When I'm restless or bored and want to get lost in time, I reach for Pausanias.
He was a citizen of the Roman Empire (apparently he wrote in the 140s to 160s of our era) who travelled all around Greece, visiting the shrines and temples and cities, and wrote what is arguably the first tourist guide in history ["Periegesis Hellados"]. It didn't make him rich. But nowadays it is regarded by scholars as a priceless sourcebook for archaeologists and historians trying to make sense of ancient ruins and records.
Pausanias begins his description of each city with a synopsis of its history followed by an account of the monuments in topographical order. He also discusses local daily life, ceremonial rituals, legend and folklore. His main concentration is on artistic works from the glories of classical Greece, especially religious art and architecture. That he can be relied on for building and works which have since disappeared is shown by the accuracy of his descriptions of buildings which do survive.As another introduction puts it:
A careful, pedestrian writer, he is interested not only in the grandiose or the exquisite but in unusual sights and obscure ritual. He is occasionally careless, or makes unwarranted inferences, and his guides or even his own notes sometimes mislead him; yet his honesty is unquestionable, and his value without par.Pausanias' descriptions are so reliable that, when he writes of some gigantic bones offered up as the remains of Ajax, his measurements are good enough that modern paleontologists can guess which gigantic Ice Age mammal they really came from.
But it isn't his accuracy that makes me lose myself in his prose. What I find delightful in Pausanias is that it's history preserved in history.
On several levels. The man himself, conventional and a touch pedantic, is a figure from history. In reading him, I get to know him, I feel like I travel with him. It's like making a friend in ancient Rome.
He was the first of us, the historial tourist, and he gazed as we gaze, noticing what we would notice. Not just monuments and heroes, but the details: pines that rose in dark spires from the seacoast of Elis, the deer, the wild boar, the crows. Live oaks and wild strawberries. Tortoises. Read enough of it and you will be there.
But more. His text is a telescope to look deeper into history than we ever could see unaided. Scattered throughout it are names of cults, local deities, whole towns, small rivers -- now all lost save in his text. No one now knows where the towns are, under what modern hill's thistle-grass and shrub, or beneath what silted-up rivermouth. No one would have remembered these cult goddesses -- two in one paragraph from Sparta, for instance, "Mouse Artemis" and "Athene of the Cheeks" -- but for his casual mention of them.
Mouse Artemis. Delightful! Was this for the little girls? The Brownie troops, the Mousketeers? Whatever, it had its rituals and its followers and its annual devotions and processions. All lost now. All lost but the name. It is like a complex and colorful feather somehow preserved in Jurassic amber, startling in its glimpse of a past we hitherto had constructed out of thick gray bones. No matter how carefully we rebuild ancient Greece from archaeology, we will never do more than accomplish a blocky and pixilated rendition of the real life there.
History caught in history. Pausanias was describing the temples of the ancient Greeks in their state of decay as of Roman times -- sun-bleached and moss-stained stones, cracked and spalled, stacked up around wooden goddesses black with age. Now, when we look for those places, we only find a few unmovable slabs of marble scattered across a sheep meadow. It's a difference of 500 years instead of 2,500.
He toured Greek pagan culture in its decline -- one gets a strong sense of superstition, but no sense of a vibrant relationship of the people with their gods, and Pausanias himself, a scrupulous and superstitious man of conventional religion, seems more devout than many of those he encounters. The priests, so far from being guides to the community, often are ignorant old yokels who can't even tell an ungarbled version of their own temple's myth.
It was doomed, this pagan Greece: If there had been no Christianity, which swept over this region like wildfire, some other robust faith would have done the same.
Greek pagan culture was in effect as much a relic to Pausanias as it is to us; it had reached that extreme of decadence where the culture is as good as dead but doesn't realize it yet. With one signal difference: He could visit standing temples and speak with living priests; in Thebes he saw not only the temple stones but the honored shields of those who died at Leuctra. He could visit the Greek world on its sickbed. We only can gaze at its mute tomb.
There is a trick those of us who love history forever attempt. To peer as far back into the past as our sight will carry our imaginations, seeking some glimpse of a beginning, the origin. We forget how really far off we are from our object and how limited are our powers of sight. As though we stood on Plymouth Rock and, staring hard to the east out over the ocean, believed we could somehow glimpse Europe.
Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
My myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths-and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.
Robert Frost, "For Once, Then, Something"