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.

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. Only its vast theater was untouched by the winter floods. Yet this ruined city, with its residue of buildings caught in the slow-moving mud of the Meander River, had the melancholic sense of an irretrievably vanished golden past that filled Byron's poetry. That Byron passed so close but did not see this emblem of his bittersweet classicism is itself Byronic: an instance of the sense of loss and unfulfilled aspiration that suffuses his poems on the classical past.

IV Here let me sit upon this massy stone, The marble column's yet unshaken base; Here, son of Saturn! was thy fav'rite throne: Mightiest of many such! Hence let me trace The latent grandeur of thy dwelling place.

Byron, ``Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,'' Canto II

Miletus was an old settlement when Homer wrote about it. The city's legendary founder, a mortal son of the god Apollo, gave his name to the site. Fearing the wrath of King Minos, builder of the famous labyrinth, Miletus fled the island of Crete.

At this point the myth unravels into many strands. A few Cretan artifacts have been found at Miletus, but there are many more Mycenean fragments from the heroic times Homer sang. In the ``Iliad,'' Homer wrote that the Milesians fought with the Trojans against the forces of Agamemnon.

In another story, Greeks called Ionians, from the northern reaches of the Peloponnesus, were driven from their land. They settled briefly around Athens, then moved in large numbers to the coast of Asia Minor. In one version, Neleus, the son of the king of Athens, led the people from Athens to Miletus, fixing a permanent bond between the two cities.

The Greek historian Herodotus, who was born not far from Miletus, wrote that the area was a ``region where the air and climate are the most beautiful in the whole world: for no other region is equally blessed....'' Miletus, famed for its four well-protected harbors, grew to be the chief trading city of Asia Minor. It set up nearly 90 colonies throughout what is modern Turkey. In the 6th century B.C., Miletus was the most beautiful and powerful city in the west. Miletus was unrivaled: ``the glory of Ionia,'' as Herodotus called it.

V 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

Byron, ``The Isles of Greece'' in ``Don Juan,'' Canto III

Standing on Sunium's (modern: Sounion) marbled steep today, one cannot easily drift with the waves into revery. Tour buses make the hour-long trip from Athens with noisy regularity. Litter drifts through the temple's few remaining columns. The only swans are large metal ones: commercial and military planes that begin the descent into the Athens airport at the appearance of Sounion's profile.

Even when one tunes out the modern din, the little temple of Poseidon at Sounion seems more Keatsian than Byronic. It is faintingly sweet and fragile, incapable of sustaining Byron's torrential nostalgia and sense of bereavement. What he called his ``maddening fascination'' with Greece was a fascination with a fall from perfection.

Byron dwelled on decay, and on the effects of ``war and wasting fire,/And years.'' In the second canto of ``Childe Harold,'' he challenges ``august Athena'': ``Where,/Where are thy men of might? thy grand in soul? Gone - glimmering through the dream of things that were....'' Byron's extravagant sadness needed to crystallize around more than this delicate temple. He should have seen Miletus.

But for all his classicism, Byron was not given to reading and research. Instead, he let himself take in the spirit of a place. Of his travels through Greece, he once said, ``I gazed at the stars and ruminated; took no notes, asked no questions.'' In the ruined Greek cities of Asia Minor, and especially at Miletus, he could have seen overgrown streets and heaps of civic buildings sullied with mud. At Miletus, he could have set himself to ponder amidst ``a nation's sepulchre!/Abode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn.''

VI Of Poets who come to us through distances Of time and tongues, the foster-babes of Fame. Life seems the smallest portion of existence.

Byron, ``Don Juan,'' Canto IV

Miletus had poets and playwrights, of course. ``The Milesian Tales by Aristides resemble Boccaccio's ``Decameron.'' But the city's greatest claim is as the birthplace of Western science. The Milesian temperament was given to orderly inquiry and systematizing. The Greek alphabet originated in Miletus, and was later adopted by the Athenians.

Thalles, the founder of Greek philosophy, was a Milesian. He was also ``the wise man of Miletus'' of our ancestors' rhyme. We don't remember him now, and we incorrectly ascribe his maxim, ``Know thyself,'' which was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, to the Athenians. In the ancient world, Thalles was one of the Seven Sages, along with Solon of Athens.

VII Man marks the earth with ruin - control Stops with the shore; - upon the watery plain The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain A shadow of man's ravage, save his own, When, for a moment, like a drop of rain, He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan, Without a grave, unknell'd, uncoffin'd and unknown.

Byron, ``Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,'' Canto IV

Herodotus tells us that when the Persian king, Darius, marched into western Asia Minor he defeated the Ionians and besieged Miletus by both land and sea. The entire Ionian fleet was burned off shore. The Persians drove ``mines under the walls, making use of every known device, until at length they took the citadel and the town....'' Miletus was leveled; it vanished from the landscape. The Persians, Herodotus continues, killed ``most of the men, and made the women and children slaves.''

In her book on ancient Asia Minor, Freya Stark gets the Athenian ache for lost Miletus exactly right. She writes: ``The people of the 5th century saw the whole shining structure of their past go down with Miletus.'' When the tragic-poet Phrynichus staged his drama, ``The Capture of Miletus,'' his Athenian audience began to weep. The playwright was later fined for paining the Athenians with a reminder of their calamitous loss.

After the Greeks defeated the Persians at Mycale, Miletus was rebuilt on its present site. Credit for the grid plan of the new city is given to Hippodamus of Miletus, who introduced right-angle city-planning to the West. The clear geometry and alliance of form and function can still be traced in the city's ruins.

When Miletus fell again, it was by Greek hands. The city was under Persian control when Alexander the Great rolled through Asia Minor. Alexander lay siege to Miletus, and took it after a brief battle.

VIII Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee - Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they? Thy waters washed them power while they were free, And many a tyrant since; their shores obey The stranger, slave, or savage; their decay Has dried up realms to desarts [sic]...

Byron, ``Childe Harold's Pilgrimage''

The whorl of Miletus' huge theater emerges from a small hill like the bent knee of a giant. Enlarged from a Greek original by the Romans, its vast vaulted corridors saw as many as 15,000 people pass to attend an event. From the top of the theater hill one can see distant glints of marble in the wetland below.

A pair of guardian lions, all weed-choked now, mark the outlines of Miletus' largest ancient harbor. The city was founded on a pleasant promontory near the point where the Meander met the sea. But with mindless indifference, the Meander pushed a plug of silt forward, at the rate of about 20 feet a year. By the 4th century A.D., despite the efforts of generations of ancient engineers, the delta passed the city, stilling its harbor. The island of Lade, crucial to the war-time strategy of both the Persians and Alexander the Great, was also engulfed in the mud.

Today, Lade looks like the hull of a stranded hulk, half submerged in the valley floor, a full four miles from the sea. Farmers plow around it, and crews of women and children pick cotton in the nearby fields, as they did when Byron passed through this part of Ionia.

On a warm day in spring, despite the white irises pushing up around the site, Miletus is rueful. Many guidebooks to Turkey respond to its sullen ambience by calling the place disappointing and by suggesting that the tourist move on quickly. Byron's little temple at Sounion and, for that matter, the buildings on the Athenian acropolis, have, in their ruined state, so many rich associations that they continue to live in contemporary Western culture. But the tissue of facts, fables, and references that would connect Miletus to the present seems permanently sundered.

Still, those would sense the vast scope of Byron's ``maddening fascination'' with the decay of the classical past might defy the guidebooks and spend an afternoon among the irises and the stones musing the ebb and flow of the city's fortunes. Miletus's history matches the seismic throes of the poet's temperament. One wishes that Byron had been the poet of Miletus precisely because he would not have prettified it. What he might have done is what history has not done: put Miletus past forgetting.

The beings of the mind are not of clay; Essentially immortal, they create And multiply in us a brighter ray And more beloved existence....

Byron, ``Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,'' Canto IV

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