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Out of Time: Lord Byron and the Greek War of Independence

22 December 21 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Natalie Owen

To celebrate Nottingham City Council’s new partnership with Vyronas, a suburb of Athens named after Lord Byron, we look back at the legendary Nottingham poet’s involvement with the Greek War for Independence

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks in and around Athens. The first few days were spent just south of the city at Cape Sounion where, on one of my first mornings, I walked up towards the beautifully preserved Temple of Poseidon, one of the major monuments of the Golden Age of Athens. As the sun rose, the details of the temple became clearer, and the etchings of centuries of years of visitors (now mercifully kept at a distance) were made visible. One name – carved over two centuries previously – caught my eye above all others, chiselled with adroit craft in an impressively dainty font: Byron.

It was far from being my last interaction with the legacy of the Nottingham poet, as his name and image became a ubiquitous presence all over the region. Monuments, hotels, bars, restaurants and streets all bore his name, or Vyronas – the Hellenic equivalent. In fact, only last month Nottingham City Council announced a partnership agreement with Vyronas, a suburb of Athens named in his honour. There was something almost surreal about Athens, an ancient city with a history to rival any other, the birthplace of Plato, Pericles, Socrates, Thucydides, Themistocles, Sophocles and democracy itself, the home of the Parthenon and the Acropolis, dedicating so much to a poet from Nottingham. But the name Byron is woven deeply into the tapestry of Greece, where he remains a revered figure due to his role in the Greek War of Independence.

The enduring myth of the warrior-poet existed long before the likes of Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell volunteered to fight against fascism for Spain’s dying republic in the thirties. It might be a well-worn trope nowadays, but the notion of the literary knight was deeply embedded in the Romanticism movement that took root in the late seventeenth century. Buoyed by Homeric tales of heroism, sacrifice and adventure, artists headed Eastwards in search of glory, enlightenment, honour and virtue – traits that one can only find within themselves when immediately faced with deadly peril. In short, they were looking for purpose - and most famous amongst them was George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Born in 1788 to a dissolute army captain, Byron unexpectedly inherited the title and estates of his great-uncle William, the fifth Baron Byron. With roots that can be directly traced back to the William the Conqueror and the Norman invasion, his was an ancient and respected family, and after attending Trinity College in Cambridge (where he infamously kept a pet bear), Lord Byron took his seat in the House of Lords before embarking on a grand tour of the continent which included Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, Malta, Greece and Albania. 

Spending £4,000 of his own money (about half a million pounds today), he prepared a Greek fleet for service and joined Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos, leader of the rebelling forces in western Greece

It was while in Greece that he began his epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage which, as well as serving as something of a travelogue of his odyssey, spoke of the plight of his generation. In a similar way to which the young aristocracy in post-World War One Britain found themselves feeling lost and without purpose, Byron’s generation had grown up in the shadow of Napoleon terrorising Europe and, now that the tyrant was exiled and the lengthy conflict was over (at least temporarily), the clear and defined purpose of struggle and sacrifice that exists during wartime was gone, and only disillusionment, melancholy and weariness remained. During a subsequent visit to the continent, Byron found himself in Constantinople (now Istanbul), where he walked in the footsteps of Hector and Achilles by visiting the site of Troy, and imitated the mythological exploits of Leander with a mammoth swim across the Hellespont – the tumultuous four-mile strait, now called the Dardanelles, that joins Europe and Asia.

The Greece Byron visited was a country experiencing something of an identity crisis. For starters, Greece was more of an idea than it was a solid geographical landscape; a wildly disparate populace with varying interests that differed even wider still. But, when The Philiki Etaireia (Friendly Society) – a secret revolutionary group – formed in Odessa (modern-day Ukraine) in 1814, they had one goal: the Liberation of the Motherland. The debate over what that motherland was, and who it included would come later, but for now, all those that called themselves Greek had a common goal: freedom from Ottoman rule. Europe was still feeling the shockwaves of the French Revolution, the ripples of which had reached the Mediterranean, bringing with it a sense of hope that change might be possible. If kings had fallen in the west, why couldn’t Greece gain its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the east? A growing sense of nationalism had begun to stir and, encouraged by stories of Turkish atrocities, including several high-profile incidents in which the Ottomans decimated entire Greek towns, killing the men and enslaving the women and children, Greece found their plight falling on sympathetic ears across Europe, with the intellectual and cultural elites in Britain, France and Russia taking an almost romantic view of their struggle against their oppressors. Led by two brothers – Alexandros and Demetrios Ypsilantis – the battle to rid Greece of its Ottoman overlords, who had ruled over them since the fifteenth century, began in 1821.

Now as famous as he was infamous – the former due to the popularity of his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the latter a result of a scandalous relationship with his step-sister – Byron was living in a state of self-exile in Pisa when the revolution started. The circumstances in which he came to arrive there, and the sordid, self-destructive manner in which he conducted himself during his time in Italy, warrant an article all of their own, but suffice to say that, by the time the Ypsilantis brothers had begun their revolution, Byron had grown fat and grey, and was floundering in sexual promiscuity. “I have a presentiment,” he told his mistress, Marguerite Power, with his usual fatalistic melodrama, “that I shall die in Greece.”

Agreeing to act as an agent for a committee in London which had formed to help the Greeks with their revolution, Byron left Italy for Kefalonia in April 1823. Spending £4,000 of his own money (about half a million pounds today), he prepared a Greek fleet for service and joined Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos, leader of the rebelling forces in western Greece. But the disparate nature of the Greek populace was starting to cause problems for the fledgling revolt. Rather than joining forces, the rebellions of Mavrokordatos and the Ypsilantis brothers were happening independently, and the two factions steadfastly refused to join forces against a common enemy. Their rivalry was tribal, emerging from a geographical enmity that spanned millennia, ensuring that the two soon became fiercely bitter adversaries. “I came here to join a nation,” Byron furiously wrote in his personal journal, “not a faction.” It was only comfortable Ottoman victories at Thrace and Macedonia that brought a pause to the infighting, and Byron made attempts to mediate between the two factions, taking personal command of a group said to be the bravest of all Greeks – the Suliotes, a Greco-Albanian race who had escaped Turkish persecution in the seventeenth century, and lived an itinerant existence in the mountains of Suli, the Ionian Islands and Kefalonia since. 

Byron’s death at Missolonghi accomplished more for Greece’s unity and liberation than all his utterances and actions

For all the personal shortcomings Byron had demonstrated during his troubled life, he displayed an admirable pragmatism when it came to his role in the revolution. A political realist, he remained steadfast in the face of the rebellion’s chaotic nature, its shattered factionalism and military ineptitude. “It was only the healthy cynicism of Byron’s view of human nature in general and the Greek character in particular,” wrote Byron scholar Paul Trueblood, “coupled with his longer view of the ultimate good that kept him from turning in disgust from the whole project.” He displayed an acute understanding of leadership, willingly living a Spartan lifestyle in insufferable conditions, strenuously drilling alongside the soldiers he personally subsidised.

But in February 1824, Byron was apoplectic to discover that his generosity and dedication to the cause was being taken advantage of, as the Suliote leaders had padded the payrolls with fictional men in order to line their own pockets with his money. “I ought to make up my mind,” he wrote in disgust, “to meet with deception, and calumny, and ingratitude.” Despite the setback, he continued to show unwavering commitment to the cause, training alongside his men for a planned assault on Lepanto, a Turkish stronghold north-east of Athens that poetically shared its name with the battle that prevented the Ottoman Empire spreading into mainland Europe almost three centuries previously. But the conditions were finally catching up with Lord Byron and, having contracted malaria, he died in Missolonghi on Monday 19 April, aged just 36. “Die I must. Its loss I do not lament; for to terminate my wearisome existence I came to Greece,” Byron said on his deathbed. “My wealth, my abilities, I devoted to her cause. Well, there is my life to her.”

Two years after Byron’s death, England and Russia agreed to act as mediators in the conflict and, in 1827, the Greek factions put aside their differences to elect Capo d’Istria president of Greece. Refusing an armistice, the Ottomans were forced into battle when England and Russia, now joined by France, attacked and defeated a Turkish fleet in the Battle of Navarino. Turkey eventually recognised Greek autonomy in 1829 with the Treaty of Adrianople. Over the next century, Greece continued to fight to expand its borders to include all Greek-speaking territories, until it reached its current geographical configuration in 1947. If it wasn’t for the likes of Byron inspiring further European intervention, the concurrent revolutions of Mavrokordatos and the Ypsilantis brothers would most likely have been ruthlessly quashed as quickly as they’d begun.

For all his faults in life, the Nottingham poet did more, both symbolically and practically, for the fight for independence in Greece than any other non-Greek, although it eventually cost him his life. Testament to his exploits can still be seen across all of Greece with the varying tributes to his memory, and to this day, the name Byron (or Viron) remains amongst the most popular for boys. In giving his life for the cause, Byron made himself a martyr for Greek independence, as Paul Trueblood said, “Byron’s death at Missolonghi accomplished more for Greece’s unity and liberation than all his utterances and actions.” For all of his triumphs as a writer, poet and rogue, it was Byron’s short but eventful involvement in the battle for Greek autonomy that left the biggest mark on history. 

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