- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

By Tony Perrottet
Random House, $25.95, 320 pages

Travel, notes first-century Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca in one of his letters, "'will bless you with knowledge of strange people, shapes of mountains, plains extending to unknown lengths, valleys with eternal waters trickling through … but you will not become a better person, or more sensible.'"
And tourism, the industry surrounding travel, as Tony Perrottet, an avid Australian traveler and travel writer points out in his delightful new book,"Route 66 A.D.," "is a delicate flower that needs a certain degree of political and economic stability to thrive, and the halcyon days of the Pax Romana roughly 30 B.C. to A.D. 200 is the longest unbroken period of peace Europe has ever managed."
In the first century, A.D., Roman tourists, or "spectators (sightseers) came from every subset of the [Roman] elite. There were refined youths combining tourism with foreign study ('It is a young man's duty to see the world,' pronounced one pagan holy man). There were feisty Roman women art lovers and socialites who longed to see the Empire. Lawyers, poets, and generals taking a break from their routines. Middle-aged philosophers. Elderly antiquarians."
The ancients complained of the same infernal noise in Rome, the lack of adequate inns, the difficulties of arranging transportation and the greediness of the guides. They collected art objects and kitschy souvenirs on their travels and the rich took servants and many changes of clothing along. The poor, as always, did the best they could with whatever they found.
Armed with a copy of the world's oldest guidebook, "Description of Greece," written between A.D. 130 and 180 by Pausanias, "a charmingly dotty scholar from Asia Minor;" an ancient highway map of the Roman Empire, and a 30-pound sack of ancient texts, Mr. Perrottet set out to trace the Grand Tour of the Mediterranean in Roman footsteps, accompanied by his pregnant girlfriend, Lesley. Their four-month tour took them from Rome down the Appian Way to the Bay of Naples and Capri (a hedonistic resort for Roman imperial lasciviousness), then across the wine-dark sea to Greece and the Hellenic "greatest hits" Athens, Delphi, Olympia, Sparta and Epidaurus.
Their route took them to Turkey and Troy, the setting of Homer's "Iliad," with which all Roman tourists were familiar, and finally to Egypt, to Alexandria (where the ancient city ruins have recently been discovered beneath the waters of the harbor), the Pyramids and up the Nile to Aswan, the terminus of the Empire and also the extent to which the Egyptian government will permit tourists to travel.
The Romans were fascinated with all things Greek. ("Conquered Greece took captive her barbarous conqueror.") The Grand Tour of Greece took the Emperor Nero and his wife a year to complete in 66 A.D., and included a visit to Olympia, where Nero added poetry to the athletic events, so he could compete. Naturally, he won the laurel wreath. Hadrian spent six years traveling from Rome to the Nile, the extent of the well-protected Roman Empire, "to see with his own eyes all he had read of in any part."
Tony ("Tone" as Les calls him) and Les traveled as closely to Roman means of transport when they could by ship if possible, but also by bus, train and a decrepit Russian rented car in Greece. They stayed in some of the Mediterranean's seediest hotels, were stranded in a rainstorm in the mountains of Greece, and they encountered a mad monk in Arcadia.
Tony dove deep into the filthy waters of the bays of Naples and Alexandria to see the sunken glory of civilizations past; he touched the leathery forearm of the mummy of Pharaoh Tuthamosis III, dead 3,500 years, lying on a slab in the lab of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, and danced with the groom at a most peculiar Nubian wedding. He stood at the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula where the tomb of the Greek soldier, Protesilaus, "the first casualty of the Trojan War," was found, and discovered his great-uncle's grave marked "B.J. Perrottet. 1st May 1915. Age 22."
Tony Perrottet is a modern Richard Halliburton, the pilgrim on "the royal road to romance" in an earlier time: He has flown the Andes in derelict prop planes, skied down an Icelandic glacier in a blizzard, wandered the "back blocks of Asia" and lived in South America. He travels with joy and enthusiasm. He also has done an astonishing amount of research and, best of all, knows how to entertain his readers and offer them a good time as well as information.
With considerable wit, the author brings contemporary similes into his account, making an amusing and lively, as well as erudite and factually sound, account of the history, mythology, conditions, climate and customs of the places he visits today and as they were 2,000 years ago. For all their misadventures, Tony and Les had a grand time at least Tony did, as will the reader. As for the pregnant Les, she gets the prize for being the world's best sport.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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