Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.03

Robert Eisner, Travelers to an Antique Land: The History and Literature of Travel to Greece. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1991. Pp. xiv, 304. ISBN 0-472-10241-9.

Reviewed by William M. Calder III, The University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.

The book is difficult to judge. Its title is misleading. Better: English Travelers to an Antique Land. There is almost nothing on German or French travelers. The author, professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at San Diego State, does not provide precise documentation. He cites (15) Schliemann's account of reading Od. 24. 205-412 to the Ithacans from a translation by Stoneman with a reference to Schliemann that omits the pages (39-40), presumably because he has not seen the book. At 31-32 a fragment of Herakleides of Crete is cited in a translation by W. S. Ferguson with a reference (35) to "the edition entitled Reisebilder, edited by Pfister." What this means is: F. Pfister, "Die Reisebilder des Herakleides: Ein Beitrag zur hellenischen Volksforschung," SAWW 227, 2 (Vienna 1951). At 266 n. 2 we have "Fleming quoted in ..." We deserve the reference to Fleming, rather than a book that will send us to another book. Undergraduates are punished for this sort of sloppiness in term papers. Professors should do better. Flaubert's letters are cited from an American translation (13) or in English without any reference (15). The dates of travelers should be given each time a new one is introduced. They are not. Chapter headings lack dates and bear unhelpful titles like "Spiritual Landscapes," "Travelers in Tweeds," "When the Going was Cheap." The book is largely a cento of citations from travel narratives with obvious glosses arranged chronologically. With the possible exceptions of Byron and Lear no traveler is treated in enough detail to become a Begriff. There is an autobiographical subtext concerned with the difficulties Eisner encountered in marrying while in Greece a woman called Elaine to whom his book is dedicated.

Again and again there are citations in the text with no reference but an author's name. Where (200) did Edmund Wilson write what he did about Churchill? Where (244) in the writings of Rohde does one find "the passion for 'irrational' Greece?" Has Eisner ever read Rohde? Where (243) in the morass of Levi-Strauss is this lyric outburst recorded? At 201 we are told that "the best soldiers in Germany" turned and fled New Zealand Maoris. What is the evidence for their cowardice? Or is it simply a New Zealand legend? On the same page we are told that Pendlebury was executed by the Germans "when he refused to tell the location of British forces." He was executed because he was a captured British spy, a fact known to German intelligence: see T. J. Dunbabin in Nicholas Hammond and T. J. Dunbabin, John Pendlebury in Crete (Cambridge 1948) 66, surely a more trustworthy source than Dilys Powell's adulatory account composed more than thirty years after the execution. The abduction of General Kreipe on 27 April 1944 is retold at some length (210-213). Eisner misses the importance the event has for classicists. The wild distortions of what happened by Cretan oral bards as early as 1953 should give those who argue the historicity of the Iliad pause: see James A. Notopoulos, "The Genesis of an Oral Heroic Poem," GRBS 3 (1960) 135-144.

Lord Elgin provides occasion for an indignant sermon. "Elgin's theft was a case of organized crime" (93). Elgin had obtained a firman signed by Caimacan Pasha, acting Grand Vizier, to the Voivode and Cadi of Athens. The Voivode generously interpreted ambiguous passages. That is, Elgin removed what he removed with the consent of the Athenian government of the time: see William St. Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles (London 1967) 87-98. Contrast American museum curators and private collectors who purchase from Swiss art dealers artifacts illegally excavated and smuggled out of Italy, Greece and Turkey: e.g., the Metropolitan's notorious purchase of the Euphronios krater. That is closer to crime than what Elgin did.1

Again the book is neither... nor. One wonders whether the author had a clear idea just who his audience was supposed to be. Scholars would prefer a careful study of selected influential travelers. Most obvious is Col. William M. Leake (1777-1860), who gets three extraordinarily superficial pages (103-5). We need an investigation of the inscriptions he copied with an attempt by comparison with preserved texts to establish his accuracy. His influence on classical scholars (e.g., Jebb's commentary on Trachiniae) and his German avatar deserve at tention. He was a founder of surface archaeology. Eisner has no idea of his importance. The brief discussion of Robert Wood (ca. 1717-1771) omits the authoritative modern study: see Kirsti Simonsuuri, Homer's Original Genius: Eighteenth-century notions of the early Greek epic (1688-1798) (Cambridge 1979) 133-142. There are inexplicable omissions. After Leake the most important English traveler in Greece was Sir James G. Frazer, whose travels resulted in his Pausanias commentary: see Robert Ackerman, J.G. Frazer: His Life and Work (Cambridge 1987) 111-112; 127-142. We find not a word on Frazer. Two other great scholars -- English not German -- are omitted: see Edward A. Freeman, Studies in Travel: Greece (New York/London 1891) and R. C. Jebb, Modern Greece. Two Lectures Delivered before the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh (London 1880). That Germans like Conze, Ernst Curtius, K. O. Mueller, Ross, Welcker and Wilamowitz are omitted detracts immeasurably from the book's value. A more comprehensive introduction is Richard Stoneman, Land of Lost Gods: The Search for Classical Greece (Norman 1987).2

Nor is this book to be given to your parents who are planning their first excursion to Greece. The last chapter bearing the unfortunate title "Quo Vadis Now, Traveler?" concerns Greece 1965-1990 and its message is loud and clear. Stay home or go to Turkey. "The land is being buried with garbage, the sea choked with sewage, the air filled with pollutants" (249); "the eating of shellfish is a foolhardy act" (250); Athens is a center of terrorism with inadequate control of luggage at its airport (251-252). And the prices have increased exorbitantly (254). "Greece is ceasing to be Greece, and mass tourism is going the way it did on the Riviera and the Costa del Sol, destroying the culture and landscape that lured travelers there in the first place" (257). Here in an unexpected way is what is important. Before November 1989 East German friends traveled to Greece at home with Baedekers, travel narratives, maps and a history book on the table. They held imaginary conversations in demotic with waiters and cabdrivers. They traveled in their minds. Victorian travelers went to Greece for visual confirmation of that they knew. Modern travelers "very likely first learn about what they are seeing from their tour guides" (245). The utterly uninformed are informed by the poorly informed. Winckelmann, Nietzsche and Werner Jaeger were right. One will have a better idea of Greece if one never sees it. And the best way to nurture this idea is to read the travel narratives of educated people to which you will be guided in this book. Think too of the money you will save!


1. See the articles in the New York Times 19-25 February 1973 that document a sorry chapter in the history of art-history in America.

2. This book too is often shallow and inaccurate: see David Constantine, CR NS 38 (1988) 387-388.