BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Touring history ...

I don't usually “bunch up” books (although I have, with some very short books in a series, done so before) but when I was contemplating what I was going to write about the three Traveler's Guide to the Ancient World books that I just got done with, I realized that much of what I was going to be saying was either going to be substantially the same for each of these, unless I did some serious tap-dancing in the attempt to say the same thing without saying the same thing. I took a look out on the web to see if there were more in this series, and it appears that these three are it, and that their original publisher (Quid, from the UK) has since come out with a combined edition (making me feel more justified in taking these on as a group). These are the US editions (from Metro Books, if you care), which I picked up in the after-after-after-holiday sale by B&N (part of the 13 books I got for two bucks a piece).

These books are structured to resemble popular travel series such as Fodor's, Frommers or Lonely Planet, under the name Traveler's Guide to the Ancient World. Each deals with a notable location, at a particular point in time. The three books here, dealing with Rome, Athens, and Thebes, are logical enough for their locations (although one would like to imagine what other books in the series might have ended up covering), but it must have been an interesting discussion as to when the books would be featuring these cities and their environs.

Each of these is remarkably similar, with the same lay-out, design, flow, and even page count, with the same artists providing illustrations, etc. One might expect that these would have also all been written by the same person, but that's not the case, each featuring (what one assumes to be) an expert on that place and time to provide the vivifying details of the living city in that particular era (as a former publisher it makes me wonder if the concept came before the development, or if there were some vaguely similar manuscripts sitting around that were then focused into the “travel guide” concept!).

Following an introduction that sort of gives “the lay of the land” (culturally, geographically, and historically) each book is in six sections, 1 – A Concise Background, 2 - The City of XXX, 3 – Surrounding Areas, 4 – Entertaining on a Budget, 5 – Practical Considerations, and 6 – References and Resources. The editing is tight enough that in every book the start of the second part, Section 4, starts on page 100, while the Index appears on page 158 (each being just 160 pages long). The books cover various aspects of the history, culture, social order, modes of travel, housing, food, shopping, entertainment, and various daily need-to-know data such as weights, measures, and currency. I opted to read these in chronologically reverse order, going from the most recent to the most ancient.

The first of these, then, is Traveler's Guide to The Ancient World – The Roman Empire: Rome and its Environs in the Year 300 CE, written by Dr. Ray Laurence. Now, I am reasonably conversant on Roman history, but it was interesting to have this “window” onto Rome be in a more transitional period, that of dual, but connected, Emperors, each bearing the title of “Augustus”, Diocletian and Maximian, and each having a chosen (but non-hereditary) successor bearing the title of “Caesar”. At this time, Rome ruled the whole of the Mediterranean, from the Nile Valley to Gibraltar and from Hadrian's Wall, western Europe with borders along the Rhine and Danube, and nearly to Babylon. What is fascinating here, of course, is reading what is new, and what is already old in the period, many brand-new features of the city being discussed have long disappeared in our age, but others (already old in the time-line of the book) can still be seen. Obviously, of these three, Rome is the most familiar, as by 300 CE much of what we would recognize as “modern urban life” was in place, from a standardized currency, a broad product-based economy, and even traffic snarls.

Next came Traveler's Guide to The Ancient World – Ancient Greece: Athens and its Environs in the Year 415 BCE, written by Eric Chaline. This runs the clock back another 700 years, and looks at Athens in a period of reconstruction, a couple of generations past the destruction of the city by the Persians, and only 16 years since the start of the Peloponnesian War (and long struggle with Sparta). At this time, the Greeks (the Athenians and others) are just one element in the Mediterranean political spectrum, and of much smaller extent than either the Carthaginians or the Persians. Obviously, modern democracies owe their philosophical foundations to Athens, and it is fascinating to see the forms in which Athenian democracy expresses itself. It is also very interesting to take a look at the polytheistic system which was core to the cultural sensibilities of the day, and how that intertwined with the philosophical and political aspects of the civilization. Notably, the military struggles of the time cast shadows here, with warnings about travel, and what to be on the watch for in the area around Athens.

Finally, there's Traveler's Guide to The Ancient World – Ancient Egypt: Thebes and the Nile Valley in the Year 1200 BCE, written by Charlotte Booth. This takes us to possibly the greatest period of Egyptian power, in the waning days of Ramses The Great's reign. In the time-frame of the book, Ramses had been on the throne for an amazing sixty-five years, and nearly all of his mortuary temples, etc. had been completed decades earlier (indeed, one of the reasons he is so well remembered is that his workmen had generations to work on things like the Ramesseum, which took more than 20 years to create ... unlike later kings whose far briefer reigns demanded far less grandiose constructions). At this point Egypt was already ancient, with ruins and monuments that were 1500 years old by the time, and because of this, this is more like a "travel book" than the others in the series, as there are many "tourist spots" to cover! Culturally, one of the most notable things is the lack of currency, and the visitor is advised as to what would be best to bring for trade ... which creates a very alien sense of commerce to the modern mind.

Obviously, there's a conceit to these, that puts them in an odd middle zone between historical fiction and quasi-archaeological exposition, as the reader knows that these are not "travel books" for real, but is asked to "suspend disbelief" sufficiently to absorb the "feel" of these times and locales. On the plus side, these do focus a lot more light on the daily details of life in these cultures that one would be likely to find in most other books (an example: all three of them give instructions for procuring and paying for prostitutes, aside from the more "expected" niceties of travel!), which certainly leaves even the history enthusiast more informed about these places than they would likely to have been previously.

These are currently out of print, but both Amazon and B&N show them as available via the new/used vendors (at various price points), however the individual editions (and the combined 3-in-1 edition) seem to still be available from their original publisher in the UK, Quid, which might work out better (even with international shipping) should you want to check these out!

Visit the BTRIPP home page!

Tags: book review
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.