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A Dying Lord Byron Gave Greek Independence His Life, and Money

The National Herald

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

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” and that's what famed English poet Lord Byron did for Greece, dying at the siege of Missolonghi in 1824, trying to help win independence from the Ottoman occupation.

He did more than that, even in his exasperation that he felt he was being continually blackmailed by Souliotes, fierce rebels who kept demanding he pay them more and more to fight.

The poet sold his home and contributed what was left of his wealth to the cause, before he was overcome by fever and his health worsened because of bloodletting that may have brought on sepsis, dying in bed, not the battlefield.

It made him a hero to the Greeks to this day, but little remembered beyond his devotion to the country is that he opened not just his heart but his wallet and gave his fortune, including a check for 4,000 British Pounds to finance a fleet.

That's equivalent to about 332,000 Pounds ($461,766) today, which he stipulated be paid to Giovanni Orlando, a representative of the provisional government who approached him for the funds.

In a feature on Byron's last role in life and for Greece, the British newspaper The Guardian outlined how generous he was even as he fumed that some elements among the Greeks just wanted his money.

The money was supposed to be repaid against a much bigger loan in London where Orlando was headed, the story said, as the Greeks were locked in the malaria-ridden provincial town during a siege.

“Because of his fame, Byron was much forged,” Christine Kenyon Jones, who studied many of the poet’s manuscripts in the course of co-authoring a new study of Byron’s portraits, Dangerous to Show, told the paper.

“I have given her (Greece) my time, my means, my health,” he is recorded as saying in a moment of lucidity. “And now I give her my life! What could I do more?” he asked with perhaps a touch of bitter irony and perhaps some regret.

His death rocked the English-speaking world because of his fame and flamboyant personality that matched his talent as a poet. "If I am a poet ... the air of Greece has made me one," he famously uttered.

In his poem The Isles of Greece, he wrote, "I dreamed that Greece might still be free; For standing on the Persians' grave, I could not deem myself a slave,” underscoring how important Greece's freedom would be.

He didn't live to see it happen, independence not coming until the Battle of Petra in 1829 and Missolonghi undergoing three sieges that didn't end until 1826 when those inside ran out of food and were massacred trying to break out.

The man who was “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” an oversized celebrity of his time who was, the story noted, both loved and loathed and wound up spending his last 100 days in Greece.

“The loss of this illustrious individual is undoubtedly to be deplored by all Greece,” its provisional government declared hours after the news filtered through. “But it must be more especially a subject of lamentation at Missolonghi, where his generosity has been so conspicuously displayed,” it was written.

The sacrifice is all the more celebrated this year as Greece marks a muted 200th anniversary of the year the battle for independence began, ceremonies held down during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, as malaria did to Missolonghi.

His body was returned to England for burial, stories abounding, perhaps apocryphal, the Greeks kept his heart, although he had already given it, along with his name, still popular for Greek men.