The West has never been shy of producing public figures, or even celebrities, who seek out their own foreign entanglements and occasionally do a bit of good in the process. George Orwell was shot in the throat by Francoists in Spain but, fortunately for us, lived to write the definitive history of a complex and quietly betrayed civil war. Susan Sontag risked carpet bombs in Sarajevo to insert a bit of culture into carnage by directing (if perhaps too tyrannically) an all-Bosnian production of Waiting for Godot. Closer to our own day, George Clooney has decided to blow his Nespresso ad money on a spy satellite to monitor Omar al Bashir’s war crimes in Sudan. And we all know of Angelina Jolie’s work on behalf of the refugees of Syria. But before them all, and more epically so, there was Lord Byron.
Mad, bad, and dangerous to know he may well have been, but the great poet was also an interventionist, a cunning diplomat, and a surprisingly shrewd wartime administrator who drew a following of capable men—the Romantic hybrid, if such a thing can be conceived, of Richard Holbrooke and David Petraeus. (Byron certainly embodied more than even their combined share of vices.)
Having sung in his youth of the glory of Greek independence from Ottoman rule, and having been humbled and wised-up by decidedly less romantic personal experiences in his own life, Byron went off to a war zone to partake of the dirty business of nation-building at a time when isolationism was running high in Europe. What he left was a testament to the perils and pitfalls of wars of choice, a record made no less significant for posterity by Byron’s abiding belief that these did not cancel the moral obligation of strong powers to stop atrocities or assist in national revolutions where and when they could. Navigating a hopelessly divided opposition, balancing ethnic and confessional sectarianisms, sending useless “non-lethal aid” to desperate people in need of weapons, struggling to prioritize truth over propaganda on behalf of a noble cause—these are difficulties all too familiar to us now after decade-long troubles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and our more recent approaches to upheavals in North Africa and the Levant. But it was Europe’s first icon, and the first interventionist, who paid for this hard-won knowledge with his life. At a time when the United States is now engaged in a serious debate about whether it can continue to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, or whether it can afford to remain aloof from monsters destroying whole countries, Byron stand as both a paradigm and cautionary tale for attempts at regime change. What better time than the present to revisit His Lordship’s messy and final campaign, and also the peculiar personality that made him best suited to wage it?
The desire to emancipate Greece, the birthplace of democracy, ran strong among the British for centuries. Locke mentioned it in his Second Treatise on Government; Milton dreamed of it in Paradise Lost. And it fired Byron’s own early imagination when he embarked on his Grand Tour of the East, principally Greece and Constantinople, in the early 1800s. At the time, the Ottoman Empire was not only an important ally of Britain but also of the Holy Alliance, consisting of Russia, Prussia and Austria, which together formed the three most reactionary governments on the continent. Committed to ensuring a new order founded on the realpolitik of the Congress of Vienna, which aimed to restore stability to Europe after the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars, their arch strategist was Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister and bane of the Romantics.
Yet Greece was both inspiration and disillusionment for the poet. Everyone had read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron’s youthful epic, which held modern Greece to the impossible standards of antiquity and found it a “sad relic of departed Worth! / Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great!” Encountering the unruly, colonized and backward country of the present-day gave way to nostalgist kitsch:
When riseth Lacedemon’s Hardihood,
When Thebes Epaminondras rears again,
When Athens’ children are with hearts endued,
When Grecian mothers shall give birth to men,
Then may’st thou be restored; but not till then.
A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can Man its shattered splendour renovate,
Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate?
By these lights, contemporary Greeks were sorry disciples of their mythic forebears: slaves awaiting emancipation, or, as Byron cruelly recorded in prose form in 1810, “plausible rascals,—with all the Turkish vices, without their courage.” As for vanquishing time, however, the poet’s sojourn in the Mediterranean wasn’t entirely wasted. He famously swam the Hellesponte in just over an hour, noting that the current was so treacherous, “I doubt whether Leander’s conjugal affection must not have been a little chilled in his passage to Paradise.” Here, too, he could comment with an expert’s insight, having admitted that his Turkish vocabulary didn’t extend much beyond the words for “water,” “bread,” and “pimp.” Byron may have later claimed that Greece was the only land in which he ever felt fully “contented,” but he quit its shores with a nasty case of the clap.
It’s certainly true that he exhibited one of the hallmarks of the 19th century Orientalist: the frisson he experienced in the Near East was mostly sexual. “I am dying for the love of three Greek girls at Athens, sisters,” he wrote his friend Henry Drury in 1810. “Teresa, Mariana, and Katinka are the names of these divinities—all of them under fifteen.” (Teresa inspired the poem “Maid of Athens, Ere We Part.”) But even amid such dissipations, there was powerful paradox at work in Byron’s character: the spoiled, aristocratic posturing, luxurious living, and reckless sport-fucking competed with a core seriousness founded on a hatred of injustice and a sincere internationalism. He felt suffocated by the moralism and hypocrisy of his native Britain, a country that has a long history of producing exiles who simultaneously reject and exhibit its oldest traditions. His poems were thus written in a conservative form modeled on his favorite neoclassical predecessors, but their content was firmly anti-establishment. He mercilessly and hilariously arraigned the Westminster-friendly poets of his day, chiefly Wordsworth and Southey, for an isolationism that could fairly be described as both artistic and political. These were the “Lakers,” so-called because of their sickly-sweet regard for a frequented holiday district in the northwest of England; Byron wished they’d “change [their] lakes for ocean.” He always did.
Byron was “so convinced,” as he once put it, “of the advantages of looking at mankind instead of reading about them” that he often preferred the company of foreigners to that of his own his compatriots. Today, he’d be the enemy of the Beltway class of think tankers and policymakers who believe the world moves according to abstractions of international relations. He believed that life could only be understood by messing about in it in high and low fashion. True, his attempt to have it both ways, to mix with potentates and tramps alike, had its silly and self-parodying dimensions. “I have lived in the houses of Greeks, Turks, Italians, and English—to-day in a palace,” Byron wrote his mother from Patras in 1810, “to-morrow in a cow-house; this day with a Pacha, the next with a shepherd.” He made a special friend in Albanian vizier Ali Pasha, whose precious fondness for the poet’s pedigree based on his “small ears and hands, and curling hair”—the italics, as usual, are Byron’s—didn’t stop him from also impaling and roasting his enemies.
Nevertheless, Byron was a real radical who used his own immense personal fortune and his station to expand the freedom of others. He hated the Holy Alliance and thought Metternich “power’s foremost parasite.” The interests of millions, he fumed, were in “the hands of about twenty coxcombs.” One of his speeches in the House of Lords (it’s easy to forget that his hereditary title conferred on him the status of lawmaker) was dedicated to Irish liberty and the enlargement of Catholic rights in Britain—a struggle in which King George IV saw the dangerous lineaments of the French Revolution. That Byron himself had been raised a Scotsman and a Calvinist placed him from birth slightly askew from the ruling British elite. That he was also bisexual and deformed by a clubfoot further made his life one of varying accommodations and rebellions.
For instance, Childe Harold has its moments as a legitimate manifesto for restoring Greece’s cultural patrimony. Another enemy of Byron’s was Lord Elgin, who had used the Ottoman’s storage of gunpowder at the Acropolis as a pretext to steal the famed marble statues from the Parthenon in 1811 and transport them to Britain (they’ve yet to be returned). Byron may have found the marbles “misshapen monuments,” but he rightly denounced Elgin as a thief:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
Which nicely acquits him of the retroactive charge of imperialism, and not so nicely recalls the present day destruction and vandalism of UNESCO-designated heritage sites and artifacts in the Levant and Mesopotamia.
Unlike British radicals of more recent vintage, Byron was profoundly pro-American despite never having traveled to the constitutional republic he thought a model for all civilized nations, including his own. He associated the “first tidings that have ever sounded like Fame” not with his domestic critical reception (far from adulatory) but with hearing that his poems were now read on the banks of the Ohio River. He revered Washington as much as he did Bonaparte—possibly even more, as the former’s glory went undiminished by an ignominious end at Elbe. Still another hero to him was Simon Bolivar, now much consecrated among the crooked and bloated chavistas of South America, but no less of a genuine nationalist revolutionary for it.
Indeed, Byron’s indulgence in various personality cults—he’d eventually give rise to a colossal and lasting one of his own—has marked him as a premature fascist or communist. Auden, who briefly succumbed to the latter ideological temptation, once teasingly posed the question of whether or not Byron would have heard “honest Oswald’s call, / Be gleichgeschaltet in the Albert Hall,” or “Have walked in the United Front with Gide.”
It’s actually hard to imagine him doing either for very long. He had a biting candor and conservative understanding about human folly and imperfectability. Byron was too satirical for totalitarianism. And his time in wartime Greece proved he was too intelligent to be taken in by grand ideas over what we now quaintly refer to as “facts on the ground.”
The Greece he’d wanted to see emerge finally got its chance to in March 1821 when rebels revolted in Wallachia and Moldavia (now Romania), then both principalities of Ottoman-occupied Europe guarded by Russia as a special dispensation for Christian Orthodox inhabitants in the region. Fighting spread a month later to the Morea, and Greek battlefield successes were marred by atrocities against Turkish civilians. Around 15,000 out of the 40,000 Turkish inhabitants of the Morea were slaughtered. In retaliation, the Ottomans burned Orthodox churches to the ground and slew Greeks in Constantinople and Smyrna, a spate of sectarian massacres that culminated in the Easter hanging of 80-year-old Patriarch Grigorios. His corpse, which was subsequently dumped in the Bosphorus, had a fatwa pinned to it.
For all these barbarities, the Ottoman Empire was still deemed a “necessary evil” by Lord Castlereagh, Britain’s foreign secretary and Metternich’s Anglo counterpart, who saw in the Greek cause nothing that would further Britain’s national interests but much that would harm them. To Castlereagh, a war for the islands would lead to regional or continental turmoil; he was by no means sanguine about Russia’s own designs on Greece, particularly as Czar Alexander I—Holy Alliance or no—now thought war “inviting and popular” at home. Not for the last time, then, would arguments for intervention veer wildly between, on the one hand, the democratic and humanitarian and, on the other, the revanchist and imperialist.
Castlereagh consequently advocated a meek and unenforceable political solution to the conflict (this sounds eerily familiar to us, too) consisting of Ottoman troop withdrawal from Wallachia and Moldavia, amnesty for Greek rebels, and reparations for destroyed property. For these and other reasons, the Tory “intellectual eunuch” was flayed by Byron in the introduction to Don Juan, the epic masterpiece he stopped writing when he left to join the Greek revolution in 1823. The following lines had to wait for posthumous publication owing to the pieties of the age, but they rather anticipate by a good 150 years Christopher Hitchens’s prose polemics against Castlereagh’s heir, Henry Kissinger:
Cold-blooded, smooth-faced, placid miscreant!
Dabbling its sleek young hands in Erin’s gore,
And thus for wider carnage taught to pant,
Transferred to gorge upon a sister shore,
The vulgarest tool that Tyranny could want,
With just enough of talent, and no more,
To lengthen fetters by another fixed,
And offer poison long already mixed.
Two events in the spring and summer of 1822 would prove turning points in philhellene populism and in Byron’s own fate. The first was the worst atrocity of the Greek uprising: the Scio massacre, which was captured on canvas by Delacroix, later the famed painter of Byron’s deathbed scene. Six Ottoman ships of the line were dispatched to crush rebels and many more civilians. According to one British diplomat in Constantinople, two-thirds of the city was destroyed, whole villages massacred, and women were taken as slaves or sent to harems. It only exacerbated matters that the HMS Cambrian had sailed by just as Ottoman forces set to work yet did nothing to impede the slaughter. Nevertheless, Castlereagh’s indifference was unshaken. “Acts of barbarity,” he said, in tones of moral equivalence that we’re still treated to in The New York Times, “had been on both sides… The Greeks had themselves committed certain cruelties, which, though they did not justify, led to the transactions complained of.” Castlereagh had some evidence on his side. An especially brutal Greek pogrom of around eight thousand Turkish civilians had been waged a year earlier, in the city of Tripolitza, today’s Tripoli.
The second big turning point for Greece was that Castlereagh slit of his own throat with a pen-knife in August 1822, probably because he was being blackmailed about his suspected homosexuality. The suicide delighted Byron, who penned this similarly Hitchensian epitaph on the ultra-conservative realist he despised:
“Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller,—[and piss.]”
Schadenfraude gave way to opportunity as Castlereagh was succeeded by George Canning, a man who had greatly impressed Byron nonetheless for being another Tory. The new foreign secretary had already distinguished himself by having once been shot by Castlereagh in a duel and by being an avowed acolyte of Europe’s most celebrated poet. Byron saw that the compliment was reciprocated. In Canning he found, or rather projected, “a genius, almost a universal one, an orator, a wit, a poet, a statesman.” Like Byron, Canning favored the expansion of Catholic rights in Britain. He also condemned imperial excesses in India and hated the Holy Alliance in general and Metternich in particular (the feeling was mutual.)
Although also unwilling to risk Britain’s national interests in a quixotic war of choice, Canning left no doubt as to where his true sympathies lay in the Levant. He cleverly defended fundraising efforts on behalf of the Greek military in Britain as a matter of free enterprise. He recognized the rebels as belligerents rather than pirates, thereby giving them political rights according to the conduct of war. He ordered British ships to respect the Greek naval blockade. And when the Sublime Porte [government of the Ottoman empire] pressured him to keep Byron well away from Greece, fearing the inevitable lightning rod for the revolutionary cause the poet would become, Canning declined to oblige an ill-liked ally. Unfortunately, he’d die himself just as the order was handed down in 1825 for British, French, and Russian ships to go war against the Ottoman and Egyptian fleets at Navarino Bay, one of the most decisive naval victories in modern history (probably not coincidentally led by a British admiral who was also a Byron acolyte), and the one that decided Greece’s independence.
The British philhellenes wasted little time in parlaying Canning’s winking support for their cause by inaugurating the London Greek Committee in early 1823 and drawing into its ranks members of Parliament and the intelligentsia. These included Lord John Russell, a future prime minister, John Cam Hobhouse, and Douglas Kinnaird (two of Byron’s closest friends), the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and the economist David Ricardo who, unsurprisingly, became the committee’s bookkeeper.
In Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, the title of which is taken from Byron’s poem The Giaour, Gary Bass aptly describes the committee as a forerunner to Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, albeit one with its own “active military subcommittee.” At the first meeting, Byron was unanimously elected as a member with the expectation that he’d soon travel to Greece as the committee’s special envoy. Geography was a convenience at the time since Byron was idling abroad in a state of self-imposed exile, having fled Britain in 1816 under allegations of sodomy and incest (both true). Yet his star as a poet and a genius was undimmed and his attachment to Hellas as both a literary and political obsession was as powerful as ever in the public imagination.
Fiona MacCarthy, one of Byron’s more recent biographers, notes how quickly it accelerated his personal and political maturity by drawing to a close his indulgent lifestyle in Venice: masked carnivals by day, married women in gondolas by night. “I should prefer a grey Greek stone over me to Westminster Abbey,” Byron said upon accepting the role of the committee’s chief agent in Greece, “but I would doubt it if I should have the luck to die so happily.” (It would take until 1969 to get the stone at the Abbey, and the death was to be anything but “happy.”)
Exile had also given Byron his first taste of insurrection and intrigue. Italy was then governed by three distinct parties: the Catholic Church, the Austrian Empire, and King Ferdinand, who ruled Sicily and Naples. By 1820, Naples was in revolutionary ferment and Byron, now ensconced in Ravenna, was ecstatic: “It is a grand object, the very poetry of politics,” he scribbled in his journal. “Only think—a free Italy!!!” He joined the Carbonari (“charcoal-burners”), an underground secret society with links to the Freemasons that sought the full liberation of Italy. Here Byron again alternated between palace and cow-house: he was inducted into the society because the Gambas, the family of his mistress, became a kind of surrogate or adoptive household for him and they were veteran insurgents themselves. Yet the secretary-general of the Papal Legate was also a close friend and passed him intelligence on Austrian activity, which Byron then duly shared with the Carbonari. He even headed his own troop of forest hunters intriguingly known as the Cacciatori Americani. Although the revolt in 1820 tossed King Ferdinand off the throne, the Carbonari never amounted to much. “I can’t laugh,” Byron wrote Hobhouse of his underground comrades. “Poland and Ireland were Sparta and Spartacus compared to these villains.” Infighting, criminality and the Carbonari’s failure to form an alliance with Neapolitan rebels showed Byron how easily the poetry of politics gave way to the prose of quagmires. “The plan has missed, the Chiefs are betrayed, military, as well as civil.”
So by the time he became the philhellenes’ man in Greece, Byron had already grown more hardheaded about regime change, and about his own capability and fostering it. “It is not that I could pretend to be anything in a military capacity,” he wrote to Hobhouse about Greece. “[B]ut perhaps as a reporter of the actual state of things there—or in carrying on any correspondence between them and their western friends—I might be of use.” He was right. Upon assuming his new role, one of his first acts was to call for badly needed supplies. “[T]he principal material wanted by the Greeks appears to be—1st. a pack of field Artillery—light—and fit for Mountain service—2dly. Gunpowder—3dly. hospital or Medical Stores.” Byron also understood that the Greeks needed foreign military advisors. “Raw British soldiers,” Byron minuted back to London, “[would be] unruly and not very serviceable—in irregular warfare—by the side of foreigners.” It’d be wiser to send elite officers who spoke Italian, the second tongue of Greece, and who had proficiency with artillery and were familiar with the amphibious terrain of the Mediterranean. Where other philhellenes may have believed that they were enjoined in the restoration of “Homer, Plato, & Co.,” as one of them self-consciously termed it, Byron was all transitional planning and martial disciple:
“It would also be as well that they should be aware—that they are not going ‘to rough it on a beef steak—and bottle of Port’—but that Greece—never of late years—very plentifully stocked for a Mess—is at present the country of all kinds of privations,—this remark may seem superfluous—but I have been led to it—by observing that many foreign Officers—Italian—French and even German—(but fewer of the latter) have returned in disgust—imagining either that they were going to make up a party of pleasure—or to enjoy full pay—speedy promotion and a very moderate degree of duty;—they complain too of having been ill received by the Government or inhabitants, but numbers of these complaintants—were mere adventurers—attracted by a hope of command and plunder,—and disappointed of both.”
The English conservatism on display here (again, he couldn’t quite slough off some of the enduring national traits) puts one in mind of Orwell’s unsparing portrayal of wartime conditions in Catalonia; it also did Byron a further good turn in Greece, as it helped to attract the kind of Englishmen who shared just the right combination of idealism and pragmatism. Edward John Trelawny, a Cornishman who had served in the Royal Navy in India and who fancied himself the real-life incarnation of Byron’s Corsair (he is said to have slept with a copy of the poem under his pillow), built Byron a schooner at Genoa named the Bolivar. (That ship was later sold to finance the Greek expedition; Trelawny acted as de facto funeral director at Percy Shelley’s less-than-romantic cremation on the shore of Leghorn in 1822.)
Another Byronic interventionist was Lieutenant Colonel James Napier, the governor and military resident of Cefalonia, in whom Byron saw not only a kindred spirit but a ready-made leader capable of resuscitating a flagging war. “He is our man to lead a regular force, or to organize a national one for the Greeks.” Napier would later serve as one of Queen Victoria’s most accomplished officers, earning himself a statue at Trafalgar Square. He returned to London where he found the rest of the committee wanting and refused offers to become the commander of the Greeks. But whereas philhellenes “came expecting to find the Peloponnesus filled with Plutarch’s men, and all returned thinking the inhabitants of Newgate [prison] more moral,” Napier observed, “Lord Byron judged [the Greeks] fairly; he knew that half-civilized men are full of vices and that great allowance must be made for emancipated slaves.”
It didn’t take long for Byron to grasp the dilemma of all interventionists: insurgents who were so riven by petty rivalries and factionalisms as to be more suspicious of one another than of their Ottoman oppressors. There were three main groups competing for supremacy among them. The first were the Greek primates, or local leaders who had been granted semi-autonomous authority by the Turks; the second were warlords running their own armies; the third were westernized Greeks, most of whom repatriated from the diaspora. As to the nature of a post-Ottoman state, differences were similarly deep. Primates and warlords wanted a confederation of principalities; westernized Greeks wanted a constitutional republic with a powerful central government, similar to that of the United States. Then, as now, extremists and moderates vied for the upper hand.
All three factions schemed to enlist Byron as their champion, owing as much to the vast sums of his own money he spent on aiding the war effort as to the inherent quality of having so great and famous a champion. To his credit, he was wary of them all. “As I did not come here to join a faction but a nation—,” he wrote in his journal after arriving on Cefalonia in 1823, one of the Ionian Islands then governed as British territory, “and to deal with honest men and not with speculators or peculators (charges bandied about daily by the Greeks of each other) it will require much circumspection to avoid the character of a partizan.”
After sufficient vetting, Byron ultimately cast his lot with Alexandros Mavrokordato, president of the Greek provisional government and primus inter pares of westernized rebels, whom he judged the closest approximation to a Washington that Greece had yet produced. (It helped that the now deceased Shelley had dedicated his poem “Hellas” to Mavrokoradato, who also taught Mary Shelley Greek when living in exile in Pisa.) Byron, however, didn’t exactly flatter his chosen client; he warned Mavrokoradato that the stalemated turmoil in the country in 1823 left three options open. Greece could carve out her independence, become a dependency of Europe, or remain an imperial possession of the Ottomans. As civil war loomed, Byron reckoned that dependency or continued occupation were the most probable outcomes. He wrote sagaciously to the Greek government in November 1823:
“I must admit to you frankly that if some kind of order and union is not confirmed, all hopes for a loan will be lost,—any assistance that Greece might expect from abroad, which certainly would not be inconsiderable nor contemptible, will be suspended, and maybe even stopped, and what is worse is that the Great Powers of Europe, of which none was an enemy of Greece, and which seemed favourably inclined to agree with the establishment of an independent Greek state, will be persuaded that the Greeks are not capable of governing themselves and will arrange some means for putting an end to your disorder which will cut short all your most noble hopes, and all those of your friends.”
This was prescient analysis that reads like one of the smarter U.S. State Department cables published by WikiLeaks. The loan referred to here was the London Greek Committee’s pledge to send 800,000 pounds to Greece, a direly needly subsidy of which Byron was named one of three commissioners. His attention to financial detail also made the master satirist quite withering about the committee’s silly or profligate expenditures. One member in particular, Colonel Leicester Stanhope, exasperated Byron by wasting money on nonsense. Stanhope founded two pedantic and unreadable newspapers, Telegrafo Greco (printed in Italian) and Hellenica Chronica (printed in Greek), which trafficked in “Constitutions—and Sunday Schools” and occasionally ill-conceived fulminations against the Austrian Empire, then finding elaborate means of aiding the Ottomans to crush the Greeks. Hardly an apologist for Vienna, Byron still found these tracts too extreme and in need of censoring. It further hurt Stanhope’s standing that he kept referring to the Greeks as “Athenians”—a sort of Man-Childe Harold reflex—and suggesting utilitarian pamphlets to a decidedly non-utilitarian audience. One of these, A Table of Springs of Action, written by Stanhope’s mentor Jeremy Bentham, prompted Byron to laugh that his own organ had more “spring” to it, which was no doubt true.
Like all Western interventionists, Byron made his share of miscalculations and blunders. He expended a great deal of his fortune on Suliotes, a fearless sect of Albanian Christian mercenaries whose leader, Marco Botsaris, led hundreds into certain death against some 20,000 Turkish soldiers. And Byron still had his moments of silliness: he was drawn to the Suliotes by their perceived likeness to a Scottish clan and by their magnificent regalia. His worst decision may have been to sail, in December 1823, from Cefalonia to Missolonghi, a damp and fever-ridden town on the mainland of western Greece that would be the scene of his death four months on.
Nemesis stalked his every move in Missolonghi, which greeted him as a messiah and today carries a monument to its most honored guest. Not only did Byron’s mistico avoid shipwreck twice but the other boat in his entourage, containing his supplies, servants, and correspondence with Greek rebels, was taken by an Ottoman frigate. He had to order the committee to release 28 Turkish prisoners to secure the release of this vessel and its cargo and crew. But sectarianism wasn’t in his nature. He told the Turks to treat their Greek captors well: “When the dictates of humanity are in question, I know no difference between Turks and Greeks.”
Byron only very narrowly missed escaping the category of being what we’d now call an armchair general. He commanded around 600 Suliotes in preparations for a siege of Lepanto, a fortified town to the east of Missolonghi. For this raid, Mavrokordato anointed him, rather ridiculously, Archistrategos or commander-in-chief of Western Greece. In reality, Byron was paymaster-in-chief: he fashioned a private militia, which included an artillery corps that was known as “Byron’s Brigade.” At its height it drew between 150 to 200 men (and even some women), and he regarded it, less than triumphantly, as the “only regularly paid corps in Greece.” Conscripts came from all over the country and from all over Europe, drawn to his charisma and the chance to be led into battle by someone they thought approximated another Washington. Much has been made by historians of the similarity between Byron’s Brigade and the International Brigades which, a hundred years later, would field foreign fighters to defend republicanism in Spain (or so they were led to believe by their Stalinist paymasters in Moscow). A more up-to-date comparison between Byron’s Brigade with foreign mujahedeen jihadists fighting Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria may be superficially inviting but doesn’t withstand even the slightest scrutiny.
In the event, the Lepanto mission was cancelled. Not only had the committee-promised “war laboratory” from Britain arrived in Greece without the proper rockets or artillery officers, but constant Suliote shenanigans made Byron’s men unfit for purpose. Fiona MacCarthy suggests that it wasn’t naivete that led the poet to invest hopes in the Suliotes but rather “reluctance to deny the possibility that they might improve.” How many U.S. or NATO trainers of the Iraqi or Afghan armies and gendarmeries shared the same determinedness?
Byron reserved plenty of scorn for the committee’s broken promises and self-defeating half-measures. Following the Lepanto fiasco, he told William Parry, the firemaster of the war laboratory, that he’d been “grossly mistreated” and deceived into coming to Greece hastily upon assurances that all his requested supplies for outfitting the rebel army were forthcoming. Where the Obama administration sends walkie-talkies and expired halal MREs to the Free Syrian Army in lieu of anti-tank or anti-aircraft missiles, the committee sent printing-presses and bugles, hoping to reignite a civil society in the face of civil war. In response to such idiocy, Byron was derisive:
“I am a plain man and cannot comprehend the use of printing-presses to a people who do not read. Here the Committee have sent supplies of maps. I suppose that I may teach the young mountaineers geography. Here are bugle-horns without bugle-men, and it is a chance if we can find anybody in Greece to blow them. Books are sent to people who want guns; they ask for swords, and the Committee give them the level of a printing-press.”
A copy of this speech ought to be posted to Robert Ford’s door at the State Department.
Even in frustration, however, Byron kept planning. He told Parry that he wanted a ship to carry him, as the rebels’ appointed ambassador, to the United States “and procure that free and enlightened government to set the example of recognising the federation of Greece as an independent state. This done, England must follow the example, and then the fate of Greece will be permanently fixed, and she will enter into all her rights as a member of the great commonwealth of Christian Europe.”
This wasn’t just a flight of fancy based on an abiding distance admiration of America; Byron saw our young republic’s rising stature as a world power and knew that philhellenism had a natural constituency in the New World. Again, he was right.
In 1823, President James Monroe declared his famous Doctrine securing the Western Hemisphere from further European scheming and colonization and in the speech he gave articulating this policy even came quite close to a de facto recognition of Greece as an independent state. Monroe, heavily influenced by his own Castlereagh, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, was not prepared to risk U.S. security for a foreign war of liberation, but he still rooted for the Greeks over the Ottomans and Holy Alliance. The following year, Adams nearly lost to a concerted congressional effort led by Massachusetts Representative Daniel Webster to vote Greek recognition into reality.
Had Byron actually touched down on American soil for the first time in his life to champion the cause, it might have actually made all the difference. It’s a thrilling counterfactual to imagine the poet discussing a free Greece with a still-living Thomas Jefferson, who in 1785 had professed his wish to “see the language of Homer and Demosthenes flow with purity, from the lips of a free and ingenious people.”
Byron being Byron was never really all business, nor did he abandon his Orientalist tendencies even unto his premature death and martyrdom. He had more than a strictly platonic or custodial relationship with Lukas Chalandritsanos, a young Greek refugee who’d officially served as his page and final muse. “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year” is essentially a love poem to the boy, one of two Byron composed in the weeks leading up to his death as Eros fought a losing rearguard action against Thanatos. Yet these weeks were filled with sideshows and dashed expectations that consumed the poet’s attention. An Italian soldier in Byron’s Brigade was found guilty of robbing a peasant and sentenced to the bastinado—the beating of the soles of one’s feet—and Byron had to intercede on humanitarian grounds, citing the French code of conduct the Greeks had adopted for their war. He also tried to stop the defection of skilled artificers working in the war laboratory after another untrustworthy Suliote murdered a Swedish volunteer officer. Don Juan meets Sérgio Vieira de Mello. Byron was even persuaded to attend a conference at Salona to try and unite the squabbling factions of western and eastern Greece—warlords and republicans—into something approaching a national army. He offered himself up as “hostage” for these negotiations.
They never took place. Byron died on April 19, possibly from tick fever or possibly because 43 percent of his blood had been drained by serial leeching to remedy his many convulsions and fevers. Just before he expired, he received word that the Sultan had denounced him as an enemy of the Turkish Porte, news that might have pleased him more than hearing that a mere 300,000 pounds of that long promised and long deferred 800,000 pound loan from London Greek Committee would be made available to Greece. This was tactfully kept from the expiring Archistrategos.
After Byron’s death, Hobhouse suggested that if his friend had lived to see the Battle of Navarino, he’d have stood a decent chance of being “at the head of Greece.” The notion was not so terribly far-fetched. Prior to the sinking of the Ottoman fleet at Navarino, the still-ailing Greek government would beseech Canning to make Greece a British protectorate with an English-born monarch—an offer the foreign secretary turned down. But when the country did finally attain formal independence, in 1832, the first King of Greece, Otho I, wasn’t a native Athenian at all but a Bavarian. The British statesman Sir Harold Nicolson wrote a celebrated essay mapping out what might have been had Byron lived and taken Otho’s place at the throne.
The great poet of Promethean ambitions and Falstaffian ironies continued to produce intellectual and moral descendants even from beyond the grave. Byron’s greatest Victorian admirer was Benjamin Disraeli—another realist Conservative who even employed Byron’s old gondolier from Venice as his personal valet—who would go on to serve as Britain’s first Jewish prime minister and to reaffirm the same wobbly accord between London and the Sublime Porte, a decision that eventually cost him his premiership. Though Byron’s continental disciples have tended to hew closer to the original’s revolutionary spirit. Kondratii Theodorovich Ryleev, a Decembrist poet who led a failed attempt to overthrow Russia’s new Czar Nikolai in 1825, marched to the gallows carrying book of Byron’s poems. Adam Mickiewicz waged a war for Polish independence on what were essentially Byronic principles. The heirs to Mickiewicz’s legacy, the Solidarity activists led by Lech Walesa, posted these lines in the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk in 1980:
“For Freedom’s battle once begun,
Bequeath’d by bleeding sire to son,
Though baffled oft is ever won.”
Greeks can still be found who name their children after the author of that handsome sentiment. And while modern Athens may again inspire further hiccups of disillusionment about its fall from ancient glory—from the rise of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn to fiscal ruin, for which a different kind of European intervention has been introduced—Byron’s stature in the modern state has endured two world wars and a series of invited and uninvited foreign belligerents since 1823.
The poet’s legacy as a freedom fighter will never quite disappear. As I was finishing this essay, I came across a brief article in the London Evening Standard about an old letter of Byron’s, one that was dictated in illness a mere two months before his end at Missolonghi. It was addressed to the Consul of Albania. Byron wanted asylum for 24 refugees from the Greek War, all women and children: “I hope it will not be a burden for you to work for their safety and make sure the Government there agreed to this.”
From Romantic squish to scabrous satirist to rebel wrangler to, finally, Ambassador of Goodwill. This is not bad for a brief 36 years on the planet. That letter, by the way, was unearthed in the national archives—of an independent Kosovo.
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