On this day in 1770, Theodoros Kolokotronis, the Greek general and leader of the Greek War of Independence (1821-29), was born in Messenia in what was then the Ottoman Empire. His father participated in a rebellion supported by Empress Catherine II of Russia in 1770, but was killed along with his two brothers by the Turks. As a result, Kolokotronis and his mother moved to her hometown in Arkadia, where he was raised. A true Greek patriot, Kolokotronis became a member of the secret organization Filiki Etairia in 1818, which made the preparations for the Greek Revolution. The secret society was made up of thousands of Greek merchants, intellectuals, church representatives, and others who had been trying to organize European pressure and peaceful means of ending the Ottoman control of Greece. Kolokotronis’ greatest success was the defeat of the Ottoman army under Mahmud Dramali Pasha at the Battle of Dervenakia in 1822. In 1825, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Greek forces in the Peloponnese.
On this day in 1896, the first modern Olympic games opened in Athens, Greece with athletes from 14 countries participating in 43 events. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had met in Paris in 1894 and decided that Greece, as the birthplace of the games, should be the site of the inaugural modern Olympiad. France, Great Britain, Germany, and Greece had the largest number of athletes participating in those games. Nevertheless, the United States took home the most first-place finishes (11) of any nation, followed by Greece (10) and Germany (6). The winners were given a silver medal, while runners-up received a copper medal. Retroactively, the IOC converted those to gold and silver, and awarded bronze medals to third placed athletes. The Ancient games are believed to have originated in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece, where, at first, athletes competed only in one event: a foot race. Over the years, more events were added, including chariot racing, boxing, and wrestling. Participants, who were all young men from various Greek city-states and colonies, received olive wreaths as their prizes.
On this day in 1614, El Greco (ne Domenikos Theotokopoulos), the Greek-born painter, sculptor, and architect of the Spanish Renaissance, passed away at the age of 72. Originally from the island of Crete (which was at the time part of the Republic of Venice), he eventually moved to Toledo, Spain where he lived and worked until his death. It is said that El Greco enjoyed ‘living large’ and thus maintained a private orchestra to accompany his meals. Regardless of his Spanish nickname, El Greco normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters (Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος), often adding the word Κρής (Kres, “Cretan”). After his death, El Greco’s work was largely ignored until the beginning of the 20th century. Today he is considered one of the inspired geniuses of Western art.
On this day in 1820, the famous ancient Greek statue, the Venus de Milo (AKA Aphrodite), was discovered by a local farmer and a young French naval officer on the island of Milos in the Aegean Sea. It is said that the French officer commandeered two sailors from his ship to help dig for objects on the site of an ancient theatre on Milos. At the site, the officer observed a local farmer who was gathering stones for his farm but then suddenly stopped in awe of something. The officer gave the farmer a small bribe to extract the remaining pieces of the sculpture which were located inside an arched enclosure. The Frenchman soon came to the realization that he would not be able to acquire the statue alone. Thus, the office of France’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled over Milos, ultimately purchased and ensured the sculpture’s safe passage to France. The sculpture itself was carved from marble by Alexandros, a sculptor of Antioch around 150 BC. In 1821, the sculpture was presented to King Louis XVIII. Today, the Venus de Milo is considered one of the most celebrated examples of ancient Hellenistic sculptures and is on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.