Title: Tourism in Roman Greece
Author: Stavroforos

Tourism in Roman Greece

Tourism in Roman Greece

Roman Greece as it appears in the Peutinger Table, a Roman road map from the late 4th or early 5th Century

I thought it would be interesting to share with you folks something I had written about tourism in Roman Greece. My goal in doing this is both to provide some basic information to anyone interested in the topic and in creating an exchange of information, as it is something that I too am interested in and would like to learn more about through the posts of those knowledgeable on the subject!

I'll be doing this in periodic installments, as I may want to add and remove things as I re-read what I've written, or perhaps spruce them up.

Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

Alcock, Susan E. Graecia Capta: the Landscapes of Roman Greece. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Cartledge, Anthony, and Antony Spawforth. Hellenistic and Roman Sparta: A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Perottet, Tony. Route 66AD. New York: Random House, 2002.

Strumpf, Joseph A. "Tourism in Roman Greece." PhD diss., University of Missouri-Columbia, 2003.

Tourism in Roman Greece: Introduction
The world of Roman Greece was one which was remarkably different than that of the classical or archaic period, bearing more resemblance to the Hellenistic period which had just preceded due to the various Greek poleis being incorporated into one larger unit. While the Macedonians which ruled over Greece were themselves Greeks however, the Romans were a different people but with a similar though uniquely Roman culture. This similarity in culture came, for a large part, from the admiration the Romans had of classical Greek antiquity, which was incorporated into the education of the young Roman elites. Since Greece had come under Roman rule following the destruction of Corinth in 146BC, Romans would go as tourists to the lands where much of the mythological and historical past which they had learned about occurred. It was not until the 2nd Century AD, well into the Roman Imperial period, that Roman tourists would visit Greece en masse. For various Greeks lucky enough to be living in the “big” cities of the classical past, Roman tourists were a lucrative source of income. Those Greeks who did not live in areas with significant enough history could attempt to be part of this tourist trade by partaking in various tourist-related activities, but for a large part life was not as promising for them as it was for a Greek from Athens or Sparta. Of course, being a Greek in a center of classical Greece did not mean that you would be involved in the tourist trade, but the city which you were living in would have been significantly better off than someplace which had not enjoyed a rich mythological or historical past.

Greece since the Roman Invasion

The state of Greece since the Roman invasion
Since the destruction of Corinth in 146BC, Greece had been a tourist destination for Roman elites. It was not until the 1st and 2nd Centuries, with the lands of the Mediterranean secured and subdued by the Roman Empire that tourists would arrive to Greece in droves. The main attractions were the places of the classical period and of mythological legend, and Roman tourists would have been led to these places by ancient travel guides, of which apparently existed many, but our only full surviving copy is Pausanias’ Description of Greece. Fittingly enough, two of the major attractions during a Roman’s visit to Greece were the two major rivals of Classical Greece, Athens and Sparta.

Both Athens and Sparta had changed significantly since the days of the Peloponnesian War. Athens had seen a drastic decline in economic capabilities during its occupation by the Macedonian monarchs, while Sparta had been on a decline since it lost much of its citizenry in the war against Thebes, along with much of its land, its helot subjects and almost of all of its power. Athens, Sparta, and much of Greece had reduced populations by the time of the Roman occupation – especially so in the countryside, where many opted to move into urban centers. Under the Romans and especially during the reign Augustus, Greece saw many public works which transcended old polis borders, especially the road and aqueduct systems which were introduced across all of Greece.

Tourism in Roman Athens

Hadrian's Arch, one of many works commissioned by the Philhellene Hadrian

Tourism in Roman Athens
Although Athens’ glory days were long gone, it remained one of the centers of learning in the ancient world, being mainly a sort-of university town, with various philosophers and their respective schools to be found around the city. The continuation of the philosophical tradition in Athens down to the Roman times gave tourists a more “authentic” portrait of the classical city, but outside of these individuals and the buildings of classical Greece, little remained to impress the Roman visitor. The Long Walls were out of use and had been unmaintained due to their limited usefulness and the limited resources of the Athenian city, while the city itself boasted crammed streets crowded by morally reprehensible youths, as far as the Roman spectator was concerned. What tourists were seeking was a glimpse into the classical past, and although Athens had largely shed that character, it still had enough characteristics to appeal to the Roman tourist, if not through her people then through her buildings. These buildings offered both an area for various merchants to set up shop, with tourist merchandise available for sale and relocation to some Roman estate and an excuse for locals, claiming to be knowledgeable on the building, to hassle visitors into accepting a guided tour of the facilities. Meanwhile various other Athenians were able to profit off of the incoming Romans by providing them lodging, transport, and dining, while others would have created travel guides or maps which would show local attractions and even rate local lodgings.


The portrayal of Lycurgan Sparta from the motion picture 300 would have appealed to Roman ideas and stereotypes regarding the ancient city-state, which the locals were keen to perpetuate.

Roman Sparta
Athens’ enemy during the Peloponnesian War also enjoyed tourist activity from Romans. Their expectations from Sparta however were for the most part different than those they had from Athens. In Sparta, the Roman elites looked for the Spartan society which supposedly existed under Lycurgan law. While some buildings were of interest in Sparta, nothing compared to the Roman desire to be amongst this warrior society . Unfortunately for them, Spartans had ceased to be this warrior society for quite some time, and while some of the rituals of Leonidas’ time remained, Spartans had abandoned their supposed past culture. Knowing however what it was that those Romans were after, the Spartans adapted and played the part which would have been familiar to someone reading about classical Sparta. Youths sent to be educated in Sparta (which in itself is an amusing contrast to the image of classical Spartan focus on military arts) spent a longer time than was customary in the rest of Greece under their mentors, and they underwent a more disciplined education. Spartans were glad to revive ancient customs and exaggerate present ones to present to the Roman tourists the picture of Sparta that they had imagined. Tourists were put in a world where they could eat in a communal mess and participate in these “authentic” Spartan rituals. All of this orchestration involved Spartans on individual levels, and many were willing to participate in oftentimes brutal ceremonies so they could keep the local tourists pleased in their delusions. By allowing foreign visitors the chance to “go native,” Spartans were keeping their ancient past alive, and more importantly making a profit off of it.

Olympics, Olympia, and crap tour guides

Olympics, Olympia, and crap tour guides
Other sites and cities also attracted significant tourist attention. Every four years, crowds from across Greece and across the Empire would converge upon Olympia to witness the time-honored Olympic Games. The games attracted all sorts of people, from sports enthusiasts eager to discuss who would emerge victorious, to those who simply wanted to be part of the festivities, to those who wanted to make a profit off of this huge quadrennial influx of people; there were even philosophers who would condemn the fans for seeking such base entertainment. The Olympic Games provided a massive opportunity for profit off of hordes of tourists who would set up camp all around the site of the games. The methods of profiting were familiar: souvenir trade, guided tours, combined with elements unique to the Olympic atmosphere. It naturally offered Olympia and Eleans the chance to promote themselves, and it is likely that Pausanias is a victim of an exaggerating Elean tour guide when he states that the Temple of Zeus was constructed by the Eleans. The other major tourist attraction in Greece would have been the complex at Delphi, which had many of the same architectural allures, coupled with religious significance, although Delphi had declined in importance during the Roman rule. Similar merchants would have been waiting to lure tourists here, but this time their ranks would be joined by seers who could give instant prophecies for those who could not see the pythia.

Tourism Business

Tourism Business
When Greeks chose to go into the tourist business, they did so for the most part to supplement their existing income, and would likely not have relied upon that business as their sole means of subsistence. Those who did enter the tourist trade, as indicated already, went into areas which would best appeal to various tourists, but the major sources of income came from the souvenir trade, travel related business, and accommodation. Souvenir trade could involve anything from replicas of famous Greek statues to coins issued by local cities, much like the US State quarters and the various Euros from each different member state, while busts, portraits, and vases also featured amongst the items sold. Travel would not have been an exclusively tourist industry like the souvenir “industry,” so the prospects for someone to be making a year-round profit off of travel would have been higher. Various travel related businesses existed, the most obvious of which was renting a mode of transportation. Other services could be provided for the purpose of travel, such as protection and servants to carry the notoriously large Roman baggage trains. Finally, providing housing for tourists was another major industry, which not only targeted tourists, but traders and various others who passed by. Although details about the various forms of lodging in Roman Greece remain scarce, we know that they would have been located both in cities and on the roads on the way to various attractions, as well as the various sanctuaries which would have offered lodgings.