Sunday, September 29, 2013


Nicola Zwingmann, Antiker Tourismus in Kleinasien und auf den vorgelagerten Inseln: Selbstvergewisserung in der Fremde. Antiquitas, Reihe 1, Abhandlungen zur alten Geschichte, Bd. 59. Bonn: Dr. Rudolf Habelt Verlag, 2012. Pp. xiv, 498; 26 p. of plates. ISBN 9783774938113. €95.00.

Reviewed by Tønnes​ Bekker-Nielsen, University of Southern Denmark (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

As this review is being written, the annual mass migration from northern Europe is at its height. Millions are flocking to the coasts and cities of the Mediterranean, with Turkey and the Greek islands ranking among the top destinations. Some of the sights they will be visiting were already tourist attractions two millennia ago, and if ancient tourism was nowhere near the scale of today's, it still played a significant role in the social and economic life of the Mediterranean world. There are good reasons to take a closer interest in the place of the tourist phenomenon within Graeco-Roman society, and this in-depth study by Nicola Zwingmann, a revised version of her doctoral thesis (Tübingen 2009), forms a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on the subject.

Students of population movements have traditionally distinguished between "push" factors (e.g., unemployment, rainy weather) and "pull" factors (e.g., job opportunities, sunny beaches). Zwingmann has chosen to focus her attention on the "pull" aspect: why did certain sites in the classical world develop into major tourist attractions, while others did not (p. 1)? A hint is already given on the title page: a major component of ancient tourism was Selbstvergewisserung; a word that has no direct English equivalent but can be rendered as "reinforcing one's sense of identity".

On the other hand, the "push" factors inducing travelers to leave home in the first place ("Reisemotive", pp. 16-25) are only briefly discussed since, as Zwingmann argues, ancient journeys were rarely undertaken specifically for sightseeing; more often, those travelling on business, on official duties or for religious reasons would make a detour to visit famous sites along their route: tourisme de passage (pp. 23-24). Indeed, accessibility by sea and proximity to one of the major shipping routes is a common characteristic of all top-rank tourist sites discussed in this volume (p. 401).

The main body of Zwingmann's book is taken up by an in-depth catalogue of selected tourist sights in Asia Minor and the eastern Aegean islands (then as now high on the list of tourist destinations), divided under four headings: cities (Troy, Rhodes, Pergamon: pp. 29-156); sanctuaries (Ephesos, Kos, Knidos: pp. 157-234); non-Greek archaeological sites (pp. 235-310) and natural phenomena (mainly caves: pp. 311-362). These sections are preceded by a short introduction to the subject and overview of previous scholarship; they are followed by a comparative analysis of the different categories of "sights", a discussion of the reasons underlying their popularity (pp. 363-396), and a very short comparison of ancient and modern tourism (pp. 396-399), taking up some of the points from the introduction (pp. 13- 15).

In the final chapter (pp. 400-407), Zwingmann summarizes her findings and concludes that tourism in the classical world was not primarily motivated by an interest in the foreign, the unfamiliar or the unknown: on the contrary, its purpose was to reinforce the tourist's own identity by visiting sites that were embedded in a familiar cultural and historical discourse: "Für interessant wurden nur Stätten oder Gegenstände befunden, denen man in der jeweiligen eigenen Zeit eine identitätsstiftende Bedeutung beimaß. Wo es dafür keine Anhaltspunkte gab oder sich eine Stadt bzw. ein Heiligtum mit einem entsprechenden Anspruch nicht durchsetzen konnte, nahm man die Denkmäler in den meisten Fällen nicht einmal wahr, geschweige denn als Sehenswürdigkeiten" (p. 407). In this respect, the tourists of antiquity would seem to resemble the gentlemen traveler on the eighteenth-century "Grand tour" (from which the modern word "tourist" is derived) more than today's backpacker.

Though Zwingmann's conclusion will be surprising to some, it is well argued. At first sight it appears to be contradicted by the conspicuous interest of travel writers, such as Pomponius Mela, in the unfamiliar and unexpected: tribes that live entirely off birds' eggs or have ears so large they can use them to wrap themselves against the cold (Mela, 3.56). But of course these strange creatures are invariably said to be located at the barbarian edge of the world, thus reinforcing the reader's sense of comfort at belonging to civilized society at the core of the Mediterranean oikoumene.

While Zwingmann clearly describes how ancient tourists were more attracted to sites carrying an "identitätsstiftende Bedeutung" than to natural phenomena such as caves (pp. 405-406), she is less successful in explaining why. Through most of the book, this preference seems to be taken for granted against the background of the traveler's Bildung and sense of historical and cultural identity. This follows more or less directly from Zwingmann's focus on "pull" factors, her definition of tourism as sight-seeing (p. 1) and the nature of her written sources, which were by and large produced by members of an educated élite for other members of the same élite. Yet similar behaviour can be observed among the non-élite tourists from the suburbs of Birmingham who fly to Corfu or Cyprus for their summer holiday and spend their time in the comforting surroundings of bars offering British beer, British food and TV transmissions of British soccer matches. Clearly factors other than Bildung and historical awareness are involved here. The psychology of the travel experience and the consequent sense of insecurity in a foreign environment should be taken into account – especially as regards the ancient world, where travel was more hazardous and less predictable than today. Zwingmann touches briefly on this aspect in her last lines: "Offensichtlich wollte man sich gerade in der Fremde, wo die eigene Identität prekärer ist, seiner selbst vergewissern. Man suchte sozusagen ein Stück Heimat an einem weit entfernten Ort" (p. 407).

This raises the question of the precise nature of "die eigene Identität". Zwingmann generally treats the tourists as one group, which seems to imply that their preferences reflect a shared frame of reference. While this may be generally valid, it cannot have applied in every case. For an educated Greek from Athens or one of the Ionian cities, a trip to Pergamon would no doubt reinforce her sense of Hellenicity, but in a Galatian from the Anatolian plateau, a visit to Pergamon might well arouse entirely different emotions.

Since most of the texts cited by Zwingmann are by Greek writers, we rarely have the chance to learn how visitors from the Latin west experienced the monuments of Asia Minor. In the case of the imperial élite, which was more or less bilingual, the assumption of a unitary Graeco-Roman mindset may be valid. For instance, as Zwingmann points out, the visits of Germanicus or Hadrian to Troy (p. 91) should be seen as elements of an imitatio Alexandri embedded within a shared Graeco-Roman ideology of monarchy; in any case, Romans claimed descent from the Trojan Aeneas. But is it always possible to conceptualize Greeks and Romans as one group? Suetonius did not think so; he makes the point that during his sojourn on Rhodes, Tiberius took pains to behave as an ordinary Greek citizen, not as a member of the Roman ruling class (Suetonius, Tiberius, 11). It would seem that Tiberius went to Rhodes not to reinforce his identity, rather to escape from his identity as a member of the Roman ruling caste, just as Nero would later attempt to do.

Nero preferred the company of Greeks – in Naples or in Achaia – among whom he could indulge in behaviour which upper-class Romans considered unacceptable, such as singing or acting in public. Many of his contemporaries chose to spend their leisure hours on the bay of Naples where social and moral codes were less strictly observed than in the City, while the brothels of Corinth were said to attract many visitors. Was a more relaxed moral environment also among the attractions of the Aegean islands and Asia Minor? Since sex tourism does not come within the definition of sight-seeing, it is only discussed briefly by Zwingmann in connection with possible temple prostitution at Knidos (pp. 231-32). Though the reality of ancient temple prostitution has recently been called into question by Stephanie Budin,1 Zwingmann, with good reason, acknowledges its presence in Komana Pontike where it is attested by Strabo (Geogr., 12.3.36) and argues that in the case of Knidos, sacred prostitution may have served as an added attraction of the site. Secular prostitution was in any case ubiquitous in the Roman world and no doubt formed part of the services offered at many tourist sites (pp. 19-20, 338-39).

The reader is left with the overall impression of a very solid piece of scholarship, meticulously documented with footnotes and source references. By placing the destination rather than – as has traditionally been done2 – the traveler at the focus of its analysis, this study offers a complementary perspective on the history of tourism and, more generally, travel in the ancient world. Unfortunately, the index does not come up to the same level of detail as the rest of the volume, but this is to some degree compensated for by the book's clear structure and detailed table of contents. In a second edition, an index of sources would be a welcome addition. ​


1.   Stephanie Lynn Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008; cf. Tanja S. Scheer (ed.)Tempelprostitution im Altertum: Fakten und Fiktionen. Berlin: Verlag Antike 2009.
2.   E.g., Raymond Chevallier,Voyages et déplacements dans l'empire Romain, Paris : Armand Colin, 1988; Marion Giebel, Reisen in der Antike, Düsseldorf: Artemis und Winkler, 1999. ​

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