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William Martin Leake

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William Martin Leake

William Martin Leake
portrayed by Christian Albrecht Jensen
Born(1777-01-14)14 January 1777
Mayfair, London
Died6 January 1860(1860-01-06) (aged 82)

William Martin Leake FRS (14 January 1777 – 6 January 1860) was an English soldier, spy, topographer, diplomat, antiquarian, writer, and Fellow of the Royal Society. He served in the British Army, spending much of his career in the Mediterranean seaports. He developed an interest in geography and culture of the regions visited, and authored a number of works, mainly about Greece.



Leake was born in London to John Martin Leake and Mary Calvert Leake. Following a family tradition, he joined the British Royal Regiment of Artillery as an officer;[1] he completed his training at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in 1794 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.[2] Having spent four years in the West Indies as lieutenant of marine artillery, he was promoted to captain, and was sent in 1799 by the government to Constantinople to train the forces of the Ottoman Empire in the use of artillery. The British Empire had decided to support the Ottoman in its defence against Napoleonic France. A journey through Asia Minor in 1800 to join the British fleet at Cyprus inspired him with an interest in antiquarian topography. In 1801, after travelling across the desert with the Turkish army to Egypt, he was, on the expulsion of the French, employed in surveying the Nile valley as far as the cataracts; but having sailed with the ship engaged to convey the Elgin marbles from Athens to England, he lost all his maps and observations when the vessel foundered off Cerigo in Greece.[3]

For much of the first decade of the nineteenth century, Leake was employed by the Foreign Office to spy in Greece in the guise of a wandering tourist,[4] with the intent of gathering topographical information which would be useful in the case of a French invasion.[5] Shortly after his arrival in England, he was sent out to survey the coast of Albania and the Morea, with the view of assisting the Turks against attacks of the French from Italy, and of this he took advantage to form a valuable collection of coins and inscriptions and to explore ancient sites. In 1807, war having broken out between Turkey and England, he was made prisoner at Salonica; but, obtaining his release the same year, he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Ali Pasha of Ioannina, whose confidence he completely won, and with whom he remained for more than a year as British representative.[3] He was there in 1809 when Lord Byron visited Ali's court.[1]

In 1810 he was granted a yearly sum of £600 for his services in Turkey. In 1815 he retired from the army, in which he held the rank of colonel, devoting the remainder of his life to topographical and antiquarian studies.[3] He joined the learned Society of Dilettanti and became vice-president of the Royal Society of Literature.[1] He was admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society on 13 April 1815.[6]

He died in Steyning, Sussex on 6 January 1860. The marbles collected by him in Greece were presented to the British Museum; his bronzes, vases, gems and coins were purchased by the University of Cambridge after his death, and are now in the Fitzwilliam Museum. He was also elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, received the honorary DCL at Oxford in 1816, and was a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and correspondent of the Institute of France.[3]



He authored:

  • Researches in Greece (1814)
  • The topography of Athens: With some remarks on its antiquities (1821)
  • Journal of a tour in Asia Minor,: with comparative remarks on the ancient and modern geography of that country (1824)
  • Travels in the Morea: With a map and plans (1830), and a supplement, Peloponnesiaca (1846)
  • Travels in Northern Greece (1835)
  • Numismata Hellenica (1854), followed by a supplement in 1859.[3]

His Topography of Athens, the first attempt at a systematic treatment, long remained an authority.[3]


  1. ^ a b c Goekoop 2010, p. 41.
  2. ^ Marsden 1864, p. 1.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Chisholm 1911.
  4. ^ McNeal 1993, p. 33.
  5. ^ Whitley 2001, p. 46.
  6. ^ "Lists of Royal Society Fellows". Archived from the original on 10 December 2004. Retrieved 15 December 2006.



Further reading

  • the Architect for 7 October 1876
  • Ernst Curtius in the Preussische Jahrbücher (September 1876)
  • JE Sandys, Hist. of Classical Scholarship, iii. (1908), p. 442.
  • J.M. Wagstaff, Colonel Leake in Laconia, in J.M. Sanders (ed), ΦΙΛΟΛΑΚΩΝ. Lakonian studies in honour of Hector Catling. (1992) Athens, 277–83.
  • J.M. Wagstaff, Pausanias and the topographers. The case of Colonel Leake, in S.E. Alcock, J.F. Cherry, and J. Elsner (eds), Pausanias. Travel and memory in Roman Greece. (2001a) Oxford, 190–206.
  • J.M. Wagstaff, Colonel Leake. Traveller and scholar. in S. Searight and M. Wagstaff (eds), Travellers in the Levant. Voyagers and visionaries. (2001b) Durham, 3–15.
  • CL Witmore, On multiple fields. Between the material world and media: Two cases from the Peloponnesus, Greece, Archaeological Dialogues, (2004) 11(2), 133–164. link
  • CL Witmore, 2020. Argos to Anapli on the hoof, with a stop at Tiryns. In Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese. London: Routledge, 245-60.
  • CL Witmore and TV Buttrey, William Martin Leake: a contemporary of P.O. Brøndsted in Greece and in London, in P.O. Brøndsted (1780–1842) – A Danish Classicist in his European context. Rasmussen, B.B., Jensen, J.S., Lund, J. and Märcher (eds) Historisk-filosofiske Skrifter (2008) 31, 15–34.