Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Some Thoughts On Tony Perrottet's "Route 66 A.D".

Route 66 A.D is a pop-classical history book that (I must confess) I pretty much adore. I first picked it up when I was studying at University and it set me on a path towards being a classics buff (so to speak) that I've been on ever since.

Loosely, the book is a travel diary that follows Tony Perrottet as he covers the ancient route of the world's first tourists - 1st century A.D Romans - rich, aristocratic, with time to spare following the relegation of the Senate (of sorts) and desperate to see the highlights of their sprawling Empire, from Sparta to Athens, Troy to Egypt.

Intermixed with his anecdotes of Roman travel, he tells wry tales of his own experiences in Rome, Naples, Alexandria and more. This mix makes for some interesting and and funny parallels of the experience gap of two travellers over some 2000 years.

The book opens up with Perrottet describing the revealing of a world map (one of the first!) created under the patronage of Marcus Agrippa, and Perrottet does an excellent job of setting the scene and putting the reader in the sandals of an ancient traveller - the parallel between the two is a central theme of the entire book. Perrottet invests considerable energy drawing it.

He speaks of Roman tourists visiting Troy being like Irish-Americans visiting rural Ireland, The Knidian Aphrodite as the Playboy shoots of Marilyn Monroe that retain special status above all later imitations, the story of the Greeks defeating the Persians retold to Roman children as a proto Star Wars. The list goes on.

The narrative is thick with anecdotes of Roman travellers from nameless aristocrats to famous orators like Aristides and Hellenophiles such as Nero and Hadrian. A significant amount of research want into bringing the story to life - and the central wonder of the book is that one can truly imagine doing the ancient tourist trail in the 1st century A.D, and that functions to the greater good as it helps one get inside the head of an ancient Roman.

The book has a few factual errors, and some problems with generalisations, although I should say that Perrottet admits it's not meant to be a scholarly work. First off, he says that most ancients could be considered generally "bi-sexual" which is a bit of a generalisation - the male/male relationships of Greece are complex and difficult to categorise by modern standards, and the Romans were notoriously against homosexual relationships.

Secondly he has the location of the Subura in Rome to be South of the Aventine Hill, when it's actually located N.E of that Hill and not especially in proximity to it. Thirdly he has Ovid as recommending the Colosseum, when Ovid was in fact dead well before it's construction.

Finally (there are a few more, but I won't mention them) he anachronistically uses the term Viceroy to refer to Roman pro-consuls quite frequently, which perhaps reflects the age and heritage of texts he used for study - viceroy is a misleading term and while one could roughly equate the job description of a pro-consul to a British viceroy, it doesn't quite work.

These can be easily forgiven, though, considering it's a pop-classic history book and not intended as a scholarly work.

Following a Herodotean wonderment of the East, the characters become stranger the further East we go, and to be really quite honest the personal narrative of Perrottet's journey becomes less interesting for me, and I've entertained the possibility that some of it is made up for purpose of the story, or to further the Roman/modern traveller parallels (again that move has a Herodotean flavour to it).

The book ends with a list of short biographies which is useful and and contains a fair number of names. Likewise the bibliography is quite good and contains a list of interesting scholarly texts, although several of them are now quite old.

Overall, it's a great book. It has a lust for anecdotes and colourful history that makes it so highly readable. It's greatest triumph is the establishment of the parallels between ancient travellers and modern ones. The upshot is that it seems the tourist experience has changed little over 2000 years (although that's possibly a result of squeezing the two narratives into parallel stories). I recommend reading the book for it's light hearted approach and thickness of stories.

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