Tourism in Troy during the Roman Empire

Readers of this blog (and, surprisingly, my stats page tells me there still are a few of you, despite my minimal posting over the last few months) are likely familiar with Christian tourism—or, as we tend to say, pilgrimage. This often involved—in antiquity as today—traveling to Biblical sites, martyr shrines and so on. A similar situation existed in the pagan Roman empire, though often at different sites and for different reasons. This was especially true of the “Old Greek” world—mainland central and southern Greece, some Aegean islands, and western Asia Minor.

Troy was certainly one of these sites because it was keyed into Greco-Roman history and culture so thoroughly. For Romans, the city was connected to the foundation of Rome itself through the Trojan Aeneas and to the ruling Julio-Claudian dynasty, which traced its own familial ancestry back to his son Ascanius-Iulus. Others, such as Caracalla, were attracted to the site because Alexander the Great stopped there and offered sacrifice before his successful invasion of the Persian Empire. Finally, the city was visited by educated elites because of its broader associations with Homer and the Iliad generally. This poem figured largely in their rhetorical training and was, as a result, immensely popular in the Roman empire. Many of the most popular attractions were those associated with individuals and events connected to the Trojan war: the tombs of Hector, Patroclus, and Achilles (just outside city); the temple of Athena Ilias; the shrine of Hector, with Achilles opposite it; the naval station of the Greeks; the stone where Cassandra was fastened; the tomb of Memnon; and the Scamander river itself. In summary, then, we can say that visitors came to Ilium to explore the sites (general curiosity), or because of a perceived religious or cultural need, or as a means of affirmation.

Ilium’s economic well being and its political standing within the empire (i.e., a free city, exemption from taxes, frequent imperial building programs, etc.) rested on this image, and it was one that was promoted through numerous channels. One medium was coinage, which was diverse and localized in the early empire.

The flight of Aeneas from Troy with Anchises on his shoulder and leading Ascanius. Obverse: Emperor Lucius Verus (r. 161-69)

Hector charging into battle. Obverse: Emperor Gallienus (r. 253-68) 

These coins could become souvenirs. In fact, one tourist of the second century collected several coins of this type and mounted them on a ceremonial “casserole” pot. Based on the extant coins, he toured western Asia Minor (Mysia, Lydia, Ionia, Bithynia). This object is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts now. Vermeule draws a parallel to Renaissance collectors who mounted their Roman coins on cabinets, bookcases, etc.

Tourists and visitors continued to come to Troy in late antiquity, though the evidence is very slim for this. Julian visited, so did Eudocia in the fifth century, though she lamented the poor state of the place. The lack of evidence is unfortunate, but typical. Sage does point out, though, that many of the connotations noted above could survive in a Christian context stripped of their religious associations. And it seems likely that certain of these did live on during the Byzantine era. Malalas mentions it, and it is referred to in the Suda in similar terms. In a letter of Nikephoros Blemmydes to Theodoros Laskaris in the thirteenth century, he mentions a church in the Troad with a  wall painting of a young man in arms in the narthex, labeled as “The Prophet Achilles.” And Kritoboulos reports that Mehmet visited the city in 1462, on his way to attack Lesvos, and saw some of the extant remains.

See M. Sage, “Roman Visitors to Ilium in the Roman Imperial and Late Antique Period: the Symbolic Functions of a Landscape,” Studia Troica 10 2000, 211-231; C. Vermeule, “Neon Ilium and Ilium Novum: Kings, Soldiers, Citizens, and Tourists at Classical Troy,” in J.B. Carter, S. Morris, eds. The Ages of Homer: A Tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule, 1995, 467-482.

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