How the Greek Struggle for Liberty Became a Cause Célèbre for Romantic Writers Across Europe

Mark Mazower on the Embrace of Philhellenism by Hugo, Pushkin, Stendhal, and More

From the spring of 1824, Mesolonghi had become renowned across the continent as the place where Lord Byron had died: the sensational news of his demise had placed the Greek struggle at the center of not only the international struggle for popular liberties but also the burgeoning European culture of Romanticism. When his death was announced, wrote Victor Hugo, “it was as if a part of our future had been snatched away.” Heinrich Heine in Germany mourned this “Prometheus” of the spirit. The Italian nationalist activist Giuseppe Mazzini said Byron had typified the “holy alliance of poetry with the cause of the peoples.”

His ill-fated engagement with the Greeks was a reminder that even after Napoleon’s death, glory beckoned: Saint Helena, where Napoleon had died, and Mesolonghi were henceforth mysteriously conjoined. In Pushkin’s great poem Eugene Onegin, the hero’s room is adorned by Byron’s portrait and a statuette of the emperor, a sign of the twin influences that loomed not only over Pushkin but an entire literary generation.

In France, which was to become the epicenter of the new philhellenism of the mid-1820s, reports of Byron’s death were followed almost immediately by the news that the gouty, obese, sixty-eight-year-old Bourbon king of France, Louis XVIII, distracted by the charms of a mistress thirty years his junior, had dismissed his foreign minister. This would not in itself have been remarkable had the minister in question not been François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, a towering, quasi-Byronic figure in his own right. Chateaubriand was a bestselling writer, the figure who more than any other was responsible for glamorizing a new kind of historically conscious Christian conservatism. He also knew and loved Greece and his pioneering Romantic travelogue of 1811, Itinéraire de Paris à Jerusalem, contained remarkable passages on his experiences in the Ottoman Morea and was suffused, in the words of a critic, with “the dream of liberation.”

Removed from power, one of France’s most famous authors was now free to devote his considerable energy to preaching a cause that had always remained dear to him: he began popularizing a new defense of the Greeks on the grounds not of revolutionary politics but of Christian solidarity.

His reasons were not solely cultural or spiritual. France, the heartand of revolution, was the weak point of the European Restoration, and Chateaubriand typified the fusion of two causes—Greece and opposition to the Bourbons. Simmering internal discontent only grew when, in the autumn of 1824, Louis XVIII died and was succeeded by his brother, the elderly, conservative Charles X, who installed a government of ultra royalists: it was like a throwback to the days before the Revolution, the country in the hands of men opposed to the constitutional commitments of 1814, seeking to restore the powers of the Catholic Church and the great landed estates.

In 1825 and 1826 Mesolonghi’s plight became a cause that mobilized a wide coalition of forces opposed to the monarchy and through which French society—in its salons, theaters, poets, galleries, and ateliers—started to criticize the Bourbon Restoration with ever-increasing boldness.

The establishment of the Société philanthropique en faveur des Grecs (widely known as the Comité Grec) in the spring of 1825 signaled this new development. An activist offshoot of an earlier French organization, the Société de la Morale Chrétienne, an all-purpose philanthropic organization that promoted abolitionism, this new body was set up under the patronage of the duc d’Orléans, the king’s cousin and the man who would succeed him in 1830, after a brief revolution, as King Louis-Philippe. Although it would be wrong to see the upsurge in sentiment for Greece as an Orléanist conspiracy—it was much too widespread for that—it is true that behind the scenes, the Orléans entourage dreamed at one point of getting the Greek throne for one of the duke’s sons. The new Comité Grec looked like a high-society affair that included the duc de Choiseul and the marquis de Laborde; a viscount and a royalist as well as an ardent philhellene, Chateaubriand was an active participant.

But fellow members also included liberal thinkers such as the writer Benjamin Constant and publisher Firmin Didot, and even Bonapartist officers. Through the Comité, philhellenism became a marker of the Orléanist conception of a forward-looking monarchy, a sign of its contrast with the reactionary Bourbons. The Comité launched subscription drives for funds and its members publicly appealed to the government to abandon its pro-Ottoman policy. “The Greeks are on everyone’s mind,” wrote the painter Étienne-Jean Delécluze at the end of April 1826, “of those at least who are opposed to the monarchy.”“It was an established fact,” wrote the comtesse de Boigne of salon life at that time, “that whoever was opposed to the Court was a philhellene.”

In 1825 and 1826 Mesolonghi’s plight became a cause that mobilized a wide coalition of forces opposed to the monarchy.

As the French followed the final stages of the Mesolonghi siege in their newspapers, political agitation merged with philanthropy, and the aristocracy took to the stage in April for an unprecedented charity spectacle with a chorus of blue-blooded ladies. “The principal event in the annals of fashion for the past month was the concert for the benefit of the Greeks,” Henri Beyle (better known as Stendhal) reported in May 1826 in Paris for the London Magazine. Packed with the beau monde, the evening was a brilliant success, raising a not inconsiderable sum of 30,000 francs: Madame de G** wore white roses in her hair, noted the Journal des dames et des modes, each one adorned with a diamond; the young people were in black, blue, and white in solidarity with the Greeks—and some sported linens in the so-called Missolonghi gray. The glittering show masked a political message for this was the first time in more than two decades that the upper classes had dared show any public opposition to the government. The concert had been the idea of the Duchess of Dalberg and some other ladies who, in Stendhal’s words:

. . . trembled lest the massacres of Chios should be renewed at Missolonghi. The Government opposed the project by a hundred little indiscreet measures. But suddenly a number of ultra ladies of rank began to evince symptoms of compassion and in a day or two it became quite the fashion to patronize the concert. An English gentleman paid three hundred francs for a ticket, and the seller immediately presented the sum to the fund for the benefit of the Greeks. This bargain, which was struck on the Exchange, completely established the fashion and the rage rapidly increased.

The maestro of the moment, the Italian Gioachino Rossini, had been instructed by the government not to conduct the concert on the day, but he had shown his sympathies by rehearsing the chorus of aristocratic women who flocked to take part. The success of the occasion had been guaranteed when (incorrect) news arrived that the Turks had been driven away from Mesolonghi—“for the last thirteen days nothing else has been talked of in Paris.” The newspapers kept Mesolonghi’s plight in the public eye. “Its perils attracted the attention of all Europe,” wrote the journalist Jean-Raymond-Auguste Fabre, author of a history of the siege that was published the following year. “All the peoples [of Europe] awaited the outcome as a kind of national event.”

When, in this supercharged atmosphere, the news arrived of the dramatic ending to the town’s torment, there was unsurprisingly a wave of outrage and an outpouring of odes, cantatas, laments, and elegies: publishers in half a dozen countries advertised sermons, verse dramas, dirges, and even graduation speeches in the following months, which were sold “au profit des Grecs.” Philhellenism was becoming a cultural force unifying very diverse swaths of European society, indeed helping to create something we might term a European liberal conscience. In London’s Royal Amphitheatre, a historic drama on “The Siege of Missolonghi, or The Massacre of the Greeks” opened on September 4, 1826 and ran for six nights.

In Paris, Rossini took the city by storm with an opera entitled Le Siège de Corinthe. Despite its title and ostensible subject—the Ottoman capture of the town in the mid-15th century— there was no mistaking what it was really about. His story of a siege involving Greeks and Turks, love and war, ended with a sensational mass suicide that enacted national martyrdom onstage. Performances left the audience screaming in admiration, and there were crowds each night trying to buy tickets. Rossini had tried out two earlier versions over the years, with a different title and different audiences, and each time the opera had flopped. This time—no doubt helped by the addition of its unprecedented mass suicide finale—there were nightly standing ovations, and crowds would follow the composer home.

Rossini’s opera even enjoyed the ultimate accolade of a parody. A new play opened at the Théâtre du Vaudeville entitled Le Dilettante ou Le Siège de l’Opéra, which lampooned the excitement around the original. From the script of Le Dilettante, the royal censor had felt obliged to remove some inflammatory lines:

Their great cause has awakened the world,
And our hearts follow their achievements everywhere,
When around them the storm is already mighty.
Oh Rossini, may your lyre and voice
Move the hearts of kings in their favor.
Support for them comes from all sides
To sustain their magnificent uprising
Let these sounds still speak on their behalf.

In both musical and political terms, Rossini was regarded by more old-fashioned writers as an extremist. A nasty critic called his new opera “the Missolonghi of dramatic music” and likened him to Ibrahim Pasha storming the Opéra by force, aided by traitors who did not understand classical values. In music as in art, conservative commentators mistrusted any allusion to contemporary themes. Nor did they appreciate Rossini’s love of musical effect—the overpowering sound, the sheer noise that prevented rational contemplation and overwhelmed the mind with passion. Here too they tried to make a connection between supporting Greek revolutionaries and his kind of percussive orchestration. But Rossini understood his market well. He gave audiences what they wanted and he defended his music as what was needed in a particular political moment:

How else . . . to produce the effect for people and at times where, in the prolonged unfolding of revolutions and bloody wars, spirits turned to political agitation, where qualities outside the normal sphere of feelings and thoughts, in the midst of a clash of States, the reversal of fortunes, the ravages of arbitrary power, the excesses of ambitions, the imposing apparatus of conquest, become completely worn out in the convulsions of such a changeably tormented existence that there is no longer any strength left for ordinary feelings?

In short, the opera was less a musical event than a sentimental catalyst for a European public whose opinion was emerging as a political force for the first time, crystallizing around the Greek cause. Two years after its premiere, Le Siège de Corinthe remained as popular as ever and when the tenor Adolphe Nourrit, who starred as the male protagonist, performed five days of concerts in Manchester, they sold out. “As in France,” recollected a journalist years later:

England possessed a mass of passionate advocates defending the cause of the Greeks in the papers, in books, in Parliament, in the clubs, in salons. The British aristocracy associated itself with these expressions of interest in favor of an oppressed people. Le Sige de Corinthe was thus a piece of lively current concern. The bourgeoisie, the monde élégant flocked to the theater en masse, and despite the high ticket prices, the room was packed with spectators.

The power of stories about the plight of the Greeks to stimulate the feelings and senses could also be seen in the realm of fine art. Théodore Géricault complained that dealers would look at his work only if it reflected the vogue: “The Greek revolution is going strong,” his dealer told him, to his annoyance. “Canaris, Collocotronis, Botsaris the Turkophage [sic] are doing marvelously well.” Romantics understood the power this gave artists: “As if everything were not political today,” wrote Victor Hugo. “The brush and the chisel are party tools just as much as the pen.” Philhellenism was in vogue but it was also a forcing ground for a new kind of mass politics that used the arenas of bourgeois urban life—the concert hall, the café, the salon, the gallery—to agitate spirits and press for change. It took politics off the page and out of the realm of reasoned argument and made it visible, audible, and visceral for the first time.

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Excerpted from The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Mazower.

Mark Mazower
Mark Mazower
Mark Mazower is the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University. He is the author of Governing the World, Hitler’s Empire and The Balkans: A Short History, winner of the Wolfson Prize for History, among other books. He lives in New York City.





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