As if the landscape, wine, food, architecture and history of Puglia weren’t enough, the heel of Italy’s boot rests almost at the centre of ancient civilisation. A base in Puglia from SIS Property and Tourism opens a whole new world of exploring – encompassing the history and culture of the entire Mediterranean. Italy, with its historic and artistic riches stretch to the North West. The ancient civilisations of North Africa glitter to the West, and the legends and mythology of Greece and Turkey beckon in the East. The art of truly belonging is to know the history and culture of the location you now call home. With a gorgeous home in Puglia, you can enjoy a fantastic quality of life, with great food, splendid wines, endless sunshine and wonderful friends. And you can steep yourself in the origins of many modern societies, learning about the wars, politics and great love affairs that shaped them. You can even stand on the exact site of some of the events that turned the course of history.
There are hundreds of historic sites within easy driving and sailing-distance, and, as Planet Cruise demonstrate, cruises are a fine way to explore the coast for the first time. Wherever you land, you are rarely more than a bus ride away from the site of some momentous battle that helped make the world what it is today. Many sites are stewarded by UNESCO, the world organisation responsible for protecting and promoting world-class historical sites. Your visits to these sites will often be a once-in-lifetime experience, and although a good tour will help you understand some of the history and culture, there’s nothing like a little enjoyable homework to help you make the most of the experience. If you have some hours to kill by the pool at your new villa, or on a cruise of the Mediterranean, you can begin to explore the colourful culture, politics and religion of the ancient world from your sun lounger. Here are three world-shaping events that took place at sites you can still visit today, with some fascinating reading to improve your knowledge before you get there.
The battle of Thermopylae
This great battle, in which fewer than 1000 Greek soldiers held a narrow pass against a horde of 150,000 Persian invaders, is considered by many to be the fight that secured the liberty of western civilisation. The Persian force, led by King Xerxes, consisted of a homogenous group of enslaved peoples, trampled underfoot by the great king’s war machine and forced to fight under his banner. Xerxes had now fixed his ambition on dominating the many wealthy but squabbling city states of Greece. However, he had reckoned without Leonidas, leader of the fiercest, proudest and most disciplined warrior race in all of Greece – the Spartans.
Visit: Thermopylae, Greece
Read: Persian Fire by Tom Holland
The Trojan War
Troy is the historic setting for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the classic ancient stories of love and lust, honour and shame. Selfish Paris, youngest son of King Priam of Troy, thinks himself in love with the beautiful daughter of the god Zeus, Helen. He chooses to put his own desires before the safety and well-being of his family and his people, and stealing Helen from her husband Menelaus of Sparta, he smuggles her back to Troy. Vengeful Menelaus pursues them with his proud brother the mighty King Agamemnon; Achilles, the superhuman warrior son of the sea-nymph Thetis; and many hundreds of Greek ships full of great heroes and hardened fighters. It is left to Hector, Paris’ brave, noble, but all too human brother, to try to save Troy from destruction.
For many years, the Iliad was thought to be purely legend, but 19th century archaeologists identified the site of Troy in Western Turkey using descriptions in the Iliad, and present day colleagues are beginning to piece together some evidence of a war that could have taken place in the Greek Dark Ages (from around 1100BC), when iron weapons became readily available, and entire states were swept up in full-scale bloody warfare that could obliterate whole populations.
The Trojan War was so traumatic that its memory was passed down and embellished as a fireside tale through many generations, until its story was finally committed to paper sometime around 800 BC. No-one really knows if Homer was the author, or perhaps a researcher who gathered pieces of the story together. The oldest surviving copy of the Iliad is from around AD 900. It is kept in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
Visit: Troia, Turkey. The guide will point out some of the landmarks mentioned in Homer’s stories.
Read two books: The Iliad and The Odyssey, both by Homer
Civil War in the Roman Republic
In 58 BC Caius Julius Caesar waged a seven year war in Gaul to obliterate the perceived threat posed by the Gallic tribes, and to enrich the coffers of Rome. It earned him the love and admiration of the Roman people, but fomented the hostility and resentment of the ruling senate. The civil war that followed spelled the end of the much feared and admired Roman Republic, and the birth of the troubled Roman Empire. Tradition has laid the blame at Caesar’s door, but without his attempts at reform, it is unlikely the republic could have survived. Now the jury remains out as to whether it was Caesar’s action or his assassination that brought down the republic. There are several fragments of accounts from this period. Julius Caesar himself was a prolific and gifted author, and his detailed accounts of both The Gallic War and The Civil War survive in full.
Visit: The Forum, Rome, Italy. Remnants of buildings survive from the period, and its main road, the Via Sacra was trodden by hundreds of big names from ancient times.
Read: The Gallic Wars and the Civil Wars, two books by Julius Caesar; the excellent biography, Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy; and the equally excellent Rubicon by Tom Holland.
Notes on reading ancient literature
If you’re not already a fan of ancient literature, the trick to reading it without difficulty is to get a really good translation. The Greeks and the Romans were very plain-speaking, so there’s no reason why a translation from these ancient languages should be incomprehensible. Penguin is a good publisher. Its Homer and its Caesar are clear and readable, and you may find them hard to put down. Never skip the introduction when reading ancient literature. It is likely to contain vital context to help you understand the main text. Looking up the notes on the text adds interest, but is rarely vital. Investing in an e-reader will help you access the notes easily without endlessly flicking back and forth.
Written for SIS P&T by Melissa Cutts