1821: The War of Independence and the Freedom of the Greeks

March 25, 2021
By Polyvia Parara

On March 25th, 2021 we celebrate the two hundred years since the Greek War of Independence, a bloody revolution for the Greeks' freedom from the Ottoman Empire's despotism. It is meaningful to examine the content of the Greeks' freedom, that is, to highlight its historical path and what form and quality was freedom established during the years of Ottoman rule among the Greek communities (koina).

Dionysios Solomos, in his poetic composition "Free Besieged" introduces the idea of man, who, although subjugated  physically, maintains his/her moral freedom intact. "Your power is an ocean. My will is a rock,” which means that no material force can erode the intangible essence of the ideal of freedom.

From the poetic conception, we will pass to the historical substantiation of the idea of freedom in the historical evolution of the Greek world, setting freedom as the parameter for evaluating societies' evolutionary course. This new epistemological methodology to examine societies' evolution based on the parameter of freedom is called "cosmosystemic gnoseology.” It constitutes an innovative and pioneering narrative of history. It looks to what extent the citizen is autonomous in each society, to what extent he manages his existence politically in the society in which he lives.

Based on this historiographical approach, the question arises as to how the subjugated Greek to the Ottoman empire experiences the value of freedom. In 1453, shifting from the anthropocentric societies of the Byzantium to the post-Byzantine world under the ottoman empire, the Greeks retained their substance of freedom. Living in their Greek communities- islands of autonomy within the Ottoman Empire- the Greeks are self-governed, and they have the conscience that they belong to the Greek nation.

In the period 1453-1821, the Ottoman despotism asserts its dominance in the Greek world and sets upon Greek communities' autonomy; it does not abolish them. On the contrary, the ottoman administration compromised with the Greek communities' existing socio-economical and political structures. This historic compromise includes the continuity of the religious practices and the Patriarchate's privileges, being the Patriarch, the Christians' spiritual leader. The Ottoman administration allows the autonomous Greek communities' institution, yet imposing on them heavy taxation and despotic sovereignty. Nevertheless, the Greeks can elect their Greek magistrates (proestous, demogerontes, epitropous, ephorous) and maintain the citizenry's integrity by living with collectivity and autonomy in their communities. The subjugated citizenry substantiates the coexistence of the democratic organization within the Greek communities with the Ottoman empire's sovereignty over the Greek world and thus remains a vehicle of freedom.

The primary sources of the time that refer to the post-Byzantine Greeks' political organization clarify the qualitative characteristics of the Greeks' freedom under the Ottoman Empire. The community of Melenikou, "The politeia of Melenikou" (1813), was first published in the Serraika Chronicles, 1 (1938) and republished by George Contogeorgis in his book Social Dynamics and Self-Government. The Greek Communities under Ottoman rule, (1982). Written in Greek, the constitution of the community of Melenikou is ratified by the hierarch Anthimos, Bishop of Melenikou in the name of the Indivisible Trinity, proving that the church and the citizens are a single body in the Ottoman Empire's communities. According to this community's statute, the Assembly of Melenikou is addressed as "Politai Melenikou" (Citizens of Melenikos). This document explicitly states that the Greeks, although subjects of the Ottoman empire, maintain intact the " citizen " status and conscience inside the Greek community. The community's elected magistrates are a synodal body consisting of three church commissioners (epitropoi) and three public trustees (ephoroi) , elected by members of the community among the most prudent. 

The statute of Melenikou ordains that if a magistrate does not want to serve or proves himself insufficient or harmful to the community, is relieved of his duties. Yet it has to contribute a significant amount to the community as compensation; the koinon elects another magistrate in his place. The Assembly of the koinon includes all ranks members without discrimination and elects the magistrates accountable to the community. Anyone who denies to pay the compensation or profanes or displays assertiveness or ambition or vanity is excommunicated. The goal is to maintain order and harmony in the community serving its common interest. Melenikos cotton traders and manufacturers contribute financially to the public fund. From the statute's provisions, it appears that the goals of the community of Melenikos are: the maintenance and increase of its capital, the proper operation of the manufactures, the maintenance and progress of the schools, the aid for meeting the needs of the poor and needy brothers, the solidarity on the tax burden waiving taxation to those who cannot afford it, the care of the orphans, the sick and the needy, but not of those who are irresponsible and lazy. There is care even for the prisoners by providing them with food and heating.

In contrast to the liberalism of the West, Greek freedom consists of collectivity, solidarity, democracy and philanthropy within the communities. Every citizen of the community adheres to these fundamental values. The provisions mentioned above are not included in Western constitutions. In Europe, at best, the citizen has secured his individual rights and has deferred the political power to the constitutional or non-constitutional monarchy. 

In his "New Political Administration" (1797), Rigas incorporates the Ottoman Empire's Greek communities' fundamental principles and realities. He envisions replacing the ottoman empire- as it appears in his Map of Greece- with the Greek Democracy, "Hellenike Demokratia.” In his New Political Administration, among other provisions, the community shows solidarity to those in need by a fair distribution of taxes. Also, there is collective participation in the public sphere, a generalized plan of education to all citizens, male and female, slavery and torture are not practiced in Greek sovereignty. In addition, the principles of meritocracy, tolerance, and equality before the law are also included, and the corrupted administration is recalled.

Furthermore, Rigas introduces the concept of "emperor people" who commands everything through his envoys to the nation's government. Moreover, in his Map of Greece (1797), with symbols from antiquity and Byzantium, it depicts the Greek world's greatness and evolution as well as his revolutionary vision for "Greek Democracy". The sleeping lion with the sultan's insignia, lying next to Hercules' bat, a symbol of the Greek power against barbarism, is the encrypted revolutionary call of Rigas, imprinted on his map, "Charta tes Ellados.”

The Greeks' political experiences and revolutionary projects derive from the Greeks' political education and practices in their Greek communities in the ottoman empire, vehicles of anthropocentric societies in freedom. The Greek's freedom has a different substance as compared to the West's liberalism that has followed a different trajectory. Western citizens' political identity focuses on individualism and individual liberties, while the Greek on collectivity and self-government participation. The individuality of the Greek is enriched with the institutionalized collectivity, and it becomes a political individuality that assumes the responsibility of its collective destiny.

From antiquity to the Greek War of Independence, the Greek world experiences democracy as holistic freedom: individual, social, and political. In its historical course, Hellenism is the vehicle of the fundamental values of freedom substantiated as collectivity, participation in the public sphere, autonomy, socio-economical democratic organization in the Greek manufacturer's companionships (syntrofies or synafia or syntechnies), and last but not list solidarity to the members of the community.

The Greeks fought with self-denial and heroism for this freedom. They gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire rightly. Still, their political project failed: the absolute European monarchy's implantation was incompatible with Hellenism's political organization. The Bavarian monarchy deconstructed the Greeks' political identity by abolishing the Greek communities and their foundational values. For the first time in their history in the Modern Greek state, the Greeks entirely disconnected from their spirit of collectivity used to practice in their Greek communities. The monarchical regime brought them into the private sphere's realm without participation in the public sphere. Being limited in the private sphere, the Greeks do not partake in the political function; they are limited to negotiating their vote with the politicians. This transformative condition, combined with foreign intervention and partisanship, nurtured political clientelism, patronage, and nepotism throughout the Greek state's modern history.

Hellenism's historical narrative as a continuum of an anthropocentric society in freedom from antiquity to the War of Independence from the perspective of the parameter of freedom sets an entirely different framework for understanding the Greek Revolution of 1821 and its ideological preparation. It also sheds light on how we can understand our present and envision our future with optimism, seeking Hellenism's fundamental values, not only for Greeks but I would say for the world. 

Given that the citizen in modernity feels more and more disconnected from the public realm and politics, it is essential to consider whether Hellenism's political values and institutions could inspire the modern world for a more participatory society with more democracy and more autonomy.

Dr. Polyvia Parara is a Visiting Professor at the Department of Classics of the University of Maryland College Park, USA. [email protected]


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