BMCR 2002.03.04

In Byron’s Shadow: Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination

, In Byron's shadow : modern Greece in the English & American imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xxii, 385 pages). ISBN 9780198032908 $55.00.

This book is an investigation of the images of Greece that occur in English and American literature and rhetoric from the end of the eighteenth century to, in effect, the early 1970s. It falls into three parts, more or less equal in length, which are bracketed by an introduction and conclusion and followed by extensive notes and bibliography and a disappointing index which is both incomplete and of names only, when there are so many themes to be pursued throughout the book. In the first part of the book Roessel looks at mainly English-language literature about Greece from 1770, when Europeans were somewhat inspired by a brief and unsuccessful uprising in the Peloponnese against the Turks and philhellenism became a serious movement, to 1833, the end of the War of Independence. The second part covers the period from 1833 to the eve of the First World War, which can safely be called the ‘Byronic’ phase because in this period no one cared to revise the Byronic image of Greece. The third part covers subsequent developments, above all the ending of the ‘Greece of Byron’. Each of these three parts contains a thorough survey of the relevant literature but is also firmly anchored in the political history of Greece, because, as even a superficial glance at the literature shows, Greece was seen largely as a projection of various political or anti-political ideas and ideals. The conclusion shows how, more recently, political views of Greece have given way to the idea that Greece is a place where westerners (in fiction and reality) can go to discover themselves as individuals.

There have been a number of studies on the influence of ancient Greece on modern literature, but considerably fewer with Roessel’s perspective and none with his thoroughness. There is no point in my comparing this book to any other, because there is no other like it. In Fair Greece, Sad Relic (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1954), Terence Spencer covered the images of Greece in English literature from Shakespeare to Byron; Roessel’s book is, if you like, a sequel. It will come as no surprise that Spencer found that the image of ancient Greece that was most commonly perpetuated in English literature from the sixteenth to early-nineteenth centuries was that of a paragon of good taste, manly virtue, and culture. Roessel, however, dealing as he is largely with Byron and later literature, is more concerned with modern Greece than ancient Greece, though the two often intertwine. Indeed (a favourite theory of mine), one could say that the intertwining of ancient and modern is what has made Greece, and especially Athens, what it is today, largely as a result of her political aspirations in the nineteenth century.1 Since Byron himself was deeply influenced by his predecessors’ idealized vision of ancient Greece and since subsequent literature on Greece was heavily influenced by Byron, this, I would say, is how the intertwining of ancient and modern came to pervade nineteenth-century literature.

The first part of the book charts the rise of philhellenism out of Hellenism. Philhellenes took the Hellenists’ idealized portrait of Greece, which included the notion that ancient Greeks had lived in freedom, and transformed it into a call for the liberation of Greece from Turkey. Thus philhellenism was from the outset a political movement, designed to bring pressure on the superpowers to free the country that was seen as the foundation of European values from eastern despotism (this was sometimes expressed in racist terms as freeing whites from a non-white people), and even to spread revolution to other oppressed peoples of Europe. Although there were plenty of scholars at the time who were critics of Athenian democracy, the philhellenes were able to ignore them. Indeed, they were able to ignore everything they didn’t like, and in many cases even spouted their idealized versions of ancient and modern Greece without ever visiting the country, and without a thought for Greece’s future beyond liberation. It is one of Roessel’s main purposes in the book to show how often and how much the reality of Greece was simply ignored by these starry-eyed myth-makers, and to his credit he uses the occasional flash of humour to illustrate the point as much as comprehensive scholarship.

Byron’s influence was immense. In fact, the main claim put forward in Roessel’s book is that, both in form and content, English and American views of Greece were dictated almost entirely by Byron, not only during and shortly after his lifetime, but long after the War of Independence was over. Despite the facts that (in his prose work, at least) Byron himself could on occasion be ambivalent about the prospects for Greek freedom and display irritation at Greek squabbles and that the governments of the day were nowhere near as philhellenic as the European ‘literary left’, European involvement in Greece was heavily influenced by the Byronic vision of Greece as a ‘sad relic’ and of noble, almost ‘primitive savage’ Greeks in need of saving from tyranny, poverty, and other evils, by the enlightened but sensitive European male. Roessel well brings out one of the most important aspects of this, which is that Greeks had to accept, and exploit, the European construction of their future in order to marshal vital European resources in their struggle against the Turks. While Europeans could happily ignore the frequent brutality and lack of patriotism of the brigand klephts, educated Greeks translated European notions about Greece back into Greek for Europeans to ‘discover’ as authentically Greek. To my mind, the corollary of this was well encapsulated by the Greek intellectual Iakovakis Rizos Neroulis, who remarked in 1838 that the Greeks owed their freedom to their ancient ruins. It was the vision of Greece as a symbol of perfection, in need of restoration, that attracted often patronizing European attention.

For all that Greek insurrection was seen in the West as a rediscovery of the manly virtue of ancient times, Greece was often depicted in contemporary literature and art as the female victim of Turkish oppression and quasi-sexual domination. For those of us brought up on ancient Greek views of the East as effeminate there are curious overtones here, for there is no doubt that Byron and his peers saw the conflict between Turkey and Greece as a direct reflection of that between Persia and Greece at the beginning of the fifth century BCE (and, further back, of the Trojan War). This portrait of Greece continued in the period covered in the second part of Roessel’s book: Greece was a symbol rather than a reality, frozen in a posture of struggling for freedom and echoing Thermopylae even when this was no longer historically relevant. At the same time, philhellenic writers ignored literary and artistic developments and remained Romantics. Pro-Greek sentiment was briefly dented by the Dilessi murders of 1870,2 but since it was already remote from historical events it was soon rekindled, and Greek brigands in both prose and poetry remained colourful, Robin Hood figures, not lawless murderers. In fact (and this another good point Roessel makes), philhellenists went to some lengths to distinguish ‘genuine’ Greece and its inhabitants from the more troublesome ‘Balkans’. Increased hostility to the Ottoman Empire in general towards the end of the nineteenth century fuelled the cause and brought it into mainstream political debate, whereas before it had largely been a literary and leftist movement.

In the third part of the book, Roessel surveys the changes to literature on Greece after the disillusionment of the First World War. At first, little changed: we meet the same romances as before; but Smyrna pricked the bubble and forced most writers on Greece to face reality. The drive for the salvation of Greece had been a reflection of the belief in the perfectibility of people in general, but after the First World War writers were necessarily more cynical, and some of them, like Hemingway, used Smyrna ‘as a metonym for the state of the world after the war’ (221). Greece, the Romantic archetype, began to drop out of literature until a new angle on it was created in about 1930. This is where Roessel locates the beginning of the idea that Greece was a place for personal self-discovery, under the aegis of Dionysus rather than Apollo, as earlier writers would have had it. Finally, Roessel shows how this ‘new philhellenism’ was severely damaged by the cruelties of the rule of the military junta from 1967 to 1974.

It’s hard to find fault with this book, not just because of its excellence, but because its main theses are actually few and straightforward: the dominance of Byron, the remoteness of philhellenism from reality, the projection of European interests onto Greece, the effect of political events on the literature. But Roessel’s survey of the political side of philhellenism is in danger, I think, of obscuring another aspect. It is one of his theses, as I have just said, that only recently has Greece become a place where one goes to find oneself, as an individual, in a fictional Shirley Valentine or Nicholas Urfe kind of way, or in reality, as Peter Levi did in The Hill of Kronos. Roessel traces this new trend to writers such as Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller and claims that earlier Greece was too politicized to allow such voyages of self-discovery, until Smyrna ‘depoliticized its soil and its Pans’ (269), and other countries such as Italy became politicized. But there was also an element of personal freedom and self-discovery earlier, linked, I suggest, with the view of Greece as an Arcadian wilderness where one could shed the complexities of European life and get back to basics, as well as being a corollary of the desire to free the Greeks from oppression. It is clear, for instance, that Byron himself felt he found his mission in life in Greece, and in many of the romances which Roessel summarizes so well the hero (or heroine) is brought by his experiences in Greece to cast off conditioning and build a future more suited to his essential character. There are many examples of this, but here’s just one: in Julia Dragoumis’s story ‘North and South’ (1912), an American woman discovers true happiness only on Poros. I don’t need to labour the point because Roessel himself is well aware that philhellenism was not as one-dimensional as he tends to suggest. He well brings out the political aspect of this: a movement which aimed at widespread European revolution was simultaneously proclaiming the superiority of European over Eastern culture. At an individual level, on pp. 15 and 56 Roessel quotes with approval the thesis of Jerome McGann that the ‘renewal of Greece as a political entity’ was for Byron an ‘objective correlative’ of the ‘renewal of the value of the individual person’; and he also notes on p. 24 that one version of the Hellenism out of which philhellenism sprang was ‘the salvation of the individual through the contemplation of ancient beauty’.

This book is a sheer delight. It is rare to come across such a combination of readability, anecdotal pleasure, intelligence, research (including the ability to wade through some pretty terrible fiction), erudition and passion. Roessel’s book is no mere survey and synopsis of literature, though of course there is a great deal of this. He pursues a number of interesting theses with keen intelligence, and the pages are dotted with insights — too many to summarize. There are a few minor misprints and other careless features: an author might be cited by page number alone when he has more than one entry in the bibliography — that kind of thing. But nothing could detract from the pleasure of reading this book.


1. On the reflection of these aspirations in nineteenth-century Athenian building and rebuilding policies, see Eleni Bastéa’s excellent book, The Creation of Modern Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

2. The affair is well covered by Romilly Jenkins, The Dilessi Murders: Greek Brigands and English Hostages (London: Longmans, 1961).