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What Lord Byron Really Did for Greece and Why it Still Matters

The National Herald

Lord Byron (1788-1824) in a portrait by French painter and lithographer Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Byron’s decision to involve himself in Greek affairs came surprisingly late. When news of the start of the revolution there began arriving in the West, during April 1821, he had been living in Italy, at Ravenna. The month before, he had been disillusioned by the failure of the Italian nationalist movement, the Carbonari, to put up a fight against the Austrians. So disgusted was Byron with his Italian friends that he seems not even to have noticed the new outbreak of revolution in a country that had meant so much to him during his youthful travels there, and would again. It wasn’t until the spring of 1823 that Byron was ready to think about committing himself to the cause of Greece. He was now a very different man from the author of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage who had had himself painted at the age of twenty-five in the exotic local costume that he had purchased in Ioannina. Ten years later, Byron presented a very different appearance. He had aged. The decision was taken in June 1823. He had a military uniform made, and three ceremonial helmets for himself and his companions, in what passed at the time for Homeric style. He left Italy for Greece the following month.

Byron arrived in Cephalonia in August 1823. At the time the Ionian Islands were a British protectorate, and therefore officially neutral territory. From this vantage point he would spy out the land, before he committed himself further. Soon, he found that a stalemate had been reached in the war against the Turks; the Greek cause was threatening to fall apart in civil conflict. It has often been said that this was the worst possible time for Byron to arrive in Greece: the only thing left for him to do was to die, which he obligingly did. This is the story memorably told by the English diplomat and socialite Harold Nicolson, in a book written for the centenary of Byron’s death. According to Nicolson’s epigrammatic summing-up: “Lord Byron accomplished nothing at Missolonghi except his own suicide; but by that single act of heroism he secured the liberation of Greece...”

In this way was born the legend of the flawed Romantic hero who finally gave his life for a noble cause. On this interpretation, it was the death of a celebrity that helped to focus worldwide attention on the struggle of Greece, and so contributed to eventual victory. It’s true that this did happen afterwards. And it’s for this that Byron is remembered and his contribution celebrated in Greece to this day. But that’s only part of the story – the consequence of the tragic accident that was Byron’s death at Missolonghi on 19 April 1824. What Byron actually set out to do, and the effect that his involvement had on the course of history while he was alive, are quite different. The real story is less heroic, to be sure, but scarcely less dramatic. And I believe it shows that Byron really did make a lasting contribution to the outcome of the Revolution – not in the sphere of military action against the Ottomans, but in helping to resolve the internal, political conflict among the Greeks themselves, which was just as important in the long run.

This was essentially a clash between rival political concepts of what it meant to be free. On one side were the warlords, who had so recently proved themselves in action. Freedom, for these men, meant absolute self-sufficiency, the refusal to acknowledge any authority other than their own. Among their ranks, the leader was the strongest and the most charismatic, and the leader’s word was law. Ranged against the warlords were the modernizers. These were educated Greeks who had been brought up on the political theories of the European Enlightenment and took as their models the revolutionary constitutions of the United States and France. For our purposes, and for the time that Byron was in Greece, the chief protagonist of the modernizers was Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a polymath and astute politician who was proficient in eight languages and the only prominent man in Greece at the time to wear a European frock-coat and thick rimless spectacles. The most powerful of the warlords was Theodoros Kolokotronis, nicknamed ‘the Old Man of the Morea’, and still commemorated today as the very epitome of the fighting spirit embodied in the Greek Revolution.

On the day that Byron left Italy for Greece, 24 July 1823, in Tripolitsa (today’s Tripoli in the Peloponnese) the Vice-President of the Executive (Kolokotronis) summoned the President of the Legislature (Mavrokordatos) and told him that unless he resigned his office at once he would mount him backwards on a donkey and have him chased out of the Peloponnese with whips. This was the doctrine of the separation of powers reduced to absurdity. Mavrokordatos resigned in the face of this intimidation. The entire legislature panicked and fled the Peloponnese. For some months, it looked as though the Executive, dominated by Kolokotronis and the warlords, had triumphed over the modernizers led by Mavrokordatos.

These were the months that Byron spent in Cephalonia. Some have criticized him (at the time and ever since) for idling, even vacillating. But Byron in Cephalonia was not idle. Diplomatic dispatches were carried across seas, rain-swept mountain passes, and swollen rivers. Letters took weeks to travel from one side of Greece to the other. But by December, Byron knew the score, and had made up his mind. It was no good trying to be even-handed between the Greek factions. At stake, as he explained on more than one occasion, was nothing less than the “regeneration of a nation.” To this end, Byron threw in his lot with Mavrokordatos and the modernizers.

By the end of 1823 Greece had in effect two governments, one based at Kranidi in the northeast Peloponnese and made up of modernizers and their sympathizers, and a rival dominated by Kolokotronis and Petrobey Mavromichalis at Tripolitsa. Mavrokordatos by this time had been given a mandate by the Kranidi government to return to his former power-base of Missolonghi in western Greece and to take charge of operations there. Mavrokordatos arrived at Missolonghi on 12 December and almost immediately sent a boat to Cephalonia to fetch Byron to join him. In the event, Byron arrived at Missolonghi on 4 January after a hair-raising voyage involving near-capture by the Turks and shipwreck. He stepped ashore the next day, in a scene later made famous by the painter Theodoros Vryzakis. During the same days, the Kranidi government formally stripped the members of the rival government of office, and was duly defied from Tripolitsa. The civil war had begun.

Also in January 1824, a deputation from the Greek government, that had set out before the split, arrived in London. The purpose of the delegates was to raise a substantial loan from private British investors. A deal was concluded in February. On 22 March news reached Greece that the stupendous sum of 800,000 British pounds had been subscribed and would shortly be on its way. Byron was named as one of three commissioners responsible for its disbursement. Buoyed by this news, the Kranidi government went on the offensive against its rivals in the Peloponnese. During April 1824, while Byron was dying of fever at Missolonghi, the warlords holding Corinth and Tripolitsa surrendered to government forces. By early June, the first civil war was at an end. The government had come through this first, crucial round. Greece once again had a government. It would not all be plain sailing from there, far from it. But nowadays it’s becoming possible to see those months while Byron had been in Greece as a turning point – in the internal, political struggle for dominance that would determine the shape of everything that has happened in that country since.

When he made his decision in June 1823, Byron effectively gave up writing poetry. His great comic epic masterpiece, Don Juan, was left untouched, sixteen stanzas into its seventeenth canto. After that he wrote only one short poem that he completed, and a smaller number of drafts and fragments. Byron in Greece was no longer a poet, but a man of action. Remarkably, for someone of so changeable and inconstant a nature (a shortcoming of which he was well aware), Byron suddenly threw all his energies together behind a single purpose – and stuck to it too. Had he lived longer, all this might have turned out differently. But as it was, for the last ten months of his life Byron was more consistent and serious about the cause of Greece than he had ever been about anything. I believe that part of his purpose in going to Greece was to transform the impetus of Romantic poetry into political action, and thereby change the world.

During his hundred days in Missolonghi, in revolutionary Greece, Byron demonstrated his conviction that the Greek Revolution had the potential to bring into the world an entirely new kind of politics. He saw a free Greece as the first of a new kind of state in Europe, free of the old monarchical, feudal order, and based on the idea of the nation. As he explained it to his trusted lieutenant, the Italian count Pietro Gamba:

“those principles which are now in action in Greece will gradually produce their effect, both here and in other countries … I cannot … calculate to what a height Greece may rise. Hitherto it has been a subject for the hymns and elegies of fanatics and enthusiasts; but now it will draw the attention of the politician.”

The Greek Revolution, in Byron’s mind, was to be a testing ground for a new kind of politics – one that he intended others to emulate. The new country would not merely import a political system from somewhere else: it is the European politician whose attention is to be drawn to Greece, not the other way round. A new country, he told another of his confidants at Missolonghi, the artilleryman William Parry, would require an entirely new system of government: “A system of government must and will arise suitable to the knowledge and the wants of the people … I would not recommend them [the Greeks] to follow implicitly any system of government now established in the world, or to square their institutions by the theoretical forms of any constitution…”

So far as we can tell from his letters and records of his conversations while he was at Missolonghi with Mavrokordatos, Byron was working tirelessly to promote realistic and practical policies to achieve a viable independence for Greece. First of all, the new state must have a central government, legitimated by the rule of law. Economic support and development were essential. To that end, the government must secure and responsibly disburse the economic support from outside that a successful revolution would require. And finally, the government must reach an accommodation through diplomacy with the Great Powers of the day. Without that, Byron believed, true independence would never be possible. Great Britain, in particular, must be persuaded that a free and strong Greece, with an economy based, like Britain’s, on maritime trade, would be a far more reliable bulwark against Russian expansionism than what he called the ‘putrifying’ Ottoman empire.

It was only the accident of his death from fever, on 19 April 1824, that prevented Byron from carrying out this programme at Missolonghi, in partnership with Mavrokordatos and the legitimate Greek government based at Kranidi. But for as long he was alive, his presence at Missolonghi, his alignment with Mavrokordatos, and his role in promoting the British loan, were all significant factors in the closely-fought struggle for dominance between the modernizers and the warlords. If that struggle had gone to Kolokotronis and the warlords, then Greece, or more probably several separate regions, might have achieved the same kind of de facto independence as did Serbia from 1815 until 1878, or Samos until 1912 – but still remained nominally under Ottoman rule. As it was, Greece instead became the first new state in modern Europe to win full legal sovereignty. Victory for the modernizers in the internal struggle against the warlords would pave the way for Greece to be formally recognized as a sovereign nation-state, according to a diplomatic protocol signed in London by the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and Russia on 3 February 1830.

Greece in this way would become the first of the modern type of nation-state that has since become the norm throughout the continent and much of the rest of the world – proving Byron’s prophecy right after all. This is a process that is still going on. Montenegro became an independent nation-state (for the second time) in 2006. Most recent of all is Kossovo in 2008. The Greece that Byron fought for, the Greece that came into existence on that February day in 1830, is a cornerstone of today’s Europe of nation-states, with all its achievements – and also its problems.

For Greece itself, that achievement came at a price. The terms on which Greeks did finally become ‘free’ would set limits not just to the absolute self-sufficiency sought by the warlords, but also to the self-determination of the Greek state itself. In September 1823, Kolokotronis had told Byron’s emissaries that he was opposed to a foreign loan, because it would place the country in the future in the hands of foreigners. Without that support from abroad, both economic and political, the Greek state could surely never have come into existence or have maintained itself for any length of time. But it came at a price – a price that is still being paid, as was very visibly demonstrated during the Greek ‘crisis’ of 2010-2019, when the country once again depended on foreign loans for its survival. The opposing mentalities from Byron’s time in Greece are still there, not far beneath the surface. Of these, one is political, statist, pragmatic and integrationist, outward-looking towards Europe and particularly the West. The other is traditionally nostalgic for the absolute freedom pursued by warlords such as Kolokotronis in the 1820s, and when it looks abroad at all, identifies more with the eastern Orthodox Church and particularly with Russia.

This is another reason why Byron’s contribution still matters today. The Greece that emerged as the first new nation-state in Europe in 1830 was the result of a terrible struggle, in which very many Greeks fought and died. But theirs was not a struggle for themselves only. It was one in which many Europeans, and others from as far away as the young United States of America, volunteered to fight alongside the revolutionaries. Many of those, too, lost their lives, just as Byron did. Byron’s contribution reminds us, in these days of recent bail-outs for Greece, of a ‘Grexit’ that didn’t happen and a ‘Brexit’ whose effects remain very much to be seen, that the Greek struggle for independence lies at the very foundation of modern Europe.

Roderick Beaton is Emeritus Koraes Professor of Modern Greek & Byzantine History, Language & Literature, Department of Classics, King’s College London. rod.beaton@kcl.ac.uk.