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Paton, William Rogerlocked

  • David Gill

Paton, William Roger (1857–1921), epigraphist and classical scholar, was born on 9 February 1857 at 10 Chanonry, Old Aberdeen, the only son, and fourth of five children, of John Paton (1818–1879), a major, and later a colonel, in the Aberdeenshire militia and deputy lieutenant of Aberdeenshire, and his wife, Eliza Deborah (d. 1860), daughter of Thomas Burnett of Kepplestone, Aberdeenshire. He was educated, like his father, at Eton College (1871–3), apparently boarding in Edward Peake Rouse's house before transferring to Oscar Browning's. Paton matriculated in 1876 and read classics at University College, Oxford, obtaining a first in classical moderations (1877). He then decided to pursue a legal career and was admitted to the Middle Temple in January 1878. Paton returned to Oxford and obtained a third in literae humaniores (1880). This disappointing result may be explained in part by the death of his father in the summer before his final year in Oxford.

Although Paton was not called to the bar, he kept terms at the Middle Temple until 1884. He also seems to have served as a review editor for The Academy and he continued to maintain an interest in the classical world, joining in 1881 the newly formed Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies. His inheritance allowed him to travel to the islands of the Aegean to record previously unknown inscriptions. The search for new texts to supplement literary and historical works was characteristic of this period, exemplified by the travels through Anatolia of William Ramsay in 1881–2 and the American John R. Sitlington Sterrett in 1884, the work at Delphi through the 1880s of l'École Française d'Athènes under the direction of Paul Foucart, and the appearance of volumes of Inscriptiones Graecae under the auspices of the Berlin-based Akademie der Wissenschaften. During his epigraphic hunts, Paton fell in love with Irene (1869/70–1908), the daughter of Emanuel Olympitis, mayor of the island of Kalymnos, then part of the Ottoman empire. Irene's father did not approve of the match, and so Paton moved to the island of Kos where he made a study of the inscriptions of that island.

In 1885, while Irene was still in her mid-teens, her father gave permission for her marriage to Paton, which took place in the same year. The pair made their base at the farm Paton had acquired through his wife's dowry at Gumishlu, the site of ancient Myndus, on the mainland of Turkey: in the following year, George, the first of their five children, was born at Gumishlu. The married couple then returned to the Paton family home at Grandhome near Aberdeen. Paton, like his father, served as a justice of the peace and deputy lieutenant of the county of Aberdeen. The Patons eventually settled in Pothia, the main town of Kalymnos, which gave Paton an opportunity to investigate the archaeology of the island. A study of pottery from graves on Kalymnos, and a report on an excavation at Assarlik on the Bodrum peninsula, appeared in the Journal of Hellenic Studies (1887); the finds were presented to the British Museum.

During the late 1880s Paton regularly sent details of new inscriptions to the epigraphist, later bishop of Lincoln, Edward Lee Hicks, then principal of Hulme Hall, Manchester. Drawing on Paton's knowledge of the island, and with the support of the German scholar Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Hicks and Paton collaborated on Inscriptions of Cos (1891), described as 'a credit to British scholarship' (Tarbell, 278). Paton's knowledge of the islands led him to be invited, at the prompting of von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, to contribute a fascicule on the inscriptions of Lesbos, Nesos, and Tenedos to the major series Inscriptiones Graecae (12/2, 1899). It is perhaps significant that the planned fourth fascicule of the same volume, which was to cover the islands of Kos and Kalymnos, was never published, possibly in the light of Paton's earlier work. Paton was made an associate of the German Imperial Archaeological Institute and in 1900 was awarded an honorary PhD from the University of Halle.

In 1893 Paton asked Ernest Gardner, then director of the British School at Athens, to help find a suitable student to make a topographical study of the Bodrum (Halikarnassos) peninsula in Karia. Gardner suggested that he be joined by John L. Myres who had been pursuing research on 'Oriental influences on prehistoric Greece'. Myres travelled to Kalymnos in May 1893, finding the Patons living above a café on the waterfront with Irene's family. Myres and Paton made the Myndus farm the base for their exploration. Myres later recalled the cosmopolitan nature of the establishment: 'Paton spoke Greek and French to his wife, German to the children's governess, English to me, Turkish to the servants, Latin and Gaelic to his children' (Myres, 10). The permit for Paton and Myres had indicated that they wished to visit the ancient city of Alinda (Muğla), but they decided to study the coast of Karia instead. During the survey, which continued until July, Paton and Myres were arrested on suspicion of being pirates. The survey was published jointly in the Journal of Hellenic Studies (1896) and the Journal of the Royal Geographic Society (1897).

Paton edited and translated several Greek texts alongside his epigraphic studies, including Plutarch's Pythici dialogi tres (1893) and De cupiditate divitiarum (1896), and a translation of Aeschylus's Agamemnon (1907). His interest in the Greek Anthology saw fruition in Anthologiae Graecae erotica: the Love Epigrams, or, Book V of the Palatine Anthology (1898). Along with Eugénie Sellers and others, he helped to translate Max H. Ohnefalsch-Richter's Kypros, the Bible, and Homer: Oriental Civilization, Art and Religion in Ancient Times (1893) into English.

The Patons continued to live on Kalymnos, and in 1907 Paton reported a newly discovered inscription on his farm at Myndus on the mainland relating to a cult of Zeus Askraios in The Classical Review (1907). Irene's death at Paris from typhoid in October 1908 seems to have precipitated a move to Ker-Anna, Perros Guirec, Côtes-du-Nord in France. It seems that at this time Paton was offered a chair at Oxford, presumably the newly created Wykeham chair of ancient history filled by Myres in 1910, but he declined. His daughter Sevasti Augusta, in her unpublished memoirs, linked her father's decision to Paton's feelings about how Oscar Wilde had been treated; she recalled Paton 'could never work with a People who were capable of confusing the great Artist with the man'. In 1911 Paton married a widow, Klio, daughter of Ioannes Nomikos of Smyrna, and they settled in Vathy, the main town of the island of Samos. The following year, during the First Balkan War, the island was acquired by Greece.

During the First World War, in the aftermath of the Gallipoli campaign, there were increased attacks on the Turkish mainland by British naval units with the intention of tying down Turkish troops. During one of these raids Myres, serving as a naval officer, was forced to destroy the farm at Myndus: 'Mrs Paton's house on the beach … was occupied by a Turkish platoon and had to be destroyed, as were various other structures suspected of housing petrol dumps' (Myres, 14). In another major naval raid on the Turkish mainland at Asin (ancient Iassus) in late September 1916, Myres was forced to evacuate Mrs Paton's brother-in-law, Hadji Stephanos, to Samos. This led to the Patons making a complaint about Myres's activities which they claimed were damaging Greek interests in Anatolia; the raids were curtailed in early October. However, Compton Mackenzie, who served as an intelligence officer in the Aegean during the First World War, recalled in 1917 that

the Greek wife of a distinguished English scholar in Samos used to scream at the top of her voice when from her balcony she perceived Myres walking along the street below, for she had an idea that Myres in the course of one foray had destroyed a family farm on the mainland opposite.

Mackenzie, First Athenian Memories, 253

After moving to Samos Paton concentrated on his language interests. He prepared the five volumes of the Greek Anthology for the Loeb Classical Library (1916–19), and then started work on translating Polybius's Histories for the six volumes of the Loeb edition (1922–7). During the First World War Paton was asked, again at von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff's suggestion, to serve as an editor for the Teubner edition of Plutarch's Moralia (1925–9), published posthumously. Paton died suddenly, apparently from a heart attack while reading The Pickwick Papers, at Vathy, Samos, on 21 April 1921, and was buried on the island.

A glimpse into Paton's character is provided by Oscar Wilde. Paton had written to his old friend Wilde on his release from Pentonville in 1897, and Wilde responded, 'I have often heard from others of your sympathy and unabated friendship … I hope you are happy, and finding Greek things every day' (Hart-Davis, 629–30).


  • The Times (2 June 1921), 12
  • W. M. Calder III, ‘Ambivalent loyalties: a letter of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to W. R. Paton’, Text and tradition: studies in Greek history and historiography in honor of Mortimer Chambers, ed. R. Mellor and L. Tritle (1999), 287–301
  • J. N. L. Myres, Commander J. L. Myres, RNVR: the Blackbeard of the Aegean (1980)
  • C. Mackenzie, First Athenian memories (1931)
  • C. Mackenzie, Aegean memories (1940)
  • The letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. R. Hart-Davis (1962)
  • U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, My recollections, 1848–1914, trans. G. C. Richards (1930)
  • F. B. Tarbell, review of W. R. Paton and E. L. Hicks, Inscriptions of Cos (1891), Classical Review, 6 (1892), 277–8
  • Grandhome, Aberdeenshire, Paton papers
  • bap. reg. Scot.
  • I. Anstruther, Oscar Browning (1983)


  • BM, department of Greek and Roman antiquities, antiquities
  • V&A, Greek textiles
  • Grandhome, Aberdeenshire, family papers
  • Girton Cam., Sellers/Strong papers
  • priv. coll., Rouse papers

Wealth at Death

£3589 15s. 1d.: confirmation, 14 Feb 1922, CCI

£1: eik additional estate, 24 March 1933, CCI

E. Walford, (1860–1920) [annual]