‘In Greece, and for Greece’

Lord Byron’s death there in April 1824 created an enduring legend. But the real story of the poet’s mission to help Greece in its revolution against Ottoman Turkish rule is one of hard-headed politics, which goes straight to the heart of the country’s present-day crisis, says Roderick Beaton.

Greek painting of the Battle of Navarino on October 20th, 1827 shows British, French and Russian navies destroying the Turkish and Egyptian fleetsIn the summer of 1823, when the 35-year-old Byron sailed from Italy for Greece, there was more than one war going on there. Two years into the revolution large parts of the country had already been freed. A relative lull in hostilites on the external front left the way open for a much-needed reckoning among the Greek leaders. Out of the resulting internal struggle would be forged the future shape of Greece as the modern nation-state that we know today. It was to the settling of this internal conflict, and not the war against the Turks, that Byron would make his most significant and far-reaching contribution. It came down to a conflict between rival political concepts of what it meant to be free.

On one side were the warlords, who had so recently proved themselves in action. Freedom, for these men, meant absolute self-sufficiency, the refusal to acknowledge any authority other than their own. Among their ranks the leader was the strongest and the most charismatic and the leader’s word was law. Ranged against the warlords were the modernisers – educated Greeks who had been brought up on the political theories of the Enlightenment and took as their models the revolutionary constitutions of the United States and France.

On July 24th, 1823, the same day that Byron sailed for Greece, in Tripolitsa (today’s Tripoli in the central Peloponnese) the Vice-President of the Executive summoned the President of the Legislature and told him that unless he resigned his office at once he would mount him backwards on a donkey and have him chased out of the Peloponnese with whips. This was the doctrine of the separation of powers reduced to its absurd extreme. Alexandros Mavrokordatos, the only man in Greece who at the time wore a European frock-coat and thick rimless spectacles, a polymath and speaker of eight languages, resigned in the face of this intimidation by Theodoros Kolokotronis, the most powerful of the warlords. The entire legislature panicked and fled the Peloponnese. For some months it looked as though the executive, dominated by Kolokotronis and the warlords, had triumphed over the modernisers led by Mavrokordatos.

Byron, during that summer of 1823, came no closer than Cephalonia, one of the Ionian Islands at that time under British rule. Byron has often been criticised for the five months that he spent there, apparently idling. But he was not idle. Diplomatic despatches were carried across seas, rain-swept mountain passes and swollen rivers. Letters took weeks to travel from one side of Greece to the other. But by December Byron knew the score and had made up his mind. It was no good trying to be even-handed between the factions. Byron had not come here for adventure. The letters that he wrote and received and correspondence among the Greeks who competed for his attention, reveal that he valued above all the legitimacy of what he called the ‘Cause’. As Byron explained it to his friends, his object was nothing less than the ‘regeneration of a nation’. He would throw in his lot with Mavrokordatos and the modernisers.

This explains why, at the end of December, Byron set out for Missolonghi in western Greece. Mavro-kordatos had just arrived there with a fleet of armed merchantmen from the islands. Byron brought with him more than £4,000 of his own money to pay the wages of this fleet. This was a loan, but he gave half as much again outright to pay the colourful Souliot soldiers who made up the ‘Byron Brigade’.

By this time Byron had developed a very modern understanding of the power of economics in the affairs of nations. He worked tirelessly with Mavrokordatos to secure funds and to develop a rudimentary economic policy for Greece. Diplomacy and recognition by foreign powers would be essential, too. In both spheres Byron’s name acted as a magnet. At the time of his death the first instalment of a promised £800,000, raised from private subscribers in London, was on its way to the Greek government.

After his death the money was impounded by his banker in the Ionian Islands, the value of the stock crashed and less than half the amount promised ever reached the impoverished Greek government. But it was still enough to win the civil war against the warlords. By the start of 1825, within a year of Byron’s death, the cause of Greece had become irrevocably an international affair. Sooner or later, the Great Powers would have to intervene to protect their own self-interest, as Mavrokordatos had foreseen before the revolution had even started. And so they did, in the decisive naval battle that was fought in Navarino Bay on October 20th, 1827.

That was the turning point. The Battle of Navarino set Greece on the road to becoming the first new nation-state to win international recognition in the Old World. This happened in 1830. But from the victory for the modernisers during the revolution a fault line has developed that has run right through Greek society and relations with the rest of the continent ever since. This is because Kolokotronis also had it right when he objected to the principle of dependency, the consequence of accepting foreign loans and foreign aid. Time and again for almost two centuries the unresolved conflict between the internationalism of the modernisers and the uncompromising self-sufficiency of the warlords has spilled out onto the streets of Athens and other Greek cities. The financial and social crisis that has engulfed the country since 2010 is only the most recent manifestation of that fault line, which goes all the way back to the 1820s and the intervention of western philhellenes, of whom the most famous was Lord Byron.

The 39th International Byron Conference will be held 1-6 July 2013

Roderick Beaton is Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History at King’s College and the author of Byron’s War: Romantic Rebellion, Greek Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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