Swimming the Hellespont
This was his inspiration.
And this, he, who was inspired.
It was 200 years ago today that the Lord, famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” swam across the Hellespont, on May 3rd, 1810.
One might wonder what is so exceptional about this feat. In simplest terms, the Hellespont, now called the Dardanelles, connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and eventually to the Black Sea. What’s notable about all that water is that it separates Europe from Asia. Hence, by swimming across the Hellespont, Lord Byron, always mindful of his public persona became the first known individual to swim the famed waterway.
Daring — some might think. But others might suspect his aristocratic excesses, huge debts, numerous love affairs, limitless scandals and bouts of self-imposed exile provided him no choice in the matter. Not so, dear reader.
At the time of Byron’s swim, he was a strapping 22 year old, on the Grand Tour, which was customary for noblemen of that age. He was also renowned for his personal beauty, which he enhanced by wearing curl-papers in his hair at night. But athletic prowess was what dominated his thoughts on this day of the fateful swim. He was athletic, being a competent boxer, horse-rider and an excellent swimmer.
On that third day of May in 1810, it was said he was greatly inspired by romance and Greek mythology. The young man, after all, according to his own mother, suffered from uncontrollable passions: “He has no indisposition that I know of but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies in my opinion. In short, the boy is distractedly in love.”
While the good Lord’s love life eventually became as renowned as his writings, at that tender age, he was fueled by a youthful libido and the enchanted story of mythological lovers, Hero and Leander, who lived on opposite sides of the sea, the sea of which we speak — Leander on the Asian side, and Hero, a beautiful priestess of Aphrodite, on the European side.
According to legend, each night Leander would swim across a stretch of this body of saltwater to meet his lover Hero, who would guide him by holding up a lighted torch.
One fateful night, during a storm, the young hero, Leander, drowned. The grief-stricken Hero threw herself from a tower. (These were, pre-pharmaceutical times, after all). Here, the two dead lovers are shown in their tragic, final embrace, as their lives drift away. The tones of their glowing, sensual skin are set off against a somber sea and storm clouds. A prophetic and apt description that would come to define the life and times of our flawed hero.
But I get ahead of the story. In 1810, on the day of Byron’s aquatic feats, the Hellespont, in its narrowest spot, was only about a kilometer across, or .62 miles. But because of the strong current, it wasn’t possible to swim straight across. The alternate and more prudent route was about four and a half kilometers, or 2.8 miles.
It is reported that Byron did the breast stroke the entire way, completing the fabled swim in one hour and ten minutes. Not very heroic or terribly far, you might say, but those being the times, it was “glorified”, nevertheless, as the first famous open-water swim from Europe to Asia, christening the birth of the sport.
Performed no less, by one of the leading men of his day with a reputation for courageousness, flamboyance, eccentricity, adventure and self promotion. So self aware was the infamous Lord that his personal promotion would come to be viewed by historians as the beginning of what would become the staging and branding of the modern rock star. Lord Byron, understanding the power of image, would instruct artists painting portraits of him, not to paint him with pen or book in hand, but as a “man of action.”
Hence, it was not surprising to learn that the Lord, himself, contributed to his own glorification of the events of that day two hundred years ago by telling his trusted manservant than when people inquired, the faithful valet should exaggerate his liege lord’s swim of 2.8 miles to the more manly distance of three and a half.
Hero and Leander in Moonlight Seascape, Theodor von Holst
Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips (1777 – 1845)
The Parting of Hero and Leander, William Etty, 1827
Hero and Leander, William Etty, 1828