That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
– IONIAN, Constantine Cavafy
This week’s column is dedicated to four philhellenic heroes from Britain, two living and two dead, whose lives and writing have influenced my own: the late, unique and utterly fearless Christopher Hitchens, author of The Parthenon Marbles, The Case for Reunification (with a preface by Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer); the late William St Clair, friend and mentor, who insisted that the detective work of real research is often disruptive and always creative; and both Professor Roderick Beaton and Historian Mark Mazower, who are very much alive and still surpassing themselves as authors and models of the fruits and obligations of a classical education.
Any review of Greece’s long relationship with Britain must naturally turn to the subject of friendship and, in particular, to the heroic friendship of British philhellenes who grew to love this little country, cherished what it had given them and sought to repay this debt of inspiration through their work – and sometimes with their lives.
A Grateful Nation
The Greek struggle for independence from the Ottomans captured the imagination of the world – especially in Britain, where supporters of the cause and students of its classical heritage were among the most important and influential men of the day. Before COVID upended all of our plans and curtailed most of Greece’s bicentennial celebrations, we had hoped to devote an entire week to celebrating the lives and contributions of British philhellenes – to show the nation’s gratitude to the friends who fought for her freedom, who stood by her side against the Nazis in World War II, and who have contributed so much over the course of a long and deep relationship. Instead of public tributes, however, let me just name a few of these individuals (among so many) and invite you to explore further and to contemplate the enduring value of true friendship.
The London Philhellenic Committee
In 1823, the London Philhellenic Committee was established to support the Greek cause by raising funds, rallying interest and support in Parliament, and establishing ties with the Greek Government-in-waiting and its army and navy – such as they were at the time. Among the Committee’s earliest members were the reformer Jeremy Bentham and the arch-philhellene Lord Byron. Although it was active for only three years, the London Philhellenic Committee provided tremendous material and moral support, and was second in importance for the revolution only to the “Filiki Eteria” (“Society of Friends”), the secret organization founded in 1814 in Odessa to plan and implement the overthrow of Ottoman rule and establish an independent Greek state.
Lord George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron)
A leading figure in the Romantic Movement, poet, statesman, peer and revolutionary in the Greek War of Independence, Byron spent a good part of his inheritance outfitting the Greek navy and then travelled to join the rebel forces at Messolonghi, where he was entrusted with a troop of fierce fighters from the Souli villages of the remote mountainous region of Epirus. A single story should suffice to give a sense of the people Byron came to assist: While these fighters were engaged with the soldiers of Ottoman governor Ali Pasha far from their homes, another force of Turks surrounded the central Souliot village of Zalonga. The women of the village, young mothers and grandmothers, gathered up their children and grandchildren and climbed up the mountain to the edge of a cliff overlooking a deep ravine below. After throwing their children before them, they then danced over the cliff themselves rather than be captured and enslaved. These were the people British philhellenes supported, befriended and fought alongside 200 years ago. And although Byron accomplished nothing militarily before dying of malaria at Messolonghi, his death inspired Britain, America and the rest of Europe to take up the cause of Greek freedom. Here is an excerpt from his poem Don Juan:
“The mountains look on Marathon –
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Byron’s friend and fellow poet, Shelley declared that “We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece.” Like many other British philhellenes after them, Byron and Shelley waged their fight mainly with pen rather than sword. Their influence endures, especially among the young and the brave.
Finlay joined Lord Byron in Greece before the revolution and then served as a loyal secretary and crew member under Captain Frank Abney Hastings on the warship Karteria for most of the War. After Hasting’s death, Finlay realized that his talents lay more with organizing, planning, building and writing – and settled in Athens to document the establishment of the new Greek State and to write the history of Greece’s earlier years up until the conclusion of the War of Independence. Between 1840 and 1864, Finley wrote the History of Greece and related monographs, a body of work largely ignored during his lifetime but now considered masterpieces for their insights, historical analysis and prose style. In the last two decades of his life, Finlay tried (and failed) to establish a new model of agriculture in Greece – for which he is now (belatedly) honoured and remembered, and finally served as a special correspondent for The London Times before retiring to a private life of contemplation and cultivation.
General Richard Church
One of the most complete military leaders of his age, Church enrolled in the Greek army, proved his strategic brilliance and courage during the early stages of the conflict, and was made commander of all the Greek land forces in the last years of the War of Independence. Among its many historical and sculptural wonders, Athens 1st Cemetery also contains Church’s funeral monument, with this inscription in English:
“Richard Church, General, who having given himself and all he had to rescue a Christian race from oppression and to make Greece a nation, lived for her service and died among her people, rests here in peace and faith”.
Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington
Following the Ottoman refusal to abide by the terms of the Treaty of London in 1827, Codrington took charge of the combined allied fleet of British, French and Russian ships and sailed to the bay of Navarino to engage the Turkish-Egyptian fleet then controlling the Eastern Mediterranean. The daring British commander, with strategy and tactics as bold at those of Themistocles in the Battle of Salamis 2,300 years earlier, took just 4 hours to utterly destroy the Ottoman’s Mediterranean fleet – thus sealing their fate and the establishment of a free Greece.
Captain Frank Abney Hastings
This renowned British naval officer enlisted in the Greek navy and was instrumental in all the naval engagements in the War of Independence. Early in the War, on behalf of the Greek revolutionary government, he purchased under his own name the “Karteria”, the first steam-powered warship to be employed in battle – and then outfitted it, at his own expense, with an array of the latest weaponry. Near the end of the War, Hastings was wounded and later died attempting to retake Messolonghi. His heart lies buried in the Anglican Church in Athens, next to – of all people – Giovanni Lusieri, who oversaw the stripping of the Acropolis on behalf of Lord Elgin. Hastings deserves a much more extensive tribute than there is space to give him here, but anyone interested in the War of Independence and the extraordinary exploits and contributions of British philhellenes – should really spend some time with Captain Hastings. As an indication of what he meant to the Greek effort, just consider what Ioannis Kapodistrias, the future Prime Minister of the new Greek State, had to say when announcing Hasting’s death:
“Captain Hastings is no more. The fatal wound he received while giving new examples of his devotion to Greece under the walls of Aetoliko took him away from us on June 1st”.
Alongside Byron, Canning was perhaps the most effective philhellene of all, a brilliant Tory statesman, who, when he succeeded Lord Castlereagh as Foreign Minister, supported the War of Independence and helped ensure the establishment of the new Greek state. Canning’s career in British politics is a model of courage and perseverance – as much as that of any warrior on the battlefield. Kaningos Square in Athens testifies to a nation’s gratitude, and Greek university classes regularly study his example.
Cam Hobhouse, William Hazlitt, Walter Savage Landor, Leigh Hunt, Jeremy Bentham, and Thomas Moore, all stood by Greece in one way or another, feeling that they owed much of their own cultural lives and intellectual freedom to her example and ideas.
“Whatever, in fact, is modern in our life we owe to the Greeks.” How strange that Wilde linked “Greece” and “modernity” in this way, but the radical freedom of thought pioneered in Greece and regularly renewed with blood, revolution, poetry and art – is Greek to its core.
… and more recently:
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Classicist, writer and military hero, Fermor was described by the BBC as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”. After being expelled from The King’s School in Canterbury for his “dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”, he set out walking across Europe – alone but in the company of the literature and languages, ancient and modern, he had learned on his own. The book resulting from this journey, “A Time of Gifts”, is considered to be one of the greatest pieces of travel-literature ever written. In World War II, as with many fellow British classicists and polyglots, Fermor was recruited, based on his fluency in ancient Greek, to liaise with the Greek guerilla forces. Disguised as a shepherd, Fermor lived in the Greek mountains organizing the resistance against the Nazis – and in one of the war’s most daring exploits, captured the German Commander, General Kreige. Along with Byron, Fermor is celebrated as a Greek national hero.
Thelma Cazalet-Keir, Tory MP
On January 23, 1941, Thelma Cazalet rose from her seat in the House of Commons and directed a question to Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “whether he would introduce legislation to enable the Elgin Marbles to be restored to Greece at the end of hostilities as some recognition of the Greeks’ magnificent stand for civilization.” Coming from Ms. Cazalet, known for her integrity, wisdom and tenacity, this question provoked serious soul-searching from the Government, which concluded, after canvassing the opinion of the directors of the British Museum and the Foreign Office, that there was really no good reason not to return the Sculptures, including the caryatid and column from the Erechtheion, but that a museum should be built to properly house them and that the return itself should await the conclusion of the war so that their transport might be safely effected. Only bureaucratic dithering and temporizing, then as now, prevented the British Government from doing the right thing. The moment passed, and people returned to their own affairs.
Actor, director, comedian, broadcaster, writer and activist – Fry is one of the most prolific, creative and conscientious individuals alive, sui generis (and simply generous) in every way. He has repeatedly used his public platforms, his prominence, intelligence and eloquence to speak for justice. His series of books on mythology, Troy and ancient Greek heroes, and his frequent pleas on behalf of returning the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece (including his famous appearance in the Intelligence Squared debate) have all contributed to building bridges of empathy and understanding between Britain and Greece, bridges which only a small group of politicians and museum officials still hesitate to cross.
One of Britain’s best-selling authors, Victoria Hislop has cast her lot with Greece – telling some of the country’s great untold stories, as in her book “The Island” about the leper colony on the small Cretan islet of Spinalonga. The Greek television series based on the book revolutionized tv production in this country, and her continuing engagement with Greek issues, temporary and historical, have earned the gratitude and admiration of the Greek and widespread Diaspora population, a devoted following for her books in over 40 countries – as well as the bestowal of honorary Greek citizenship by the Government in Athens. Showing the same courage, principle and tenacity that Tory MP Thelma Cazalet displayed many decades earlier, Victoria Hislop does not shrink from a good fight if justice is at stake. For a taste of Hislop’s passion and commitment, here is her March 20 interview with Ta Nea newspaper – in which she recounts her decision to support the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures and excoriates Boris Johnson for his cavalier refusal to even consider the idea. Read the interview, and contemplate what it means to have friends such as Victoria Hislop on your side.
And One English Soldier…
These are some of Greece’s better-known British friends. Others abound. A tiny church dedicated to St. George sits hidden among olive trees next to the new Acropolis Museum. Attended mostly by cats and a young tortoise, and surrounded by roses and pots of basil, this little chapel is one of those hidden oases in Athens that visitors never see or even suspect. On the outside wall of the chapel is a large marble plaque commemorating the Greek patriots who fell defending Athens against the Nazis in 1944. At the very bottom of the plaque, all by itself, is the phrase:
«ΚΑΙ ΕΝΑΣ ΑΓΓΛΟΣ ΣΤΡΑΤΙΩΤΗΣ»
“AND ONE ENGLISH SOLDIER”
NEXT WEEK: Don Morgan Nielsen will explore the word “integrity” as it is used by the officials of the British Museum in reference to their “Collection”.
ABOUT THE PARTHENON REPORT | DON MORGAN NIELSEN:
In this bicentennial year since the birth of the modern Greek State, of both pandemic and celebration, Greek City Times is proud to introduce readers to a weekly column by Don Morgan Nielsen to discuss developments in the context of history, politics and culture concerning the 200-year-old effort to bring the Parthenon Sculptures back to Athens.
Classicist, Olympian and strategic advisor, Don Morgan Nielsen is currently working with a growing international team to support Greece’s efforts to repatriate and reunify the Parthenon Sculptures.
Click here to read ALL EDITIONS of The Parthenon Report by Don Morgan Nielsen
Feature Image : Copyright Nick Bourdaniotis | Bourdo Photography