The idea of a heroic thief is so strange that it is almost an oxymoron. Yet there are examples of such individuals throughout history. Perhaps the most famous example is Robin Hood and his Merry Men. A few centuries later and on the other side of Europe, the klephts of Greece, in many ways, played a similar role.
The klephts were basically mountain bandits. When the Ottoman Empire conquered mainland Greece in the mid-15th century, some local Greeks retreated to the hills and mountains to avoid Ottoman rule. These mountainous areas were only ever nominally under the control of the Ottomans; in reality, they were the domain of the rough-and-tough locals, who became known as the klephts, who saw themselves as the only authority. The klephts were undoubtedly thieves. The word klepht itself means thief in Greek, and is the root of the English term kleptomania, having an irresistible urge to steal things.
As the centuries passed by, criminals, outcasts, adventurers, the poor, and those fleeing debts or troubles in Ottoman lands all swelled the ranks of the klephts. Especially as Ottoman power began to grow weaker from the end of the 17th century onwards, these klephtic bands began to effectively rule the countryside and mountains. The idealized Greek memory of the klephts sees them in a Robin Hood-esque light: the klephts fought against Ottoman domination and stole from the Turkish despots, keeping alive the fire of Greece. Stealing from Ottoman officials such as tax collectors was almost a direct corollary with Robin Hood and undoubtedly a factor in their later popularity; they were freedom fighters who stole from the rich.
The reality was a little different. The klephts were at their core a violent group, with life steeped in tradition, fighting, and vendettas. Klephts were not limited to attacking Ottomans and attacked Greek settlements and travelers as well, for goods as well as livestock, which they didn’t herd themselves. They demanded protection money from locals and robbed houses too. While the klephts did attack the Ottomans, a substantial part of their drive was their own survival, not necessarily any higher call of Greece. These were bandits after all, and their main aims seemed to have been personal liberty, life, and booty. The Ottoman authorities didn’t spend much trying to protect Greece from the klephts, often hiring amnestied klephts as armatoloi, irregulars who served the Ottomans and nominally maintained peace and order in an area. Stuck between these two bodies of irregulars were the Greek villagers, who suffered the most, taxed by the Ottomans and the armatoloi and robbed by the klephts.
A large part of the popular klephtic tradition in Greece is due to their actions during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832). They formed the nucleus of Greek forces, given their tradition of fighting against the Ottomans and, more importantly, their martial experience. Klephts fought in most of the important battles of the War, and klephtic leaders, such as Theodoros Kolokotronis, became some of the most important revolutionary commanders. It was practically a miracle in itself that Kolokotronis managed to unite so many fiercely independent klephtic bands to fight for an independent Greece.
But even during the Greek War of Independence the klephts were not focused entirely on Greek liberty. Often it came to the question of whether or not fighting was worth the risk. Georgios Karaiskakis, a notable klepht leader who later died in battle against the Ottomans, often yielded to the Ottomans if the danger seemed too great. Even Kolokotronis, known as the “Old Man of the Mountain,” moved back and forth between fighting as a captain of a local Greek militia and as a klepht, above all fighting for himself, even if this mostly benefitted the revolution. On other occasions klephtic leaders were particularly quarrelsome with their allies, given their proud independence. Above all, the klephtic warriors by and large expected to get paid and wanted spoils from war; they were not primarily fighting from Greek freedom.
But despite the self-interestedness of the klephts, they were undoubtedly an important part of the Greek War of Independence. It was disquieting politically and culturally, however, to admit that the great heroes of the revolution were actually selfish brigands — for the sake of the new Greek myth, they had to become heroes. Although figures that were basically the same as the pre-revolutionary klephts continued to exist, they could no longer be called klephts since the term was now for revolutionary patriots, not common brigands. Klephts were, for official and practical purposes, a thing of the past.
So the klephts disappeared into the mists of history and became romanticized. The glorifying of klephtic culture became popular in Greek music of the day, and still appears in today’s music. Not all songs praise the klephts; indeed, some songs such as the Ballad of Kitzio Andonis describe the central protagonist burning churches and killing children. But one of the greatest legacies of the klephts is through their musical influence on Greece and their inclusion in Greek folk songs. Greek ballads frequently portrayed klephts as imposing, morally stringent patriot heroes who made Greek independence possible. Through politics, music, and legend, the vicious, short life of a brigand became transformed into that of a Turk-slaying pastoral national hero.
The passing of time only strengthened the klephtic legend. Karaiskakis was honored after his death by the first modern Greek king, Otto I, and Kolokotronis was one of the most famous Greek revolutionaries. The klephtic tradition was a strong influence during Greek guerilla fighting during World War II against the Nazi occupation, serving as a military standard. The klephts were also a social ideal with direct correlations: the heroic Greeks fighting against tyrannical, superior odds. Later in the 20th century Kolokotronis was even on the 5,000 drachma banknote before the Euro became the currency.
While the klephts faded with Greek independence, they influenced popular national culture with their memory and Greek music with their songs. While these Robin Hoods of Greece may not have been exactly all that popular tradition would have us believe, they were notable figures in that left a firm impression on Greek memory.