George Wheler

A Journey into Greece (London, 1682)

(Thomas Phillips, 1848)


George - later Sir George - Wheler (1650-1723) travelled to Greece and Asia Minor in 1675-6 with Dr Jacob Spon of Lyons (1647-85). The two share the distinction of being the first to travel to mainland Greece with the primary intention of studying anitiquities. Their journey began in June 1675 at Venice, and took them down the Adriatic to Zant (Zakynthos), visiting several places en route, including Split [cf. no.13]. From Zant they travelled on round the Peloponnese and up through the Aegean to Constantinople. After a stay there and a tour in Asia Minor, they returned to Zant and proceeded overland to Athens where they stayed for just over a month in January and February 1676, making excursions to other places in the vicinity. From Athens they tried to travel to Northern Greece, but after a while they were defeated by the weather. They split up, and Spon proceeded home fairly swiftly via Zant and Venice. Wheler moved more slowly, and reached England in November 1676, going straight to Canterbury to thank God for his safe return.

Spon got into print first with his Voyage d'Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grece et du Levant (3 vols, Lyon, 1678; 2 vols, Amstedam, 1679), which was also translated into Italian (1681). It was to forestall a possible further translation into English that Wheler wrote his own account of their travels. He has been accused of plagiarism, since his work draws heavily on Spon; but he also adds material of his own, especially zoological and much botanical information.

Wheler's account had a great impact in England. The overwhelming impression from it is that Athens itself was the high point. The pair visited all the monuments, which Wheler found better than any except those of Rome:

As to the eminent Monuments of Antiquity, yet remaining at Athens, I dare prefer them before any place in the World, Rome only excepted. Therefore I will in the next place consider them, giving you the best and truest Account my Observations will enable me; beginning our survey, first, with the Acropolis, or Castle; being situated in the midst of the rest, and the most antient and eminent Part of Athens. (p.357)

Of the buildings on the Acropolis, it is the Parthenon which, not unnaturally, receives most attention. At the time of Wheler and Spon's visit, it was still relatively undamaged, for this was over ten years before it was was blown apart by a mortar during Morosini’s siege of the Turkish garrison on the Acropolis in September 1678. The two travellers were therefore among the last Westerners to see the building in its more complete state, and Wheler's illustration, shown as  the 'Temple of Minerva', crude though it is by later standards, is the only contemporary one of its type published in Britain.

After his return, Wheler was knighted by King Charles II, and he took Holy Orders shortly after his book was published. He ended his life as a Prebendary of Durham Cathedral, where he is buried in the Galilee Chapel.

Wheler and Spon have been called the founders of modern Greek travel literature. What they wrote remained authoritative until the first volume of Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens appeared in 1762. It is noteworthy how respectful the authors of the latter are when they set out to correct their pioneering predecessors’ work.

See further: D.Constantine, Early Greek Travellers and the Hellenic Ideal (Cambridge, 1984), ch. 1.