On March 25th, Greeks across the globe celebrated Greek Independence Day. It has been nearly two centuries since Metropolitan Germanos of Patros raised the flag of revolt at the Monastery of Agia Lavra, the traditional start of the Greek War of Independence. Much like other national memories of independence, fact and myth have become blurred over time. What were the Greeks fighting for then and was it really achieved?

The Story Today

Much like the American Revolution, the memory of the Greek War of Independence (Ελληνική Επανάσταση) became full of larger than life figures, heroic feats, and stark contrasts between good and evil. After 400 years of Ottoman Turkish tyranny, the Greek people rose up and after several long years, and with the help of the good people of Europe, they threw off the Ottoman yoke and established a new, independent Greece. The retellings of the battles are replete with terrible tragedies such as the fall of Missolonghi and the rape of Chios, brave actions against slim odds, and impressive figures such as Theodoros Kolokotronis and Alexandros Mavrokordatos.

The Full Story

400 Years of Tyranny

The Ottoman Empire had ruled parts of modern-day Greece since the end of the 14th century. In 1453, the Ottomans captured the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, and by the end of the next decade they had taken the last two independent Greek states: the Morea in southern Greece and Trebizond on the Black Sea coast. Although a few Greek-speaking territories continued to be held by the Venetians, almost all of these were conquered over the next 200 years.

Grigore III Ghica
Grigore III Ghica, Notable Phanariote, Prince of Moldavia (1764-67, 1774-77), and Prince of Wallachia (1768-69).

There are two sides to Ottoman rule and the Greeks. On the one hand, the Greek minority was quite privileged by the Ottomans. Greeks were placed in charge of the four major Christian patriarchates under Ottoman rule (out of the five traditionally preeminent patriarchates, only Rome remained out of Ottoman hands) and recognized as heads of all Orthodox Christians (not just Greeks) inside the Ottoman Empire. Greeks, and especially the Constantinopolitan Greeks, known at this time as Phanariotes (Φαναριώτες), played a leading role in the Ottoman bureaucracy. They served as dragomans (diplomatic interpreters), ministers, and even as princes (hospodars) of the Ottoman controlled territories of Moldavia and Wallachia.

On the other hand, Ottoman rule could be very harsh. As non-Muslims, Greeks, like all Ottoman Christians, were subject to the jizya, or poll tax, and couldn’t serve in the military. They were also subject to the dreaded (but sometimes beneficial) devşirme. At times local authorities could crack down on their non-Muslim subjects by instituting taxes and bans, with the worst excesses leading to the idea of the krifo scholio (κρυφό σκολειό), or secret schools for teaching Greek (although the actually existence of these schools has been brought into question more recently). Even though the Greeks had more privileges as a group than other Christians, such as the Serbs or Bulgarians, they were still treated differently than the Ottoman Muslim population; but perhaps most important was the matter of stability. As the Ottoman Empire weakened, Greece became increasingly unsafe, roamed by bandits and controlled by local strongmen.

The Greek War of Independence was not the first attempt to overthrow the Ottomans. Byzantine Greeks had tried to inspire the West to help defeat the Ottomans before, during, and after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. Revolts inside Greece were semi-regular occurrences, especially in the mountains, where groups such as the Maniots could more easily resist the Ottoman authorities. Perhaps the biggest revolt was the Orlov Revolt (Ορλωφικά), which broke out in 1770 when backing from the Russians under the Orlov brothers resulted in a widespread revolt that lasted for over a year before the Ottomans finally suppressed it.

Why Now?

Rigas Feraios (1757-1798), by Andreas Kriezis

In the 50 years between the Orlov Revolt and the Greek War of Independence, Greek nationalism rose while Ottoman power declined. The Greek diaspora in Europe, and especially in Vienna, the center of the Greek diaspora at this time, became involved in the Enlightenment. Greek thinks such as Adamantios Korais and Rigas Feraios tried to both educate Greeks and instill in them a sense of Greek national identity. At the same time, the Greek situation attracted the attention of Westerns who became known as Philhellenes, or lovers of Greece. These trends were only strengthened by the French Revolution, which fanned flames of nationalism across the continent. After Feraios was put to death by Austrian authorities for an attempted revolt against the Ottomans, a group of Greeks established the Filiki Eteria (Φιλική Εταιρεία), or Society of Friends, in the Russian port of Odessa to, in the footsteps of Feraios, plan the resurrection of the Greek Byzantine Empire.

Meanwhile Ottoman rule had reached a low: the sultan’s authority barely reached into Europe, with local warlord Ali Pasha controlling much of increasingly chaotic Greece. The by now ultra-corrupt janissaries further undercut Sultan Mahmud II’s authority. The European great powers, which desperately wanted to maintain the status quo after Napoleon nearly destroyed them all, were also distracted by problems in Italy and Spain, making it the perfect opportunity to move without interference.

Revolt in…Romania?

Alexander Ypsilantis Crossing the River Pruth into the Danubian Principalities by Peter von Hess, Benaki Museum
Alexander Ypsilantis Crossing the River Pruth into the Danubian Principalities, by Peter von Hess

Although the traditional starting date for the revolution is March 25, 1821 the revolution actually began a month earlier when Alexander Ypsilantis, the leader of the Filiki Eteria, marched into the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (present-day Romania). These territories had traditionally been ruled by Phanariote Greeks, and Ypsilantis was hoping for popular support. This northern march was supposed to be coordinated with an uprising in the Peloponnese (southern Greece), but the locals to the north of the Danube weren’t very interested in helping the Greeks or the Ottomans. Ypsilantis’ forces were crushed and he fled.

Greece Rises

Panagiotis Kefalas Plants the Flag of Liberty on the Walls of Tripolitza by Peter von Hess
Panagiotis Kefalas Plants the Flag of Liberty on the Walls of Tripolitza, by Peter von Hess. Tripolitza was an early victory for the Greeks.

Although the Greeks in the Peloponnese were slow to act, at the same time that Ypsilantis’s forces were struck down the Greek revolution started in earnest. After Metropolitan Germanos raised the flag at Agia Lavra, Greeks moved quickly. An estimated 40% of Muslims in Greece at the time (including men, women, and children) were killed within weeks. Soon the whole of the Peloponnese was under rebel control, with only the cities of Patras and Nauplia remaining in Ottoman hands.

Ottoman Reaction

Despite the early Greek successes, the Ottomans launched a campaign of retribution. The Greek Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregorios V, was accused of having assisted the revolution (in actually he probably wanted nothing to do with it) and was hanged. Ottoman troops landed on the island of Chios and slaughtered 25% of the mostly Greek population.

Greek Advantages

The Greeks benefited from Ottoman weakness, but they also had their own strengths. Some Greeks, such as the Maniots and Klephts, were rough mountain folk who were trained to fight, making them a valuable asset to the fledgling Greek revolutionary forces. In addition, Greeks were a prevalent group in the Ottoman navy and in local merchant fleets. Many Greeks in the Ottoman navy simply abandoned ship when the revolt started, leaving the Ottomans with unmanned ships. Prosperous Aegean islands (especially the small islands of Hydra, Spetses, and Psara) outfitted fleets manned by experienced Greek crewman. The Greek navy held the upper hand.

Attack on the Turkish Flagship in the Gulf of Eressos at the Greek Island of Lesvos by a Fire Ship by Konstantinos Volanakis
Attack on the Turkish Flagship in the Gulf of Eressos at the Greek Island of Lesvos by a Fire Ship, by Konstantinos Volanakis. The Greeks were adept sailors and inflicted many defeats on the Ottoman navy.

Greek Dissension and the Egyptians

In the case of the Greeks, their advances led to complacency. Rival factions (and there were a lot of them) began infighting and setting up rival political assemblies. Some groups were motivated by the ideals of liberty and nationalism, while others were just in it for the plunder. They were wholly unready for what was about to happen next. Mahmud II, fed up with his own troops’ inefficiencies, called in the forces of Muhammad Ali, Mahmud’s nominal subject but for all practical purposes the independent ruler of Egypt. Under Muhammad Ali’s son, Ibrahim, the modern and technologically advanced Egyptian army scored victory after victory. They took Athens; they took back major cities in the Peloponnese; they even took Missolonghi, the symbolic heart of the Greek resistance.

Europe to the Rescue

Europe avidly kept track of the defense of Missolonghi. They learned with horror that it had fallen to Ibrahim’s forces. Europeans had already been assisting the Greek cause. Some Philhellenes, like Lord Byron, came in person to fight the good fight. Others sent money to fuel the Greek war machine.

Over the next two years, Ibrahim’s forces ravaged the Greek landscape. By 1827, it seemed that the Ottomans had won. But the British, French, and Russians, condemning the actions of Ibrahim, demanded that Ibrahim leave the Peloponnese. Ibrahim naturally refused, but the combined fleets of the three great powers destroyed the Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Navarino (1827) and effectively ended the Ottoman chance at victory.

Battle of Navarino (1827) by Ambroise-Louis Garneray
The Battle of Navarino (1827), by Ambroise-Louis Garneray. The battle effectively established that the Greeks would win the war.

The next year, French troops landed and helped the Greeks regroup and retake lost territories. Meanwhile European powers and the Ottomans decided on the future of Greece. Eventually in 1832, an agreement was finally signed. Britain, France, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Constantinople, which established the small Kingdom of Greece (with a Bavarian prince as king), granted the Ottoman Empire a huge indemnity, and allowed the great powers to intervene in Greek affairs.

What Was Achieved?

Grateful Hellas - Theodoros Vryzankis
Grateful Hellas, by Theodoros Vryzankis. Although Greece may have been small and its actions controlled by outside powers, after the decade long struggle for independence, it was finally free from the Ottoman Empire.

The Greek Revolution lasted for over a decade. Many lives were lost; thousands of lives were uprooted; and Greco-Turkish relations would never be the same. The privileged position Greeks held in the Ottoman Empire prior to the revolution was gone; Phanariotes were no longer trusted and religious liberties were doled out by the Ottomans to other Orthodox Christians in the coming years.

The newly independent Greece was hardly what Feraios or the Filiki Eteria had hoped for. The kingdom was ruled by a non-Greek (in fact, modern Greece never had an ethnically Greek king) and was heavily swayed by the interests of the European great powers. The Kingdom of Greece was a small piece of land at the corner of Europe, hardly a fraction of the former Byzantine Empire and entirely cut off geographically from the rest of the world. Millions of Greeks still lived outside of the kingdom, and the quest for their recovery would lead to many more wars and thousands of deaths over the next century. This in turn led to the bitter hatred between the Greek and Turkish nations that has survived down to today.

But Greece was independent. For the first time in 400 years, a Greek state existed. Greek culture survived and indeed thrived over the coming decades. Great works of Greek literature were written (two even receiving the Noble Prize in Literature), new forms of music and expression developed, and Greece became part of the modern world. The many cultural, political, and social advancements of the Greek people not only bettered Greece, but also communities around the world. Perhaps that is the greatest legacy of the Greek War of Independence, that Greece survived, prospered, and made a positive impact on many, a fact that is recognized every year by the Greek Independence Day celebrations not only in Greece, but across the globe.