In the fall semester of my junior year in college, I took a literature course in Athens titled “The Romantics in Greece.”
The main character of the syllabus was one of the saltiest dogs of English poetry, Lord George Gordon Byron, who over the course of his short, but flirtatious, 36-year life spent a significant amount of time in Greece on his privileged Grand Tour, before eventually dying of fever in 1824 after commanding a rebel army in battle for the country’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. The supporting roles of the class syllabus went to the usual suspects: Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, Plato.
During the course, we followed the authors’ writings around Greece and read them aloud on location in the theatre of Dionysus, beside the marble bubble butts of the National Archaeological Museum, on the sauntering promenade of the seaside town of Nafplio, and along the donkey trodden hillsides of Hydra. Most importantly, the two worlds were combined on the Cape of Sounion where we hunted for Byron’s name that he supposedly carved into a column on the coveted Temple of Poseidon, like some enamored, reckless teenager.
Besides these exciting travels, there was plenty of homework. So much, that we the only way to complete it all was by lubricating our minds with cheap plastic bottles of red wine that we purchased from a little old lady vendor for three euro at the foot of the Acropolis.
Our small class of 15 passed around the crinkly, screw-topped bottles in a circle many nights and tackled the assigned readings together, discussing the unique ancient Greek literature alongside its resurgence through the lens of the 19th-century romantics. Most memorably, we read Plato’s Symposium, the classical text in which multiple philosophers deliver their own interpretations on love.
One night, as the moon shone over Athens, the class held our very own symposium.
When I stood to proclaim my speech, under the influence of Dionysus and angsty for a first boyfriend, I realized my own interpretation was inspired by Aristophanes’ famous myth of the rolling people who were originally intertwined for life in pairs of male/male, female/female, and male/female. But soon Zeus grew jealous of their love, and so he split them in two, and the pairs, separated, spent their lives pining for their other half.
That was the night I fell a little bit in love with some of the ancient Greek philosophers and writers. There was great comfort reading depictions of love between men and love between women (hello, Sappho) from texts thousands of years old. While same-sex relations acceptance was by no means perfect in ancient Greece (and the country today still doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage) and words like homosexual, gay, and queer were thousands of years from forming, it is still comforting to view the ancient Greeks in the grey; freer from the spectrum.
The course resonated further with its Byronic compliment as the poet was well known to be entangled in affairs with men (and women) throughout the course of his life. One of the reasons for his Grand Tour to Greece, at least according to his correspondence with his friend Charles Skinner Matthews, was to further explore this aspect of his orientation, away from the constricting climate of 19th-century England. I, like Byron, had taken myself to Greece to learn a little more about my homosexual heritage.
During our second week of the course, we ventured from our university in the country’s capital for a day trip to Sounion, a little over an hour drive southeast along the winding coast. I was thrilled to finally see the physical overlap of these historical celebrities, the god of the sea and Lord Byron, in the form of a temple, tagged like a highway underpass.
Sitting pretty on the head of the region’s cape was the nearly 2,400-year-old Temple of Poseidon. The trip to the tip of Attica is a classic migration for tourists of Athens, especially for sunset visits, where the light spills onto the eroded columns and illuminates the marble like peach fuzz before it sinks divinely into the Aegean Sea.
Of 36 original columns, a mere 15 remain, each of them so finely carved that their doric styling is still obvious. Even in ruin, the greatness of the temple is felt; its rectangular, hexastyle architecture remains stately in destruction. It isn’t difficult to imagine it polished and mighty with a 20-foot bronze statue of Poseidon that both dominated and ornamented the space. It was easy to imagine sailors, soldiers, and maidens praying below, asking for calm seas and safe returns.
Perched 200-feet above the sea with commanding views in three directions, it is no wonder the ancient Greeks built the temple on the summit of the Sounion Cape. This, I remember thinking the first time I saw it, was a place for a sea god. This was a place for Poseidon, known by his many epithets: the offerer of calm seas, the tamer of horses, the spring maker, the earth-shaker, or by his informal philandering reputation, the skirt/tunic chaser.
Within many myths, the bearded ‘yes, daddy,’ stupidly ripped, god of the sea was just as horny as his sky brother, Zeus. He’s been said to have had over 80 female lovers and a handful of male lovers, including Nerites, his chariot driver, the boy of stunning beauty, and Pelops, the Olympic racer who he abducted and helped cheat in the games.
Not by coincidence, the island of Patroclus sits faithfully near the temple, 2 miles offshore from the cape like a face floating with its forehead and nose just above the waves. It is named after the brave warrior of Homer’s Iliad; the best friend, role model, and widely considered lover of the demigod warrior Achilles, who Hollywood miserably straight-washed, removing any possibility of romance in their production of 2004’s Troy, rewriting the man as Achilles’ “cousin”, despite Phaedrus’ ode in Symposium (and many others both in classical and modern literature) about Achilles and Patroclus as lovers.
Patroclus was the man who loved Achilles so much, he dressed in the demigod’s armor and died fighting Hector. Of course, Poseidon was on the side of the Greeks, of Patroclus and Achilles who sailed around the very Cape of Sounion, on their way to Troy.
Our class arrived at the Temple of Poseidon, quite sunburnt and salty an hour before sunset. Before hiking the hill to the ruins, we had spent the afternoon at the nearby Sounion Beach, a classically cramped Greek beach with hundreds of umbrellas, a sub-luxe beach club with poor but expensive service, and a charming seaside cafe. Surrounding the cape are many beach houses. On top of being a place of ancient significance, it is one of retreat, luxury, and second home-owning.
At the beach, tourists—mostly German— took in the last amber days of October in their speedos, two pieces, and, believe it or not, one very fashion forward three-piece. A few women went topless — in fact, a few women from my class even felt the European oomph and loosened the strings of their tops. “We’re abroad,” they said, with nonchalance. I even rolled up my boardshorts, hoping to tan my ghostly white thighs—instead, I acquired lobster quads.
At the temple, many tourists (not just three-piece wearing Germans) ambled around after the large tour buses had dropped them off in a timely manner for the sunset. Languages from around the world buzzed below the columns of the temple, photos were asked to be taken by strangers, selfie sticks were stretched into the sky and peace signs were being thrown enthusiastically. A western wind blew the coolness of the sea over everyone, chilling the sweaterless.
As a class, led by our two professors, we were asked to gather in a circle to do another reading. Typically, in public, I cringe at being seen with a large group, but, the number of fanny-packs, bucket hats, and passport necklaces worn by the tourists around us eased me. Plus, I am a nerd, and love hearing poetry read aloud.
That day’s pick was on the nose — Byron’s “The Isles of Greece,” a 96-line canto, a poem within a poem, the satirical “Don Juan.” This specific section is an ode for the country and voices his passion for its independence from the Ottoman Empire and even mentions Sounion. Byron began the poem in 1819, five years before his death. One by one, we belted the verse over the sound of the sea, the wind, and the tour buses humming the engines far below until its final stanza—
Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die:
A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine—
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!
With the final line, Byron’s toast, we raised our own plastic glasses that we had brought and filled with more cheap wine. We downed its sweetness in one gulp as the sun fell.
Afterward, a few of us began our search for Byron’s graffiti. And as I wandered the ruins of the temple, I began to wonder what it was that had drawn Byron so deeply to Greece, to fight so strongly for its independence. As such a rich, famous, and talented man, he could have easily passed his life writing, using his legendary handsomeness and flirtation to sleep his way across the world and into the hearts of more men and women. Where did his sudden allegiance to a place that wasn’t his home come from?
From what I learned, the answer is best shown post-mortem. After passing, much of Europe mourned the loss of their celebrity. Imagine a rockstar-like passing, comparable to the mania that surrounded Michael Jackson’s death. It is said that while his body was being prepared to be sent back to England, the Greeks literally kept his heart in Missolonghi. The Greeks named towns and sons after him, and there was even talk that had he survived the war, he may have been named king.
But when his corpse arrived in London’s royal Westminster Abbey, it was said his body was rejected for burial due to “questionable morality.” Questionable morality? Certainly his queerness, possibly his rumored incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta. But the reason he removed himself from England in the first place was to escape its confines, as his friend wrote, to explore. And so, he became a writer who “lived his writings.”
While the chaos of 19th century Greece was more accepting than his homeland, it wasn’t perfect. But the Isles of Greece show that he found a love of place, a home in his heart, even if he knew it could never run through his blood.
From what we had read online, his graffiti was a little harder to find than originally planned as a wire fence kept tourists off the ruins, and the inscription was rather small. With a hint from our professor, we found it at the base of the ruins.
There, in the corner, etched on the second block of ancient marble, was “BYRON” in neat calligraphy.
Now, for the record, I’m against tagging one’s name on ancient artifacts and natural features, hell, even desks and lockers and with locks on bridges. It seems self-important and negligent. Ruffian and puerile. Who cares if JED & JESSICA were here or there? Or if John jerked off in a given bathroom stall? I don’t.
But for some reason, Byron’s name among the other many other 100+ year old defacements was all right by me. Listen, graffiti-ing isn’t a good look for anyone, but if anyone pulled it off, it was “the mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Byron. It added a layer.
In the end, was it anticlimactic? A bit. The temple, its views, and the Greek sunset far surpassed the etching. It was also, quite honestly, hard to really see. I also have a habit of forgetting my glasses at important times and that day was no exception.
By the way, there is a school of thought that points out that there is no evidence the graffiti is Byron’s. There isn’t much to catch him red-handed, after all, and it could have been one of his hundreds of thousands crazy fans. But does it matter if the inscription is Byron’s or not?
The story here, at least to me, is a classic one. It’s the story of finding your own family as a queer person. For some of us, those are friend groups in our cities, our drag mothers and sisters, our allies and our best friends, for others, it is the voices, prose and texts of our literary heroes, the films, songs, and art of our idols.
For Byron, it was the spirit of an entire country on the brink of independence. But not just any country, one with ancient history that although imperfect, validated (and at times celebrated) his queerness.
Whether or not he literally carved himself into a lineage of godliness and greatness on the blocks of a man-loving divinity’s temple during one of his two visits is trifling, for Byron has clearly left much deeper marks.