherwise unknown local cults. The first book of the treatise describes Attica and Megara, the second describes Corinth, Sicyon, Argolis, the third Laconia, the fourth Messenia, the fifth and sixth Elida, the seventh Achaia, the eighth Arcadia, the ninth Boeotia, and the tenth Phokida.

  • Casson Lionel, Podróże w starożytnym świecie, Wrocław 1981
  • Durant Will, Historia cywilizacji, tom 2
  • Rzymskie wakacje, "Ale Historia", 5 October 2011

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