Greek revolution 3/25/1821: Historical Elements

Everyone’s always talking about Greek summers. But for me, the Springtime in Greece is pure drama: it’s got all of the elements of a heart pounding, cinematographically breathtaking Hollywood movie (which in fact, is being released this month around the US – but that’s the subject of another post!)

We pass from the Carnival period, to Greek Independence, followed by Greek Easter – all set amongst a backdrop of blooming blood red poppies and bright yellow wildflowers. Today I want to talk about Greek Independence.

The year is 1831 and the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire has reached its outcome, ten years after it began. The Peloponnese and central Greece are free (although many battles are still underway) and the newly established Hellenic Republic tries to rise to its feet. After what is considered as the Dark Ages for Greeks after the fall of the Byzantine Empire and 400 years of Ottoman oppression, they finally have their land back in their own hands, and March 25 is declared Independence Day.

It’s not lost on most Greeks that this day has an important symbolism for the Orthodox Christian Church as well, as it is the day of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, while there might be some irony in that for those of us raised with the separation of Church and State. (The birthplace of democracy is, in fact, fiercely tied culturally to its Orthodox roots).

The Greek Revolution was the continuation of a movement that crossed oceans: the US Revolution in 1776, the French Revolution in 1789 … the constant weakening of the Ottoman Empire had inspired the Greeks to shake off the chains of slavery and fight for their independence with the establishment of a modern European state, based on their ancestor’s glorious past. This was made possible with the cooperation of the Great Powers at the time – Russia, France and England, and their help to the Greeks against the coalition of Ottomans and Egyptians who tried to suppress the rebellion. The conditions were ripe and the people were ready to become masters of their own land once again and in the end, after seven years of war it was a reality, with Otto of Greece as their king. Of course, one can write a lot about the heroism of military and political leaders in times like these.

No discussion of the Greek War for Independence would be complete without mentioning the heros. The list is long, and many of the names known to anyone exploring Central Athens:

Kolokotronis, Makriyannis, and even non-Greeks, like Lord Byron.

If you travel through the Peloponnese today you’ll pass the Greek version of “George Washington Slept Here” as every Arcadian mountain village claims ties to the war’s most known here: Theodoros Kolokotronis. His greatest success was the defeat of the Ottoman at the Battle of Dervenakia a year after the revolution began and a few years later he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Greek forces in the Peloponnese. It’s important to note the fact that, in the twilight of his life, he learned how to read and write in order to complete his memoirs, which have been a perennial favorite in Greece and have had many translations since.

ioannis kapodistrias
Ioannis Kapodistrias

Ioannis Kapodistrias (Ιωάννης Καποδίστριας) was the first Greek Prime Minister and was one of the most distinguished politicians and diplomats in Europe. He is considered the founder of modern Greek state, and the architect of Greek independence.

Alexandros Ypsilantis (Aλέξανδρος Υψηλάντης) a Greek politician who later became the head of Filiki Etairia, a underground movement aiming to start the revolution. His general plan was the simultaneous rebellion of people in central Europe and Greece. He led many of the battles in central Europe and created the first Greek volunteer army with men from around the continent. Unfortunately, like many great revolutionaries, he lacked battlefield sensibilities and was actually exiled by Kapodistrias. He died in Vienna but his love for Greece never waned:  His last wish was that his heart be taken out of his body and buried in Greece, a wish which was granted.

Yannis Makriyannis (Γιάννης Μακρυγιάννης, born Ioannis Triantaphyllou (Ιωάννης Τριαντάφυλλου) a Greek merchant, military officer, politician and author who rose to the  rank of general, leading his men to notable victories. Following independence, he had a tumultuous public career, playing a prominent part in the granting of the first Constitution of the Kingdom of Greece. Despite his important contributions to political life of the early Greek state, general Makriyannis is mostly remembered by Greeks for his Memoirs a source of historical and cultural information about the period.   (Of course today’s tourists will know him as the namesake of the popular neighborhood on the south side of the Acropolis, home to the New Acropolis museum, Makriyanni).

Laskarina Bouboulina

And let’s not forget the women who helped … my favorite – the tough, twice married Bouboulina (who would certainly be one for the tabloids today!)

Laskarina Bouboulina – born in a prison in Constantinople to a seafaring family from Hydra. She married twice, taking her second husband’s name, and perhaps his money since she is said to have joined the underground Filiki Etaireia, buying them arms and ammunition & secretly ferrying them to the island of Spetses on her ships (where she organized her own brigade of male fighters!).

Twelve days before Independence, on March 13 1821 Bouboulina raised a Greek flag on her ship, modeled after the flag of the Comnenus dynasty of Byzantine emperors, leading a group of 7 or 8 ships toward Nafplion to create a naval blockade & capturing the rocky fortress of Monemvassia.