3 Chapter Two Ogilby and the Odyssey

George D. Elliot

Figure 1. Ogilby, John, Cover of Homer, His Odyssey Translated Adorno with Sculpture and Illustrated with Annotations, 1665, University of Chicago Special Collection Research Center.
Figure 1. Ogilby, John, Cover of Homer, His Odyssey Translated Adorno with Sculpture and Illustrated with Annotations, 1665, University of Chicago Special Collection Research Center. Click image to enlarge.

John Ogilby had just finished the printing of another one of his numerous translations by early 1665. By this time he was well known as a translator and publisher of high-quality volumes of classical literature. The Odyssey, like the others that came before it, looked as though it was going to be another success. Beginning in May, Ogilby started a lottery to help sell this new translation alongside some of his previous work. The technique was relatively new, but Ogilby’s volumes were popular and such a strategy might well have worked. Yet May 1665 proved to be an especially poor time to start such a project. Soon after the lottery began, cases of the plague began to show up in London. Tens of thousands, perhaps some one-fifth of the city’s population, died during this last great outbreak in England.[1] Those who could fled the city, including most of the elite from institutions like the College of Physicians and Cambridge.[2] London, in short, was a city in crisis in 1665. Despite this chaos, Ogilby’s lottery continued for months, finally only stopping for dearth of patrons. The University of Chicago’s copy is one of these volumes from 1665, though whether this one was sold during the plague or during Ogilby’s struggles to rebuild his fortunes afterward is not known.[3] What is certain is that this volume represents more than just its original Greek author. It represents Ogilby. More specifically, this volume represents his ambition, drive toward perfection, and political cunning, characteristics he developed throughout his life. It also shows how he made something enduring through these characteristics, how he spread a book widely in a competitive, harsh printing world without modern copyright rules or protections.


Ambition, Perfection, and Political Cunning 

The story of Ogilby’s ambition, drive toward perfection, and political cunning is very much a story of the different careers he had throughout his life. These careers were numerous and often overlapped as his interests wavered from one area to another. At one point or another, Ogilby was a dancer, playwright, soldier, court poet, author, translator of classical text, publisher, printer, and cartographer.[4] These changes clearly illustrate his varied interests but, more importantly, they show his drive and ambition. In fact, nearly everything Ogilby did could be in some way tied to his great ambition and arrogance. Ogilby was born in a small town likely some forty miles from Edinburgh but did not admit this when alive. Instead, at the height of his success he told his friend John Aubrey that he would leave his birthplace a mystery so that many places would claim him as their own, like the Greeks did with the great Homer.[5] Besides showing Ogilby’s immodesty, which was by no means unknown at the time, this exchange also hints at the ambition of Ogilby. Ogilby came from a rather poor Scottish family and likely wanted to make his background disappear in a generally non-mobile society. When he did have to say his birthplace, he said he was from ‘near Edinburgh,’ a much more prestigious town than the village from which he likely came. His spin on this point of personal history clearly worked for quite some time for even a century later his birthplace was still ‘near Edinburgh’ in the collection of biographies The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland.[6]

Ogilby’s first career also illustrates this ambition very clearly. During Ogilby’s career as a dancer he quickly earned the right to perform before the king in London. In order to impress James I during the masquerade, Ogilby decided to attempt a very high jump. The ambitious feat was unfortunately a failure for the young Scotsman. The Duke of Buckingham described it as an unlucky fall that tore the vein in his leg.[7] In effect, the injury permanently handicapped him, but Ogilby’s future activities indicate that this did not even slow him down physically until his seventies. The fact that Ogilby made the jump nevertheless shows something about his drive, that this poor Scotsman was willing to put everything on the line to get ahead. It also shows that he recognized the value of royal acknowledgement. The jump was a daring gamble, though ultimately Ogilby failed in his attempt. However, this failure allowed Ogilby to advance in ways he would not have been able to otherwise. When he was forced by his injury to reevaluate his circumstances, he ended up moving towards drama as an alternative. This career still kept him within entertainment, something with which he was familiar, but allowed him to move into a more influential position than just lead dancer. Ogilby was quite ambitious in this new career as well. Within a decade he had become the “Master of the Revels in Ireland” under order of the king.[8] Although Ireland was a backwater in comparison to London, the work Ogilby did as a playwright in Dublin was still considerably prestigious because of the royal title and support from nobles that he received.

After working for some time as a playwright in Ireland, Ogilby fought as a royalist during the English Civil War. During this third major career Ogilby displayed his cunning and desire for political influence by supporting and fighting with his patron Wentworth the Earl of Strafford. Ogilby was a clear royalist throughout his life, understanding how royal patronage could potentially support his artistic endeavors and further his career. However, Ogilby’s support of the king did not lead to great rewards for him at the time, although his support would bear fruit later when the Crown was restored under Charles II. Instead, during a small skirmish in Ireland, Wentworth was captured and sent to the Tower and Ogilby was almost killed. With royal support dwindling in Ireland and no noble left to support him, Ogilby was left without support for his theater work. He was penniless and without a patron. However, he did not remain so for long. He left Ireland and traveled to London, first by ship and then by foot for some eighty kilometers. There he made a radical career change under the tutelage of his friend James Shirley. At the age of forty-seven, Ogilby learned Latin, and to an extent Greek. He decided to apply these new language skills to the translating of classical texts.[9] He published his first translated book in 1649, and by the end of the 1650s, his works had already gained a reputation for quality, especially among the affluent.[10]

During this time of his rising fame, Ogilby soon found greater political influence. In 1660 he gained an enormous boon to his printing career and his influence overall when he was chosen to organize the coronation parade of Charles II. Always a royalist, Ogilby took this opportunity to gain favor with the king, planning the parade in great detail and with much pomp and flash by drawing on his background in theatrics. The dirty city streets were cleaned and filled with four massive hundred-foot-tall arches through which the king would process.[11] The parade was a success and Ogilby built on his growing fame with the printing of his Entertainment of Charles II poem, a volume with several impressive illustrations.[12] The Entertainment added enormous fame to a person who was already quite well positioned in the printing world, but, more importantly, it also greatly strengthened Ogilby’s connection to the Crown and to the benefits it could afford him. It is likely that Ogilby recognized this at the time since he later frequently made use of these benefits. Although Ogilby had had a very tumultuous life up to this point, he had also shown repeatedly his ambition, drive toward perfection, and political cunning. All of these qualities developed over a lifetime, and were evident in both the creation of his Odyssey and Ogilby’s ability to sell such a high-priced item so well.


The Odyssey, its Market and Sale

Ogilby’s ambitious translation and printing projects in the 1650s and early 1660s, along with his growing relationship with the Crown, allowed him to become a major success by the mid-1660s. A major reason for his success was the quality for which his publications were known. The University of Chicago’s volume is representative of this perfection that Ogilby strove for in his printing career. Like Ogilby’s other publications, this volume was crafted with high quality paper and includes twenty-six illustrations, or, as Ogilby called them, ‘sculptures.’ One such sculpture is located at the beginning of each book of the Odyssey and an additional one at the beginning of the volume before the title page.[13] These illustrations throughout the volume all include the family crest of the patrons who supported each particular illustration. This specific volume was rebound recently, though the original cover would presumably have been made from high quality calfskin. The volumes from this printing were quite large with ample margins to allow Ogilby room to include his many commentaries on the text, some of which he included in the original Greek with his translations and thorough explanations. The book was physically printed by Thomas Roycroft, a printer with a reputation for producing a number of significant, high-quality classics during Ogilby’s time.[14]

This quality volume would have been part of Ogilby’s marketing campaign beginning in May 1665. Although he used subscriptions and lotteries to sell his books, he also drew on his political influence to protect his share of the market. The University of Chicago’s copy illustrates Ogilby’s technique for protecting himself in a printing market before modern copyright law. The main feature of this protection revolves around the royal privilege issued as a paper document by the Earl of Arlington, Charles II’s secretary of state. This document (shown on the next page) demonstrates how helpful Ogilby’s political connections had become, and also shows his techniques for marketing such an expensive volume. The document gives Ogilby a monopoly over not just the printing of his Odyssey but over the Odyssey in general for a period of fifteen years.[15] Ogilby utilized his relationship with the king, which he had been developing since Charles II’s coronation, to his benefit with two further royal privileges which protected the rest of his books for fifteen years.[16] This relationship allowed Ogilby to use the power of the king to deal with the difficulties involved in printing at that time, namely the practice of copying publications and issuing them without permission, which ran mostly unchecked outside of royal privileges, and made profit-making difficult.[17] Ogilby clearly recognized this and turned the functioning of this state-market relationship in his favor.


Figure 2. Ogilby, John. Royal Privilege in Homer, His Odysses Translated Adorno with Sculpture and Illustrated with Annotations, 1665, University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center.
Figure 2. Ogilby, John. Royal Privilege in Homer, His Odysses Translated Adorno with Sculpture and Illustrated with Annotations, 1665, University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center. Click image to enlarge 


Further, Ogilby also took advantage of a law passed in 1662 which forbid the establishment of new print shops. This artificially constricted the print market in London, which in 1668 only had sixty printing presses, as compared to even one printer in Amsterdam who may well have had twenty-five presses on his own.[18] This kept the print market small and meant that Ogilby could conceivably dominate the market with his protected volumes for the duration of the privileges. Even if a few other presses created similar volumes, the small number of potential rivals made it possible for Ogilby to pull in most patrons with clever marketing strategies. He did this with both subscriptions and lotteries, such as the one used during the plague in 1665.

Ogilby financed his production of the Odyssey mainly through subscriptions, as he did with most of his books. He sent out subscription proposals to dozens of wealthy families building on his patrons from previous translations. In these proposals he offered a number of special deals for those who would support the production of his translation.[19] First, he offered wealthy families the option to pay for an illustration at the beginning of one of the books of the Odyssey in exchange for their crest being included within that ‘sculpture.’ Second, he offered a special deal for individuals who brought in other subscribers. In the case of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which he sold in a combination subscription, he offered any person who brought in five other subscribers one free set of the volumes. These subscription techniques accomplished two things for Ogilby. First, they created a guaranteed market for the sale of his Homer volumes, which he would have later cornered further with royal privileges, and second, they allowed him to sell more volumes outside of this group because of the increased value of his products compared to competing copies. The addition of so many illustrations in these volumes, like the twenty-six found in the University of Chicago’s copy of the Odyssey, likely brought in many other buyers outside of the two-dozen who paid for them.

Ogilby also used a rather new marketing technique in 1665 to sell his inventory of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the spring of that year Ogilby obtained a license from the Duke of York and began his announcements for a lottery. He stated that he had a large supply of well-illustrated volumes for sale. For instance, he had over 500 copies of his 1665 Aesop and 225 of The Entertainment.[20] Tickets to the lottery sold for £2 or the approximate cost of one of his Odyssey volumes. The University of Chicago Odyssey might have been sold at this lottery. The first drawing began on May 10th, 1665 right at the outbreak of the plague. The lottery understandably suffered from a dearth of attendees as thousands of wealthy potential buyers fled the city. The lottery opened again in April of 1666, but was again interrupted when the Great Fire burned down most of London. Ogilby himself claimed he lost most of his stock from the fire and had to wait until 1668 for his next lottery.[21] However, Ogilby did manage to operate other lotteries with some success starting in 1668, and the University of Chicago volume may also have been sold there. Overall, these lotteries worked well for Ogilby when external circumstances were not too harsh and unpredictable.

The Odyssey was one of many classical texts to receive the attention of the famous John Ogilby. Ogilby, whose life was filled with ambition, quests for perfection, and political cunning, had already tackled many classical texts throughout the 1650s and early 1660s before he approached Homer.[22] These endeavors were in truth more remembered than his Odyssey, which suffered from difficulties of distribution during the plague. However, although Ogilby’s Odyssey was not as memorable a project as his poetic work for Charles II’s coronation parade or the work he did after the Odyssey, it still serves as a powerful representation of the quality work Ogilby’s production had achieved by this point in his translating and publishing career.[23] It also serves as an excellent representation of the ambition of this Renaissance man who pursued royal patronage with cunning and calculation. The royal privilege document shown in this chapter from the University of Chicago’s volume is just one example of this aspect of Ogilby’s character. The way Ogilby’s Odyssey was sold also highlights his marketing genius and ingenuity. It is this ambition and genius that leaps powerfully from the grand, illustrated pages of the Odyssey when one holds it in his or her hands, just as Ogilby leapt so dramatically throughout his many lives.


Keywords: Aesop, John Aubrey, Henry Bennett 1st Earl of Arlington, book trade, University of Cambridge, King Charles II, University of Chicago, copyright, England, London, English Civil War, Great Fire of London, Greek, illustration, Ireland, Dublin, Latin, Licensing act of 1661, Amsterdam, John Ogilby, annotation, patron, patronage, philology, plague, Restoration of 1660, Edinburgh, James Shirley, Thomas Wentworth-1st Earl of Strafford



Cibber, Theophilus. The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, to the Time of Dean Swift. London: R. Griffiths, 1753.

Clapp, Sarah L. C. “The Subscription Enterprises of John Ogilby and Richard Blome.” Modern Philology 30, no. 4 (1933): 365–79.

Coote, Stephen. Royal Survivor: A Life of Charles II. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Jenkinson, Matthew. Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II, 1660–1685. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2010.

Ogilby, John, ed. and trans. Homer, His Odysses Translated, Adorn’d with Sculpture, and Illustrated with Annotations. London: Printed by Thomas Roycroft for the author, 1665.

—. The Relation of His Majestie’s Entertainment Passing through the City of London, to His Coronation with a Description of the Triumphall Arches, and Solemnity. By John Ogilby. London: 1661.

Schuchard, Margret. John Ogilby, 1600–1676: Lebensbild Eines Gentleman Mit Vielen Karrieren. Hamburg: Paul Hartung, 1973.

Shaw, David J. “The Book Trade Comes of Age:  The Sixteenth Century.” In A Companion to the History of the Book, edited by Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose, 220–31. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

Uglow, Jennifer S. A Gambling Man:  Charles II and the Restoration, 1660–1670. London: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Van Eerde, Katharine S. John Ogilby and the Taste of His Times. Folkestone, UK: Dawson, 1976.

  1. Stephen Coote, Royal Survivor: A Life of Charles II (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), 213.
  2. Jennifer S. Uglow, A Gambling Man:  Charles II and the Restoration, 1660–1670 (London: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 329.
  3. This chapter will focus on the printing of this edition overall, but will refer to specific idiosyncratic elements of the Chicago volume as well. See John Ogilby, ed. and trans., Homer, His Odysses Translated, Adorn'd with Sculpture, and Illustrated with Annotations (London: Printed by Thomas Roycroft for the author, 1665).
  4. Margret Schuchard, John Ogilby, 1600–1676: Lebensbild Eines Gentleman Mit Vielen Karrieren (Hamburg: Paul Hartung, 1973), 1.
  5. Katharine S. Van Eerde, John Ogilby and the Taste of His Times (Folkestone: Dawson, 1976), 15.
  6. Theophilus Cibber, The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, to the Time of Dean Swift (London: R. Griffiths, 1753), 265.
  7. Schuchard, John Ogilby, 16–17.
  8. Van Eerde, John Ogilby and the Taste of His Times, 22.
  9. Schuchard, John Ogilby, 33.
  10. Van Eerde, John Ogilby and the Taste of His Times, 40.
  11. Uglow, Gambling Man, 113.
  12. See John Ogilby, The Relation of His Majestie's Entertainment Passing through the City of London, to His Coronation with a Description of the Triumphall Arches, and Solemnity. By John Ogilby (London, 1661).
  13. To see more on Ogilby’s work with illustrations, see Tali Winkler’s “Illustrating the Classics and the Self: John Ogilby and his Self-Fashioning Portraits,” within this volume.
  14. Van Eerde, John Ogilby and the Taste of His Times, 40.
  15. “Whereas upon the humble Request of Our Trusty and Wel-beloved Servant, John Ogilby, Esquire, We were Graciously pleased by Our Warrant of the 25. Of May, in the Seventeenth Year of Our Reign, to grant him the Sole Privilege and Immunity of Printing in fair Volumes…Homer’s Odysses” and “grant him farther Licence and Authority, to have the Sole Privilege of Printing Homer’s Works in the Original…” Ogilby, Homer, His Odysses Translated, Adorn'd with Sculpture, and Illustrated with Annotations.
  16. Schuchard, John Ogilby, 50.
  17. David J. Shaw, “The Book Trade Comes of Age:  The Sixteenth Century,” in A Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 227.
  18. Schuchard, John Ogilby, 74.
  19. Sarah L. C. Clapp, “The Subscription Enterprises of John Ogilby and Richard Blome, ” Modern Philology 30, no. 4 (1933): 367.
  20. Van Eerde, John Ogilby and the Taste of His Times, 86.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 29.
  23. Matthew Jenkinson, Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II, 1660–1685 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2010), 66.


Homer Among the Moderns Copyright © by George D. Elliot. All Rights Reserved.

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