Robert Wood and the Eighteenth-Century ‘Search’ for Troy

Lesley Fitton

The ancient city of Troy, celebrated in Homer’s Iliad, was uncovered at Hisarlik in modern-day Turkey as a result of excavations beginning in 1870. These were funded and led by the German businessman and self-taught archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. However, Schliemann was not the first to suppose Troy to have been a real city or the first to guess at its location. This article considers his influential predecessor Robert Wood, who looked for the site of Troy, and explores some of the reasons that eighteenth-century quests for the lost city remained inconclusive.

In the eighteenth century, British and European scholars and travellers were passionately interested in finding the truth about Troy. Homer’s poems were a cornerstone of education, widely studied and greatly admired, so it was natural to ask whether Troy had ever existed. Some firmly believed it had, while others were equally firmly sceptical, arguing that Troy and the Trojan War were simply the products of Homer’s imagination, based on old tales perhaps, but bearing no relation to any truly historical place or time.

The burning of Troy, Johan Georg Trautmann, c. 1759 (Karlsruhe Palace, Germany).

Feelings on this matter ran surprisingly high. In 1799, the never knowingly understated scholar Jacob Bryant wrote of the search for Troy: “I would as soon go in quest of Utopia, or of the Carib Island of Robinson Crusoe and his cabin; and I should return with equal emolument.” In vehement response to such views, the poet Byron wrote: “We do care about ‘the authenticity of the tale of Troy’. I have stood upon the plain daily, for more than a month, in 1810; and if any thing diminished my pleasure, it was that the blackguard Bryant had impugned its veracity…”.

The war of words raged on, but it is perhaps not surprising that travellers to the region of North-Western Turkey known as the Troad should, like Byron, mostly fall on the ‘believers’ side of this fierce debate. Homer’s descriptions placed Troy there, and the landscape was dotted with visible ancient remains. One such traveller – and believer – was the scholar and antiquarian Robert Wood.

Portrait of Robert Wood, Allan Ramsay, 1755 (National Portrait Gallery, London).

Wood (1717–71) was a prodigious traveller from a young age. By his mid-twenties, he had already made his first visit to the Troad, and had travelled in the Greek islands, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. In Rome, in 1749, he met two like-minded antiquarians: James Dawkins and John Bouverie. Wealthier than Wood, they invited him to join their well-equipped voyage of exploration in 1750–1. Together they set off for the Troad, and the expedition then went south into Syria before returning to Athens. Bouverie, however, died of a fever early in their journey – a sad loss for his travelling companions.

For Wood, though, the expedition was a great success. In the Troad he went farther inland than on his first visit, spending a fortnight following the River Scamander from the Hellespont to its source. In Syria he collected materials for his great folios on Palmyra and Baalbec — publications of 1753 and 1757, respectively – that were widely acclaimed and immensely influential. Indeed, his reputation became such that he was ‘head-hunted’ by the British government. Pitt the Elder, the most powerful politician of the day, made him Under-Secretary of State in 1756, after which he went on to become an MP.

James Dawkins and Robert Wood discovering the ruins of Palmyra, Gavin Hamilton, 1758 (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh).

A busy life of public service left little time for the major publications on Homer and the Troad that Wood planned. In fact, he never completely finished these projects, even though they were dear to his heart. Eventually, his Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer, with a Comparative View of the Ancient and Present State of the Troade was printed privately and circulated rather tentatively in 1767. He intended to do more when he had gauged the response to this preliminary circulation of his thoughts, but his own death intervened. The task of preparing the works for their posthumous publication in 1775 was somewhat paradoxically entrusted to Jacob Bryant. He undertook the task with wry awareness that his views and Wood’s differed fundamentally.

Wood’s essay on Homer still makes for lively reading. Its main contribution to scholarship was his suggestion that the poet did not use writing. This idea was way ahead of its time. It seemed maverick to many, and the notion that Homer was illiterate was even seen as insulting. Wood’s argument, though, was that writing was unknown (or more or less unknown) in Homer’s time, and that singing or recitation to musical accompaniment was the main method of transmission not just of poetry, but of all types of knowledge in this pre-literate age. These views can now be seen as an early example of the new ways of looking at the formation of the Homeric epics that would soon gain traction in the scholarly world. His work directly influenced Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824), the German Classicist who was a leading light of the so-called “Analysts”: scholars who felt that the Homeric poems were composites, stitched together from traditional bardic songs and stories. New light was thrown on this debate in the early twentieth century by the researchers Milman Parry and his collaborator Albert Lord, who demonstrated that many features of Homer’s poems are indeed typical of oral composition as preserved in other cultures. Wood had thus been on the right track, in spite of the raised eyebrows of some of his critics.

Map of the Troad, Robert Wood, reproduced from the fold-out map published in his Essay (1775). The original sketch, made in 1750 by Giovanni Battista Borra, can be explored in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France here.

What, though, of his view of the land of Troy? His journey to the source of the Scamander was a more thorough exploration than had been made by most earlier visitors, who usually hugged the coast and did not go inland, not least because the area was full of brigands and could be very dangerous. Wood was lucky to visit at a quiet time – and indeed was luckier in this respect than his successor, Richard Chandler, who at the beginning of his Ionian expedition of 1764 had been forced to beat a hasty retreat from the Troad for just this reason. 

Wood had interesting things to say about the Troad, and here his main contribution was the observation that its landscape would have changed since ancient times, because of earthquakes and, more particularly, because of the alluviation of its rivers. He was quite clear, and would be proved correct, in saying that Homer’s Troy must have stood at a location that had become much further from the sea. He speculates that this location must have been “lower down than the springs of the Scamander, though higher than the plain.” But this is essentially all he has to say on the matter.

Interior of the gymnasium at Alexandria Troas, William Pars, c. 1765 (British Museum, MM,11.69).

The interesting and perhaps surprising truth is that neither Wood, nor any of the eighteenth-century travellers and topographers who visited, were really looking for the remains of ancient Troy. The reason was that, Classicists all, they were thoroughly immersed in the ancient sources and had gleaned from them the clear impression that no physical remains of Troy had survived to be found.

There were three main reasons for this. The first was that the myth itself, in the hands of poets and dramatists, told of Troy’s complete destruction at the hands of the Greeks. The idea that a great city could be reduced to nothing was part of the story’s power, prompting reflection on the turnings of the wheel of fortune and the evanescence of human power, however mighty.

The second was that, although the vast majority of the many Greek and Roman visitors to the city that they called Ilion or Ilium believed they were visiting the scene of the Trojan War, the geographer Strabo (c. 63 BC – AD 23) disagreed. He stated that Homer’s Troy was at some distance from Ilion, and so for eighteenth-century travellers, who trusted Strabo, even finding the (itself elusive) Classical city would not seem to have solved the problem.

Third came the memorable phrase of the poet Lucan, who famously said of Troy: etiam periere runiae (“even the ruins disappeared”). This phrase is dramatically underlined by Wood in the last paragraph of his account of the Troad:

… of the true and famous Troy there have been no traces for ages: not a stone is left to certify where it stood. It was looked for to little purpose as long back as the time of Strabo: and Lucan, having mentioned that it had been in vain searched for in the time of Julius Caesar, concludes his narrative with this melancholy observation upon the fate of this celebrated city, that its very ruins were annihilated.

Some members of the Society of Dilettanti, Joshua Reynolds, 1770 (Society of Dilettanti, London).

Wood was elected to the Society of Dilettanti in 1763 and rapidly became one of its most active and effective members. A thoughtful and experienced mentor, he wrote the instructions for Chandler’s Ionian expedition, which the Society sponsored (and which is currently the subject of an exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London). But although they would be in the Troad, it is notable that Wood neither instructed nor encouraged Chandler to look for the remains of Homer’s city. Troy was waiting, but another century would pass before it was found.

Lesley Fitton is former Keeper of the Department of Greece and Rome at the British Museum, and was co-curator of the exhibition Troy: Myth and Reality shown there in 2019-20. 

Further Reading

Wood’s work was posthumously published in London in 1775 as An Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer, with a Comparative View of the Ancient and Present State of the Troade although the words “and Writings” were added to the title by his editor Jacob Bryant, demonstrating his difference of opinion with Wood. 

A useful summary of early journeys to the Troad and attempts to find Troy is included in J.M. Cook’s masterly The Troad: an Archaeological and Topographical Study (Oxford UP, 1973) and a fuller account is given by Susan Heuck Allen in Finding the Walls of Troy: Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1999).

The exhibition catalogue Troy: myth and reality (British Museum, London, 2019) summarises research on Homer and Troy. For the Society of Dilettanti’s Ionian expedition, see now the catalogue for the current exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum The Romance of Ruins: the search for ancient Ionia, 1764 (London, 2021).

On Schliemann at Troy, Harry Hudson’s account on AntigoneField of Dreams: Schliemann’s excavation of Troy – can be read in parallel with my talk at the British Museum, Schliemann’s porky pies (lies) about excavating Troy.