In 1850, British public opinion of Greece had hit rock bottom. Some years earlier, in 1847 James Mayer de Rothschild had been visiting Athens during the Greek Orthodox Easter to discuss a possible loan, and the city government decided to ban the traditional custom of burning the effigy of Judas, thinking that Rothschild might be offended by the tradition. Enraged, the Greeks attacked the home of Don Pacifico, Consul General of Portugal and a British subject. As he was Jewish, the Athenians believed he had something to do with the banning.
The Greek government refused to pay Pacifico compensation, citing that the claimed damages were impossibly great, with some estimates of the claimed sum as being larger than the value of the Greek Royal Palace. Greece also stated the issue of damages was for the courts, not the government. Seeking redress, Don Pacifico made an appeal to the government of Britain for help. Britain demanded control over two Greek islands and then blockaded Piraeus for two months until Greece paid Don Pacifico the compensation requested.

In the midst of this turmoil, Florence Nightingale, who would go on to be considered the founder of modern nursing, a secular saint of contemporary times (although she was deeply religious), arrived in Greece. Steeped in the classics thanks to her father’s instruction, she pondered over the writings of Plato and Aeschylus and considered fifth century BC Athens to be the golden age of civilization. The contrast with what she encountered in her travels gave her pause and she recorded her musings in a voluminous correspondence with her sister Parthenope, named after the original Greek colony in Naples. A century a half later, her impressions, biases and ruminations emerge from the page, as fresh and as thought provoking as ever.

Approaching Greece, Nightingale considered this not as an arrival, but as an idealised homecoming: “I doubt whether anyone ever first saw that graceful outline, those lovely mountains, without feeling my Greece, my home, instead of looking upon it as mere panorama.”

Indeed, according to her, the natural splendour of Greece spoke to her conviction, common in her time, that terrain determines the evolution of a people: “I think the outlines of a country speak so much of the character of its inhabitants: the square corners of the Egyptian ridges speaking of law, of order and love of philosopher and drawing conclusions; the exquisite gracefulness of those peaks of Greece, in which there is nothing savage (even when crowned with snow)… but only variety… speak of the love of beauty and liberty, not for the sake of a fierce and rugged independence, but because it is beautiful. The mountains…seem to invite you in, as long as you do not molest what they love.”

Yet at the same time that she was extolling the Greek people’s love of freedom, she condemned the Greeks for their disobedience to the British. Anchoring in Argostoli and watching Cephallonians embark and disembark, she noted: “Of course, my British eyes were averted with disgust from that stiff-necked generation and rebellious people.”

The dichotomy between the real and the imagined Greece of her consciousness gradually becomes wider. On the one hand, sailing near the Ismthus of Corinth, she noted admiringly: “you think every individual here must have been a hero or a philosopher; there could not have been room for the common herd.” At the same time she noted, in orientalising fashion, that the modern Greeks travelling with her on her ship were: “pallikars, who cannot sit or stand like Christians, but lie in every possible attitude, yet not like the Arab.”

Even their clothes arouse her ire. Whereas for her, the ancient Greeks assume gigantic proportions, their modern descendants are a gaudy, little people: “I like the young man’s dress least of all, with his full white fustanella and his tight girdle, like a wasp, and his long hair under the red cap. It is too much like the theatre…. They look like dwarfs.”

Florence Nightingale’s obsession with size resonates again and again in her Greek writings. Sailing past Acarnania, she remarks: “It is all so little,” a sentiment she will give full expression to when she arrives in Athens, referring to the Acropolis as: “a cork model, like an antiquarians’ plaything,” in which, thanks to Lord Elgin, she was not entirely off the mark. Similarly she describes the Thereum as being: “nothing for the life of me, but a baby house.” Her difficulty adjusting to the scale of modern Greece, observing: “The Acropolis is so small…. That in Edinburgh is ten times grander,” leads her to marvel even more, albeit incredulously, at the accomplishments of the ancient Greeks, struggling to take their environment seriously: “One can’t help laughing, and really, out of their little place, one says, came the people who resisted the whole of the East, who civilized half the West? It is like the mouse saving the lion, like Gulliver among the Brobdignags.”

Scale and size notwithstanding, she constantly returns to her feelings of admiration for Greek civilization, rendering a confession as a true believer: “I have seen and believed, believed in the power of genius here, of Grecian inspiration, which breathed life into everything it touched, the lie of its own overflowing reverence for human nature….” Whereas in Egypt, according to her, “they raised and exalted God,” in Greece, they “deified man,” resulting in “the worship of perfect goodness.”

Some men are more worthy of deification than others. Arriving in Patras, she mused of the “valiant” freedom-fighting ‘Archbishop’ Germanus, and his successors: “Patras is sacred to the memory of Germanus with its little citadel, whence he drove out the Turk. Alas for him that that was all, and a Christian Turk now holds their place.” Developing her theme of the ungrateful, oriental modern Greek further, she will write, while in Athens: “I have been introduced to the hero of Missolonghi, Mavrocordatos, and his wife…living in Athens upon literally nothing, or rather upon the hope of the cause ultimately prospering for which he has sacrificed all.” That venality and ingratitude extended to the nephew of Markos Botsaris who had applied for admission in the Greek Military Academy: “he passed his examination brilliantly…was at the head of everything and was rejected – because said the king, the Botzaris did not work for me.” Philhellene Sir Richard Church, also proves the rule according to Nightingale: “He is now living here upon nothing, having been removed by the king from the superintendence of the army.”

It is in Athens too that Nightingale, will encounter the trademark that would ultimately enhance her myth. While strolling in the streets of the city, she rescued a juvenile little owl from a group of children who were tormenting it, and she named the owl Athena. Nightingale often carried the owl in her pocket, until the pet died soon before Nightingale left for Crimea.
Though modern Greek men fail to be compared favourably in Nightingale’s estimation with their hallowed ancient forebears, she is slightly more sympathetic to modern Greek women, though not to the extent that they too can measure up to their maternal predecessors. Comparing their features to classical statuary, she observes: “They were not goddesses, not in the least, but they might have been Aspasias…. But this was not the strength of passion which made the long enduring heroines of Missolonghi… Sophocle’s Antigone, what ideal of woman is there equal to her?”

Throughout her Greek travel writings Nightingale lavishes effusive praise upon ancient Greek art and religion: “Why has no genius, no art ever approached the Grecian? Why is Shakespeare only an artist, and Aeschylus inspired? Why is Greek art not art but inspiration?….The Greeks considered dramatic poetry… a sacred thing… a dedication to the gods.”

In contrast, the modern focus of the sacred for the Greeks, the Orthodox Church, is according to her, devoid of vitality and relevance: “The Greek Church is dead, it seems to me: the priests are her undertakers, the churches her vaults.” After attending a Good Friday service, she muses: “I don’t savour the Greek religion. The priests are so ignorant, so indifferent, so careless of their people. There certainly are free of the fervour of proselytism, for they never do anything.” In her own opinionated way, she ascribes part of the blame for this perceived fault to the Roman Catholics: “The Roman Catholics have followed nearest in the steps of the Greeks in their appreciation of heroism, their divinizing of what human nature might be brought to arrive at, but the Greek made his tree too luxuriant – the Roman Catholic ran his up into a pole, by hint of lopping and pruning.”

As time goes on, Nightingale’s admiration for the ancient Greek heritage permits her to begin feeling affection for its modern beneficiaries, although she cannot quite view the contemporary landscape without recourse to ancient lenses and a good dose of British condescension: “I am getting to feel the very diminutiveness of Athens makes her more… touching…It is like the infant Hercules strangling the serpents, like Persephone in the infernal regions.. like the boy Christ among the doctors.” In the least, she begins to view her surrounds seriously: “I cannot laugh any more when I look up at the Acropolis… you see what enabled this little ground plot to do so much…”

“I wish I could express what I feel for these dear people here,” Nightingale gushed to her sister. Her conflicted sympathies were not so sufficient as to override her abiding loyalty to Britain. As such she viewed Greece’s concerns and Britain’s high handed management of the Don Pacifico, affair, which was resolved as yet another example of tough love meted out to a little people manifesting gross in gratitude to its steadfast, noble and eternal benefactors,: “it will be for the Greek nation to discover that, while its government has been like the hare applying to its many friends, it has not lost its one real friend to whom it owes its existence, and to whose navy it owes the destruction of its enemies and the severe lesson just now given on the old maxim, “England expects every man to do his duty.”

Florence Nightingale never lost her fascination with complex understanding the Greek world. While retaining the biases of her time, this remarkable, erudite woman, came to appreciate the intrinsic value of a people and its varied topographies that, in her words, though: “battered and broken, are very beautiful.”