Like Miletus, Once So Great the Ruins of This Once-Great Greek City, Founded by the Ancient Greeks on the Coast of What Is Now Turkey, Carry a Melancholy Feeling of the Past. Besieged by Conquerors and Buried under a Tide of Mud, the City's Tragic Demise Is Mirrored in the Classical Poetry of Lord Byron

By Marien, Mary Warner | The Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 1990 | Go to article overview

Like Miletus, Once So Great the Ruins of This Once-Great Greek City, Founded by the Ancient Greeks on the Coast of What Is Now Turkey, Carry a Melancholy Feeling of the Past. Besieged by Conquerors and Buried under a Tide of Mud, the City's Tragic Demise Is Mirrored in the Classical Poetry of Lord Byron


Marien, Mary Warner, The Christian Science Monitor


I've stood upon Achilles' tomb And heard Troy doubted; time will doubt of Rome.

Byron, "Don Juan," Canto IV

BYRON was wrong. Time does not doubt of Troy or Rome. But who today remembers the achievements of Miletus? The grandeur and the erudition of the city of Miletus passed from the collective memory before 1900. Our Victorian forebears, taught by rote, memorized "The Wise Men of Greece," a set of poems by J.S. Blackie. One verse contains the lines, "The wise man of Miletus thus declared/ The first of things is water."

That was probably the last the average person heard of what in 6th-century B.C. was the greatest city in the Greek world, the beacon of Western science and civilization. Miletus was, as an archeologist has written, "one of the most beautiful and important cities of the ancient world for over a thousand years."

II Maid of Athens! I am gone Think of me, sweet, when alone. Though I fly to Istanbol (sic), Athens holds my heart and soul:

Byron, "Maid of Athens, Ere We Part"

George Gordon, Lord Byron sailed from Athens to Turkey in March of 1810. He landed at Izmir, ancient Smyna, in the center of the coast of Asia Minor, and traveled to the site of the temple of Artemis at the ruined city of Ephesus. The unexcavated city did not inspire him. Sourly, he wrote that "the temple has almost perished, and St. Paul need not trouble himself to epistolize the present brood of Ephesians." On the Greek mainland, deserted Delphi, similarly buried, had similarly bored him.

The remains of ancient Greece visible in Turkey barely touched Byron's poetry. In "Childe Harold" he claimed, wrongly it turns out, to have beheld the famous temple of Artemis at Ephesis. In "Don Juan" he wrote of hearing jackals wail in the Ephesian ruins.

Although the particular stretch of coast Byron visited is replete with antiquities, Byron did not fully embrace the presence of ancient Greece in early 19th-century Turkey. He viewed the Turks as the oppressors of modern Greece. His poetry rings with resentment. In what may be his most quoted passage, he dreams "that Greece might still be free." Little wonder then that during his brief stay on the western Turkish coast he did not continue from Ephesus along the rough track a few score miles south to Miletus.

III There is a temple in ruin stands, Fashion'd by long forgotten hands; Two or three columns, and many a stone, Marble and granite, with grass o'ergrown! Out upon Time! it will leave no more Of the things to come than the things before! Out upon Time! who for ever will leave But enough of the past for the future to grieve O'er that which hath been, and o'er that which must be: What we have seen, our sons shall see; Remnants of things that have pass'd away, Fragments of stone, rear'd by creatures of clay!

Byron, "The Siege of Corinth"

For much of the 19th century, Miletus was a reedy swamp, strewn with columns and debris. …

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Like Miletus, Once So Great the Ruins of This Once-Great Greek City, Founded by the Ancient Greeks on the Coast of What Is Now Turkey, Carry a Melancholy Feeling of the Past. Besieged by Conquerors and Buried under a Tide of Mud, the City's Tragic Demise Is Mirrored in the Classical Poetry of Lord Byron
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