The history of Greece and the Greeks spans thousands of years. These include years of prosperity and decline, times of conquests, and revolutions. But there was a moment in time that is of great importance for modern Greeks. That was the spring of 1821, exactly 200 years ago.
The Background – The Years Before the Greek Revolution
Many people outside of Europe know a lot about ancient Greek history, especially everything related to classical Athens. But fewer know the medieval history of Greeks, known today as Byzantium (395 AD – 1453 AD). During this time period, they lived in what was known as the “Eastern Roman Empire”.
Byzantium’s greatest city was Constantinople that you may know as Istanbul. The biggest population of the Eastern empire consisted of Greeks (Byzantine Greeks) who were now Orthodox Christians. An impressive feat of that time was the construction of the church of Hagia Sophia, which was the place of worship of the Christian Orthodox population.
The Byzantine empire had the strongest economy and military for many centuries, until 1204. The city of Constantinople was attacked by Latin crusaders and, since then, the empire started to weaken. It was separated in three Byzantine successor states (Nicaea, Epirus, Trebizond) and in 1341, a civil war ensued, weaking the empire even further. At the same time, a new empire rose in the East, the one of Ottoman Turks. On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell and was captured by the Ottomans, after a 53-day siege. What followed was the so-called 400 years of Ottoman rule, also known as Turkocracy.
Circumstances, Events, and Influences that Led to the Greek Revolution
During the years of the Ottoman rule, Greek peasants were generally allowed to maintain their Orthodox faith and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch was able to control the Greek population. But Orthodox Christians were often forced to convert to Islam in indirect ways, mainly through taxation. Greeks were extremely overtaxed: they paid a tax land, heavy trade taxes, and an extra tax (jizya) for having a different religion. Failing to pay the religion tax could lead to forced conversion, slavery, or even death. Some Greek peasants were therefore forced to convert, since they couldn’t afford paying these heavy taxes.
But there was another tax that was undeniably the worst: the devshirme or “blood tax”. Every family had to give a son to be raised as a Muslim and then join the corps of the Janissaries. Young girls would also sometimes be taken by force to live in harems. Greeks who rebelled against the blood tax were often beheaded.
The Greeks living under Ottoman rule did not only have to undergo heavy taxation and have their children taken away, but they also saw their economy deteriorating. Although Byzantine Greeks lived in prosperity in highly developed cities, they were now forced to live in rural areas, working as farmers. At the same time, they had to pay all the previously mentioned taxes.
In the 1600s, a new class of Ottoman landlords emerged. These were the owners of the so-called chifliks. Military officials now owned huge parts of land and Greeks and other minorities were forced to work for them. A large percent of their harvest was taken away from them and they were not allowed to work for their own monetary gain. All of the above, made the Greek populations feel oppressed in the areas where they resided for thousands of years. As a result, countless small riots occurred since 1457. But it was the 19th century during which all the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire and abroad were able to fully unite and fight against their oppressors.
Greek nationalism was the ideology that started in the 18th century and played a crucial role in the rebellion that started in the spring of 1821. Greeks had maintained their native language and a form of national identity with the help of the Greek Orthodox Church. Nationalism as a movement promotes the interests of a particular nation, the Greek nation in this case, to gain or maintain their sovereignty of its homeland. The idea of self-governance begins with the French Revolution, however, modern scholars disagree with each other on the possible connection between the Greek Revolution with the French Revolution. So, in an essence, the oppression, financial decline, and the creation of the Greek national identity were the three main forces that led to the Greek War of Independence.
Important Dates and Figures
A key-date in the history of the Greek War of Independence is the formation of the Philiki Etaireia (Friendly Brotherhood) in 1814. It was a secret society founded by the Greek merchants Emmanuil Xanthos, Athanasios Tsakalov, and Nikolaos Skoufas in Odessa. Their goal was to establish an independent Greek state and in 1820, the leadership of the Brotherhood was given to the officer Alexandros Ypsilantis. The latter launched the revolt against the oppressors in the spring of 1821.
By 1822, the Greeks, under the leadership of the Greek general Theodoros Kolokotronis, managed to gain control of the Peloponnese. Other revolts were suppressed by the Ottomans often with the help of the Egyptian navy. At the same time, tensions between the generals who led the revolution weakened the Greek forces. In 1826, The Ottomans with the help of the Egyptian navy successfully invaded the Peloponnese and the town of Athens. But in 1827, Russia, Britain, and France, known as the “Great Powers”, who favored the independence of Greeks, finally decided to intervene. They sent their naval fleets to Navarino to destroy the Egyptian forces, weakening the Ottoman empire. The war continued and in 1822 we had the First Hellenic Republic with Nafplio as the capital city.
Important figures of the revolution other than general national hero Theodoros Kolokotronis and the members of the Philiki Etaireia, are commander Georgios Karaiskakis and general Athanasios Diakos. There is also commander Odysseas Androutsos, admirals Constantine Kanaris and Andreas Miaoulis. Markos Botsaris, Laskarina Bouboulina, Manto Mavrogenous, and Papaflessas, among countless other heroes and heroines who fought in the war.
Greek writers and political thinkers also contributed to the revolution by keeping the Hellenic spirit alive. Such an example is Rigas Feraios, who is remembered as a national hero. Civilians also showed immense strength and courage before and during the war. Great examples of that are the massacre of Chios in the year 1824 and the siege of Messolonghi some years later.
These stories traveled outside of Greece. The Greek War of Independence was supported by an international community of people who called themselves “philhellenes” (admirers of Greeks). Important writers and poets, such as Lord Byron, advocated for the freedom of Greeks. Lord Byron himself even joined the war and died after contracting a disease.
The Rebirth of Greece
In 1830, Greece was declared as an independent state, under the protection of the European forces. With the Treaty of Constantinople in July 1832, the Turkish sultan had recognized the Greek independence. It is worth mentioning that not all areas that were originally inhabited by Greeks were recovered at that time. In 1832, the successor state of the First Hellenic Republic was established. That was the Kingdom of Greece. This was dissolved in 1924 with the Second Hellenic Republic, when democracy was restored.
The Greek War of Independence was about freedom. But freedom is an abstract idea. For some, the revolution was all about the sovereignty of Greece. Not paying taxes for your religion, giving away one of your children, or working for the chifliks. For others, especially those influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution, freedom was about leaving behind religion all together. As a result, historians and scholars often disagree regarding the role of certain ideas and figures in the rebirth of Greece. What was the stance of the Greek Orthodox Church towards the rebels? What were the motives of the Great Powers when they intervened? Which were the influences of the Philiki Etaireia? Were they connected to other secret societies?
The official commemoration of the Greek Revolution is on the 25th of March. 200 years have passed since then, which has prompted the incentive “Greece2021”. If you liked this video don’t forget to like and subscribe. You can also visit helinika.com and see more articles related to the subject.
Here are some recommendations of films and documentaries you can watch this week, during the 200-year anniversary of the Greek War of Independence. Some of the videos are suitable for English-speakers but the majority are in Greek.