Guest Viewpoints

Bicentennial of the Greek War of Independence: Remembering the Diaspora and Philhellenes

March 27, 2021
By Leonidas Petrakis

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the start of the Greek War of Independence. The Revolution lasted for nine years, a period marked by momentous developments (the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, the geopolitical rivalries of the Great Powers), all of which influenced profoundly Greece’s path to modern nationhood.

The fall in 1453 of Constantinople marked the end of the Byzantine Empire, but not of Hellenism. During four centuries of Ottoman occupation the Greeks suffered greatly, but they did not lose essential elements – language, religion – of their national identity. There was great deprivation, but also remarkable strengths – thriving centers of learning, the Kleftes and Armatoloi and the seamen with exceptional military skills and thirst for independence, intellectuals who brought the ideals of the Enlightenment, merchants amassing through shipping and trading great fortunes, individuals and families that exercised political power in the international arena, the village priest.

General Makriyannis, one of the War’s protagonists, illiterate (Seferis’ ‘illiterate teacher’) into adulthood when he learned to write in order to pen his Memoirs, underlined the crucial role of the collective efforts for succeeding. He wrote, “This homeland we have all together; we served her all together (όλοι μαζί).” And the “all together” included most certainly the Diaspora and Philhellenes.

It was in Odessa (Russia) that The Filiki Etaireia (the secret society for advancing the struggle) was established.

It was in Wallachia (Romania) and Vienna that Rigas Velestinlis or Feraios (born in Velestino, Thessaly’s ancient Ferai), worked for the coming Revolution. Rigas, inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment and emboldened by the French Revolution, dedicated his life to advancing the education and intellectual reawakening of the enslaved Greek people, prerequisites for becoming an independent nation. His Charta of Greece and other political and literary writings, together with his activism made him a national hero. His Thourios Hymn, a Greek Marseillaise, became the battle song of the War of Independence.

“Until when are we, oh brave young men, going to live in constraint/lonely like lions, on the ridges of the mountains?/Better have an hour of free life/than forty years of slavery and prison.”

Rigas envisioned a multi-ethnic Greece founded on Democracy and inclusion, separation of church and state, protection of ethnic minorities and women’s rights, universal free public education, and ‘seisachtheia’ (cancellation of all debts). He sought the participation of all subjugated peoples of the region in the struggle against the Ottoman oppressors. It is a historical irony that in the process he awakened other peoples’ nationalist aspirations that led to conflicts and a world of lingering lost dreams and bitter memories, poignantly explored by Theo Aggelopoulos in his Balkan Trilogy.

In 1797 on his way to Greece, Rigas, betrayed by a Greek businessman, was arrested in Trieste by Austrian authorities and handed over to the Ottoman Governor of Belgrade, who had him strangled and disposed in the Danube. His last words were, "I have sown a rich seed; the hour is coming when my country will reap its glorious fruits."

Adamantios Koraes (physician and distinguished classical scholar) lived in France, and it was from there that he sought to elevate the educational level of the Greeks. (He was especially influential in purging the language of foreign elements and creating and adopting the Katharevousa.) When the War of Independence broke out Koraes was too old to return and fight, and as he mistrusted the European powers and especially England, he turned to the Americans. In his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson (whom he had befriended when Jefferson served as U.S. Ambassador to France) he sought (unsuccessfully in the face of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’s pro-Turkish position) political and material support for the “Greek Cause.”

The Danubian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (Romania) were prominent Greek Diaspora centers. For over a century before the Revolution, the Principalities had Greek Governors (Hospodars), selected (for a hefty fee) by the Sultan from members of Phanariot families. The Phanariots, residents in Constantinople’s Phanari district, were strong supporters of the Church, but also held high positions in the Administration of the Ottoman Empire. The Sublime Porte used their education, facility with foreign languages, and cosmopolitan ties to Western Europe and appointed them Hospodars. The Grand Dragoman or Foreign Minister and Dragoman of the Navy were Phanariots also. Two rival Phanariot families, Ypsilantis and Mavrokordatos, played defining roles in the War of Independence.

Prince Alexander Ypsilantis (a senior officer of the Imperial Russian cavalry who lost an arm during the Napoleonic wars) as the leader of the Filiki Etaireia started the Revolution before it was declared in Greece proper. Falsely proclaiming Russian support he invaded Wallachia with the Sacred Band of students in the ill-fated campaign (denounced by the Czar, his Foreign Minister Kapodistrias, and the Patriarch) that ended in the disastrous defeat at Dragatsani. Alexander’s brother Dimitrios Ypsilantis, an Imperial Russian Army officer as well, participated in the Revolution mostly in the military campaigns in the Peloponessos, including the siege of Tripolis.

While the Ypsilantis brothers looked to Imperial Orthodox Russia as the stalwart of a free Greece and sought the military leadership of the Revolution, Alexandros Mavrokordatos looked to the West and especially England for support as he sought political control.  

Born in Constantinople, Mavrokordatos served the Wallachia Hospodar (his uncle) as Great Postelniko (foreign minister). He fled to Pisa, established close ties with the poet Shelley and his wife Mary (teaching her ancient Greek), was initiated into the Filliki Etaireia, and was among the first Diaspora Greeks to join the Revolution in Greece.

The struggle for Independence, led by people of strong convictions but not free from human frailties, was marred by dissension, even civil wars. Mavrokordatos is the iconic example of those passionate but flawed protagonists. The brilliant, highly educated – fluent in seven languages – Phanariot aristocrat proved a visionary and effective administrator with many outstanding successes to his credit, but he was also arrogant, divisive, even reckless. He made Missolongi his power base, organized its successful resistance to the first siege although he lacked military expertise, and used the Roumeli Armatoloi and the Hydra navy in his struggles against the ‘Russian Party’ headed by Dimitrios Ypsilantis and Kolokotronis. He was personally responsible for the catastrophic defeat of the Greeks at Peta.

Τhe United States of the Ionian Islands (a British protectorate at the time) produced two towering figures that established the identity of Modern Greece.

The Corfiot Ioannis Kapodistrias (with Padua University Medicine and Law degrees) as the Czar’s Foreign Minister proved a brilliant diplomat in European affairs. In 1827 he became the first Governor of Greece, and in the face of bankruptcy, corruption, and dynastic conflicts that plagued Greece, he succeeded in laying the foundations of the Modern Greek State. In 1831 the Mavromichalis brothers assassinated him as he was entering the church of Saint Spyridon in Nafplion.

Dionysios Solomos, born in Zakynthos the same day that Rigas Feraios was murdered in Belgrade, lived in Italy. He eventually moved to Kerkyra where he died with the island still under British occupation. As he was debating whether to write in Greek or Italian, Spyridon Trikoupis famously told him, “your poetical talent will secure for you a good position in the Italian Parnassus, but the front seats are occupied. Modern Greece’s Parnassus has not yet gained its Dante.” He opted for Greek, and his works became the gold standard of Modern Greek literature. He wrote his Hymn to Liberty (its first four stanzas, set to music by Nikolaos Mantzaros, became the Greek National Anthem) in the Spring of 1823 during the siege of Missolongi, and hearing the cannonades he would sigh, “hold on, hapless Missolongi.” His most notable works (often unfinished) include The Destruction of Psara, Dialogos (a defense of the Demotic language and rebuttal to Koraes and other proponents of the Katharevousa), the various versions of the lyrical The Free Besieged, and The Woman of Zakynthos.

The struggle for Independence was aided by strong philhellenic sentiments that produced material and political support from all over the world. Particularly important was the support of men of letters and artists, including Goethe, Hugo, Chateaubriand, Pushkin, Lord Byron, and Delacroix.

Jefferson and Monroe expressed sympathy, and many Americans joined the War effort, from the almost unknown African American James Williams from Baltimore to the famous Samuel Gridley Howe, who, inspired by Lord Byron, served as surgeon in Greece, did fund raising, and wrote a history of the Revolution.

Byron used his poetry and personal fortune to support the Greek Cause. His experiences during his first trip to Greece became part of his narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Journey, which established his fame and at the same time brought attention and sympathy to the Greek Revolution. In The Giaour, The Siege of Corinth, and other poems he highlighted the barbarity of the Turks. In 1823 he spent large sums of his own money to refit the Greek fleet and he chartered the Brig Hercules, which brought him to Missolonghi. There with Mavrokordatos he planned military operations against the Turkish naval forces, but he fell ill and died on April 19, 1824. In 1823 Lord Byron wrote to the bickering Greek politicians as they awaited the release of a loan by the Europeans: “Greece is faced with three possibilities: to regain its freedom, or to become a vassal to European rulers, or to revert to being a Turkish province.” Byron's body is buried in England but his heart was interred at Missolonghi. 

Eugène Delacroix in his early twenties experienced a transformational event – the massacre of tens of thousands Greeks by Turkish troops on the island of Chios. The brutality of the Turks shocked Europe, and a horrified Delacroix painted, in the heroic style of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, The Massacre at Chios. The painting (displayed at the 1824 Salon and now in the Louvre) raised immense sympathy for the Greeks throughout Europe. (An exact copy was shown in Chios in 2009, but it was removed when reportedly the Turkish government objected.) Delacroix advanced the Greek Cause with additional paintings – Greece on the Ruins of Missolongi (a tribute to that Greek holocaust and also homage to Lord Byron), Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople (the 1204 catastrophe), Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha (based on Byron’s famous poem, which now hangs in Chicago’s Art Institute.)

Two hundred years ago the Diaspora provided crucial help to Greece in gaining independence from the Ottomans. Greece is now threatened by Turkey – led by a megalomaniac seeking to reestablish the Ottoman Empire. Is the Diaspora in America today ready to lend crucial support as the Diaspora did then?


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