The Davenant Press

Mark Twain, a different virus and Athens

In 1867 Mark Twain decided to venture to the Old World. He purchased a ticket that would take him aboard the USS Quaker City for a “Great Pleasure Excursion” around Europe and the Middle East. During his trip he sent a series of travel letters  to a San Francisco paper. These were subsequently published as The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress in 1869.

“Land, Ho!”

Mark Twain is a fun tourist to follow. He alternates between grumpy, cynical, enraptured and playful. His voyage occurred in a time when the price of international travel was just beginning to decrease and steps were being taken to make such tours feasible and relatively organised. In England, for instance, the great travel agent Thomas Cook had embarked on his first continental tour excursion in 1855.

Cholera is one of the key characters in Mark Twain’s book. Some cities were suffering from sickness and others were strictly demanding that incoming ships undertake quarantine.

For example, this happened when the boat reached Naples. Mark Twain took a dim view of quarantine conditions – “She is a prison, now”. We can deduce that he would not have enjoyed the current pandemic very much! He avoided the Naples issue by travelling independently from Rome to Naples by rail.

After Naples, a city he censured quite strongly, Mark Twain re-joined the USS Quaker City and they set off for Athens.

Classical Athens was a place of legend and history. Early in the century Athens’ buildings and art had begun to receive the enthusiastic praise of learned peoples, especially after Elgin brought (famously, controversially) marbles from the Parthenon to London in 1801.

Twain’s description of the voyage across the Ionian Sea towards Athens brims with glee:

“But what were sunsets to us, with the wild excitement upon us of approaching the most renowned of cities! What cared we for outward visions, when Agamemnon, Achilles, and a thousand other heroes of the great past were marching in ghostly procession through our fancies? What were sunsets to us, who were about to live and breathe and walk in actual Athens; yea, and go far down into the dead centuries and bid in person for the slaves, Diogenes and Plato, in the public market-place, or gossip with the neighbours about the siege of Troy or the splendid deeds of Marathon? We scorned to consider sunsets.”

Mark’s excitement was curtailed when the commandant of the Piraeus harbour boarded their ship and ordered them to remain “imprisoned in our ship, under rigid quarantine, for eleven days!”

Apparently the punishment for breaking these extreme ‘social distancing’ policies were “very severe”. The ship’s captain told the passengers about an incident a few days prior in which a man “who swam ashore from a quarantined ship somewhere … got six months for it.” Our own situation seems positively relaxed in comparison!

Unperturbed, with four companions Mark “stole softly ashore in a small boat, a clouded moon favouring the enterprise”.

How exciting and surreal it must have felt to creep through the crumbling remains of a town that loomed so large in literature and in American ways of thinking.

“We made the entire circuit of the town without seeing any body but one man, who stared at us curiously, but said nothing, and a dozen persons asleep on the ground before their doors, whom we walked among and never woke—but we woke up dogs enough, in all conscience—we always had one or two barking at our heels, and several times we had as many as ten and twelve at once.”

A view of the Acropolis printed in The Innocents Abroad.

Eventually they reached the edge of the legendary Acropolis. After failing to break down a “flimsy structure of wood” and vainly trying to vault a wall, they accessed that most sacred enclosure by bribing a small garrison of Greeks.

“We moved around an angle of the wall and found a low bastion … Denny prepared to scale it … some loose stones crumbled away and fell with a crash into the court … there was instantly a banging of doors and a shout”.

“Before us, in the flooding moonlight, rose the noblest ruins we had ever looked upon—the Propylae; a small Temple of Minerva; the Temple of Hercules, and the grand Parthenon … Here and there, in lavish profusion, were gleaming white statues of men and women, propped against blocks of marble, some of them armless, some without legs, others headless —but all looking mournful in the moonlight, and startlingly human! They rose up and confronted the midnight intruder on every side—they stared at him with stony eyes”

A view of the Parthenon printed in The Innocents Abroad.

“I wished that the illustrious men who had sat in it in the remote ages could visit it again and reveal themselves to our curious eyes—Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Socrates, Phocion, Pythagoras, Euclid, Pindar, Xenophon, Herodotus, Praxiteles and Phidias, Zeuxis the painter. What a constellation of celebrated names! But more than all, I wished that old Diogenes, groping so patiently with his lantern, searching so zealously for one solitary honest man in all the world, might meander along and stumble on our party. I ought not to say it, may be, but still I suppose he would have put out his light.”

After a period of revelling they began the descent, helping themselves along the way to some Attic grapes from a vineyard, until they were caught and chased by “three fantastic pirates armed with guns”.

‘We sidled, not ran’. Mark Twain and his companions flee through the streets of Athens.

After a sprint that would have made the original ancient Greek ‘marathon’ runner (‘Marathon to Athens’) Pheidippides proud, they at last reached the sea and the safety of their ship:

Just as the earliest tinges of the dawn flushed the eastern sky and turned the pillared Parthenon to a broken harp hung in the pearly horizon, we closed our thirteenth mile of weary, round-about marching, and emerged upon the sea-shore abreast the ships, with our usual escort of fifteen hundred Piraean dogs howling at our heels


Many thanks to Project Gutenberg for the quoted text and images in this post. The Project Gutenberg version is taken from a 1st Edition of 1869.

Project Gutenberg is an excellent resource. It is a volunteer effort to digitise and archive cultural works. The Innocents Abroad can be found in the Project Gutenberg digital library at :