The best books about travel and leisure in ancient Rome

Maggie L. Popkin Author Of Souvenirs and the Experience of Empire in Ancient Rome
By Maggie L. Popkin

Who am I?

I love exploring new places, buildings, and artworks. Luckily, my job, as a professor of ancient Roman art history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, allows me to do so! I am fascinated by the material culture of the Roman Empire and the ways in which buildings and objects—whether grand monuments like the Pantheon in Rome or humbler items like a terracotta figurine of a gladiator—shape how we experience the world and relate to other people. Whether I am living in Paris or Rome, excavating in Greece or Italy, or traveling elsewhere in the former lands of the Roman Empire, these topics are never far from my mind.

I wrote...

Souvenirs and the Experience of Empire in Ancient Rome

By Maggie L. Popkin,

Book cover of Souvenirs and the Experience of Empire in Ancient Rome

What is my book about?

If you think souvenirs and memorabilia are just a modern phenomenon, think again! Tourists and sports fans in the Roman Empire could purchase travel souvenirs, keepsakes of sporting events, and miniature replicas of famous statues and monuments. Straddling the spheres of religion, spectacle, leisure, and politics, ancient Roman souvenirs allow us to look beyond our traditional sources of Roman history and catch a glimpse of the experiences, interests, imaginations, and aspirations of ordinary people living in the empire from Britain to Syria, and everywhere between. Ancient souvenirs shaped how people “saw” places, people, and events they might never see in person, and they allowed sub-elites to participate, even if vicariously, in an empire-wide culture of travel, leisure, and spectacle.

The books I picked & why

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Leisure and Ancient Rome

By J. P. Toner,

Book cover of Leisure and Ancient Rome

Why this book?

Chariot racing. Gambling. Alcohol. Sex. If you’ve ever wondered what ancient Romans did for fun, look no further than Jerry Toner’s book. His book makes me laugh and learn in equal measure. Toner excels at revealing what is distinctive about ancient Roman practices (regularly bathing nude in public)—but also what feels startlingly modern (betting on horses and drinking with friends). From the wealthiest to the poorest of Romans, Toner shows just how serious the business of fun was in the Roman world. I love this book because it makes me think about quintessentially Roman topics from a bottom-up, rather than elite, perspective.

Travel in the Ancient World

By Lionel Casson,

Book cover of Travel in the Ancient World

Why this book?

Anybody who studies travel in ancient Rome knows the name of Lionel Casson, and after reading his magnum opus, you will understand why. Reading his book makes me feel that I am taking a tour of the Roman world in all its glory: its diversity, its impressive infrastructure, its cultural highlights, and its religious pilgrimage sites. Travel could be exciting or dangerous, luxurious or barebones, for business or for pleasure. In Casson’s engaging and accessible prose, however, it is always a revelatory window into Roman culture and history. Casson’s book helped me understand the personal, emotional aspects of travel in ancient Rome and, consequently, made me feel closer to ancient Romans themselves.

Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire

By Katherine M. D. Dunbabin,

Book cover of Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire

Why this book?

This lavishly illustrated book offers a visually stunning and information-packed tour of ancient Rome’s most popular forms of entertainment: chariot racing, gladiatorial combats, and theater performances. I was astonished by the sheer range and creativity of Roman spectacles and their material commemorations, from action figures of gladiators with removable helmets, piggy banks with pictures of lucky winning charioteers, and mosaic puzzles that challenged viewers to guess the names of famous racehorses based on visual clues. As an art historian, I particularly love the beautiful color illustrations; my own copy of this book is dog-eared because I am constantly returning to look at the fascinating objects she discusses. For me, this book about spectacles is spectacular in its own right. 

Destinations in Mind: Portraying Places on the Roman Empire's Souvenirs

By Kimberly Cassibry,

Book cover of Destinations in Mind: Portraying Places on the Roman Empire's Souvenirs

Why this book?

Although we often dismiss souvenirs as kitsch, they can be deeply meaningful to people, both today and in antiquity. Taking a phenomenological approach to ancient Roman souvenirs of places, Kimberly Cassibry shows how people would have held, used, and interacted with small objects showing seaside resort towns on the Bay of Naples, the Circus Maximus in Rome, Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, and the western empire’s network of imperial roads. Her book taught me just how large makers and materials loom in how places came to be represented and conceptualized in Roman antiquity. I love that Cassibry forces me to think anew about my own travel souvenirs and how I interact with them to make meaning of places my loved ones or I have visited. 

Roman Sports and Spectacles: A Sourcebook

By Anne Mahoney,

Book cover of Roman Sports and Spectacles: A Sourcebook

Why this book?

If you want to know what some Romans thought about sport and spectacle in their own words, turn to Anne Mahoney’s sourcebook, which offers translations of key literary passages and inscriptions. From Horace’s descriptions of unruly theater audiences to Ovid’s advice to young Roman men about how to pick up girls at the circus, this sourcebook brought the world of Roman spectacle to life for me. I love that she shows how the themes that make modern sport and fandom so complex—religion, gender, politics, and money—were just as relevant in ancient Rome. I always come away from reading the sources she compiles feeling that Roman sports fans are not so different from us today.

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