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warrior-poets: myth or reality?

In the later 1930s, prominent writers such as George Orwell, André Malraux and Ernest Hemingway volunteered to fight for Spain’s doomed republic. That sort of literary knight-errantry was hardly new in Europe, where an enduring myth of the warrior-poet has long held sway. More than a century before the Spanish Civil War, a giant of English literature had traveled to the Balkans to fight for a fledgling democracy, only to become disenchanted—like Orwell—by the savage infighting and rampant venality of revolutionary wartime politics.

In the early 19th century, the Greeks’ desire for independence from the Ottoman Empire was stimulated by growing nationalism, the influence of the French Revolution, Turkish reverses in the Russo-Turkish wars, the 1820 rebellion of Ali Pasha and the sympathetic attitude of Tsar Aleksandr I of Russia. Giovanni Antonio, conte Capo d’Istria, 1822 foreign minister to the tsar, was in fact Ioannes Antonios Kapodistrias, born on the isle of Corfu. In 1821, the Greek War of Independence began under the leadership of two brothers, Alexandros and Demetrios Ypsilantis.

The war, with its accompanying reports of Turkish atrocities, was seen romantically by the intellectual and cultural elite of powerful European nations (one example is an 1824 painting by Eugene Delacroix titled Massacre of Chios). European sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of the Greek cause. In fact the Greek rebels almost certainly would have been quelled but for the direct military intervention of France, Britain or Russia. Financial aid poured in, and many foreign volunteers joined the Greek forces.

The most celebrated volunteer was George Gordon—also known as Lord Byron—an English poet and satirist whose writings and personality had captured the imagination of Europe. Byron’s dashing escapades fired imaginations on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean as well, notably that of young poet Edgar Allan Poe, who was then washing out as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. In direct imitation of Byron, Poe fabricated a story about his own participation in a “quixotic expedition to join the Greeks, then struggling for liberty.”

lord byron and his…escapades

Born in London in 1788, George Gordon was the son of a handsome but dissolute army captain and his second wife, a Scottish heiress. In 1798, seven years after his father’s death, Byron, who had been born with a clubfoot, unexpectedly inherited the title and estates of his great-uncle, William, the fifth Baron Byron. After attending Trinity College in Cambridge, Lord Byron took his seat in the House of Lords and then embarked on a grand tour of the Continent. He sailed to Lisbon, crossed Spain and proceeded by Gibraltar and Malta to Greece, venturing inland to Albania.

In Greece Byron began his epic “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” which he continued in Athens. Besides furnishing a travelogue of his wanderings through the Mediterranean, the poem expressed the melancholy and disillusionment felt by a generation weary of the wars of the post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. In March 1810, Byron sailed to Constantinople (now Istanbul), visited the site of Troy and swam the Hellespont (the present-day Dardanelles) in imitation of the mythological character Leander. Byron gloried in the Greeks’ open frankness in contrast with English reserve and hypocrisy. Byron, a devastatingly handsome man whose rakish sexual behavior would be considered profligate by even the most relaxed standards, delighted in both Mediterranean sunshine and moral tolerance.

Back in London in February 1812, Byron made his first speech in the House of Lords, a humanitarian plea opposing harsh Tory measures against riotous Nottingham weavers. The following month the first two cantos of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” were published, and Byron found himself famous. He was forced to leave England in 1816 as a result of a scandal involving an incestuous relationship with his half sister. He settled in Geneva, Switzerland, along with friend and fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin (who had eloped with Shelley) and Godwin’s 17-year-old stepdaughter Claire Clairemont, with whom Byron had begun an affair in England.

By 1819 Byron had grown fat and gray, and was wallowing in sexual promiscuity when a chance meeting with 19-year-old Countess Teresa Guiccioli (married to a man nearly three times her age) reenergized the poet. Byron followed the separated countess to Ravenna, Italy, and won the friendship of her father and brother, who initiated him into the secret society of the Carbonari with its revolutionary aims to free Italy from Austrian rule.

Byron went with them to Pisa in November 1821, after they had been expelled from Ravenna for taking part in an abortive uprising. In the process, he left his daughter Allegra (who had been sent to him by Claire, her mother) to be educated in a convent near Ravenna, where she died from a fever the next April. At the end of September, Byron moved to Genoa, where the young countess’ family had found asylum, but by this time Byron was in search of new adventure and Greece’s war of independence had begun under the leadership of the Ypsilantis brothers.

willing to die for the greek cause

Byron had become bored with the young countess and the quiet domesticity she espoused. His comfortable café society, known as the “Pisan Circle,” had begun to dissolve, in large measure due to Shelley’s anger with Byron over his treatment of Allegra and her subsequent death. The tragedy was compounded when Shelley and another member of the Pisan Circle, Edward Williams, drowned while boating near Lerici in the Gulf of Spezia. Those events may well have exacerbated a lifelong tendency in Byron to court his own destruction. Before his departure, Byron confided, with typically melodramatic fatalism, to his mistress, Marguerite Power, Countess of Blessington, “I have a presentiment that I shall die in Greece.”

He and many others did. The Philikí Etairía (Friendly Society), a secret revolutionary organization formed in 1814 in Odessa (now in Ukraine) by the Ypsilantises and other failed Greek businessmen, had one stated political objective: “Liberation of the Motherland.” They did not have the first idea what the geographic contours of that Motherland might be, a vagueness of purpose that matched the uncertainty of Grecian self-image at that time. A widely disparate populace with wildly varying interests, Greeks only had three things in common: language, religion and a desire to expel the Turks.

In April 1823, Byron, then living in Italy, agreed to act as agent of the London Committee, which had been formed to aid the Greeks in their struggle for independence. In July 1823, he left Genoa for Cephalonia. He sent £4,000 of his own money to prepare the Greek fleet for sea service and then sailed on December 29 to join Prince Aléxandros Mavrokordátos, leader of the rebelling forces in western Greece.

A separate Greek rebellion was being led by Mavrokordátos in Missolonghi, located in a swampy lagoon on the northern coast of the Gulf of Corinth. Following an ancient pattern that endures in the Balkan Peninsula to the present day, Demetrios Ypsilantis and Mavrokordátos were unwilling to combine their forces against the common enemy. Instead they became bitter political adversaries. Ironically it was only the swift defeat by the Turks of the rebellion in Thrace and Macedonia that alleviated the bloodletting between Greeks that erupted in those regions. Byron made efforts to unite the various factions and took personal command of a brigade of Suliote soldiers, reputedly the bravest of the Greeks. “I came here to join a nation, not a faction,” he wrote angrily in his journal.

Byron had entered into this adventure with his eyes wide open, and numerous Greek historians have commended his political realism. “No stranger,” declared the eminent George Findlay, “estimated the character of the Greeks more correctly.” Nonetheless, knowing that his own writings had helped kindle European enthusiasm for the Greek cause, Byron felt honor-bound to join the fight.

Noted Byron scholar Paul Trueblood has written that “it was only the healthy cynicism of Byron’s view of human nature in general and the Greek character in particular, coupled with his longer view of the ultimate good that kept him from turning in disgust from the whole project.” In spite of factionalism, intrigue and military ineptitude (as well as an ill-starred passion for his handsome Greek pageboy, Loukas), Byron acquitted himself well as a military man by all accounts, displaying a strong practical grasp of leadership. Condemned throughout the world as a hedonist, Byron willingly lived a Spartan existence in miserable conditions with the troops he subsidized and trained.

In February 1824, Byron was infuriated to discover, while mustering his troops, that Suliote chieftains had padded the payrolls with nonexistent soldiers. “I ought to make up my mind to meet with deception, and calumny, and ingratitude,” he wrote, while continuing to show unflagging courage and commitment to the Greek cause. Although weakened by serious illness, he insisted on drilling strenuously alongside his undisciplined men in the chilly, rainy March weather for a planned assault on the Turkish stronghold of Lepanto. The following month, Byron contracted malaria and died on April 19, his death doubtlessly accelerated by the efforts of two inept doctors to bleed him with leeches. His body was brought back to England. Refused burial in Westminster Abbey, he was placed in the family vault near Newstead.

“die i must”

Two years later, in 1826 Russia and England agreed to mediate between the Greeks and Turkey, and in 1827 the Greek political factions set aside their bitter rivalries to elect Capo d’Istria president of Greece. England, Russia and France joined in demanding an armistice. Turkey refused, and the allied fleets attacked and defeated the fleet of Muhammad Ali in the Battle of Navarino.

In 1829 Turkey accepted the Treaty of Adrianople, recognizing Greek autonomy. The fledgling republic was abolished three years later, when President Capo d’Istria was assassinated and the same Western powers that helped liberate Greece helped turn it into a monarchy. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Greece fought to expand its boundaries to include the Greek-speaking population of the Ottoman Empire, until it reached its present territorial configuration in 1947.

“Die I must,” said Byron on his deathbed. “Its loss I do not lament; for to terminate my wearisome existence I came to Greece. My wealth, my abilities, I devoted to her cause. Well, there is my life to her.” In 1969, 145 years after his death, a memorial to Byron was placed on the floor of Westminster Abbey. He might well have appreciated the assessment rendered at that time by Paul Trueblood that “Byron’s death at Missolonghi accomplished more for Greece’s unity and liberation than all his utterances and actions.”

Today nearly every Greek town has its Odos Vyronos, or Byron Street, and memorials and statues glorifying the English expatriate are commonplace throughout the country. Eyes brighten and tones are reverential when Greeks speak of “Lordos Viron,” and his name continues to be popular for Greek sons.

Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.