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Introduction top

Hi, I'm Rudy Maxa--scrambling among remnants of Western civilization's magnificent beginnings. This time we've got a program with a little different twist. We're pulling together some of Europe's most rewarding sites from the classical world. Stay with us now for wonders of Ancient Greece and Rome on Smart Travels.

Travelers have been coming to Europe for centuries--looking for good food, friendly people, a change of scene--yes, and even business. But what makes Europe most special are the stunning remains of past glories. And none call to us louder than those from the ancient world--Rome's colossal monuments . . . Greece's golden treasures and graceful temples . . . Pompeii's streets and dwellings.

It's among such ruins that ancient myths and historic facts come alive. Here's where Julius Caesar fell to assassins, Zues threw his thunderbolts, and Ulysses, probably the world's most reluctant traveler, slipped by deadly sirens on his long trip home. We're talking greed, lust, power, catastrophic episodes--nations built & wrecked, fortunes made and lost.

These ancient remnants are more than cold stone. So lets revisit some favorite classical sites around the Mediterranean, pick up some new stories and see what connections we can make. To my mind, the great sites call for extra attention; it's impossible to soak up everything in one go-around.


Great Cities of the Ancient World; L.Sprague de Camp; Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972.
Atlas of World History; R.I. Moore, ed.; Rand McNally, 1984.
Oxford History of the Classical World; John Boardman et.al., eds; Oxford University Press; 1986.


Athens, Greece top

Greece just keeps calling. Gazing at Athens’s acropolis on the hill above the crowded city, one is tempted to view its temples as relics of an age of contemplation and serenity. In fact, the Parthenon represents a tiny window of power and prosperity in ancient Athens’s otherwise conflict-plagued history. Athens’s Golden Age—about 450 years before Christ and the age of Pericles, Socrates, and Sophocles—spanned barely 50 years. But what a half century that was...Athens became a creative cauldron. New temples set an artistic standard for millenniums. Great plays by Sophocles and Euripides established the framework for the Western world's theatre...while Socrates, Plato and Aristotle laid the groundwork for Western Philosophy. And, of course, all of this while sculptors produced their unequaled classical renderings of humankind Wow!


Art and Experience in Classical Greece; J.J. Pollitt; Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Theories abound as to why it all happened when it did and where it did--fun speculations for another day. Right now let's go farther back in time--a thousand years before the temples on the Acropolis--back to Mycenea and the time of Agamemnon, Oedipus, the Trojan war--back to the world described by Homer. These artifacts in Athens’s National Archaeology Museum speak to the richness of that early civilization--one that Golden Age Athenians idealized in myths and dramas--part of their very remote past, with lessons on the rise and fall of powerful men. Myceneans dominated the Aegean for several hundred years before their frequent wars weakened them beyond recovery and the Greek world slipped into what some call The Dark Ages of Ancient Greece. . . . Classical Greece finally emerged as a group of city/states, competing with each other for trade and influence, as well as on the battlefield.


The Living Past of Greece; A.R. and Mary Burn; Little, Brown & Company, 1980 Complete Idiots Guide to Lost Civilizations; Donald P. Ryan, Ph.D.; Alpha Books, 1999.


Delphi, Greece top

But just a day trip from Athens we find one of the spots where the city/states put aside their quarrels. Delphi was the leading sacred sanctuary in the Greek world for centuries. The god Apollo was thought to reside here and to speak through his oracle. But the oracle could be very enigmatic. One Greek king was told if he attacked Persia, "...he would destroy a mighty empire." Unfortunately, it was his own empire he destroyed as the Persians defeated him. Pretty darn Clever! Delphi was splendid beyond belief, not only because of the temples, but also because of the rich offerings contributed by hopeful and grateful supplicants.

Delphi's reputation continued well into the Roman period. This, even after the Emperor Nero carted 500 statues off to Rome in a fit of anger after the oracle refused to condone his murdering his mother. It was said that still left Delphi with over 3000 statues!


Delos, Greece top

Today, smart travelers seeking out the hidden treasures of the classical world head to the Greek islands...Pilgrims now as in ancient times crowd boats to reach picturesque Delos...Virtually the entire island is an archaeology zone--no overnight accommodations, it's a day trip from neighboring Naxos. Delos was another of Apollo's sacred sanctuaries, this one noted for its huge festivals. All the great sanctuaries hosted festivals where competitors put aside their real-life conflicts to vie for prizes in sport, drama, and music—kind of mini-versions of the Olympics...Delos functioned as a sacred shrine for over 600 years until it, like the rest of Greece, was absorbed into the Roman Empire. The Romans gradually turned Delos into a commercial center, changing the religious festival into a trade fair--sadly featuring a huge slave market—with its temples replaced by extravagant Roman Villas.

Ah yes, the Romans! How they emulated the Greeks—copied (or stole) their art, adopted their gods (with some name changes, of course), and hired or enslaved their craftsmen, teachers, and professionals to help run their empire. As Rome grew from a city into an empire, Greece fell under its control.


Greek and Roman Life; Ian Jenkins; Harvard University Press, 1986.


Paestum, Italy top

Leaving Greece, we’re headed to Italy to see how the Romans first came into contact with the Greek culture they admired so much. Siricuse, Agrigento, and Paestum leave a wonderful record of early Greek influence. Paestum, just a little south of the bay of Naples had been a Greek colony since 720 BC., a time when Rome was still in its infancy...During that period Athens, Corinth, and other Greek city states sent colonists into the western Mediterranean to relieve over-population and establish reliable trading partners. Here, Greeks built cities that looked just like home, worshipped the same gods, planted grape vines and olive trees and grew wheat for export back to Greece. Prosperous colonies soon were spreading Greek culture all over southern Italy and Sicily—in what became known as Magna Graeca.


Agrigento, Sicily top

One of the most beautiful remnants of that world can be seen today in Agrigento, Sicily. Commanding a large territory of fruits and grains, it became prosperous through extensive trade with North Africa—just a short sail across the Mediterranean. A series of rulers chose to show off their successes--and thank the gods for their good fortune—through a series of public building projects...But with all its success, Agrigento still only placed second in the race for top city in Sicily.


Syracuse, Sicily top

That honor clearly went to a settlement on the eastern end of the island—Syracuse. In fact, Syracuse was so successful that for a time it was the largest city in all the Greek world—surpassing all those city/states back in the Aegean homeland. But its citizens paid dearly for the city's rise to prominence, spending an inordinate amount of time at war.

They first had to kick out the locals living here—a group called the Siculi (thus the name Sicily). Then they spent centuries warring with the Carthaginians who occupied the western end of Sicily, and even had several go-arounds with Greek armies arriving from such places as Athens. It was not easy trying to be top dog.

And their wars were pretty viscous—rape and pillage—revenge, retribution—massacres—with the "lucky" survivors usually sold into slavery. You see, they'd picked a tough spot—too ideal a trading center and constantly eyed by strong neighbors. After holding off the Carthaginians for centuries, they finally fell to Rome—but, hey, back then who didn't? No shame there! And anyway the Romans often threw in a new amphitheater when they moved into a city.


For a fascinating account of how the great mathematician Archimedes almost stopped the invading Romans at Syracuse, check out chapter 14 of Plutarch's "The Life of Marcellus".


Piazza Armerina, Sicily top

“But the victorious Romans rewarded themselves well.” One of the most astounding sites on Sicily from the late Roman era is Piazza Armerina--a palatial hunting villa. What remains today are remarkable mosaics that once covered nearly an acre of floor space. Mystery surrounds the site with debates about who built it--the emperor Maximian or a wealthy private family. Whoever was responsible, what it speaks to is the level of prosperity for certain classes of Romans. By around 350AD, when it was built, the rich were definitely getting richer and the poor, poorer.

OK. OK. Like Ulysses, it's time to take our classical odyssey into new terrain. We're following the Greeks north up into southern France.


Nice, France top

You don't have to clamber over piles of ruins in order to tread over remnants of the Ancient World. Once you get on one of these "theme trips" and do a little research, it's fun to scope out a famous place's early history. Take Nice here. Who'd guess it got its start 400 years before Christ as a Greek city named Nicaea. Or that it was the first place in Gaul to fall to the Romans as they conquered what is present-day France.

Oh Yes, The Greeks were on the Riviera too. And I'm betting they found it as inviting as do modern travelers. Back then the fish was just as fresh, the olive oil tasty, the wine soothing, and the water as blue as now...The Greek temples are gone, but if we go a little farther into France, over into Provence, we find lots of remains of the Romans who replaced the Greeks.


Old Cook Books: An Illustrated History; Eric Quayle; E.P. Dutton, 1978.
The Good Earth: A guide to the vegetables, Fruits, Grains, Nuts, Spices, and Culinary Herbs of our Planet; Jon Gregerson; Whitecap Books, Vancouver/Toronto, 1992.
History of Food; Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, Translated by Anthea Bell; Blackwell Publishers, 1994.


Glanum, France top

Traveling through the countryside, modern travelers are constantly reminded of Provence's Roman past--from tumble-down ruins of an ancient aqueduct, to nicely preserved monuments like those at tiny Glanum where an arch commemorates battles won. Rome's drawn-out wars with Carthage had the local Greek cities caught in the middle. Rome, of course, ultimately triumphed over Hannibal and his elephants--who, by the way marched right through Provence on their way to Rome. After trying out alliances for awhile Julius Caesar ultimately subdued the whole area, and began a serious Romanization project.


Arles, France top

In 49 BC the small town of Arles became one of the first Greek settlements here to become Romanized when a bunch of veterans from the Sixth Roman Legion moved in as colonists. Rome followed this model of colonization over and over as she peopled her vast empire with loyal Roman subjects. Arles' amphitheater provided plenty of entertainment through the centuries, and remains one of the best preserved arenas from the ancient world. It survived virtually intact because of almost continuous use--today as an arena for concerts & bullfights--during the middle ages as a walled village, of all things.


Burgundy, France top

As we travel in the Wine-drinking world, we should raise a glass to the Ancient Greeks. Although they probably didn't invent wine, they certainly recognized a good thing when they saw it and were responsible for spreading this "gift from the gods" throughout the Mediterranean.

Wine and vines were cornerstone's of the Greek's lively trade. As we've traced their expansion and decline, we keep coming up on the word "trade". Well, that's what it was all about. Sound familiar? . . . When the Greeks first showed up in a new place, they not only had a virtual monopoly but a very hot product. In what is today Burgundy early trade produced an intense thirst.

The Celts around here had such a thirst for the imported wines that it was said of them: "They will give you a slave for an amphora of wine, thus exchanging the cup bearer for the cup."

Well, we all know that today's Burgundies are among the world's best wines. It's been a long and complicated history--with plenty of blank spaces that will never be filled. We know that when the Roman's replaced the Greeks and marched north to conquer the Celts, they found them already growing grapes--obviously obtained from the Greeks. What the wines of the ancients actually tasted like is a bit of a mystery. We do know they could be red, white, tawny, dry, sweet, new, or "aged", and that some ancient wines were flavored with herbs--much like our modern vermouth. It's also true the Greeks preached moderation . . . the Celts were reputed drunkards, and of course we all know the stories of Roman debaucheries. Is that about the same range of drinking habits we see today?


Oxford Companion to Wine; Jancis Robinson, ed.; Oxford University Press; 1999.


Rome, Italy top

OK. It's time to tackle what has to be the most popular draw of the ancient world. The city of Rome itself. So much to see, so many stories, we visitors just keep happily trekking back. Whether sipping a cool drink on a lively plaza, wandering through back streets or strolling among famous sites, the ancient world is easily called forth.


Ancient Rome: An Introductory History; Paul A. Zoch; University of Oklahoma Press; 1998.
A History of Rome; Marcel Le Glay et.al., Translated by Antonia Nevill; Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

The Pantheon
The Pantheon is probably the best preserved site from the ancient world. Built as home for Rome's plethora of gods it survives unscathed since it has functioned as a Christian church since early times. It's the one place where little imagination is required to conjure up its original look. You do have to rev up your imagination a bit to picture other sites in their prime.

The Forum
The ruins of the forum stand as specters of the time when magnificent edifices displayed the power of an enormous empire. It's an unforgettable experience to walk where, two thousand years ago, the Caesars did--to call to mind pageants of triumphal legions marching under monumental arches--or gladiators fighting to the death as Rome’s frenzied citizens cheered.

As the center of the Mediterranean world here's where the ancients coalesced. As Rome changed from a small city to a huge empire, its people adopted and adapted, borrowing from neighbors near and far. We've seen what they picked up from the Greeks, but they also owed much to their nearer neighbors, the Etruscans.


Orvieto, Italy top

Although we can see a few traces of the Etruscans here in Rome, a better place to peek into their world is just north of the city in the town of Orvieto where a small museum displays a collection of items from nearby tombs. The Etruscans remain a mystery; we've never succeeded in deciphering their language. They apparently arrived here from Asia Minor before 800 BC and soon dominated the local tribes, including the somewhat backward Latini who occupied the hills of Rome. The Etruscans were skilled engineers and administrators and at one point actually ruled the Romans. But we know who won out. Rome ultimately absorbed the Etruscans so that they ceased to exist as a separate entity.”


Trajan's Column, Rome top

The one thing the Romans could clearly do better than all their neighbors was wage war. Back in Rome, there's a marvelous monument to this talent. Trajan's column is a 125 foot tall stack of marble whose sculpted spiral panels lay out 100 scenes from the Emperor Trajan's wars. The detailed scenes depict a fascinating image of Roman military technique. At its peak, about 1700 years ago, Rome controlled an empire that stretched from Turkey to Britain and from North Africa to the Danube--Oh, yes, Rome ruled! And we have good records of that rule--laws, rulers, generals, monuments--plenty of writings. And with a little help from mother nature, we even have a fair picture of daily life.


Pompeii, Italy top

Down on the bay of Naples, the ancient city of Pompeii was frozen in time when Mount Vesuvius burst into eruption in 79AD. Totally buried under layers of ash and pumice, and finally unearthed in the modern era, here's where you see how a Roman city was laid out. You can walk down ancient streets, check out remnants of public buildings, and generally get a feel for the life of an ancient city with its temples, forums, and markets. (guide's sound-bites: "On the colonnade you can see a Latin inscription that refers to the marketplace behind that colonnade.")


For an account of the eruption written by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger) to the historian Tacitus, go to www.eyewitnesstohistory.com.


The Shadow of Vesuvius: Pompeii A.D.79; Michael Joseph; Jarrold & Sons Ltd, 1976.

But maybe most intriguing are the private dwellings--in particular, the grand villas with peaceful courtyards and remnants of exquisite decoration. Maybe the most interesting things to me are the array of frescoes that survived. What I find so fascinating is to be reminded that Roman buildings were very colorful, with temples and statues as well as the walls of private homes elaborately bathed in color. . . . The scenes in these frescoes reveal much about daily activities, interests, fashion, and passion in ancient Rome.. .


Everyday Life in the Roman Empire; Joan Lliversidge; G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976.

A few are still in site, but most have been moved to the National Archaeological Museum just a few miles away in Naples. By the way, this museum holds some of the greatest treasures from the ancient world--a collection begun by the kings of Naples several hundred years ago and displaying not only bounty from Pompeii but from their family collections. Which brings us to a final point about these antiquities.

As pleasurable as it is to actually walk among the classic sites, any serious traveler knows you can see stunning relics from the ancient world in the west's major museums. The story of how they actually got here is a fascinating one in itself.


Pergamon Museum, Berlin top

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin offers a colossal representation of archaeological practices of a century ago. This gigantic temple altar from Pergamon, Turkey was excavated by a German team of archaeologists, then shipped home under an arrangement with the Turkish government. Germany was just one of the western nations competing to fill their museums with these treasures. After decades of such practices, the countries of origin wised up and passed laws prohibiting the export of their antiquities. But not before the west's great museums amassed some stunning pieces--and ushered in a century of debate as to whether the works had been stolen or saved.


Atlas of Classical Archaeology; M I Finley, editor; McGraw Hill, 1977.
Uncovering The Past: A History of Archaeology; William H. Stiebing, Jr.; Prometheus Books, 1993.
Oxford Companion to Archaeology; Brian M. Fagan, Editor in Chief; Oxford University Press; 1996.

A museum like this is a good place to get a handle on evolving styles in the ancient world. Art historians point out that you can often gage the mood of a society by how its artists represent their culture.

Take Greek sculpture. Some scholars trace the political fortunes of the Greek world by noting how early styles favor a generic idealism—bodies posed, reflecting confidence in man's ability to find order in his world...As Greek fortunes declined, artists moved toward a more specific realism—where personalities dominated and emotions reigned—ultimately a world ruled by chaos.

The Ancients continue to fascinate us. Traveling back to their world invigorates and challenges. Greeks, Etruscans, Romans—building, borrowing, warring, sculpting, playing—facing the ups and downs of fortune. It's a fascinating, complicated world we'll probably never really understand but I, for one, can't seem to give up trying.


Encyclopedia of the Classical World; Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965
Encyclopedia of Historic Places; Cortland Canby; Facts on File Publications, 1984.

Each visit to the classical world sends me away with more questions than answers. Is that one of those Siren things? Nah, I don't think so, but whatever it is I like it. I'm Rudy Maxa considering how I can get back here again.


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For a fascinating account of how the great mathematician Archimedes almost stopped the invading Romans at Syracuse, check out chapter 14 of Plutarch's "The Life of Marcellus".

For an account of the eruption written by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger) to the historian Tacitus, go to www.eyewitnesstohistory.com