Swimming the Hellespont

Lord Byron in Albanian dress, by Thomas Phillips, 1813, collection of the British Embassy, Athens, via Wikipedia

Lord Byron in Albanian dress, by Thomas Phillips, 1813, collection of the British Embassy, Athens, via Wikipedia

The History channel’s website has a neat feature: a day-by-day ‘This Day in History’ that you can filter for literary events. On this day in 1810, for example, a young Englishman called George Gordon, better remembered as romantic poet Lord Byron, swam the Hellespont. The 22 year-old Byron was on his Grand Tour, and the Napoleonic Wars plaguing Europe prevented him from following the usual routes across the continent, forcing him to concentrate on the Mediterranean world. He failed the swim on his first attempt, but succeeded on the second, in one hour and ten minutes, swimming breast-stroke.

Now better known as the Dardanelles, site of a World War One campaign that included Gallipoli, the Hellespont is a strait - 4km wide at its narrowest point - that connects the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. It’s not to be confused with the Bosphorus, further north and around which Istanbul sprawls, that links the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. Byzantine legend has it that Leander swam the Hellespont every night to be with his lover, the priestess Hero. Byron, who would have been familiar with Christopher Marlowe’s poem relating the story of the amorous couple, swam the strait to prove it was possible. He was a passionate swimmer on account of his club foot.

Byron’s swim is historically significant because, six years later, Byron would be forced to go into exile for reasons that may have something to do with his voracious sexual proclivities. At this point, he resumed his love affair with the eastern Mediterranean, travelling widely through the region and in the process becoming an influential political figure in the birth of modern Greece. His interest and influence in what was then known as the Levant (a French word dating back to the Crusades meaning ‘rising’) was a milestone in Europe’s cultural and political history. It also marked another chapter in the decline of the Ottoman Empire (aka the Sublime Porte), which would ultimately crumble during World War One. His swim has since been replicated by others.

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