The Greek War of Independence, 1821-1832: The Return of the Ancient Helleness


The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan, by Eugène Delacroix, 1826, Inspired by Lord Byron’s poem The Giaour / Art Institute of Chicago


By William St. Clair / 05.10.2013
Senior Research Fellow, Institute of English Studies
University of London

From That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence

Shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution, one of the local Greek leaders In the Peloponnese, who was also a member of the conspiracy, issued a manifesto to the governments and peoples of Europe. A few extracts will give an indication of the style.

Reduced to a condition so pitiable, deprived of every right, we have, with unanimous voice, resolved to take up arms, and struggle against the tyrants… In one word, we are unanimously resolved on Liberty or Death. Thus determined, we earnestly invite the united aid of all civilized nations to promote the attainment of our holy and legitimate purpose, the recovery of our rights, and the revival of our unhappy nation.

With every right does Hellas, our mother, whence ye also, O Nations, have become enlightened, anxiously request your friendly assistance with money, arms, and counsel, and we entertain the highest hope that our appeal will be listened to; promising to show ourselves deserving of your interest, and at the proper time to prove our gratitude by deeds.

Given from the Spartan Head Quarters
Calamata 23 March 1821 (O.S.)
Signed Pietro Mauromichali, Commander-in-
Chief of the Spartan and Messenian Forces[1]

To the average Peloponnesian Greek of 1821, even had he been able to read, the manifesto would have been incomprehensible. He would probably not have recognized the appellation of ’Hellene’ as applying to himself and he would certainly have had no appreciation of the conception of ’Hellas’ as a nation-state.

The direct tradition of knowledge of Ancient Greece had largely died out centuries before. The inhabitants of Olympia, Delphi, and Sparta knew little or nothing of the interesting history of the towns they occupied. Other famous ancient place names survived only in distorted Turkish or Italian versions. A few manuscripts of ancient authors survived in the libraries of the monasteries hidden among heaps of theological adversaria but, with few exceptions, the libraries rotted undisturbed. The surviving ruins of ancient temples were ignored or used as building materials. The priests taught their parishioners to despise them as relics of the pagans.

In the eighteenth century a small change occurred. An increasing number of travellers from the West found their way to Greece. They were rich and educated and it was principally their interest in Ancient Greece that brought them. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the travelling gentleman, with his pocket version of the classics, became a permanent feature of the Greek scene. These confident and successful men were amazed at the ignorance they found. They began to lecture the Greeks about their ancient history and established a regular circuit of famous sites to be visited. The Greeks picked up scraps of history and legend and repeated them back to subsequent visitors. In the towns frequented by tourists a superficial knowledge of Ancient Greece thus appeared, derived mainly from the West, but believed by many of the visitors, much to their delight, to be a genuine tradition from ancient times.

To the European reader, on the other hand, whether he agreed with the sentiments or not, the manifesto addressed by the Greeks to the peoples of Europe was an easily understandable political document. All the ideas were familiar to him, Liberty, Struggle against Tyrants, National Rights. The style is reminiscent of hundreds of proclamations that had poured from the presses all over Europe since the time of the French Revolution. The assumptions of the manifesto that Greece was inhabited by Hellenes and Spartans descended from the Ancient Hellenes would have caused no surprise.

The explanation for the apparent paradox was simple. Although the ideas in the manifesto appeared to come from Greece, they were, in reality, Western European ideas which had been taken back to Greece by Europeans and by Greeks educated in Europe. The classical tradition which lay at the heart of European civilization had been brought back to Greece after an absence of many centuries. The influence of the Ancient Greeks returned at last to the land of their birth.

At the time of the Greek Revolution, European interest in the Ancient Greeks had seldom been higher. Since the eighteenth century it had become increasingly recognized that the Roman writers and artists who had formerly been held up as models of excellence were themselves the intellectual descendants of the Greeks. The habit of regarding all of ancient civilization as equally ’classical’ was refined. The distinction was increasingly drawn between the Greeks and the Romans, and very much in favour of the Greeks. Architects began to look to the monuments of the fifth century B.C. instead of the Roman Imperial Age. Artists – with less success – tried to extract the qualities that were intrinsically Greek from the surviving Greco-Roman copies. The Greek language and the Greek authors were studied more intensively. The new-found enthusiasm for the Greek became a political force. It was linked with the ideas of political liberty and national independence, which were spread widely over Europe by the wars of the French Republic and Empire. The leaders of the movements that regarded themselves as representing all that was most humane and progressive claimed Ancient Greece as their model and their guide.

Unfortunately, in the refreshing rediscovery of Ancient Greek civilization and in the flood of propaganda, proper historical methods tended to be lost sight of. Much of the source material which gives life to our picture of Ancient Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries, particularly the biographical information about the great men, is of questionable value. In the eighteenth century all ancient authors tended to be regarded as of equal value as historical sources, even though some lived hundreds of years after the events they describe. The resulting picture was very different from what we now believe to have been the reality. Ancient history came to be regarded, like biblical history, as applying to an age inhabited by men larger than life, to whom ordinary human considerations meant less than at other times. The heroes were the bravest that had ever been, the philosophers the wisest, the political institutions the most enlightened, the artists the most sublime, the tyrants the most cruel, the enemies the most hateful, the traitors the most despicable; all the situations were clear cut, there was no difficulty in telling right from wrong; and every event had an edifying moral.[2]

A society in whose culture the Ancient Greeks played such an important part was bound to have a view about the Modern Greeks. The inhabitants of that famous land, whose language was still recognizably the same as that of Demosthenes, could not be regarded as just another remote tribe of natives or savages.*[3] Western Europe could not escape being concerned with the nature of the relationship between the Ancient and the Modern Greeks. The question has teased, perplexed, and confused generations of Greeks and Europeans and it still stirs passions to an extent difficult for the rational to condone.

Whether the present inhabitants of Greece are descended from the Ancient Greeks is a profoundly unsatisfactory question. No method of subdividing the question makes much sense. On the one hand, one can attempt to trace the numerous incursions of immigrants to Greece and try to assess the extent to which the ’blood’ of the Ancients has been diluted by outside races, Romans, barbarians, Franks, Turks, Venetians, Albanians, etc. On the other hand, one can point to the remarkable survival of ideas and customs and, in particular, to the astonishing strength of the linguistic tradition. But neither approach seems to lead to the kind of answer which those who ask the question are seeking. What they seem to want to know is – Are the Modern Greeks the same as the Ancient Greeks? Are their racial and national characteristics the same? Do the Modern Greeks behave in the same kind of way as the Ancient Athenians, Spartans, and Corinthians behaved? If one looks among the Modern Greeks will one find the equivalents of Pericles and Sophocles and Plato? By their nature such questions are vague and contain within them a host of assumptions – about human nature, genetics and race, the influence of environment on behaviour, and the reliability of our knowledge of ancient history – all of which are questionable and some of which are simply unfounded.

And that is only part of the difficulty with the concept. Even if it were possible to devise some satisfactory way of disentangling the numerous intertwined thoughts, and if it were concluded that the Modern Greeks had a strong blood or cultural link with the Ancients, would this fact necessarily be of help in determining how to behave towards them in the nineteenth (or any later) century?

During the hundreds of years since the glorious age of Greece, various views have been held about the Modern Greeks. Europeans of the Middle Ages and Renaissance times may have assumed that the Modern Greeks were the descendants of the Ancients but they were far from regarding this as implying any continuity of character, let alone imposing any obligation. To be Greek was to be a drunkard, a lecher, and, especially, a cheat. It never seems to have occurred to the men who issued the calls to join in the defence of Byzantium, for example, to suggest that they were aiding the descendants of Pericles. Nor as Christians did the Western Europeans (of whatever sect) feel any instinctive sympathy for the schismatic Christians of the Orthodox Church.

By the seventeenth century, however, the literatures of Europe had already adopted a new convention. The image of the descendants of the once great Greeks living in humble cottages among the ruins of the magnificent buildings of antiquity offered innumerable opportunities for melancholy comment on the transience of human affairs. Equally, more hopeful writers could conjure up pictures of the Modern Greeks casting out the Turks and reviving a golden age. Most Europeans came to assume that the Ancient and Modern Greeks were the same without bothering unduly about the implications of the assumption. The philhellenic conventions gradually became accepted as self-evident truths. By 1770 they began to have the reassuring ring of the obvious and the few writers who questioned them were dismissed as crankish or malevolent.

The conventions of the poets and the essayists were repeated in the travel books, and the ideas which had started life as literary conceits seemed to be confirmed by direct observation. Travelling in Greece was expensive and dangerous and the authors tended to regard themselves as belonging to a club. They drew shamelessly on their predecessors to eke out their own information and often devoted part of their book to discussing the inadequacies of their rivals. Only a few were equipped to make more than superficial observations and many indulged in sweeping generalizations on the strength of a few weeks’ visit.

 

[LEFT]: Greece calls on Europe for help, 1821. Frontispiece to Salpisma polemisterion [in Greek ’A Trumpet Call to War’], pamphlet by Adamantios Koraes that purports to have been printed ’In the Peloponnese from the Hellenic Press of Admetos of Marathon’, but was printed in Paris by overseas Greeks.
[RIGHT]: Leaders of the Revolution.

The travellers were more interested in the Ancient than the Modern Greeks and a good deal of their effort was naturally devoted to describing the surviving ruins and charting the ancient topography. They delighted in drawing elaborate comparisons between the Ancients and Moderns. They picked out qualities which they thought were common to both – the quickness of wit, the love of arguing, even the habit of the siesta. They looked closely into the faces of the men and women and imagined that they saw features familiar from ancient sculpture and vases. In the wild and lawless district of Maina they were unanimous that the inhabitants were the direct descendants of the warlike Spartans. A few French writers carried their comparisons to a point of absurd sentimentality. On the whole, however, the travellers came to the conclusion that the Modern Greeks were a ’degenerate’ version of the Ancient Greeks, and many while admitting the degeneration, were of the belief that a ’regeneration’ was possible and even imminent. Most of the travellers devoted a section of their books to discussing the likelihood of the Greeks regaining their freedom and gave their opinion one way or the other.[4]

The only books of consequence which attacked the philhellenic conventions of the time were Cornelius de Pauw, Recherches Philosophiques sur les Grecs, Berlin and Paris, 1787; English translation 1793; and Thomas Thornton, The Present State of Turkey, two editions, 1807. De Pauw had never visited Greece.

Lord Byron visited Greece in 1809 and 1810 and, on his return, published the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage based mainly on his experiences. Byron had read many of the travel books and the philhellenic sentiments which Childe Harold contains can be found in the works of dozens of earlier writers in prose and in verse, but never before had they been expressed in a best-seller. At least twelve editions of the poem were printed between 1812 and 1821 and it was translated into several European languages. Byron quickly became a European celebrity. From the first appearance of Childe Harold in 1812 until his death in 1824 his every act and every word was an object of interest – women threw themselves at him; the famous fought for his attention; friends, visitors, and snoopers dutifully recorded in their notebooks every overheard chance remark. The newspapers and reviews were full of anecdotes true and invented. His letters were assiduously preserved. It was obvious from the first that Byron was going to be one of the most famous men of the age and no detail about him seemed too trivial to be worth noting. His irreverence towards established authority and his tempestuous sexual life aroused intense indignation and envy, all of which contributed to the overwhelming public interest. Few, if any, Englishmen have had such a widespread influence or aroused such interest among their contemporaries at home and abroad.

After Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage came a succession of ’Grecian’ tales which sold in tens of thousands of copies. Many of them repeated philhellenic sentiments. The clichés of less talented travellers suddenly burst into life and the ruin and regeneration of classical Greece became a stirring romantic theme.

Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth!
Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great!
Who now shall lead thy scatter’d children forth,
And long accustom’d bondage uncreate?
Not such thy sons who whilome did await,
The hopeless warriors of a willing doom,
In bleak Thermopylae’s sepulchral strait –
Oh! who that gallant spirit shall resume,
Leap from Eurotas’ banks, and call thee from the tomb?

When riseth Lacedemon’s hardihood,
When Thebes Epaminondas rears again,
When Athens’ children are with arts endued,
When Grecian mothers shall give birth to men,
Then mayst thou be restor’d; but not till then.
A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can man its shatter’d splendour renovate,
Recal its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate?
(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto II, 1812)

Despite of every yoke she bears,
That land is glory’s still and theirs!
’Tis still a watchword to the earth:
When man would do a deed of worth
He points to Greece, and turns to tread,
So sanctioned, on the tyrant’s head:
He looks to her, and rushes on
Where life is lost or freedom won.
(The Siege of Corinth, 1816)

After a few years Byron tired of the literary formula which had brought him such success, recognizing better than his friends that his talents were of a higher order. His audience was aghast and clamoured for more in the old style. We may be glad that Byron persevered with Don Juan, but even here, amid the humour and irreverence, he included the most famous of all philhellenic poems:

The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace, –
Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.
The mountains look on Marathon –
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persian’s grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

’Tis something, in the death of fame,
Though link’d among a fetter’d race,
To feel at least a patriot’s shame,
Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush – for Greece a tear.

Must we but weep o’er days more blest?
Must we but blush? – Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae.
(Don Juan, Canto III, 1821)

With the advent of Byron, literary philhellenism became a widespread European movement. Hosts of imitators copied his rhetorical verses, and travellers who visited Greece after the appearance of Childe Harold in 1812 were even more enthusiastic than their predecessors.

By the time of the Greek Revolution in 1821 the educated public in Europe had been deeply immersed in three attractive ideas – that Ancient Greece had been a paradise inhabited by supermen; that the Modern Greeks were the true descendants of the Ancient Greeks; and that a war against the Turks could somehow ’regenerate’ the Modern Greeks and restore the former glories. Not everyone believed in these ideas without qualification but there were few more sober ideas in circulation about the real state of Modern Greece.

As far as Western Europe was concerned, philhellenism remained until the outbreak of the Greek Revolution largely a literary phenomenon. It was sometimes employed as propaganda, for example by Napoleon in his attempts to instigate trouble against the Turks, but on the whole its appeal lay in the opportunities it presented of drawing moral lessons about the rise and fall of civilization and the romance of ruins. The responsibility for turning philhellenism into a political programme belongs to the Greeks themselves. The impetus came from the Greeks overseas.

By the late eighteenth century, the colonies of Greeks settled in Europe had become largely integrated into Western culture and had consciously absorbed many European customs and ideas. It was only natural that they should embrace the literary tradition of philhellenism and build on it. The new Greek literature which they began is full of themes and conventions which are essentially Western. The overseas Greeks adopted the belief that the best way of returning to antiquity was by imitation. They began to try to write in the language of the ancients, to revive the old grammar and to rid modern Greek of ’impurities’. They sometimes took to wearing antique clothes. In many European cities a Greek intelligentsia grew up, completely accepted into the local culture and yet losing no opportunity of advocating the cause of Greek freedom and regeneration.

Once the archaizing process was well established among the Greek colonies in Europe, they began to spread their ideas back to the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire. Money and books were sent to establish schools where ancient history and ancient Greek could be taught. European travellers were persuaded to give donations to charities in order to send Greek boys to Europe for education. The custom grew of adopting ancient names instead of the traditional saints’ names. At Athens in 1813 the schoolmaster conducted a ceremony with laurel and olive leaves and formally exhorted his pupils to change their names from Ioannes and Pavlos to Pericles, Themistocles, and Xenophon. At the school in Kydonies (the city destroyed by the Turks in 1821) the pupils added the ancient names to the Greek names – Tzannos-Epaminondas, Charalantis-Pausanias.

Newspapers in Greek were published in Vienna and elsewhere and circulated in the Ottoman Empire. At Odessa a Greek theatre put on plays with such patriotic titles as The Death of Demosthenes and Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Voltaire, Alfieri, and other authors who preached Hellenism were translated into Modern Greek as were the ancient Greek authors.

The movement was mainly directed towards a return to Ancient Greece and yet the overseas Greeks, unlike the Europeans they copied, still retained a hankering for the Byzantine days as well. Constantine was a name adopted as often as Pericles and the revolution they dreamed of was not confined to establishing a nation in the area of present-day Greece – they instinctively felt that the centre of the Greek world was not Athens or Sparta or Corinth but Constantinople. And since Constantinople was now so clearly a Turkish city, with the Turks forming the majority of the population, the logic was inescapable that the Turks would have to go. Many of the overseas Greeks did not shrink from this conclusion. The famous war song said to be by Rhigas which Byron translated, so similar in style to many poems being written elsewhere, shows that he, at least, fully understood what philhellenism would really involve in practice.

Sons of the Greeks! let us go
In arms against the foe
Till their hated blood shall flow
In a river past our feet.

Hellenes of past ages,
Oh, start again to life!
At the sound of my trumpet, breaking
Your sleep, oh join with me!
And the seven-hill’d city*[5] seeking
Fight, conquer till we’re free.

A great impetus was given to the spread of philhellenic ideas by the conquest of the Ionian Islands by the French and their subsequent virtual annexation by the British. The Ionian Islands had never been under Ottoman rule, having survived as outposts of Venice during the centuries of Turkish expansion, and their inhabitants were deeply affected by European customs and ideas. The Ionian Greeks, who now enjoyed a higher standard of education and a more just and settled government than the Greeks on the mainland, were well placed to advance the cause.

The occupying powers delighted in what they regarded as harmless archaizing. In 1809, within a year of the second French occupation, the local school of Corfu assumed the ancient name of the Academy of Korkyra and dated its prospectus the first year of the 647th Olympiad. The school was to devote itself to reviving the ancient Greek language and the prizes were to be an iron medal, ’the money of Lacedaemon’, and crowns of wild olives. The practical British soldiers who succeeded the French as administrators were less enthusiastic about this antiquarianism but the process continued. The islands were renamed according to their ancient forms – Zante becoming Zacynthos, Santa Maura becoming Leukas – and a currency was established in obols in place of piastres. The islands became a testing-ground for English educational experiments and an advance base for protestant missionaries working throughout the Near East. A rich English eccentric, Lord Guilford, settled in Corfu, joined the Greek Church, and devoted his fortune to building up a Hellenic University. Lord Guilford, as chancellor of the university, invariably wore a purple robe in imitation of Socrates, with an ancient-style mantle tied round his shoulders with a gold clasp. Round his head he wore a velvet band embroidered with olives and the owl of Ancient Athens. The professors and students also wore ancient dress, including buskins, with different colours to denote the different faculties: citron and orange for medicine, green and violet for law, green and blue for philosophy, and so on. Lord Guilford’s countrymen thought that he carried his colourful concern for the classics to the point of absurdity, but during the few years while the money lasted many Greeks attended his university and a steady stream of European books were made available in Modern Greek.

The Ionian Islands provided a useful bridge between the overseas Greeks and the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire, and in the years before the Revolution many agents passed to and from the mainland promoting the work of the ’Friendly Society’. But the apparent success of reviving Hellenism in the Ionian Islands and in a few towns elsewhere disguised from the conspirators how little they knew of the real conditions. The narrow strait between the Ionian Islands and the mainland of Greece was the dividing line between two worlds. The overseas Greeks and the higher classes of the Ionians were essentially Western European in outlook and the philhellenism which they adopted was a Western concept. In Greece itself the Greeks still thought of themselves as the Christian inhabitants of a Moslem Empire, not as the descendants of the Hellenes. The veneer of philhellenism in Greece was very thin indeed. The Greek leaders in Greece itself who joined the conspiracy were content to adopt the propaganda of the expatriates, but they knew that their power over their people depended on something else entirely. A policy of establishing a European nation-state based on ideas about Ancient Hellas formulated in Western Europe was far from their minds. Their aims were much simpler. They wanted to get rid of the Turks and take their place as rulers of the country. But they had no wish to set up European political institutions, to assume Western or ancient clothes, or to speak ancient Greek. They did not want to be ’regenerated’ at all. They were content with their primitive semi-barbarous Eastern way of life which they had always known. When the Revolution broke out in 1821, it was not apparent that there was a disparity of aims between the overseas Greeks who had instigated the Revolution and the local Greeks who had carried it out. The policy of both groups required the wholesale slaughter or expulsion of the Turks. Once that had been accomplished, events were soon to show that there were fundamental differences.

Notes

[1] Quoted in full in slightly differing versions in, for example, Green, p. 272; Gordon, i, p. 183; and Raybaud, ii, p. 463.

[2] It is comparatively easy to trace the extent to which famous politicians, writers, and artists were influenced by the classics, and to make some assessment of the view which they held about life in ancient times. To make a judgement about the generality of educated public opinion, it is probably preferable to consider the works of the forgotten authors, the bad poets, and the schoolmasters, and particularly the best-sellers.
The influence of Fénelon’s Adventures of Telemachus, for example, must have been out of all proportion to its value or interest, great though that is. First published in French in 1699, it is said to have gone through twenty editions in that year alone. Thereafter it was reprinted year after year in every major town in France. It was used as a school book, to teach morals, to teach language and to teach history. It was abridged, selections were published separately, it was put into verse, all manner of illustrations were added. In France alone there were well over a hundred reprintings during the eighteenth century. Dozens of editions also appeared in English, German, French, Italian and other languages. Similarly, many thousands of European readers must have ploughed their way through Barthélemy’s Travels of the Young Anacharsis in Greece. It first appeared in French in 1788 and was regularly reprinted in the main European languages. New French editions appeared almost every year, usually simultaneously in quarto, octavo, and duodecimo to cater for a wide range of pockets. Another work of the same type, Lantier’s Travels of Antenor which was first published in 1796, was in its fifteenth edition by 1821. These were fictional works, in the style of novels but written not so much for the story as for the information and atmosphere about the ancient world which they contained.

[3] * The bloody revolt of the Serbs against the Turks in 1808 aroused no interest in Western Europe.

[4] The images give an indication of the opportunities available in Western Europe to learn of the conditions of Greece in the half-century before the Revolution. I have listed the separate editions which I have been able to identify. Only books which contain some description of the condition of Modern Greece are included. I have not listed works which are confined to descriptions of the antiquities, picture books, or travel books which ignore the Greeks or mention them only incidentally. I give the title in the language in which the book was first published. Those marked with † consciously identify the Modern with the Ancient Greeks. Those marked * discuss or advocate the possibility of a revolution.

The only books of consequence which attacked the philhellenic conventions of the time were Cornelius de Pauw, Recherches Philosophiques sur les Grecs, Berlin and Paris, 1787; English translation 1793; and Thomas Thornton, The Present State of Turkey, two editions, 1807. De Pauw had never visited Greece.

[5] * Constantinople.

Comments

comments