Medieval Times

Lord Byron: From Poet to Greek National Hero

Lord Byron's 1824 death in Messolonghi made him a Greek liberation hero, his legacy fueling their independence.

The untimely death of Lord Byron in 1824, after succumbing to illness, transformed him from an infamous British aristocrat into a celebrated Greek liberation figure. Byron’s presence in Messolonghi highlights a key facet of the Greek Revolution. In 1821, the Greeks launched a struggle against their Ottoman rulers, arriving in Greece amidst this volatile period. While a poet couldn’t provide a comprehensive military solution, Byron’s influence and ultimate sacrifice proved instrumental to Greek independence.

The Enigmatic Lord Byron

Image of George Gordon Byron, Thomas Phillips, 1814. Source: artuk.org

Lord Byron landed in Greece in 1823 at the age of 35. For over a decade, he had garnered renown as one of Britain’s most talented poets, yet his reputation was equally marred by scandal.

His youthful travels fueled his literary rise. From 1809-1811, Byron resided in Athens while exploring the Mediterranean. This journey provided inspiration for his seminal work, “Child Harold’s Pilgrimage” (1812). This autobiographical poem catapulted Byron to fame, with its Greek passages forever linking him to the country’s cultural image.

Despite his literary achievements, Byron left England in 1816 under a cloud of controversy, never to return. The next seven years were spent in Switzerland and Italy, associating with figures like Percy and Mary Shelley. Although Greece appeared prominently in his later work, such as “Don Juan,” it remained a secondary focus compared to his fellow poets’ interest.

Though known for his scandalous lifestyle, Byron ardently supported liberty and social justice. He championed causes like the Luddite movement in Britain and constitutional reforms in Spain and Italy. While ultimately an aristocrat, Byron’s commitment to a more egalitarian society was clear.

“That Greece Might Still Be Free”: The Greek War of Independence

In March 1821, a widespread uprising erupted across southern Greece, initiating the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire. For centuries, the Ottoman Empire dominated the Balkans, reducing many Greek communities to the status of subjects. While some Greeks found accommodation within the empire, their status as Christians in a Muslim-ruled state meant they were a distinct class, prone to rebellion whenever opportunity arose.

The early 19th century witnessed a decline in Ottoman control, alongside rising separatist sentiment within its provinces. As the Ottoman Empire weakened, other European powers, namely Russia, France, and Great Britain, gained prominence. This shift emboldened the Greeks and other Ottoman subjects, who envisioned these Great Powers as potential liberators.

Concurrently, new ideologies born in northern and western Europe began to permeate the region. Concepts stemming from the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Liberalism, and Nationalism found fertile ground in the eastern Mediterranean.

Scenes of the Massacre on Chios, Eugène Delacroix, 1824. Source: Musée du Louvre
Scenes of the Massacre on Chios, Eugène Delacroix, 1824. Source: Musée du Louvre

This volatile mix of emerging ideals, a legacy of oppression, localized revolts, and a weakening Ottoman Empire culminated in the Greek Revolution of the 1820s. Across the Aegean Sea, Greeks rose in rebellion, struggling to secure territory outside of their majority regions.

While successful in the Peloponnese, Athens, central Greece, and the Aegean Islands in 1821/22, the revolution failed to gain traction in Asia Minor, northern Greece, Crete, and Cyprus. Though southern Greece achieved a degree of liberation, most Greeks remained under Ottoman rule. The newly freed regions now faced the daunting task of defending themselves against the Sultan’s inevitable counterstrike.

The Rise of Philhellenism and the Greek War of Independence

Georgios Karaiskakis, Greek fighter, Christian Johann Georg Perlberg. Source: Philhellenism Museum
Georgios Karaiskakis, Greek fighter, Christian Johann Georg Perlberg. Source: Philhellenism Museum

While Lord Byron significantly raised awareness of Greece in the early 19th century, his initial response to the 1821 revolution was surprisingly restrained (Beaton, 2013). In contrast, the Greek struggle for independence ignited passionate support across Europe, giving rise to the movement known as Philhellenism.

Previous revolts against Ottoman rule had received little notice in Europe. However, the Greek rebellion captured hearts and minds. The enduring influence of ancient Greece and Rome in European education and culture fueled the perception that the heroes of antiquity had risen to fight for their freedom.

Additionally, the post-Napoleonic era left many soldiers and revolutionaries seeking purpose. Drawn by the Greek cause, individuals from Britain, France, Germany, and beyond journeyed to join the fight. These Philhellenes often faced disillusionment as the realities of the conflict clashed with their idealized vision of Greece. They discovered a war-torn land far removed from the grandeur of the ancient world. The Greeks themselves struggled to manage a diverse group of European volunteers who lacked local knowledge but believed they knew best.

Despite operating largely without official government support (conservative European powers feared upsetting the geopolitical balance), Philhellenes played a significant role. Their actions transformed the image of the Greek Revolution into a widely championed cause, ultimately influencing the internationalization of the conflict and securing Greek independence.

Lord Byron and the London Greek Committee

The formation of the London Greek Committee in March 1823 marked Lord Byron’s formal commitment to the Greek struggle for independence. Founded by Edward Blaquiere and John Bowring, the Committee sought to champion the Greek cause in Britain and raise essential funds. While its core membership included notable figures like philosopher Jeremy Bentham, most were politically progressive members of Parliament and writers known for supporting popular causes throughout Europe.

Lord Byron Swears on the Tomb of M.Botsaris, Ludovic Lipparini, Venice. Source: National Historical Museum, Athen
Lord Byron Swears on the Tomb of M.Botsaris, Ludovic Lipparini, Venice. Source: National Historical Museum, Athen

Despite its limited success in raising widespread awareness and donations, the Committee gained significant momentum when Blaquiere successfully recruited Byron. Though Byron’s romantic spirit and support for liberal movements made this decision seem inevitable, he had hesitated before the spring of 1823. Byron was deeply involved in Italian revolutionary movements and weighed options to support causes in Spain or South America.

Byron’s reluctance to immediately embrace the Greek cause ultimately made him a more valuable asset. While he held personal motivations for revisiting Greece, his previous experience living there distinguished him from other volunteers. He possessed a nuanced understanding of the country and its people. This perspective, paired with his characteristic level-headedness, ensured that the London Greek Committee had gained a thoughtful, knowledgeable, and dedicated supporter.

Byron’s Intervention in Greece

Supporting Greece’s independence struggle seemed straightforward from London, but the reality on the ground was far more nuanced. A provisional government existed, complete with a liberal constitution. Yet, amidst the ongoing war, its authority remained largely theoretical. Greece in 1823 was a nation deeply divided by conflicting factions vying for control of its future.

Theodoros Kolokotronis, warlord, Krazeisen Karl, 1828. Source: National Gallery Alexandros Soutsos Museum

These factions fell into two broad camps. One favored a powerful, centralized state modeled after emerging European nations, particularly supported by Greeks who had lived abroad. The other sought a more decentralized system, with local elites maintaining regional power—a structure reminiscent of the Ottoman era, minus the Ottoman rule. This preference resonated with landed magnates (Primates) and regional warlords (Klephts). Personal rivalries and local loyalties further convoluted the situation, leading to civil wars in 1823 and 1824. Byron entered this volatile political landscape.

Committed to active support, Byron journeyed to Greece with his entourage, limited military supplies, and substantial personal funds. Like many Philhellenes, he hoped to strengthen Greece’s military with artillery and professionalization, but lacked the resources for this grand vision.

The Greeks, having witnessed similar initiatives falter, desperately needed financial support from Europe and international diplomatic recognition. Byron, an aristocratic poet representing a committee connected to London’s financial circles, embodied this hope for recognition and investment.

Byron initially stopped in the British-held Ionian Islands. He astutely observed the political complexities, recognizing that his wealth and connections to the London loan negotiators gave him leverage. After careful consideration, he aligned himself with Alexandros Mavrokordatos—a proponent of centralization and a marginalized leader of the provisional government. Byron moved to Messolonghi in the autumn of 1823, solidifying his support for Mavrokordatos.

Lord Byron’s Demise in Missolonghi

The Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi, 1861,
The Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi, 1861, Theodoros Vryzakis. Source: The National Gallery Alexandros Soutsos Museum

Prior to Lord Byron’s arrival, the coastal town of Missolonghi, located in central Greece, existed outside the realm of Romantic fascination. Largely devoid of classical ruins, its landscape was dominated by a mosquito-infested lagoon. Despite defying an Ottoman siege in 1822, renewed threats loomed over the town in 1823.

One of Byron’s earliest contributions to the Greek cause was the funding of a naval fleet intended to safeguard Missolonghi. The mere prospect of this fleet proved sufficient to compel the Ottomans to retreat, marking one of Byron’s few tangible contributions to the war effort (Beaton, 2013).

Upon his arrival at Missolonghi on January 5th, 1824, Byron was hailed as a hero. However, his optimism was quickly tempered as the ensuing months were marred by a succession of failed initiatives. His attempts to assemble and finance a core of Greek soldiers to capture nearby Ottoman strongholds collapsed amidst disputes and insubordination. The fragile relationship between Mavrokordatos and local military leaders deteriorated nearly to the point of open conflict. Equally unsuccessful were additional schemes by the London Greek Committee to establish an artillery school and printing presses.

Lord Byron on his Death-bed
Lord Byron on his Death-bed, Joseph Denis Odevaere, 1826. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thus far, Byron had personally funded these endeavors. While his individual efforts yielded limited results, his presence in Greece played a crucial role in reassuring investors, ultimately leading to the first substantial British loan – a lifeline for the nation. In March, Byron was appointed as one of two loan commissioners, and the initial payments were soon forthcoming.

Sadly, Byron would not live to see the arrival of these funds. Months of toil in Missolonghi, seemingly yielding only setbacks and escalating Greek factionalism, took a heavy toll on his health. In early April, Byron’s condition worsened after he was caught in a downpour while horseback riding. While his fever initially appeared to subside, he and his companions planned to leave Missolonghi to recuperate (Beaton, 2013). Circumstances thwarted this plan, leading to a controversial decision by his British doctors to treat him through bloodletting. This procedure proved disastrous for his weakened body, and Lord Byron succumbed on April 19th, 1824, at the age of 36.

Lord Byron’s Legacy

Greece Crowning Lord Byron, Athens.
Greece Crowning Lord Byron, Athens. Source: cultureisathens.gr

Though Lord Byron’s engagement in the Greek War of Independence was brief and marked by difficulties, it bore lasting significance. His greatest contribution lay in inextricably linking his renown to the Greek cause. As a celebrated figure of the era, Byron’s decision to join the struggle and his subsequent death in its service held immense symbolic weight. This ultimately galvanized renewed international interest in the conflict. The fall of Missolonghi in 1826, a city forever bound to Byron’s memory, spurred intervention by the Great Powers in 1827, decisively securing Greece’s independence.

Byron’s choice to stand alongside Greece, a choice that tragically cost him his life, immortalized him as the quintessential Romantic hero. For Greece, his involvement represented a crucial act of solidarity at a time when the nation’s liberation remained uncertain.

young writer Olivia on Greco-civilization
Olivia Reyes
Dr. Olivia Reyes specializes in Medieval European Literature. She holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Oxford. Formerly a high school teacher, she now works as a freelance writer and editor. In her free time, Sophie enjoys playing the violin and composing music.

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