A recent USA Today article by Christopher Elliott reported on the growing popularity of home-swapping among bargain conscious vacationers. The Smiths living on Florida’s St. George Island opt to exchange houses for a couple of weeks with the Joneses, whose cottage is nestled in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Both families enjoy a pleasant change of domicile, scenery, and cuisine (Apalach oysters vs. mountain stream trout), and they each save a ton of money, often thousands of dollars. Use of the family car is commonly included for folks flying to their vacation spots, and there are online services like LoveHomeSwap.com and HomeExchange.com to facilitate searches and transactions. As the article’s author remarked, the tradition of home exchanges dates back to antiquity.
Travelers in primitive times slept under the stars or in caves or whatever other shelter Mother Nature might afford. But by at least three millennia ago, an unwritten but sacrosanct “law of hospitality” had evolved. In accordance with this tradition a man must share his home with any stranger, whether rich man or beggar, who needed lodging, and the guest in turn should treat his benefactor with respect and gratitude.
The tradition, called xenia by the ancient Greeks, was well-established by Homer’s time and a major theme in the Odyssey. On his 10-year return home from the Trojan War, Odysseus experienced the hospitality of a series of hosts, some of them gracious, others diabolical, like the enchantress Circe who transformed the hero’s comrades into pigs. Aeneas, the imperfect hero of Vergil’s Roman epic, is in the poem’s opening books the spectacularly ungracious guest of the Carthaginian queen Dido, first seducing, then abandoning her to despair and suicide.
The Latin word hospes/hospitis meant both “host” and “guest,” and the Romans called the guest-host bond hospitium, source of our words HOSPITality and HOSPITal, HOSPice, HOSTel and HOTel. As ancient Mediterranean culture advanced and long journeys, for business or pleasure, became more common, the idea of renting overnight lodging evolved and the concept of hotels was invented. Eventually there were inns (hospitia or cauponae) in towns throughout the Roman Empire, typically offering food (with hot bars called thermopolia), drink, and stabling in addition to sleeping rooms.
The amenities were not always as gracious as those offered by our Gibson Inn or the Coombs House, however. In a district of Pompeii where there were several hotels, restaurants (tabernae, our word TAVERNs), and brothels, a sign painted on one such establishment advertised simply “lodging, a dining room with three couches” (Romans reclined around a table to eat) and other undefined “conveniences.” A guest at the city’s Inn of the Mule-drivers scrawled this complaint, in verse no less, next to one of the building’s doorways: “We’ve wet the bed, I admit. Sorry, host - but if you ask me why, there wasn’t any chamber-pot!”
The Augustan poet Horace detailed in one of his satires a journey he made in 38 B.C. from Rome to Brundisium in South Italy, and the nights spent along the way at inns where greedy innkeepers, buzzing mosquitos, noisy frogs, and smoky kitchens were among the many nuisances encountered. A character in Petronius’ Satyricon complained of the bedbugs infesting one disreputable hotel.
Well-connected Roman travelers needn’t rely on rentals, however, but frequently home-swapped at the sometimes luxurious residences of friends along their route; Horace’s trip had included fine entertainment at an associate’s particularly well-stocked hilltop villa. Moderately wealthy Romans might own multiple houses, for vacationing in the mountains or on the coast or over-nighting en route, and would commonly open them to friends and family. The famous lawyer and senator Cicero had not only two splendid residences in Rome but also several villas and lodges (deversoria) situated throughout Italy which he routinely shared in this way.
Cicero, in a particularly somber moment, once remarked upon a distinction between homes and hotels in his essay “On Old Age” (De Senectute), composed just a few years before his beheading at the hands of Marc Antony’s henchmen. He had enjoyed a productive life, the elder statesman reflected, and, if given the chance, would never wish to go back and re-live it. Rather, Cicero mused, he would depart from life, not as though leaving behind a beloved home but as if checking out of an inn, for nature gives mortals only temporary lodging for a brief stay, and not any permanent abode. His younger countryman Horace had much the same reality in mind when he urged his readers, as I do mine, to carpe diem/harvest the day!
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities. His latest book is Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are, ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time. Rick and wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.