Byron has been a Greek national hero ever since he became involved in the country’s struggle for independence. Almost every town in the country has a street – Výronos – named after him; not a few men still answer to “Vyron” as a first name. He first passed through in 1809 when tyrannical local ruler Ali Pasha was at the height of his power, and the poet’s tales of intrigue sent a shiver down romantic Western spines.
Later, in January 1824, Byron made his way to Mesolóngi, a squalid, inhospitable southwestern port amid lagoons – but also the western centre of resistance against the Ottomans. The poet, who had by then contributed his personal fame and fortune to the war effort, was enthusiastically greeted with a 21-gun salute, and made commander of the five-thousand-strong garrison, a role as much political as military. The Greek forces were divided into factions whose brigand-chieftains separately and persistently petitioned him for money. Occasionally Byron despaired: “Here we sit in this realm of mud and discord”, read one of his journal entries. But while other Philhellenes returned home, disillusioned by the fractious, larcenous Greeks, or worn out by quasi-tropical Mesolóngi, he stayed.
On February 15 Byron caught a fever, possibly malaria, and two months later died; ironically, he became more valuable to the Greek cause dead than alive. News of the poet’s demise, embellished to heroic proportions, reverberated across northern Europe; arguably it changed the course of the war in Greece. When Mesolóngi fell again to the Ottomans in spring 1826, there was outcry in the European press, and French and English forces were finally galvanized into sending a naval force that unintentionally engaged an Egyptian fleet at Navarino, striking a fatal blow against the Ottoman navy.