The Romans were Everywhere: a Cruise in the Western Mediterranean

A guest post by Anne Spendiff

It seemed that when I watched TV programmes about Rome they featured gruesome death, sex, or communal toilets. Now I know that death, sex and toilets are part of life, but I did not want my first cruise to the Western Mediterranean, and my first trips to Rome and Pompeii, to focus on them. In preparation, I read Mary Beard’s Pompeii[1], and researched various places the ship would visit. I hoped for some interesting excursions, and was particularly looking forward to Italy.

I discovered, of course, that the Romans were everywhere and would not be confined to Rome and Pompeii. Cádiz has a Roman amphitheatre squashed between a promenade and the medieval town.

Roman amphitheater, Cádiz
Roman amphitheatre, Cádiz

Barcelona also has Roman origins, although we were not shown them, the guide preferring to concentrate on Gaudí. The pretty French town of Villefranche, between Nice and Monte Carlo, was our port in France, and the tour took us along the famous Corniche road, the one that Grace Kelly drove Cary Grant along in To Catch a Thief, before showing him the view of Monaco from the mountains, ironically unaware that within two years she would be the place’s Princess. That road was, apparently, built by Romans, on their way to Barcelona and Cádiz.

There is a lot to see on a short trip to Rome, and the guides cannot concentrate on the classical remains because some folk want to see other places like the Vatican. The thing to do is to focus on what you can see and not what you missed. Then, make a list of what you will see when you return with more time. I was excited to see the Baths of Caracalla, which are huge, the Colosseum and parts of the Forum and Palatine Hill.

Ceremonial Arch of the Emperor Constantine
Ceremonial Arch of the Emperor Constantine, with the Colosseum in the background


Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill, across the Circus Maximus

The following day was Pompeii, and we chose a trip that dropped us off at the gate and picked us up three hours later, so we were not tied to what the guides thought was important. Mary Beard advised that all we needed were stout shoes, a map and a bottle of water, and, thus armed, off we set. The authorities in Pompeii have the problem of what to render safe, what to renovate, and what to leave alone. Beard warned that many of the buildings were closed for preservation or works of some sort, so, do not go with the intent of seeing particular things, but walk up the Via dell’Abondanza, take in the architecture, and enter whatever is open. In this way we experienced the tranquillity of the Temple of Isis, the intimacy of the two theatres, the hustle of the Forum, and the grandeur of the House of the Gladiators. Excellent advice.

The whole site of Pompeii was enhanced by an exhibition of sculptures by the late Pole, Igor Mitoraj. I think it must be daunting to be asked to create sculptures for a site that is itself monumental and iconic, but his representations of beautiful, yet broken, bodies, fit perfectly[2].

Hour of the Gladiators, Pompeii
The House of the Gladiators, with sculptures by Igor Mitoraj


Theater, Pompeii
One of the theatres, Pompeii
Temple of Isis, Pompeii
The Temple of Isis, Pompeii

Pompeii felt too substantial and steadfast and safe to be destroyed in a day. The shock must have been profound. And I only saw one dead person, and no ***, so I was right that sex and death need not be the focus. Incidentally, apparently no cat bodies were found in the ruins of Pompeii. They all fled at the first whiff of sulphur and told no-one what was happening[3].

I can recommend Beard’s book. She is a good story teller, yet never confuses facts with inferences. For a contemporary account of the eruption of Vesuvius, see Pliny the Younger[4]. He described the ‘broad sheets of fire and leaping flames … their bright glare emphasised by the darkness of night.’ I am also half way through Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii[5], which was published in 1834, and, I suspect, tells us more about the life of a British nineteenth-century aristocrat than it does about life in Pompeii.

I see that elsewhere participants have discussed the Pillars of Hercules. We took the cable car to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar for our final excursion.

Rock of Gibraltar
Rock of Gibraltar

We cruised on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, a comfortable and opulent ship with good food. For Halloween the chefs produced an exhibition of vegetable carving worthy of Trimalchio:

Carved pumpkins
Halloween spread

I was left with some questions, and maybe others have occurred to you, too. Please join me in the forum to discuss them.


[1] Beard, Mary. 2010. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. London: Profile Books.

[2] Or, Google ‘Pompeii sculptures Mitoraj’

[3] Source: Lynne Truss, lecturer on cruise ship, and British writer of humorous books.

[4] Pliny the Younger. The Letters of Pliny the Younger. Translated by Betty Radice. 1969. London: Penguin. Book VI, Letters 16 and 20.


John Spendiff took all the photographs.

Anne Spendiff worked as a librarian, a community worker, and a lecturer (not in the classics), before retiring. She lives in northeast England, near Hadrian’s Wall, with her husband and their old deaf cat. A year ago she became a Grandma, and now divides her time between family, cooking, studying the classics, family history, quilting and listening to jazz.