The most important causes that led to the explosion of the Greek Revolution in 1821 were the following:
- A) The infiltration of Greeks into key positions of the Ottoman administrative machinery.
Already, immediately after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, many Greeks had occupied important positions and offices in central institutions of the Ottoman Empire. A typical example are the Phanariotes (so named after the Phanar district of Constantinople where they lived and which was the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) who were very successful in trade (within and outside the empire) and crafts and knowing foreign languages – an excellent and rare qualification for that time. They managed to climb from 1661 to the office of Grand Dragoon of the Porte (which until then was held only by Jews and western European converts to Islam) and from then on it never left their hands. This social group reached the peak of its power at the beginning of the 18th century when they acquired the office of Dragoon of the Fleet that had been created at that time and the office of Ruler of the Danubian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1709).
In the field of local self-government, the Greek element was also very strong, as certain regions of the Greek area such as the Peloponnese had been given several privileges such as, for example, the relief of taxation for Christian citizens and the possibility of acquiring property. These conditions led the Greek ‘prokrites’ (elected local rulers of the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire) in the Peloponnese to increase their landholdings more quickly and thus to acquire greater economic and social power.
- B) The Greek element inside and outside the borders of the Ottoman Empire was economically very strong and constantly prosperous.
The economic development in the Ottoman-occupied Greek area, mainly in the trade and shipping sectors, was, of course, due to the great abilities of the Greek merchants and sailors, who already from the end of the 17th century, managed to impose themselves on the commercial-economic life and especially on transit trade of the Eastern Mediterranean but also in the very favorable conditions for them that prevailed after the treaty of Kiucchuk-Kainartzi in 1774.
In addition, during the years of the French Revolution and the second phase of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the blockade of continental Europe by England enabled dynamic Greek shipowners from the Aegean islands (Hydra, Spetses, Psara) to claim and secure a very important share of the maritime trade and transport in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. In the same period, merchants from Constantinople, Thessaloniki, Chios, Smyrna, and from cities or towns of mainland Greece developed significant commercial activity in cities of Western and Central Europe (Vienna, Budapest, Trieste, Venice, Bucharest), in the Danubian Principalities and Russia, Odessa, and Iasi, forming over time prosperous and strong communities.
- C) The influence of the ideas of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment and the French Revolution decisively influenced the modern history not only of the European continent but also of the entire world. The ideals of challenging traditional notions with secularism, rationality and freedom of thought – freed from superstitions and prejudices – the importance of knowledge for the advancement of the human species, scientific discoveries, the return to the values and ideals of Greek and Roman antiquity that promoted the Enlightenment movement in combination with the claims of the French Revolution for political and economic freedom made an impact on Greek thinkers and leaders. The overthrow of autocracy and the consolidation of democracy, the equality of all citizens before the laws and the separation of powers preached by its representatives influenced to a great extent the pioneers of the Greek Revolution of 1821. These ideas found fertile ground in the minds of the Greeks of the West, who flourished and became consciously or unconsciously agents of the transfer of these ideas to their compatriots who lived in the Greek area.
On the other hand, the Greek sailors who traveled to the West listened to the new revolutionary ideas and, returning to their homeland, enthusiastically conveyed them to their countrymen. An important role in this, however, was also played by the development of education, which took place thanks to the leading figures of the Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment opening their thinking to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, with leading representatives Adamantios Koraes (1784-1833) and Rigas Velestinlis – or Feraios (1757-1798) who with his action and political-revolutionary works was, in essence, the fist mastermind of the Greek National Revolution.
- D) The action of the Filiki Ete
The Filiki Eteria, which was founded in September 1814 in Odessa by three merchants, Emmanuel Xanthos, Nikolaos Skoufas, and Athanasios Tsakalov – although it was not the only one – was the most important secret organization that determined the preparation and ultimately the explosion of the Greek Revolution of 1821. Its good organizational structure, combined with the extremely methodical abilities of its three founders, resulted in its network spreading in a relatively short period of time throughout the Ottoman-dominated area of the Balkan Peninsula and, at the same time to increase the number of initiates, by recruiting hundreds of members: merchants, local elected leaders, clerics, ‘klefts’, ‘armatoloi’, sailors, and intellectuals.
- E) The administrative disintegration, the military weakening, and the general economic decline of the Ottoman Empire.
From around the end of the 16th to the beginning of the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire began to show some signs of decline which would become more evident during the following centuries. Initially, the weakening of the central administration, the placement of incompetent officials in key positions, and the buying and selling of offices combined with the neglect of the army resulted in the loss of territories and the end of its expansionist policy. Meanwhile, the changes in taxation, the devaluation of the Ottoman currency, the prevalence of large private landholdings (farmsteads) instead of fiefs led to a deterioration of public finances. At the same time, the commercial penetration of the European Powers, through trade agreements, into the sultan’s state, and the decline of trade for the Ottomans in the Eastern Mediterranean after the opening of new sea trade routes (mainly after the discovery of America) had an effect beyond the economic decline and the cultural backwardness of the Ottoman Empire, leaving the latter stagnant and incapable of dealing with international, global historic developments.
Giorgos Koutis is a historian – MA in Modern Greek and European History.