The Grand Tourist

Never let it be said that Res Gerendae refuses to address real-world issues and provide practical careers-oriented advice, confining itself to the ivory tower of Classical academia: today, I want to share with you some of my own personal experiences in the Big Wide World of Work. Those of you who have no interest in the PwCs, BLPs or PLCs of this world, fear not though, because when I finished my BA back in 2010, I didn’t pursue any of those professions. Instead, I ran away to sea.

All those years ago, I was hanging around Cambridge a few weeks after my graduation when my dissertation supervisor sent me an email, asking whether I was interested in a job opportunity over the summer. I was, not least because I wanted to start a Master’s that autumn and needed all the money I could get. It wasn’t much later that I found myself landing in Athens Venizelos airport ready to start work on a cruise ship.


Our ship, visiting some ruins.

‘What as?’, I hear you cry. Cabaret singer? Pool attendant? No, no. The ship I was to work on was not only smaller than most (300 passengers, not 3,000) but specialised in historical tours of the Mediterranean, and I was to work in their land excursions department. In short, this involved organising, but crucially also accompanying, the tours to various sites of archaeological, historical or general interest. Not the paid holiday it sounds, by any means, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

In the interests of Master’s funding, I ended up working on board for a year or so, on and off, and was able to visit some amazing places. Prior to that summer, I had visited Crete as a six-year-old, and Rome as a third-year undergraduate, but now I saw places like Athens, Mycenae, Delphi, Pompeii, Ephesus, Delos, Syracuse, Split and Istanbul for the first time – and not just once, but repeatedly as the ship traced familiar routes several times over. I am no archaeologist, but the familiarity gained by regular visits to such sites has been invaluable to me since in appreciating their background and context. There were also some more unusual destinations: I only visited Carthage (modern Tunis), Baalbek (in Lebanon) and the Egyptian Valley of the Kings once, but they stick in the mind and are places to which I would love to return. Some other visits are less likely to be repeated very soon: Leptis Magna in Libya, Palmyra in Syria and even Mithridates’ last refuge, Panticapeum in the Crimea, are all places I feel lucky to have visited when I did.

But why should you be interested in ‘What I did on my holidays’? Well, I would like to return you to my initial point: it was, of course, a joke to describe ‘working on a cruise ship’ as experiencing the Real World beyond studying Classics, but it did bring me into contact with all sorts of ‘Real World’ people with an interest in the subject, both those coming to it as enthusiastic visitors and those working in the tourism industry. The latter were by and large very knowledgeable individuals, capable of keeping up with the latest scholarly research in their (often quite broad) respective fields, while the former were, quite naturally, mostly not.


More columns.

Many did, of course, come with a passion to find out about the Ancient World, but many were simply on holiday. For all my years of study, and all my previous visits to these locations, if I was asked a question on site, it was more likely to be ‘Can you take a photo of me?’ or ‘Do you know where the loos are?’ than ‘Is that column Doric or Ionic?,’ let alone anything more complicated. Of course, there were specialist guides and even visiting lecturers to ask that sort of thing to, but it did pose the question why people are ‘interested’ in Classical sites at all. What is the appeal of ruins to anyone other than an archaeologist? Do tourists come to marvel at their survival? Or because they are picturesque?

Greek temples are a good example. Countless passengers would, after travelling round Greece and Southern Italy, express a common sentiment: “Not Another Bloody Temple.” I could sympathise, but what kept me interested wasn’t the ancient contexts, religious cults or architectural terminology; rather it was the different modern approaches taken in each case. Some temples were left much as they were found, which could range from crumbling ruin to surprisingly intact. Others were held in their state of semi-decay by props and clamps. Others still were rebuilt from the scattered remains, or even ‘restored’ with new stone, like the Parthenon. Behind each were presumptions about why people came to see them: to learn how things ‘really’ were then, to gaze, as if at Ozymandias’ feet, at the last remains of Antiquity, or just to take a nice picture?

Interior of the Temple of Neptune from the North-East, G.B. Piranese, 1778 (currently in the Sir John Soane's Museum, London)

Piranese’s Holiday Snaps.

I don’t mean to disparage the last motive as a rationale for tourism. Many aesthetes embarked on the Grand Tour of Classical lands in the 18th and 19th Centuries for just the same reason. Others, for all that they knew their Latin and Greek authors better than most modern tourists, were no more serious scholars, and were motivated no less by their own contemporary interests. My point, I suppose, is that it is only because of this less ‘worthy’ interest and enthusiasm for the Ancient World that Classical scholarship can continue to exist.

What goes for archaeological remains, goes in large part for all of Classical literature and thought too. The reason Classics and Ancient History are still worthwhile pursuits are because of the ongoing interest that is shown today by millions of visitors to ancient sites and readers of Classical literature. Nor does everyone who goes to these places or reads these books want to become an expert but the job of the ‘professional’ Classicist is to explain why these things still interest us, not just to fellow experts, but to the wider public too. The old ivory tower of academia may be a cliché, but certainly one that seems to have the ring of truth after hours holed up in the library: some time in the ‘Real World’ is often just what’s needed.


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