London - You may not know this, but in Ancient Rome, conveniences were communal.
Rows of seats, no partitions, pick your stretch of marble-top and perform. But you had to be careful who you sat next to and what you said. Privies had ears.
One day, a citizen was so amused by his neighbour’s noisy eruptions that he mockingly called out lines from a dreadful new poem about thunder, which, as it happens, had been written by the emperor — mad, bad Nero.
Such impiety could not be tolerated. The jester was grassed up to the tyrant’s secret police, who cut off his head.
I owe this gruesome trivia from the days of the Caesars to Thomas, a hoot of an Oxford don, who imparts it with relish as we cruise the western Mediterranean, following the tracks of Roman civilisation from Spain to Italy and Rome itself.
It goes down well with my wife and I (and, surprisingly, our 13-year-old son) plus the other 300 passengers.
Thomas’s story brings the classical world alive, reminding us that it is not just about Latin texts, fragments of Greek urns and old ruins, but people and the way they lived their lives 2 000 years ago.
As the Aegean Odyssey — a smaller cruise ship, not an ocean-going giant — plies between sites of historic interest, evenings are filled with insights from inspiring lecturers.
Passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, with Africa visible on one side and Europe on the other, an exuberant professor of geology tingles our spines with tales of the shifting tectonic plates below us.
Five million years ago, when the Mediterranean was forming and lay lower than the Atlantic, the Rock was not the upright landmass it is today, but a waterfall. Get your head round that idea.
There are trips ashore every day, demanding ones generally, physically and intellectually. They’re key to the whole Odyssey experience. It’s culture and history we’re here for, not sunbathing or shopping.
This means that in Barcelona we ignore the buzzing modern metropolis and go underground to Barcino, the original city — a twilight world of Roman streets, houses, baths and factories dating back to Caesar Augustus. Thomas tells us it’s a tribute to how much better and long-lasting concrete was 2 000 years ago — another piece of trivia for my growing hoard of knowledge.
And Granada’s exquisite Alhambra palace — originally Moorish — takes us back into the fractious and bloody relations between Islam and the West in the Middle Ages. It also gives some perspective on Europe’s present crisis over Islamic extremism.
More than once on our journey the past informs the present in this way.
In Languedoc, France, we learn from a rueful local guide that bureaucrats in Imperial Rome restricted the production of local wine, just as Brussels does today. Plus ca change.
Back on board after hectic, history-filled days, there is time to rest weary bones. The atmosphere on the Odyssey is ideal for this — quiet, friendly, sedate, yet sophisticated.
People linger long and late over dinner. Who needs discosand shows, the staple of most cruises? Conversation is entertainment enough when it’s witty, intelligent, informed.
Friendships are easily made, old ones renewed. Lots of people we meet are back for their third or fourth trip, sailing various coastlines of the Mediterranean and beyond. One stalwart has already booked her 20th. Most of the passengers are (how do I put this politely?) of a certain age. But the few youngsters on board seem to be having as good a time as the oldies.
To my delight, my son laps up the lectures, the daily general knowledge quiz as taxing as TV’s University Challenge and the chat about any and every subject under the setting sun.
There is always something new to learn. As we make our leisurely passage round Spain,France and down to Italy, I get an understanding of the nature of the real Mediterranean Sea.
To modern minds, it seems little more than a beach — somewhere to fly to and slob semi-naked on a sun-lounger before jetting home again.
But on this trip we get to see it in all its ancient glory as the vital (and only) transport link for merchants and miners, colonists and armies.
We also get a possible glimpse into the future.
In a nutshell, our cruise on the Aegean Odyssey involves sailing round Europe, cherry-picking its glories, then ducking out whenever it suits us and going back to the mother ship.
Is this, by any chance, a model for Brexit?
If You Go...
Voyages To Antiquity (voyagestoantiquity.com, 01865 302550) offers the 17-day Mediterranean Odyssey cruise from £2 795 (about R50 000) pp including flights from the UK, departing on September 3, 2017. This includes a two-night stay in a Lisbon hotel and two nights in a hotel in Rome.