Last Saturday, I freaked out on the ancient past.
It was an ancient past in fragments only, but they were very nice fragments. I visited the ancient history collection at the Carlos Museum at Emory University here in Atlanta and was straight-up shocked at its size and quality. It’s embarrassing that an ancient Mediterranean history geek like me failed to realize this collection was sitting just four miles from my home.
Better late than never—and when you’re talking about artifacts two to four thousand years old, it’s particularly apt phrasing.
If you’ve ever met me—or have read any of my posts—you know I’m a ridiculous human being. I get overly excited about the distant future, and I gush over the ancient past. How many people do you know who listen to Roman history audiobooks in the car more often than they listen to music?
I really hope not many.
But that’s me, for better or for worse. And when I stepped onto the antiquities floor—Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artifacts primarily—I actually got chills. Not quite as many as when I stood on the Palatine Hill in Rome, or walked through the old Senate in the Forum, but more than any sane person should get when contemplating an afternoon of reading tiny text on little plaques in a really quite room.
But c’mon—they had a full suit of intact hoplite armor from classical-era Greece. Near-complete marble sculptures from Republican Rome. Decorated jars and jugs that Socrates or Plato could theoretically have sampled wine from (highly unlikely, but still technically possible).
Look at this intact painting on a Greek vase (500-600 BCE), still so clear after two and a half millennia. Her eyes haunt me.
What is it that gets me so worked up about these ancient cultures? I think I bring a fiction writer’s imagination to it, imbuing my visual interpretations with a film-like quality. That’s just part of it—our ancient past is fascinating without having to give it a mental cinematography—but I do this in the moment without even realizing it. I construct a mini-world around every artifact I see, fixing each piece in my mind until I can see the ancient hands holding it and smell Mare Nostrum in the distance.
I sometimes play a mental game with myself—what five ancient-world cities would I choose to visit if it were possible? I’m allowed five and only five in this scenario, and that makes it quite a challenge.
Call it my Impossible Ancient Vacation Bucket List. Three weeks, five cities, all expensive paid! Immunity to all ancient diseases AND stab wounds! No chance of being killed by highway robbers or imprisoned by drunken legionaries!
Also no air conditioning.
It’s a lot to ask, but I ask it. And for the game to be fun, I have to name both the city and specific time period I would visit. The following is my list (subject to change at any moment based on whatever bit of history I happen to read about next). And for the record, I’m counting the “ancient world” as anything prior to the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century CE.
1) Rome, 180 CE
I won’t win any originality points for this one, but it’s my number one pick. I chose the final year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “good emperors.” This was the Roman empire at its height—and probably the closest the city of Rome ever came to being the gleaming marble majesty you see depicted by Hollywood.
I thought about visiting Rome in 41 or 42 BCE so I could see Julius Caesar and Pompey and watch the fall of the Republic, but the city wasn’t very visually impressive at the time. It was mostly wood structures and slums back then. What can I say? I’m all about the superficiality when it comes to my ancient cities.
2) Athens, 435 BCE
The top of the top for Athens. The height of its classical period, political hegemony, and artistic dominance. Just before the devastation of the Peloponnesian War. The Parthenon was completed just three years earlier, so I’d get a few selfies there. Walk the streets, see some good old-fashioned democracy, maybe hang out with Pericles to see if his reputation is truly deserved.
3) Alexandria, 100 BCE
This could easily be top of my list. Biggest city in the world at the time (Rome would soon pass it). A center of Hellenism and the cultural and intellectual apex of the world. Founded by Alexander, it was a soup of many cultures, with an Egyptian section, Greek section, and more. The vaunted Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, would have been standing at the time.
Befitting its cultural sophistication, women had incredible rights and status for the ancient world in this city–they exceeded even what most women had at the birth of the United States.
I picked 100 BCE so as to see it before Roman domination, but really anytime from there up through the next 400 years would be lovely.
4) Carthage, 190 BCE
Mighty Carthage, the last and biggest legacy of the Phoenicians, tragically fated to be the enemy of Rome at a time when you really, really didn’t want to be the enemy of Rome.
I’d have to see it—mostly because it’s the great ancient city we probably know the least about. Rome destroyed it utterly (love that word) in 146 BCE. There are descriptions of the city, but architectural evidence is minimal—the Romans were very thorough (though the popular story that they “salted the earth” of Carthage is likely a metaphor, not an actual event).
5) Babylon, 550 BCE
So difficult to choose among all the options for my fifth city. I always stumble here. Should I pick Sparta during the classical era, just to see that whole bizarre experiment of the martial culture? Rhodes, to see the Colossus, the biggest statue in the ancient world? It was the same height as the Statue of Liberty—seriously. Pergamon? Tyre? Something in Middle Kingdom Egypt? Sigh. I thought maybe Constantinople just prior to the fall of the western half of the empire (as per my rules), but I already picked a late Roman empire city.
So I choose Babylon. The time is just after completion of the great building projects begun by Nebuchadnezzar II. Yeah, I’m biased for the architecture. Sue me. I’m just dying to know if the hanging gardens are worth seeing. They could end up being just a bunch of potted ferns on hooks; maybe that passed for an ancient wonder back then. But I’d also get to see the greatest ancient city of the Mesopotamian region, the birthplace of civilization, and that counts for something.
So that’s it! My tour of the absolute coolest places to hang out between two and three thousand years ago. Dear reader: if you ever invent time travel, start a tourism business, and feel like allowing me to do all this on a budget, give me a call. I won’t even be picky about where we go—if you have pre-set vacation packages, I can stay within the lines.
We’re gonna have to bring a lot of protein bars.