Jealousy and the Hellespont

It is not often I harbour feelings jealousy to people of the past. As an ancient historian that may seem odd, but I rarely want to live in the times I study. Recently, however, I was researching the bridging of the Hellespont in 480 BC by Xerxes I (Herodotus 7.21.2, 7.25.1), and then the lengthy account of the crossing itself (complete with digressions) 7.34-57. 7.34.1 names Abydos as the starting point across to the closest part of the opposite shore which is Sestos.

During that research, I came across a poem of George Gordon, Lord Byron, written in May 1810 called ‘Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos’. Dear reader, I had pangs and turned thoroughly green with envy. Byron swam the route across the Hellespont of Xerxes’ bridge. My apologies to those familiar with Byron who may be tutting “well, of course” at their screens as they read, but I did not know of the poem before now.


In 1810 Byron was already relatively famous (or infamous) as a poet, although his real celebrity would follow in 1812. Byron had also incurred immense debts as a young man and took the opportunity to travel to defer payment and avoid creditors. Thus, Byron was in the east on his Grand Tour from 1809 to 1811. Due to the ongoing Napoleonic Wars, Byron had to avoid Europe so he headed to the Mediterranean. He travelled to Portugal, Spain, Greece, and then Turkey with his friend from Cambridge (from 1805-7) John Hobhouse, Lord Broughton. He visited Athens and then travelled to Smyrna on the western edge of Anatolia. From there he gained a ride on a British frigate HMS Salsette which would take them to Constantinople. And it was on Salsette, while awaiting permission from the Ottoman government to dock in Constantinople, that Byron’s swim took place.


Byron noted that on May 3rd 1810, he and the frigate captain swam from Europe to Asia from Sestos on the European side of the Dardanelles to Abydos on the Asian side. The British Consul of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli attempted to dissuade them from undertaking so risky a venture.

They swam a distance of 4 English miles (6.43km) because of the current even though the distance across was barely one mile (1.61 km) "entering a considerable way above the European, and landing below the Asiatic, fort". The swim took one swimmer an hour and five minutes (the other an hour and ten – Byron only revealed in 1821 his was the slower time). He noted that the water was extremely cold and that he had attempted to swim the strait further south some three weeks earlier, but the water in April was too cold.

Some claim that Byron’s swim, in essence, invented recreational open water swimming. It certainly seems to be the first incident which was widely publicized. Certainly the event is commemorated every year with the Sahap Tarzi Swimming Contest. Yet, Byron points out that he had heard of several other attempts before his. He also states that members of the crew of the Salsette had swum further. Nonetheless, it was Byron’s swim which was latched on to.

On the 9th Byron penned ‘Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos’ (May 9, 1810)

If, in the month of dark December,
    Leander, who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember?)
    To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!

If, when the wintry tempest roar’d,
    He sped to Hero, nothing loth,
And thus of old thy current pour’d,
    Fair Venus! how I pity both!

For me, degenerate modern wretch,
    Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
    And think I’ve done a feat to-day.

But since he cross’d the rapid tide,
    According to the doubtful story,
To woo, – and – Lord knows what beside.
    And swam for Love, as I for Glory;

‘Twere hard to say who fared best:
Sad mortals! thus the Gods still plague you!
He lost his labour, I my jest:
    For he was drown’d. and I’ve the ague.


Clearly, the feat which inspired Byron was not Xerxes’ crossing but the myth of Leander and Hero. Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, lived in a tower in Sestos and Leander, a young man from Abydos, had fallen in love with her. Every night he would swim across (in the opposite direction of Byron’s swim); Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him. Their affair lasted all summer and they agreed to part during the autumn and winter but to resume in spring. During a stormy winter’s night, however, Leander saw the light and began to swim. The wind blew out the light and he lost his way, drowning in the treacherous waters. When Hero saw his body in the water, she threw herself into the waters to be with him. Their bodies washed up onto the shore in an embrace. They were buried in a lover's tomb on the shore.

Byron was inspired by antiquity and ancient history (not just myth) but did not mention in his poem or other writings the route of Xerxes’ march. But, being a military historian, that is what my mind first conjured.

Byron returned to England in 1811 aboard another frigate, HMS Volage which he caught in Malta. Written After Swimming was published in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Cantos I & II (1812). The collection was an instant success. Byron became a celebrity and was invited everyone and wanted to be seen by all in London. A much later letter, written in 1821 to publisher John Murray, recalled the swim (in response to criticism from a William Turner in his Journal of a Tour in the Levant (published by John Murray in 1820)). It seems that Mr. Turner had attempted the swim from Abydos to Sestos and failed and challenged Byron’s feat, claiming he only made the easier passage (and also claiming that Leander could not have made the swim). Byron responded that his purpose was to see if the Hellespont could be swum at all. He also explained that the reason to set out from Sestos rather than Abydos was simply expedient:

“My object was, to ascertain that the Hellespont could be crossed at all by swimming, and in this Mr. Ekenhead and myself both succeeded, the one in an hour and ten minutes, and the other in one hour and five minutes. The tide was not in our favour; on the contrary, the great difficulty was to bear up against the current, which, so far from helping us into the Asiatic side, set us down right towards the Archipelago. Neither Mr. Ekenhead, myself, nor, I will venture to add, any person on board the frigate, from Captain Bathurst downwards, had any notion of a difference of the current on the Asiatic side, of which Mr. Turner speaks. I never heard of it till this moment, or I would have taken the other course. Lieutenant Ekenhead’s sole motive, and mine also, for setting out from the European side was, that the little cape above Sestos was a more prominent starting place, and the frigate, which lay below, close under the Asiatic castle, formed a better point of view for us to swim towards; and, in fact, we landed immediately below it.”


The feat was also recalled in Byron’s famous Don Juan, Canto II, stanza cv where autobiographical details of Byron’s own trip were included in the Don’s.

“A better swimmer you could scarce see ever,
⁠He could perhaps have passed the Hellespont,
As once (a feat on which ourselves we prided)
Leander, Mr. Ekenhead, and I did.”

 Elsewhere, too, Byron’s love of swimming and the feat of swimming the Hellespont is referenced (Childe Harold, Canto IV, stanza clxxxiv, line 3; Bride of Abydos, Canto II, stanza i).

The Dardanelles is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, linking the Black Sea with the Aegean, Mediterranean and wider world, so the feat is more difficult today but the Sahap Tarzi Swimming Contest (also known as the Çanakkale Dardanelles swim or race) organised each year in Turkey since 1987 allows people to repeat it. The shipping lanes are closed for 1½ hours (strictly observed) – it isn’t possible to attempt the swim at any other time. The average number of competitors seems to be 300 (although in 2010 there were 471). (I could comment on the significance of that number in regard to the wider Persian Wars but that will have to wait for another time). Swimtrek organise an international contingent.

There are slight differences, it is swum in late August (not May as Byron did it or earlier in the year as Xerxes probably did). Again, the route is Europe to Asia rather than the original way around. Apparently, the reverse swim (which Leander accomplished many times) is considerably more difficult. What is more, the modern race is from Eceabat in Europe to Çanakkale in Asia – both slightly south of the Sestos/Abydos line. The actual narrowest point (only 1.2 km across) is between Çanakkale and Kilitbahir (directly east-west). The modern route attempts to avoid the strong currents whereas Byron, Leander (and Xerxes) learned of them (to their cost) – Byron only in the distance and time but Leander paid with his life and Xerxes’ first bridge was washed away.


Now, there is another reason for my fascination with this particular swim. My first school (in Te Atatu South, Auckland, New Zealand) was Freyberg Memorial Community School. I didn’t realise then how ‘exclusive’ that was. The school commemorates Bernard Cyril Freyberg, Lieutenant-General, 1st Baron Freyberg, VC, GCMG, KCB, KBE, DSO & Three Bars. Of course, at school between the ages of five and seven we learned all about him. He served in both World Wars and commanded the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Second World War.

His first claim to fame, however, came in his swimming of the Dardanelles in 1915. Freyberg was born in 1889 and emigrated to New Zealand at the age of two. He was a champion swimmer and trained as a dentist. He continued swimming and was in the United States in 1914 when he travelled to Britain to enlist in August. In London, he joined the Royal Naval Brigade and was on the Western Front by September.

In April 1915, Freyberg was involved in the forthcoming Dardanelles campaign (known as Gallipoli if you are a New Zealander or Australian, its date, April 25th, is a sombre day of commemoration in both countries, the equivalent of Remembrance Day on November 11th, although we observe that day too). The night before the landings, on April 24th, Freyberg “earned himself immortality” by swimming ashore on the Gulf of Saros (on the north-western shore of the peninsula) towing a raft of flares which he then set off on the beach before swimming back to his destroyer. These were intended to convince Turkish commanders that the attack would not be at Gallipoli. For this Freyberg was awarded his first Distinguished Service Order.

I suppose that the memory of the story of Freyberg’s swim has been with me since – brought up by my recent discovery some forty-five years later. Freyberg was wounded and evacuated in January 1916, but would return to service and go on to be awarded the Victoria Cross for actions on the Western Front in 1916 at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre, France (but that is a different blog!). 

There have been some famous repetitions of Byron’s swim (not to mention all the competitors) and there are also swims across the Bosphorus Strait from Europe to Asia. Georgian Henri Kuprashvili swam the Bosphorus Strait with his hands and feet bound (a particular type of military training technique in Georgia) in 2002. I have never visited Turkey (it is on the bucket list) but, as I dug deeper (like an unavoidable addiction), I discovered more and more connections to the story which only made my jealousy a deeper shade of green.

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