A writing site I frequent is running a month-long contest in which the prompt involves a maiden voyage of any sort. The idea I've generated in response to this is one about an ancient-era (e.g. classical Greek or Roman) cruise liner. It would be basically a big galley powered by oars and sail, but as big as those gigantic junks the Chinese used to build. However, when looking up the history of cruise ships, apparently their history begins not much earlier than the 19th century. I find that rather strange since I would think any culture with the capacity to build huge boats would employ some of them for the more affluent individuals' cruising entertainment. Were there any constraints in pre-industrial cultures that would have prevented the development of primitive cruise ships?

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    Yes there were constraints. Did you check out the history of tourism? This is simply not something people at that time would've come up with.
    – Raditz_35
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 9:25
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    There were tourists in the antiquity, and there were places (such as Baiae, or Athens, or Delphi) which based a large part of their prosperity on tourism. The difference is that in modern times the cruise ship is itself the destination, whereas in the antiquity ships were just a means of transport to the destination -- nobody wanted to spend more time on the ship than strictly necessary. For example, before modern times ships could not make fresh water so the supply of fresh water was limited; space was limited; plumbing was primitive at best...
    – AlexP
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 11:45
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    @Raditz_35: Yes, you are right. There were tourists, but they went to see places or take the waters or have fun at a spa -- nobody went on a ship for the purpose of being on that ship. With modern cruise ships the purpose of the trip is to spend time on the ship. There was nothing like that until very recent times.
    – AlexP
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 16:11
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    How about the Nile cruise of Cleopatra & Caesar: jstor.org/stable/3556418?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
    – AllInOne
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 21:20
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    Define cruise ship. One could define every ship that carried an aristocrat as a cruise ship, meaning that the first occurrence was probably a Nile cruise several thousand years ago.
    – MCW
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 1:17

8 Answers 8


The Nemi ships

Caligula built two barges on Lake Nemi, one of which was essentially a floating palace.

The key here is that the ships were on a lake, not on the ocean. Dying at sea is a lot harder when you aren't at sea. Smaller waves help with the seasickness situation. I would imagine that large, lazy rivers would be suitable for 'cruises' as well.

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    Note in this case they were owned by one person, you could not book passage but he could invite you.
    – John
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 20:51
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    @John: Some generous gift-giving could help. Making it a "booking" of some kind. ;-)
    – DevSolar
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 21:31

Until fairly recent years embarking on a ship travel was, to say it bluntly, gambling on your own survival.

This for a series of reasons:

  • poor food
  • lack of hygienic services and crowded environments
  • lack of advanced sailing technologies (weather forecast, night or low-visibility navigation aid, radio communication)

While on a present day cruise ship a wealthy person can enjoy luxuries like a private Jacuzzi, cold champagne and a private suite, the best he could achieve on a pre-industrial ship would have been

  • no bath for months
  • dumping his own excrement off board "en plen air",
  • a hammock in a crowded room
  • water/alcohol mixture to ensure it was safe to drink

All these pleasantries for then reaching a place where most of the time hardly any civilization of European level was present.

To summarize, one would not start such a travel for the pure pleasure of the travel, but only if he had a real reason to do it (trade, emigration, religion, exploration).

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    Yes, but who DOESN'T love scurvy ?
    – CM_Dayton
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 13:21
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    What is an "ammoch?"
    – Wayne Conrad
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 14:56
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    @WayneConrad A Hammock under a funny accent.
    – Yakk
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 15:13
  • Poor food and no bath are problems for long voyages, but cruise ships make short voyages.
    – user18968
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 4:41
  • There were assorted royal barges.
  • There are precendents for very large galleys.
  • There were some cruises carrying pilgrims in the middle ages. The nature of the passengers might make this the closest to a cruise liner.
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    I suppose The White Ship could count as a medieval cruise. They certainly seemed to have had enough alcohol aboard. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Ship
    – Mazel
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 18:54
  • @Mazel The primary purpose was to get from Normandy to England. That makes it more like an Atlantic liner before air travel than a cruise ship. Commented May 15, 2017 at 2:55

I think the closest you're going to get in the ancient period is a pleasure barge. These were used extensively on the Nile, and, as others have mentioned, rulers (or the truly obscenely wealthy) used similar constructions on inland lakes and rivers.

The problem, as others have mentioned, is that seafaring was still a pretty chancy endeavor. The closest you're going to get to ocean-going cruise ships where people had luxury accommodations and things to do are large boats used for state purposes (diplomatic visits by rulers, transporting an emperor to war). Even then, the only one who really had comfortable accomodations was the Big Important person.


As another entry in non-Ocean based "cruises", in the 1800's the Mississippi river was home to many paddle-wheel Steamboats, that became a means of entertainment in themselves, rather than just a means of transportation. Many were essentially floating saloons and gambling halls. American-historama.org

The steam power required to take them back upstream pretty much pegs them to the Industrial Age though. These are more of an example of why you generally needed industrial machinery to allow the size and free space to have a "cruise"-style vessel.

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    These are definitely predecessors to modern cruise liners (of the floating hotel variety), but anything with a steam engine can hardly be called pre-industrial.
    – Dacio
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 18:28
  • @Dacio I was actually editing to indicate that and then walked away for a couple hours before cleaning the edit up and posting. Commented May 12, 2017 at 19:29

It is said that Cleopatra VI and Caesar took a cruise on the Nile and Caesarion was conceived during it. There is an elaborate description of the Thalamegos, a pleasure barge built by her ancestor Ptolemy IV (reigned 221-204 BC). Perhaps still in use in Cleopatra's time.

Alexandria and Alexandrianism

Thalamegos - Wikipedia

Thalamegos - Google Images

Thalamegos - German Language forum

Furthermore, the Syracusa, a super ship built by King Hieron of Syracuse, could not only carry vast cargoes of freight and not only had strong defenses, but also had elaborate passenger quarters.

Syracusia - Wikipedia

Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists

As we all know, emperor Caligula built huge barges on Lake Nemi, one a floating temple and one a floating palace. Suetonius also says:

He also built Liburnian galleys with ten banks of oars, with sterns set with gems, particoloured sails, huge spacious baths, colonnades, and banquet-halls, and even a great variety of vines and fruit trees; that on board of them he might recline at table from an early hour, and coast along the shores of Campania amid songs and choruses.

The Life of Caligula

So if Suetonius is correct Caligula also had seagoing yachts for sea cruises.

Caligula's Barges - Google Images

Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (reigned 604-618) is said to have built vast dragon boats for pleasure travel on the Grand Canal.

Grand Dragon Boat in the Sui Dynasty

Emperor Sui Yang's Big Dragon Boat

But as a general rule people did not go on pleasure cruises until the mid 19th century.

  • Please fix your URLs so they don't interrupt the flow of your answer.
    – Spencer
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 13:54

Something similar to your concept is a major plot point in Neal Stephenson's The Confusion, volume two of The Baroque Cycle. One part focuses on a few characters bartering for information about the route sailed by the Manila Galleon, a huge trade and treasure ship that was (allegedly) rebuilt every year because the ships were too large and unwieldily to survive more than one journey.

Stephenson also follows the journey and depicts some of the interactions between merchants whose wares are onboard the galleon. These merchants are shown as being largely unaware of the perils of the journey and unable to handle the crises that arise. They are shown to be one small but politically powerful contingent on the ship – due to their wealth – which was otherwise inhabited by Spanish military, sailors, soldiers, and some other wealthy travelers.

Whether the Manila Galleons were used in this manner or not, it was not uncommon for the wealthy and powerful to use mercantile or military vessels for their own transportation during the age of sail. Depending on the wealth, station and numbers of such travelers, such a sailing could become a de-facto pre-industrial cruise.

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    – Secespitus
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 18:56

Go big or go home. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_treasure_ship

enter image description here

That small thing at the left is the Santa Maria, Columbus' flagship. The largest ships in the chinese fleet — called "baoshan," or "treasure ships" — were between 440 and 538 feet long by 210 feet wide. The 4-decked baoshan had an estimated displacement of 20-30,000 tons, roughly 1/3 to 1/2 the displacement of modern American aircraft carriers. Each had nine masts on its deck, rigged with square sails that could be adjusted in series to maximize efficiency in different wind conditions.

This thing screams shock and awe at full volume. It's gigantic, you have plenty of bouyancy to fill it with an entire army or all kind of equipment, you could throw a swimming pool at the center and the thing will not even notice. It's basically a floating city, just outfit it with good living space and supplies. However, those materials may work well in Pacific ocean. But give it a nice big freak wave and the thing is doomed. Stay in calm waters...

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    Claims of Chinese ships that size are from Joseph Needham. According to him, everything was invented in China, and everything built in China was bigger and taller. China is his Texas. I'd need to see a second opinion from a more credible source before I believed that. Note, Chinese academia, who propose that the Chinese people didn't evolve out of Africa, does not count as a credible source.
    – kingledion
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 15:49
  • Fair enough. It's not so wild of a dream, actually... will need better build materials than plain old wood and tar, though. Hard as hell but not impossible.
    – Dan Fernandez
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 15:54
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    @DanFernandez, it's a wild fantasy. The claimed size of the treasure ships makes them twice as long as the longest verifiable wooden ship, and second only to the Seawise Giant in width.
    – Mark
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 1:48

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