Why Did Lord Byron Die in Greece?

Lord Byron's death in Messolonghi on 19th April 1824 turned the poet into a hero and contributed to the liberation of Greece.

Apr 14, 2024By Neil Middleton, MA Ancient History, BA History & Archaeology

why lord byron die greece


Byron’s death following a short illness in the spring of 1824 was the moment when a scandalous aristocratic British poet became a hero of a newly liberated Greece. The story of how Byron came to be in Messolonghi is an important chapter in the history of the Greek Revolution. Three years earlier, the Greeks had risen against the Ottoman Empire, and the situation was precarious when Byron arrived. A poet, no matter how famous, could never hope to solve Greece’s troubles, and Byron’s few months in revolutionary Greece brought few practical advantages. However, his presence and his death were not without meaning and ultimately aided Greece’s liberation.


Who Was Lord Byron?

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


Byron was 35 when he arrived in revolutionary Greece in late 1823. For more than ten years, he had been regarded as one of Britain’s greatest poets and most scandalous personalities.


Greece already loomed large in Byron’s story. In his youth, he had lived in Athens while touring the Mediterranean between 1809-1811. His travels in Portugal, Spain, Malta, Greece, and Ottoman Turkey became the source material for his first publishing triumph, Child Harold’s Pilgrimage, in 1812. The autobiographical poem made Byron’s name, and its Greek sections and further poems set in Athens and the Ottoman world fused Greece and Byron in the popular imagination.


Despite his success, rumors of scandals and debts made life in England unhappy on Byron’s return from the East. In 1816, he left, never to return. The next seven years saw Byron moving between Switzerland and Italy, often at the center of a small circle of equally remarkable and creative poets and writers such as Percy and Mary Shelley. It can be said that during these years, Greece was more of a concern for the Shelleys than Byron, but the country continued to feature in his poetry as the successor to Child Harold, Don Juan, began to appear from 1819 onwards.

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Though a hedonistic and frivolous reputation became attached to him, Byron was also committed to the serious cause of liberty in its various manifestations. Before leaving Britain, he spoke out in favor of the Luddites, whose social protests were being roundly condemned as backward-looking sabotage. Constitutional movements in Spain and Italy both drew his support. The idea of Byron as a revolutionary should not be pushed too far. While championing radical causes, he remained an aristocrat, and Byron’s idea of reform would not have touched his class (Beaton, 2013).


“That Greece Might Still be Free”

child harold 1832 Turner Tate
Child Harold’s Pilgrimage, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1832. Source: Tate


In March 1821, armed groups across southern Greece began attacking Ottoman forces, starting the Greek Revolution. The Ottoman Empire had dominated the Balkans for four hundred years turning most of the Greek communities into subjects. As always, some subjects were able to make their peace with the empire and even work within it but, as Christians the Greeks remained among the subject peoples of the Muslim ruled empire and rebelled when the occasion arose.


The early 19th century saw a weakening of Ottoman rule and separatism in the provinces. While the Ottomans were on course to become the “sick man of Europe” other European powers were becoming more influential. The Greeks and other Ottoman subjects could look to the Great Powers; Russia, France, and Great Britain, and imagine them overcoming their oppressors. Along with the growing power of northern and western Europe came new ideas. The Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Liberalism, and Nationalism were all ideas born far from Greece. However, their impact was felt in the eastern Mediterranean.


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


New ideas, centuries of oppression, local rebellions, and weakening central authority all combined in the 1820s to lead to the outbreak of the Greek Revolution. Around the Aegean Sea, Greeks rose but struggled to gain a lasting foothold outside of the areas where they formed a majority. Ottoman forces were largely overrun (except for several key fortresses) in the Peloponnese, Athens, central Greece, and the Aegean Islands in 1821/22. However, in Asia Minor, northern Greece, and the larger islands of Crete and Cyprus, the revolution would not take hold. Southern Greece was largely free, but most Greeks still lived under the Ottomans, and the liberated areas would need to defend themselves against the inevitable retaliation of the Sultan.


“We Are All Greeks”  

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


Though Byron had done as much as anyone to draw attention to Greece at the start of the 19th century, when the revolution began in 1821, his reaction was more muted than most (Beaton, 2013). In its early years, Byron did not show any public support for the cause. In contrast, people around Europe expressed such enthusiasm that the movement gained a name, Philhellenism.


Subject populations had previously rebelled against the Ottoman Empire, causing barely a stir in Europe. The Greek rebellion, however, caught the imagination. So much so that people with no connection to Greece felt compelled to support the cause and even to fight for it. Ancient Greece and Rome had been a staple of education and a maker of culture since at least the Renaissance. For many an adventurous dreamer, the idea that the Greeks of old had leaped out of their books and were fighting for freedom was simply too good a story to ignore.


The Europe of the 1820s was also full of former soldiers and revolutionaries of the Napoleonic Wars either desperate or bored by the conservative peace imposed on the continent by the Congress of Vienna. Largely on their own initiative, people left Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere to join the Greek cause. Many of these lovers of Greece, Philhellenes, would end up disillusioned by their experiences. No living people could match the ideal of the ancient Greeks, which many dreams were based on. Instead of a gleaming civilization of marble, the Philhellenes found a poor, Ottoman backwater ravaged by a bitter war. For their part, the Greeks were suddenly expected to host and utilize a random assortment of Europeans who were often ignorant of the country and its people but assumed they knew best.


Most Philhellenes volunteered without the support of their home governments. Conservative Post-Napoleonic Europe was fearful of all revolutions and nervous that any intervention in the Ottoman Empire would disturb the balance of power. Still, the Philhellenes helped by turning the image of the Greek Revolution from an obscure uprising into a popular cause, and the eventual internationalization of the conflict would determine its outcome.


Byron and the London Greek Committee 

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


It was the creation of a Philhellenic Committee in London that attached Byron to the Greek cause. The London Greek Committee, founded in March 1823 by the journalist Edward Blaquiere and the merchant John Bowring, aimed at promoting the Greek cause in Britain and gathering funds (St.Clair, 1972, p. 140). Aside from its one famous figure, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham who corresponded with the provisional Greek government, its other members were mostly MPs and writers described as on the left of the political spectrum of the day, and were used to supporting various popular causes around Europe (St.Clair, 1972, p. 146).


The Committee’s efforts to publicize the Greek cause and collect donations in Britain was of limited success, but a major boost came early on when Blaquiere recruited Byron. In hindsight, it seems inevitable that Byron, the supporter of liberal causes and lover of Greece, would take this decision, but until spring 1823, it was anything but. Byron had spent the years since 1821 caught up in the plots of Italian revolutionary societies. While the 1820s may have found him searching for a cause to join, he was considering options in Spain and South America.


Though seen as the quintessential Philhellene, Byron’s slowness to join the cause set him apart and perhaps made him a more useful supporter of Greece. No doubt he had his own dreams of what going to Greece could be and a personal desire to revisit the scene of his youthful travels, but, unlike many volunteers, his years of living in Greece at least brought some experience of the country and its people. This experience and the level-headedness not to be swept away on the wave of enthusiasm in 1821 meant that the London Greek Committee had found itself a thoughtful, relatively knowledgeable, and committed member.


Byron in Greece  

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


Supporting the Greek cause appeared a fairly straightforward matter from London. In Greece itself it was a rather more complicated affair.


There was a provisional government based on an advanced liberal constitution. However, in a country in the middle of a revolutionary war, this state existed largely on paper. The new political community the Greeks were creating was very much a work in progress. Therefore the Greece of 1823 was one riven by numerous and increasingly conflicting factions.


These factions can be broadly divided into two camps. There were those who favoured a strong centralized state based on those developing elsewhere in Europe. This view was especially associated with the Greeks, who had spent time outside the country before the revolution. Others essentially wished to maintain the Ottoman system in which local elites ruled their own regions, just without the Ottomans. The landed elites (the Primates) and the warlords (the Klephts) were often attached to this view which mirrored the world they had always inhabited and were deeply suspicious of those accumulating power at the center. Added to this mix were personal ambitions and local loyalties, and it ultimately proved impossible to prevent rounds of civil war in 1823 and 1824. This was the tense situation Byron was stepping into.


Having committed himself to the cause, Byron disregarded the option of supporting Greece from a distance and was instead determined to head to the front. He left Italy with a personal retinue, a few military and medical supplies, and his own funds. Like many Philhellenes, Byron and the London Committee had a vague aim of boosting Greek military capabilities by introducing artillery and a professional army but lacked the resources to fully implement this ambitious project.


Alexandros Mavrokordatos 1827 Karl National Gallery
Alexandros Mavrokordatos, Krazeisen Karl, 1827. Source: National Gallery Alexandros Soutsos Museum


The Greeks had already seen similar projects fail, and what they needed more than anything from Europe was funds to fight their war and international recognition. The renowned aristocratic poet and representative of a committee with access to London’s financial elite held out this prospect.


Byron’s first port of call in Greece was the British-governed Ionian Islands. Here, Byron paused to survey the complicated situation and assess how to operate in the dangerous waters of tense factional politics. He was quickly seen as the holder of the keys not only to his own substantial fortune but to the prospects of a loan arranged in London, which was being prepared. This gave Byron and the British Philhellenes some political leverage and after careful reflection, Byron decided to put his weight behind Alexandros Mavrokordatos. Previously head of the executive branch of the provisional government, before being sidelined by the warlords, Mavrokordatos was a representative of the western-orientated centralizing faction. To join Mavrokordatos, Byron headed to Messolonghi in autumn of 1823.


How Did Byron Die in Missolonghi?  

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


Before Byron’s arrival, the coastal fishing town of Missolonghi in central Greece had escaped the romantic imagination. Instead of ruins and classical associations, it had a mosquito ridden lagoon. It had survived an Ottoman siege in 1822 and was threatened again in 1823.


One of Byron’s first acts was to fund a fleet to protect Missolonghi. The rumors of this fleet were enough to make the Ottomans withdraw. This would prove one of Byron’s only material contributions to the course of the war (Beaton, 2013).


When he landed at Missolonghi on 5th January 1824, Byron was accorded a hero’s welcome, but the situation soon turned sour, and the next few months brought a series of failed projects. An attempt to organize and pay a band of Greek soldiers to form the core of a force to take nearby Ottoman fortresses dissolved into arguments and mutiny. The relationship between Mavrokordatos and the local military commanders broke down almost to the point of conflict in March and April. The other schemes of the London Greek Committee to provide an artillery school and printing presses were equally limited.


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


So far Byron had supported these efforts with his own funds. While his individual initiatives had limited success, the British loan the Greeks pinned their hopes on had started to materialize. Byron’s presence in Greece had excited and reassured investors by helping to create the conditions for the first substantial financial support for the struggling country. In March, he was appointed one of two commissioners of the loan and the first payments were soon on the way.


Byron was dead before the funds arrived. After several months of effort in Missolonghi, which had seemingly produced little except disappointment and further tensions among the Greek factions, Byron’s health deteriorated in early April. On 9th April, he was caught in a heavy rainstorm while riding and came down with a fever. He had already suffered one round of illness in February, and while his fever seemed to improve, Byron and his companions were making plans to leave Missolonghi to recuperate (Beaton, 2013). When this proved impossible, Byron’s British doctors proposed another plan. Against his objections, they tried to cure the patient by bleeding. The bleeding of a weakened body seems to have been too much, and in the early evening of 19th April 1824, Byron died at the age of 36.


Lord Byron’s Legacy  

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


Byron’s time in Greece had been short and frustrating, but not without consequences or meaning. The greatest contribution he made was to associate his name and fame with the Greek struggle. One of the most famous men of his time, Byron not only joined the Greeks, but his death in the process of doing so was of significant symbolic value and mobilized renewed interest in the war. When Missolonghi, now firmly associated with Byron’s memory, finally fell to the Ottomans after a heroic resistance in 1826, intervention by the Great Powers followed in 1827 and guaranteed Greece’s freedom.


Byron’s decision to go to Greece, while ultimately costing him his life, turned him into the archetypal romantic hero. For Greece, his decision was a meaningful contribution when the fight for liberty hung in the balance.

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By Neil MiddletonMA Ancient History, BA History & ArchaeologyNeil Middleton has studied ancient history and archaeology up to Masters level (MA in Ancient History from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David) with a focus on ancient Greece. His particular areas of interest are the politics of the Greek world in the Classical and Hellenistic era. After his studies he has spent time living in Greece and France.