Beware of bearing gifts to Greeks. On a boulevard in Athens, called (for the present) King Constantine, is a small landscaped tribute to Harry Truman, one of the many Saviors of Greece in its past 155 years. Harry in bronze stands there, his coat ruffled by wind, in memory of the Truman Plan which rebuilt the Greek economy after the ravages of its most recent civil war (1945-1949). Not far away is the US embassy, a large, columned, glassy building by Gropius. Among the many gifts it has supplied Greece, since the Truman Plan, have been NATO, the CIA, a certain connivance with Greece’s last dictatorship, and most recently the curious withdrawal of support from Greece’s ambitions for Cyprus. Things for which poor Harry T. can hardly be blamed, but is he spared his splash of red paint as the Greeks march on the embassy to smash the Gropius windows? No. Other embassies have lately come under attack: British, Spanish, even Russian (oddly enough not the Turkish). One might suggest to the foreign diplomat in Greece: build your embassy like a fortress, and if your government has just granted aid or loan to Greece, request a transfer.
Did Byron know this aspect of the Greeks in 1823, when he arrived to aid them in their fight against their Turkish rulers? His memory alone, among all the Philhellenes who came to help, remains dear to the modern Greek. But did he do any good? Two who undoubtedly did were Frank Abney Hastings, an English naval officer, and Dr. Samuel Howe, an American. The one designed and piloted to Greece an iron-plated steamship which intimidated the Turkish navy. The other, raising funds in America, arrived after the war and made sure that these were used to help thousands of homeless, impoverished, and sick. Perhaps because of the Greek difficulty in pronouncing H, neither has a statue or a street or square named after him.
From the start, Greece has held a central place in the dreams of civilized man. It is his Arcadia. Hadrian, like Byron 1,700 years later, found the ideal of Classical Greece as irresistible as its boys, and succumbed to both. Hellenic medicine, poetry, art, and myth informed scholars and reawakened minds that had gone into a long snooze during the Dark Ages. In the past twenty centuries there is no decade when the barbarian, Goth, Venetian, Frankish, Turk, or Elgin has not been seen in Greece poking among and claiming its classic ruins. And all along, the one exception, the one dreamer who does not dream the Greek Classical Dream, is the Greek himself. He could not care less. In fact, until the nineteenth century he viewed it with loathing as a remnant of paganism.
Although he likes, today, the prospect of six million tourists annually, the Greek seldom ponders why they come. Nor did he in 1821. Until then, for three and a half centuries, the Turk ruled in Greece. David Howarth tells us how “left to themselves [the Greeks in Greece] might never have felt resentful enough” to do anything about ridding themselves of the Turk. If they suffered from Turkish rule it was not for its severity but its “laxity, corruption, and inefficiency.”
Most Greeks were after all peasants, concerned with meager crops, sheep and goats, the church. Two external influences set them in rebellion against their masters. One was the Philiki Hetairia, the Friendly Society. Founded in Russia about 1810 by Greeks, most of whom had never been in Greece but felt a need to identify with a homeland, the society spread to all the foreign communities, even Constantinople, where indeed many of the Phanariot Greeks were helping the Turks to govern the Empire. And in Greece itself the society swore to secrecy bishops, klephts (chiefs of clans), shipowners, and primates (Greek heads of local communities).
Nobody ran this society, or had a clear idea of its aims. Its members had merely sworn to “free Greece.” I do not know on what authority Mr. Howarth claims that the members in Greece conceived of a dual policy: on the political level, to rid their country of the Turk; on the religious, to have themselves a holy war and exterminate the infidel. However, his assumption is certainly justified by what, once they got started, they proceeded to do: squabble over the spoils and massacre Turks.
The second outside influence was rebellion within the ruling Turkish hierarchy. Ali Pasha, the governor of Epirus, the lurid and romantic despot who had so fascinated Byron during his first visit, was, in 1821, deposed by the Sultan and ordered to report to Constantinople. He refused. The Sultan raised an army to go get him; Ali, one to defend his province. On hearing of this, the Friendly Society decided it was now or never. Its members in Greece, each under oath but inspired by his own aims, took up arms. A priest led the attack.
In March 1821, Germanos, Archbishop of Patras, had along with other bishops and primates in the Peloponnese been summoned to the Turkish governor’s capital in Tripolitsa. On his way he stopped at the Monastery of St. Lavra, undecided what to do. Others in the same fix joined him.
While they hesitated, a letter was brought, ostensibly from a friendly Turk in Tripolitsa, warning them that the Turkish governor meant to imprison or kill them, which was not unlikely. Afterwards, it was widely believed that the Archbishop himself had forged the letter to gain time. [Read aloud to the people] it raised their excitement to a new intensity; and with that encouragement, on 25th March, he raised the standard of the cross and called the people to arms. That day in the year is still a national holiday. But nobody knows whether raising the standard was a physical act or a later metaphorical phrase.
Germanos then marched back to Patras and
As he went on the devious track through the mountains, an evergrowing rabble of people joined him, armed with the scythes and clubs and slings of a revolutionary army.
So it began. And not well.
The Orwellian rewrite of a struggle against oppression is nearly complete in today’s Greece. So many stops have been pulled out, gloriously by Byron, rather blindly by Shelley, and quite irresponsibly by Leigh Hunt and others, that Greece as Helpless Sacrifice to the Bloodthirsty Turk is an image forever imprinted on the public mind. Even the Guide Bleu stops short of the whole story. Its object being, like Elizabeth Longford’s, tourism. The ghost of all that Philhellenic idealism walks again in the ignorant expectations of the tourist.
A few years ago, Guide Bleu in hand, I was exploring that high, historic citadel of Monemvasia with a Greek who had been raised in the town below. As at Mont St. Michel, a massive rock rising out of the sea is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. On the top are ruins—Frankish, Venetian, Turkish—of a large town. Had it not been a tragic scene of resistance in the war of 1821? I asked (for the guidebook stops at the fifteenth century). Oh yes! Hundreds had been killed when it was taken and sacked. Did he or did I shake a head and murmur something about Turkish savagery? My eyes saw it all as yet another monument, another tableau à la Delacroix—ruins, the dying, a Massacre at Chios, a picture that in its day had channeled feelings of outrage throughout Europe.
My Greek friend told me how the inhabitants had held out under siege and been, at last, betrayed by an offer of truce and safe conduct. The gates opened, hordes swept in to murder, rape, and plunder. It would be some surprise to learn who the villains really were, who the victims. When Monemvasia fell only 500 Turks escaped alive, the rest were slaughtered by the Greek Maniot besiegers. Like the Chios massacre, the event was published but distorted. Byron’s friend Leigh Hunt, writing soon after in the London Express, placed the dead on a level with those of the classical heroes: “To behave as the Greeks have done at Monemvasia is to dispute the glory even with those older names.”
The youthful Byron of 1809, landing in Prevesa, writing from that moment letters full of his euphoric independence and adventure, of widehanded welcome and the physical beauty of Greece and Greeks, was the super-tourist, if not as yet the super-Philhellene. He found fascinating the court of Ali Pasha, in Iannina, and began Childe Harold. Ali, his sons, and his grandsons were generous hosts; Byron wrote his mother that he couldn’t pay for a thing. Whereas most of his Greek hospitality and love affairs cost him fairly high—even if he resisted buying the “Maid of Athens” from her mother. For two years he took it all in like a beautiful big picture book.
Like Lady Longford’s? The lushly appropriate photographs by Jorge Lewinski are fine to have, though his single small shot taken from Phyle—Byron’s supposed first view of Athens—while making a good point about the spoiling modern scene, is taken, alas, not from Byron’s vantage point in the Fort, but from the town below. “Greece taught me to be a poet,” said Byron, and Longford fills her book with quotation as well as her own Englishwoman’s passion for flora, as in this about Parnes:
nothing could be lovelier even now than its winding tracks, rising from heathland dotted with furze, juniper and drifts of wild orchids in every shade of purple…cliffs of violet and blue rocks splashed with geometrical patterns of ochre, primrose and vermillion.
She is doing her job well. Perhaps too well; one gets a suspicion of the audience she wants to reach from cozy touches like: “You can buy exquisite women’s kaftans in Epirus and the Ionian islands, today, for less than a fifth of Byron’s price.”
Byron too saw the landscape. His mountains looked on Marathon; it on the sea; but his passion was reserved for the classic hero and against the “now degenerate horde.” Longford, admitting that few classical ruins were visible in Byron’s time, concludes from his indifferent mention of what there was that he had a “limited taste for such delights.” Of course, the contrary was true—from his defense of Pope: “But it is the ‘Art,’ the columns, the temples, the wrecked vessel, which give them their antique and their modern poetry, and not the spots themselves.” Yet, Byron’s Greece shows us the madcap tourist of 1809-1811: “I was happier in Greece than I have ever been, before or since.” It also describes his second and fatal trip but with far less toughness and more varnish than Mr. Howarth’s Greek Adventure.
Howarth looks hard at the Greeks of 1823. The massacres at Monemvasia and Navarino (2,000 Turks killed) were repeated at Tripolitsa (10,000 Turks killed) when the mutilated and beheaded corpses were left unburied, poisoning wells. “A plague broke out which ravaged the Peloponnese on and off for the rest of the war.” The Greeks had gone back to their villages with their booty. Turkish reprisals at Chios and later at Missolonghi were equally savage, but only these were the acts that shocked the world and launched committees and sent volunteers to the support of Greece.
Of all those joining the Cause none did so with quite Byron’s mixture of good faith and cynicism. At age thirtyfive, “his physical beauty gone,…curly hair…wispy, thin, and greying, teeth loose and rotten,” having dieted to the point that his clothes hung on him, past both power and inclination to play the passionate lover, he had reached an impasse. In Genoa, that April, though still at work at Don Juan, he felt “a man ought to do something more for mankind than write verses.” Fame, however, was by now essential. He needed one last great stage to play on. Greece was it. Hoping for a heroic military role, while all the time half laughing at his own dream, he accepted an offer of the London Committee to go and investigate.
In October 1823, from the island of Cephalonia, he wrote of the Greeks to his half-sister Augusta Leigh, “you have no idea what an intriguing unquiet generation they are.” He himself had only enough of an idea to send a moving letter (not mentioned by either Howarth or Longford) to “The General Government of Greece.” He announced his intention of coming to the mainland, his disappointment that the Greek fleet, its wages unpaid, had not sailed to relieve Missolonghi. He had heard of
new dissensions, nay, of the existence of a civil war…. I cannot, I never will consent that the English public, or English individual, should be deceived as to the real state of Greek affairs.
He implores the Greeks to
act honorably towards your fellow citizens and the world, and it will no more be said, as it has been repeated two thousand years with the Roman historians, that Philopoemen was the last of the Grecians. Let no calumny…compare the patriot Greek…to the Turkish Pacha, whom his victories have exterminated.
Those Roman historians had it right.
Howarth vividly, often hilariously, despite many horrors, describes the kind of chaos called government into which this lucid appeal fell. Every small brigand chief, clerk, senator, pirate admiral, and renegade in Greece was after Byron’s money and, beyond it, to get more, his influence in promoting an English loan.
At last he lands in the swamps of Missolonghi. Lavishly, after a painting done in 1861, Longford describes the scene: Suliots in “Swirling fustinellas [sic],” women throwing flowers, banners agitated, “rimbombo del cannone,” and Byron in his newly made uniform being received by notables. Howarth, too, describes the scene, adding the note she misses: “for the Greeks were quite sincere in their welcome, although they were cheering not because Byron was Byron but because he was rich.” Money, patience, and hope running out, three and a half months later, still in Missolonghi, Byron dies in bed of a fever.
Longford maintains that his death finally demonstrated to the Greeks themselves their need for unity.
If Lord Byron, the most famous figure in Europe, had chosen to link his name with strife-torn, down-trodden “poor Greece,” hers must indeed be a cause worth fighting for.
Howarth flatly disagrees: “I cannot find that his expedition or his death did any tangible good to the cause of Greece.” The English loan, about £400,000, at last arrived; had he lived to administer it, a prospect he had shuddered at, Byron would most likely have been murdered or robbed or held for ransom by one faction or another, unless he had taken refuge on a British ship. Trelawny, after all, was shot twice in the back by a runaway Englishman conceivably bribed (with money from the loan) by the government of the day. And the loan was milked and squandered until nothing was left of it, and very little of Greece. Four years after Byron’s death, four years in which greed, incompetence, and disunity continued to increase, only “a strip of land could still be called free.” Howarth’s wry, clear telling of this story stresses a viewpoint one feels Byron would have endorsed.
Finally, as it were, accidentally, the war was over. In October 1827, in the beautiful Bay of Navarino, twentyseven English, French, and Russian ships confronted eighty-nine Turkish and Egyptian warships which lay at anchor. A day and a night later, the allied fleet had destroyed sixty of these. Greece, or a large part of it, was theoretically free.
And “bankrupt, starving, diseased, and ruined.” There followed a century in which the Greeks, when not fighting the Turks and each other, gradually improvised a nation. Frank Hastings’s gallant steam battleship was sunk by Admiral Miaoulis to prevent the then Greek president, Count Capodistrias, from using it against his fellow citizens. An unbroken story of autocratic presidents, imported monarchies, dictatorships of the military, wars with Turkey—until this very day. And Navarino Bay? The present laissez-faire government of Constantine Karamanlis has just condemned—over innumerable protests and resignation of fourteen of eighteen state archaeologists—its natural and historic treasures to be the habitat of a new industrial mammoth.
But it was the Turks who were killed in Monemvasia!” I told my friend who came from there. “How would I know?” he answered, and gave a rueful, bewildered laugh.
Howarth speaks of this new trait that chiefly distinguishes the Greeks today from those of 1821: a sense of humor about themselves. It is something the outsider can appeal to. While not yet having produced a commedia dell’arte, it has led Greece out of Byzantine somnolence and onto the road of the Mediterranean consciousness, a road at whose furthest chartered limits stands this unsmiling, unsorrowing perception of Quasimodo’s: “We have no childhood, no memories of childhood, we have only the chains of our character to break.”
Elizabeth Longford sets out to embellish the myth of Byron in Greece; David Howarth to understand it. Lady Longford’s book will enliven my coffeetable. But I will keep Mr. Howarth’s strong black brew on hand against the hangover that follows recurrent Greek intoxication.
June 10, 1976