BMCR 2018.06.15

The Quest for Classical Greece: Early Modern Travel to the Greek World. Library of classical studies, 8

, The Quest for Classical Greece: Early Modern Travel to the Greek World. Library of classical studies, 8. London: I.B. Tauris, 2015. xiii, 281. ISBN 9781780769615. $110.00.

In The Quest for Classical Greece, Lucy Pollard uses the life and writings of John Covel (1638-1722) to open a wide window onto the late seventeenth-century world of British travelers in Ottoman Greece and Turkey. During the 1670s, Covel served as chaplain of the Levant Company, which had been chartered by Queen Elizabeth I with the remit of facilitating trade, and general relations, between Britain and the Ottoman Empire.

Covel is better remembered today for his later tenure as Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge, a position he held from 1688 until his death. His earlier diaries—some of which were written in code, and most of which remain unpublished—are nevertheless important witnesses to Restoration-era British activity and interests in the eastern ‘Classical Lands’. And while Covel’s writings are (of course) more revealing of British attitudes than they are informative about Ottoman culture and history, Pollard is successful at using the ‘mirror of Covel’ and his contemporaries to offer glances at the figuration of classical antiquity, Greeks and Greek Orthodoxy, and Turks and Islam, in British intellectual, political, and even theological debates of the later seventeenth century.

Pollard’s book makes an important step toward providing a fuller account of British-Ottoman relations in an era of major British imperial expansion, for while Covel was serving as chaplain is Istanbul, King Charles II approved charters for both the Hudson Bay Company and the Royal African Company (which had begun life in 1660, under a different charter and name). Not coincidentally, this was also the era that saw the beginning of serious—and competitive—antiquities ‘collecting’ (or, on some views, theft) by European monarchs and elites, Covel himself among them.

The book begins with a lengthy introduction that offers a general panorama of British travel and travel writing in the seventeenth century, and provides a brief synopsis of Covel’s career, writings, and apparent character and outlook. Pollard then sketches out the general profile of the Oxbridge- and classically-educated Englishmen who traveled and held foreign posts in the era (it is taken perhaps too much for granted that figures such as George Sandys and George Wheler will be well known to readers). She then introduces two of the book’s main points: that “An exceptionally important part of the mental baggage [these travelers] carried was the education in the classics that, to a greater or lesser extent, they had all undergone,” and that their travel accounts provide insight into “some of the processes of the formation of identity taking place, for example in their mixture of pride and anxiety about England” (42).

In these programmatic first pages, as elsewhere, Pollard might have shown a little more caution about statements such as this one: “One significant result of the Ottoman conquest was the impoverishment of Greek intellectual life, owing to the fact that many scholars fled to Italy: this is borne out time and again by comments in English travel writing” (32; cf. 171). ‘Impoverishment’ is a strong but imprecise word, and the reasoning suggests some circularity: English travel writing notes this state of affairs, which is borne out by English travel writing.

By the time Covel arrived in Istanbul, members of the Greek Orthodox Church had already made steps toward revitalizing ‘Greek intellectual life’. A half-century earlier, in 1624, Cyril Lucaris, as Patriarch Cyril I of Constantinople, invited the Athens-born Neoaristotelian philosopher and commentator Theophilos Korydaleus to “reorganize the Patriarchal Academy of Constantinople as a central institution of higher learning for the whole of the Greek East.”1 Cyril, who also established a Greek printing press in 1627, was executed by Ottoman authorities in 1638. Nevertheless, Korydaleus’ own approaches went on to exert immense influence on higher education both in the Greek East and further afield. Pollard herself offers more generous accounts of Greek intellectual life later in the book (p. 164); it is, of course, crucial to resist being drawn into the worldview of men such as Covel, whose observations about the locals’ ignorance more often than not only betrayed their own.

In Chapter 1, “The Logistics of Travel,” Pollard elaborates the practical side of travel, largely by means of quotations from travel accounts. Material here illustrates Covel’s and others’ impressions of life, and its perceived challenges, in Ottoman lands. Chapter 2, “Scholars and Texts,” revisits with greater detail the classical education that men such as Covel received in England. Pollard picks out a number of quotations from passages making reference to classical texts, and emphasizes moments when those texts seem to have served as a lens for observing the Ottoman world—people, places, ruins, and so on. The last section of the chapter (somewhat confusingly titled “Post-classical literature”) offers an overview of other books—writings of the Church Fathers; recent travel narratives; Turkish dictionaries, etc.—that the travelers mentioned and carried with them.

In Chapter 3, “Antiquities, Proto-Archaeologists and Collectors,” Pollard partially reviews well-recognized commonplaces about the degradation of Greece and the dissolution of the Turks. Travelers lamented (as Pollard herself seems to do, on e.g. 116) the conversion of ancient churches into mosques and re-use of antiquities, complaints part and parcel with the stereotype of Ottoman ‘indifference’ to the past—never mind, for instance, the damage that the Parian Marble, acquired in the 1620s by Thomas Roe for the Earl of Arundel, suffered when it was repurposed as a hearthstone at Arundel House. There is nevertheless much in this chapter about British antiquarianism that is itself of antiquarian interest.

Chapters 4 and 5, “Among the Greeks” and “Among the Turks” are more successfully attentive and nuanced in their treatments of stereotypes. Some of the most interesting pages consist in Pollard’s reflections on how travelers used the ‘exotic’ Ottoman lands as a means of reflecting on Britain, British identity, and the course of British history. These travelers tended to see the fate of Greece as a cautionary tale of what might become of a civilization left to decline. On the other hand, the very same observation heartened them about the Ottomans’ inevitable fate: their empire, too, would pass.

In “Among the Greeks,” a short excursus on the Aeneid raises the question of just how these travelers understood both Greek antiquity and Britain itself through the lens of Rome. Pollard wagers that “It may be that even in this pre-empire period of English history”— a questionable formulation—“Englishmen had a sense of being inheritors not only (as the Romans were) of the cultural mantle of Greece but also of the imperial mantle of Rome—a complex mindset is involved here” (162). Given the heavy emphasis laid on Latin texts also in Chapter 2, that mindset might have been worth some further efforts at untangling.

Some of the most interesting (and for this reader, most unfamiliar) material in the book appears in a section of Chapter 4 on “The Orthodox Church.” Pollard’s discussions of how “Anglicans saw themselves as co-religionists with Orthodox Christians” (169) and of the tentative interest on both sides in rapprochement between the two branches of Christianity add a rich layer to the traveler’s accounts of their journeys to Mt. Athos. The monasteries’ allure sometimes extended well beyond the promise of ancient manuscript acquisition.

In “Among the Turks,” Pollard offers some discussion of how British travelers sometimes found their preconceived notions —particularly about the Turks as ‘infidels’—challenged when they encountered actual Turks. She notes that “When visitors did open their eyes to what was happening around them, what they saw was an extraordinarily diverse society” (194). She further contextualizes that observation with a short but lively discussion of awakening British interests in Islam and the Ottoman Empire. Here again one is nevertheless struck by the travelers’ manifest hypocrisy: they professed deep scandalization by Ottoman slavery, and the sight of Istanbul’s slave market, at a moment when England was driving toward dominance of the West African slave trade.

Taken together, the travelers’ accounts suggest that, to their minds, Greece now stood for the ruins of a great civilization, to which the classically educated British were the truest heirs. The Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, offered a thrilling model, almost paradoxically, of a flawed but formidable modern empire à la romaine —a “complex mindset” indeed. In a brief Conclusion, Pollard reiterates that she has set out to show that men such as Covel saw the world “through a classically tinted lens” (206). Their attitudes towards the people they met abroad were “influenced both by their preconceptions and also by meetings with real individuals” (207). Restoration-era developments in approaches to the study of antiquities prefigured the next century’s more ‘scientific’ expeditions to the Classical Lands (such as those sent by the Dilettanti Society), while the style and form of published travel narratives (such as that by the Oxonian George Wheler) would go on to influence the development of the English novel.2

The Quest for Classical Greece is, then, a slightly misleading title for a book about the world of Restoration-era British travelers whose journeys to the Ottoman Empire prompted new ways of thinking about England: its relationship to classical antiquity, but also its present political circumstances, its church, and its accelerating imperial ambitions. Pollard amply demonstrates that John Covel’s diaries help flesh out a picture of the assumptions that British travelers of his era took along with them on their journeys to the Ottoman East. Just as importantly, his private writings lend further insight into the surprises, and challenges to preconceptions, that awaited the Englishmen on the ground. This book will be of interest to classicists and archaeologists interested in their disciplines’ various histories; for its exploration of British identity during a critical phase of empire-building it also marks a welcome contribution to the histoire des mentalités.


1. Kitromilides, Paschalis M. Enlightenment and Revolution: The Making of Modern Greece. Harvard University Press, 2013, p. 27.

2. See also Mitsi, Euterpi, “Travel, Memory and Authorship: George Wheler’s A Journey Into Greece (1682).” Restoration 30.1 (2006) 15-29.