On this day in 1788, Lord Byron (née George Gordon Byron), the famous philhellene, poet, and satirist, was born in London, England. He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and is best known for his amorous lifestyle and his brilliant use of the English language. Byron was first introduced to Greece when he took his seat in the House of Lords and subsequently embarked on a grand tour with his long-time friend. Greece made a lasting impression on Byron. The Greeks’ free and open frankness contrasted strongly with English reserve and hypocrisy. He studied the language and wrote poems about Greece. Inspired by the culture and climate, he wrote a letter to his sister in which he said, “If I am a poet … the air of Greece has made me one.” In 1823, Byron agreed to act as agent of the London committee, which had been formed to aid the Greeks in their struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Byron went to Kefalonia, sent 4,000 pounds of his own money to refit the Greek naval fleet for sea service, and took personal command of a Greek unit of elite fighters. A year after he went to Greece, he fell ill and eventually died in Messolonghi at the young age of 36. He was deeply mourned in England and became a hero in Greece.
On this day in 1973, a few days after his father Aristotle Onassis’s birthday, Alexander Onassis, the Greek heir of the Onassis family, died at the very young age of 24 of a brain hemorrhage after his plane crashed at the Athens airport.
Alexander was born in New York the day his father launched an 18,000-ton tanker, the biggest then built in the United States, according to the New York Times. Alexander became president of Olympic Aviation, a subsidiary of his father’s Olympic Airways, which owned a fleet of light aircraft and helicopters for rent to tourists and businessmen. According to the Times, he often piloted aircraft on medical emergency missions, mostly to rugged islands or mountainous villages to transport patients needing hospital care. Alexander was buried next to the chapel on his father’s private Ionian island of Skorpios.
On this day in 1994, Michalis Vranopoulos, the former chairman of Greece’s largest state-owned bank, was shot and murdered at the age of 48. Vranopoulos headed the National Bank of Greece until a change of government a few months earlier. He was shot four times (in the chest, stomach, leg, and arm) as he and his driver walked to his office in downtown Athens. Vranopoulos had been testifying in a judicial investigation into his bank’s sale of a majority stake in a cement company in 1992. The PASOK socialist party which had returned to power had charged that the $650 million price for the sale (which took place when the Conservatives were in power) was scandalously low. The assailants escaped on a scooter and no one claimed responsibility for the attack. However, then-Public Order Minister Stelios Papathemelis said the ballistics tests showed the .45 caliber handgun used in the attack was the same one the November 17 terrorist organization used in the 1975 murder of Central Intelligence Agency station chief Richard Welch.
On this day in 2008, Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and All of Greece, passed away. Born Christos Paraskevaidis in Xanthe, Archbishop Christodoulos was the youngest man ever to be named head of the Orthodox Church of Greece. He was viewed as a controversial participant in Greek politics and one of the most popular figures in Greece. As Archbishop, Christodoulos was an influential and innovative leader. He appeared on radio and television regularly and made numerous public appearances at churches, hospitals, and schools throughout Greece. Recognizing the importance of new media, he established an internet service for the church that included an electronic library and art gallery. Furthermore, Christodoulos advocated dialogue to mend the historic rift between his church and the Roman Catholic Church. In 2001, Christodoulos received the late John Paul II, the first pope to visit Greece in nearly 1,300 years – despite vigorous protests from Orthodox zealots. The Archbishop followed up in 2006 with a historic visit to the Vatican where he and Pope Benedict XVI signed a declaration for interfaith dialogue.