William Hazlitt’s epitaph on Byron – “He probably fell a martyr to his zeal against tyrants” – shows a characteristic reluctance to over-praise, but even Hazlitt found it hard to downplay the significance of Byron’s death in Missolonghi: “He attached himself to the cause of Greece, and dying, clung to it with a convulsive grasp, and has thus gained a niche in her history; for whatever she claims as hers is immortal, even in decay.” Roderick Beaton’s pithy account of Byron’s involvement with the Greek Revolution shares Hazlitt’s sense that the poet flung himself at Greece as a last-ditch bid for immortality. Byron’s War tells how what could easily have been a futile gesture succeeded in raising the whole tone of the war.
That the cause was accidental as well as idealistic is one of several ironies relished by Beaton as he sketches the Greek dimension of Byron’s career. The story begins with the peer’s tour of the geographical expression that was Greece in 1809-11, when he looked for a “Land of lost gods and god-like men” and found (Beaton discounts Cambridge) his first homosexual experience. Byron’s factual writing about the Greeks during his studies in Athens reveals scepticism about Greek independence, however poetically stirred he was by sights of the Acropolis, Delphi, Parnassus and Troy. Back in England from 1812 to 1815, Byron devoted himself to the Turkish Tales and despite an evident desire to distinguish himself in the political arena, any future connection with the rebirth of Greece seemed unlikely.
Mining Byron’s poetry for Grecian subtexts, Beaton identifies a Greek vampire behind The Giaour and Greek love underlying the invocation of Rousseau’s “deep Love” in Childe Harold, while Greece also becomes the outcast creature of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Historical contingency is handled with greater savoir faire. Byron’s renewed interest in Greece is attributed to his friendship with Percy Shelley, and Beaton carefully traces a conversation about classical literature and modern politics that runs between them from 1816 to 1822. Unlike Percy and Mary Shelley (who took Greek classes with Prince Mavrokordatos), Byron seems to have remained unacquainted with the Greek exiles in Pisa. Freedom for Hellas was left as one of several projects that Byron felt obliged to continue after Shelley’s death: Byron’s war, Beaton suggests, should be understood as “a tribute to everything that Shelley had come to represent in his imagination”.
The second half of the book takes Byron from Genoa to Missolonghi. Valuable archival research supplies a freshly detailed account of those who “quarrelled beneath the same banner”, as Byron put it. His friend John Cam Hobhouse had advised: “Just go to headquarters and look about you and come away again.” On arrival, Byron realised that more practical long-term intervention was necessary: tensions within civilian and military groups of Greek liberators were responsible for chaotic finances and military indiscipline. England’s greatest Romantic rebel found a new identity trying to establish order, financial probity and efficient government. Building on Stephen Minta’s pioneering research, Beaton explores Byron’s relationship with the aspirant leader Mavrokordatos, throwing new light on the treacherous politics of the Karaiskakis affair, which, Beaton suggests, contributed to the collapse of Byron’s physical and mental health. In barely 100 days, however, Byron did make a difference. He was instrumental in securing money to underwrite the new government, he acted decisively to ensure humane treatment of prisoners of war, and he tried to replace factionalism with modernising, internationalist principles. Byron proved to be a surprisingly competent administrator. It is the great achievement of this book to make us feel that there could be no nobler calling.