Lord Byron: A man of his time

FOTIS KAPETOPOULOS undertakes a brief examination of Lord Byron’s real Greek love.

The 35th International Byron Conference has just concluded at Athens University and the biography of Byron on the conference’s website does not highlight the man’s ardour for adolescent boys and women that looked like adolescent boys; hashish, opium and a good beating now and then.

“I like the Greeks, who are plausible rascals – with all the Turkish vices, without their courage. However, some are brave, and all are beautiful, very much resembling the busts of Alcibiades; – the women not quite so handsome.”
From a letter by Lord Byron to Henry Drury 3 May 1810

Lord Byron is a hero to modern Greeks as the most influential westerner to support the Greek war of Independence against the Ottoman Turks in 1821.

Byron put his money and body on the line for the Greek Nationalist Revolution, dying on the way to battle the Turks.

He was a revolutionary Whig and a student of classical Greece and a great English poet who had reached almost pop star status by 1818.

The 6th Baron Byron, of Rochdale, (January 1788- 19 April 1824), Lord Byron, simply referred to as Vironas by Greeks, was, like all Philhellenes of the time, enamored with visions of brave Spartans and high-minded Athenians.

These images of Hellenes were invented in the minds of Enlightened British, French and German aristocrats and bourgeoisie, but had little to do with either, Indian-like ancient Greece, nor the Greeks Byron found in Ottoman Greece.

Scandal, debt and a search for sexual freedom, as much as Philhellene, inspired radical values, motivated Byron’s adventures in the Mediterranean.

Byron left England for fear of persecution over his bisexual life style, the scandalous affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb and a mass of debts.

Louis Crompton in Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th Century England reveals correspondence from Byron’s Cambridge friends recommending the Mediterranean as a place for accessible homosexual experiences.  

To modern Greeks, Byron is almost a mythological figure. Modern Greeks being a messy Greco-Roman-Slavic-Turkic-Semitic lot emerging from the Ottoman Empire who with the leadership of people like Byron declared themselves Greek.

The forced westernisation, process which began in Ottoman Greece between 1821 and 1921, was more about creating Greeks rather than liberating them. 

For the Ottomans religion was the main identifier and they let the Greek Orthodox Church and feudal landlords do their job of keeping the peasants in their place.

Historian, Mark Mazower in his book The Balkans writes that when a Greek activist in the early 20th Century went to Ottoman Macedonia he could not find one peasant who would identify himself as Greek.

Ottoman Macedonians simply saw themselves as Christian, Muslim or Jewish. Clearly, the idea of being Greek was always stronger than the reality. 

John Keegan in A History of Warfare highlights how Byron was disgusted with the tactics used by the Greek klephtes – bandit rebels against the Ottomans.

Western Philhellenes attempted in vain to train them in close order fighting, but these klephtes used hit and run tactics, like those faced by Alexander the Great in Asia Minor and those used by the Taliban in Afghanistan currently.

The Greek klephtes were self-interested marauders with little of the courage that Byron and others Philhellenes expected. 

Byron, who wished for a new Thermopylae at the side of the Greeks was as, Keegan points out, “depressed and disillusioned” by the Greeks he met.

William St Clair, a historian of Philhellenism, writes that westerners, ensconced in the ideal of ancient Greek bravery, “hated the Greeks with a deep loathing and cursed themselves for their stupidity in having being deceived.”

Byron was a child of the British Empire and Enlightenment’s revolution and after all a romantic poet;

Maid of Athens, here we part,
Give, oh, give back my heart!
Or, since that has left my breast,
Keep it now, and take the rest!
Hear my vow before I go,
Ζωή μου, σας αγαπω.

 
Above is an excerpt of a poem he wrote for a 12-year-old girl that he fell in love with in Athens. Byron offered her mother £500 to win her daughter’s favours, an offer that was refused.

As the 50-year-old actor Rupert Everett who will play Byron in a Channel 4 television documentary was quoted by The Independent as saying when visiting Istanbul; “Byron said the only difference between the English and Turks was the English spent all their time whoring and drinking, while the Turks preferred sodomy and sherbet.”

The actor adding, “I’m looking forward to a bit of sodomy and sherbet myself.”

Byron was a complex man with a complex life. He played an important role in the formation of the modern Greek identity and in the development of Western values in the Hellenic imagination.