By Dr. Robert Zaller, Distinguished University Professor of History at Drexel University, Special to the Hellenic News of America
The English poet and nobleman Lord Byron penned these lines before the Greek Revolution of 1821:
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 grave
I could not dream myself a slave.
(“The Isles of Greece”)
Byron would indeed fight for Greek freedom in the Revolution of 1821, and die fighting to free Greek soil. He gave generously of his fortune and finally of his blood, and no philhellene, I think, has ever loved Greece more. His time in Greece was not an easy one, and he quarreled often with those whose benefactor he meant to be and for whom he finally sacrificed himself. But he also said, in one of his letters, that he had never been happy an hour outside of Greece.
He didn’t have to explain the contradiction, at least to me. For those of us who discovered our true homeland in Greece, wherever our birth and whatever our condition, the joy of Greece is like none other.
That Greece would have won its modern freedom eventually was inevitable, given the rise of nationalism and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century. That it came as early as 1821, against an alien rule still formidable and with nationalist movements repressed across Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic conquests, was owing in part to the unique position of Greece in the European imagination. Already during the Middle Ages, the recovery of ancient Greek culture with the texts of Aristotle and Plato had profoundly affected the Western world. The Renaissance added to this the reinstatement of Greek art as the ideal expression of the human form, and Greek architecture as the model of the West’s palaces and public buildings. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century added to this the critical element of Greek freedom. Inspired by the Athenian vision of a government of free and equal citizens and the wider Greek view of independent city-states, the great thinkers of the Enlightenment—Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu—demanded governments of and by their peoples, and, implicitly, nations constituted by them.
By the last quarter of the century, national independence and popular governments were ripe for realization, whether by rebellion against foreign rulers or revolution against domestic monarchs. This inaugurated what the historian R. R. Palmer described as the age of the democratic revolutions, a fifty-year period, unexampled in history, in which the broad demand for personal liberty, accountable government, and national self-definition swept across much of the globe from the Pacific shores of South America to the steppes of Russia. It began, of course, with the American Revolution of 1775, caught fire in France with the Revolution of 1789, extended itself to Central and South America in the early 1800s, and climaxed in two revolutions of the 1820s, one that succeeded and one that failed: the Greek Revolution of 1821, and the abortive Decembrist Revolution of 1825 in Russia.
The American Revolution was supported by the Old Regime monarchy of Louis XVI in France, not from any desire to see revolutions succeed but to weaken the British Empire by costing it its chief possession in the New World. The United States, in turn, protected the insurrections that broke out against Spanish and Portuguese rule in the Americas, partly on behalf of national liberty and independence but partly as well to advance its own interests. Only one revolution, however, aroused widespread, transnational popular support, even in defiance of a consensus by the great European powers after the defeat of Napoleon that such revolutions not only be discouraged but actively repressed. That was the Greek Revolution.
Napoleon himself had certainly not encouraged liberty and independence in the countries he conquered, but he stimulated resistance and national self-assertion in them by the very act of conquest. The principal European powers, England, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, later joined by the restored French monarchy, had pledged themselves to maintain stability on the Continent by resolving conflicts among themselves peacefully and by quelling any and all popular uprisings by joint action.
The Greek Revolution, when it broke out in March 1821, was precisely such an uprising. It presented two difficulties, however. The Greek enemy was the Ottoman Empire, Europe’s chief foe for centuries but now a vulnerable target. And Greece was, for many thousands of philhellenes across the Continent, the soul of Europe itself. Europe had not fought for what remained of the Byzantine Empire when it fell in 1453. Prudence again dictated nonintervention in 1821. Meanwhile, the Greeks fought heroically against what seemed insuperable odds. In the end, something more than politics prevailed. If Greece could not be part of Europe, then Europe was not itself.
The story of the Greek Revolution, from Bouboulina—the first woman to command military forces since Joan of Arc—to Makriyannis, the foremost soldier and first historian of the great struggle, is known to every Greek. By 1827, Greece had won freedom, but the Great Powers did not want her to enjoy too much of it, and so they erected a throne and put a German princeling on it. It was not for a century and a half before the Greeks freed themselves from this too. At the same time, the country fought to reclaim ancestral territory beyond the confines of Attica and the Peloponnesus that originally constituted it. It was not until 1948 that the present boundaries of Greece were settled, and these, as all know, are contested to this day. No other country in the world has fought so long for the soil it may claim.
In war and peace, in victory and sometimes defeat, Greece has stood above all for a freedom not only national but universal. The American poet Robinson Jeffers put it as well as any in a poem he wrote as a second World War approached Europe in the 1930s:
The quality of these trees, green height; of the sky, shining; of water, a clear flow; of the rock, hardness
And reticence: each is noble in its quality. The love of freedom has been the quality of Western man.
There is a stubborn torch that flames from Marathon to Concord, its dangerous beauty binding three ages
into one time; the waves of barbarism and civilization have eclipsed but have never quenched it.
. . .
. . . [And] in one noble passion we are one; and Washington, Luther, Tacitus, Aeschylus, one kind
The four men Jeffers singles out come from four different ages and would seem, superficially, to have little on common: Aeschylus, the founding figure of classical Greek drama; Tacitus, the historian who chronicled Rome’s early emperors; Luther, the German clergyman whose defiance precipitated the Protestant Reformation; and Washington, the plantation owner turned revolutionary general. But he finds, too, their connecting element, for Aeschylus, the Athenian citizen, had fought at Marathon, while Tacitus extolled the vanished liberties of the Roman Republic, Luther embodied freedom of conscience as perhaps no one had since Socrates, and Washington led what would become a great nation to freedom and independence. All different men, but all in a single “noble passion,” one.
Like Byron, Jeffers singled out Marathon as both the moment and the monument of freedom, where a single city withstood a great empire. A few years after Byron’s poem, Greece had embarked on its quest for freedom again, and a few years after that of Jeffers, Greece would stand alone among all the countries of Continental Europe in refusing to bend to freedom’s new enemy, fascism. The importance of that moment registered profoundly across Europe and in America. In Britain, Europe’s last surviving democracy, it determined Winston Churchill to come to the aid of Greece despite his own country’s desperate needs, and in America it powerfully shaped public commitment to the defense of freedom. Greece will still celebrate Oxi! Day when its bicentenary arrives just as it does Independence Day, and for as long as memory lasts. The price it paid was terrible. The glory it reaped is incalculable.
Greek freedom had another crisis when it was betrayed from within by the military coup of 1967 and the seven years of tyranny it endured. Its costs included the division of Cyprus, unredeemed to this day. This time, it was the youth of Greece who sparked resistance, and whose blood, shed in the Polytechnion, precipitated the Junta’s downfall and the return of democracy. My beloved Lili Bita and I were vacationing in Mexico City when we heard the news, and, standing in the street, we embraced in joy. A year later, I was watching the trial of the Junta chieftains on closed circuit television in Athens, and I reported on it in the American press. Richard Nixon had then resigned only two weeks after the Junta’s fall, driven from office by the Watergate scandal in the face of impending impeachment. Nixon received a full and free pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford. He had no legal judgment, and suffered no penalty. The leaders of the Junta were sentenced to life imprisonment, and died in confinement.
Fascist dictators in Spain and Portugal survived for decades after the Second World War, and were buried in honor. In Argentina and Chile, the leaders of brutal military coups would similarly escape punishment. Only in Greece were those who betrayed freedom brought to trial, and condignly judged.
I reflect on this in the aftermath of a trial that has failed to convict an American president of an attempted coup d’état that would have overturned a national election and who set an armed mob on the very seat of government. Lesser courts may pursue Donald Trump for other offenses, but history will not forget that the United States Senate refused to hold him accountable for the greatest crime a public leader can commit: the attempted destruction of the institutions on which freedom stands.
Eighty years ago this season, the people of Greece singlehandedly defied the most terrible tyrant the world has ever known. Two hundred years ago, they rose up against an empire that had oppressed them for nearly four centuries, and more than once nearly subjugated Europe. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the citizens of Athens drove back the most powerful army of its time on a patch of ground, modestly marked to the present day, and gave birth to liberty.
“The love of freedom has been the quality of Western man.” And the people of Greece, time and again, have defended it with their blood and their spirit. That is their imperishable glory.