The Greek Adventure: Lord Byron and Other Eccentrics in the War of Independence
Beware of bearing gifts to Greeks. On a boulevard in Athens, called (for the present) King Constantine, is a small landscaped tribute to Harry Truman, one of the many Saviors of Greece in its past 155 years. Harry in bronze stands there, his coat ruffled by wind, in memory of the Truman Plan which rebuilt the Greek economy after the ravages of its most recent civil war (1945-1949). Not far away is the US embassy, a large, columned, glassy building by Gropius. Among the many gifts it has supplied Greece, since the Truman Plan, have been NATO, the CIA, a certain connivance with Greece’s last dictatorship, and most recently the curious withdrawal of support from Greece’s ambitions for Cyprus. Things for which poor Harry T. can hardly be blamed, but is he spared his splash of red paint as the Greeks march on the embassy to smash the Gropius windows? No. Other embassies have lately come under attack: British, Spanish, even Russian (oddly enough not the Turkish). One might suggest to the foreign diplomat in Greece: build your embassy like a fortress, and if your government has just granted aid or loan to Greece, request a transfer.
Did Byron know this aspect of the Greeks in 1823, when he arrived to aid them in their fight against their Turkish rulers? His memory alone, among all the Philhellenes who came to help, remains dear to the modern Greek. But did he do any good? Two who undoubtedly did were Frank Abney Hastings, an English naval officer, and Dr. Samuel Howe, an American. The one designed and piloted to Greece an iron-plated steamship which intimidated the Turkish navy. The other, raising funds in America, arrived after the war and made sure that these were used to help thousands of homeless, impoverished, and sick. Perhaps because of the Greek difficulty in pronouncing H, neither has a statue or a street or square named after him.
From the start, Greece has held a central place in the dreams of civilized man. It is his Arcadia. Hadrian, like Byron 1,700 years later, found the ideal of Classical Greece as irresistible as its boys, and succumbed to both. Hellenic medicine, poetry, art, and myth informed scholars and reawakened minds that had gone into a long snooze during the Dark Ages. In the past twenty centuries there is no decade when the barbarian, Goth, Venetian, Frankish, Turk, or Elgin has not been seen in Greece poking among and claiming its classic ruins. And all along, the one exception, the one dreamer who does not dream the Greek Classical Dream, is the Greek himself. He could not care less. In fact, until the nineteenth century he viewed it with loathing as a remnant of paganism.
Although he likes, today, the prospect of six million tourists annually, the Greek seldom ponders why they come. Nor did he in 1821. Until…
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