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GreeceThe Greek Revolution of 1821: Past Contexts, Present Meanings

The Greek Revolution of 1821: Past Contexts, Present Meanings

Hellenic News
Hellenic News
The copyrights for these articles are owned by HNA. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of HNA and its representatives.

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Robert Zaller is Distinguished University Professor of History at Drexel University, and a frequent commentator on Greek affairs.


Three great revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped powerfully to shape our modern world: the American Revolution that began at Lexington and Concord in 1775; the French Revolution signaled by the fall of the Bastille in 1789; and the Greek Revolution of 1821.

The significance of the American Revolution is in little doubt: it established the first democratic republic of modern times, and the blueprint for modern democracy as such. Likewise, the French Revolution challenged, and for a time overthrew Old Regime monarchy in Europe, and heralded the Western Age of Revolution that would climax with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. These revolutions were the cornerstones of political and economic modernity, and although their meanings—and their legacy—are still contested today, few would dispute them as transformative events.

The Greek Revolution involved a smaller nation, rising up against a potent and entrenched empire that would continue for nearly a century afterward, and requiring the help of foreign powers for its success. Nonetheless, I would suggest that it was of comparable importance to its two great predecessors, and no less significant as an example and a model.

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The American Revolution was not an uprising against a foreign power, but a family divorce. The Thirteen Colonies were all chartered by the British government and settled, apart from the slave populations of the south, by British subjects. Although the colonists did not have direct representation in the British Parliament, they were, London contended, “virtually” represented in the same way that nonvoting constituencies in Great Britain itself were. Their rights were guaranteed in British courts, and they had the right of petition to the British government. Their goal, in revolution, was unfettered self-government according to a new system of their own devising, and unhindered economic development as well; but they were not, from a British point of view, unfree. On the contrary, as British subjects they enjoyed, through Magna Carta and other statements of constitutional principle, the widest freedom of any people on earth.

The American colonists who rebelled in 1775—and they represented only a third of the chartered population—did not, of course, accept the mother country’s definition of their freedom, or the adequacy of their power to define their interests and determine their destiny. But the nation they forged was based on the English common law tradition, and what we call the Anglo-American legal tradition—the system taught in our law schools and enshrined in our Constitution—does indeed derive from a shared journey that goes back eight hundred years.

The French Revolution was not an effort to overthrow foreign rule but to renovate an existing one on the basis of new social and political relationships: of universal liberty, equality, and fraternity in place of a society of orders based on formal distinctions of rights, powers, duties, and status; and of popular sovereignty, the principle enshrined in the American Constitution, in place of the divine right autocracy of a hereditary monarchy. The French revolutionaries were determined to create an egalitarian “people” out of a congeries of groups united, at least in formal terms, not by a shared history, language, and culture, but by submission to a single authority. This idea, in French society, had never been universally accepted either, and in some respects was of a relatively recent origin. By redefining all French citizens as politically and juridically equal, however, the Revolution was offering a new idea of what it meant to be “French.” White Americans did not need to do this, because as Englishmen they already enjoyed common rights, and they were not divided by formal classifications. There was no American aristocracy or priestly order. Thus, while the American Revolution consisted largely of an act of political separation from a mother country, the French Revolution was about changing Frenchmen themselves—a revolution from within, even though it soon offered, not to say imposed itself on others as well.

The Greek Revolution was a far more complex act. “Greece” was an idea; it had never been a political reality, except briefly under Alexander the Great, whom most Greeks regarded as a foreign conqueror, or as a Roman province—that is, a subordinate entity whose borders were drawn and whose laws were devised by others. To be sure, the ancient Greeks had had a strong sense of cultural identity, and, in a moment of crisis, they had come together in the early fifth century B.C.E. against the great Persian empire. But those same Greeks had left Athens to its fate at Marathon ten years before with only a single ally on its side, and had gravely weakened the general Greek polity only a few decades later in the Peloponnesian War. After Alexander, some of the Greek city-states had experimented with isopolity, the mutual exchange of citizenship between cities, and the Greeks had tried, vainly, to resist the Romans through a defensive alliance. The Byzantine Empire, an offshoot of late Roman disintegration, had given Greece perhaps the closest thing to a sustained geopolitical unity it had known; but, culturally, it owed more to the long Roman interregnum and to the civilizations of the east than to what we would now regard as an indubitably Hellenic spirit. The Byzantines had many virtues, but the things we prize in the heritage of Greece’s classical past—an open, critical society; political and social experimentation; religious diversity and plurality; an intense and fertile curiosity about the natural world—were not among them. And then came the long Ottoman occupation, in which the thread of Hellenism itself was faced with its greatest crisis, and the names of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were better known in the Christian West of the Renaissance than in Greece itself.

To create an independent Greece, in short, Greece itself had to be created. But what would such a Greece look like, and of what materials was it to be made?

One element that was to hand was the Greek Orthodox Church, which had defined itself in the forge of early Christian communities, and, later, the patriarchal church that had extended over Byzantium. The Church, too, had suffered in the long Ottoman centuries, but its very contracture and had made it a unique repository of the popular spirit. Religion can monumentalize itself in great cathedrals, sublime artifacts, and elaborate structures of theology; but it can also live almost without material embodiment in the hearts of a people, and can even, by what it draws together of custom and belief, of tenacity and hope, constitute that heart itself. The great religious figures and martyrs of the Greek Revolution did not make it alone, but they were indispensable to it in a way that our secular age can only with effort comprehend.

There were other, quite literal materials. For two thousand years, the Parthenon had stood in Athens—and withstood, in its glory, the imposition of both Christian and Muslim faiths on its grounds and within its walls. Then, in 1687, the batteries of the Venetian general Morosini did what centuries of weathering and earthquake could not; it blew much of the structure apart, and its ruins lay on the Acropolis, scarcely valued by the residents of the city except as ready-made building blocks or decorative pieces for shops and houses, and certainly not by the Ottoman authorities themselves. But the devastation of the Parthenon also called attention to what it had, and in its ruins still did represent:   the grandeur of the Hellenic spirit, and the pathos of its condition. To revive this spirit, and to rescue what remained of its material artifacts, became the objective of a new pan-European movement: Philhellenism.

The Philhellenes were a disparate lot, part classicists, part antiquarians, and part commercial and political adventurers. Serious scholars such as the German, Winckelmann, made the argument that ancient Greece was the fountainhead of Western values and tradition; the scavenger Thomas, Lord Elgin, collected many of the Parthenon friezes, dislodging some of them, damaging the building’s structure still further, and nearly losing the lot in an effort to transport them when his vessel capsized, but ultimately bringing them to England where the sensation they caused would help galvanize support for the Greek revolution. The poet Lord Byron would be chief among those who volunteered for the Greek cause and who, in dying for it, did much to make it a European one.

Other factors, too, made for the revolution, including the interest of other powers, notably Russia, in exploiting the growing weakness of the Ottomans—Catherine the Great had encouraged an uprising in the Peloponnesus in 1770, only to abandon it—and the equivocal position of the Constantinople-based Greek merchant class, the Phanariots, who both feared to lose their privileges under the Sultanate and saw the opportunity to dominate a new Greek state. Finally, there was the spirit unleashed by the American and French revolutions. The great European powers had declared their hostility to revolution at the Congress of Vienna, and they would take concrete steps to repress it in Spain and Italy. But the Greek cause was different. Here, no European potentate feared for his throne, but only an Asian despotism whose control of much of the Balkans was an increasing anomaly. The Greeks had been idealized in Western opinion; their liberation could be stage-managed by the great powers, who in the event permitted no democratic republic but imposed a German monarch on the new state. Greece was the revolution where, perhaps, everyone but the Turkish sultan could be a winner.

Nonetheless, the revolution was accomplished only at great sacrifice by the Greeks themselves, including the terrible massacre at Chios where 25,000 were slain. Whatever its success may have owed to the British fleet, it was the first act of national self-liberation in modern European history. In this lay its great contemporary significance, and the reason why it bears deserved comparison to the American and French revolutions as a signal act in the construction of our own world. America was a nation in all but name by 1775; France had been one for a thousand years in 1789. Greece was merely an idea. Its revolution made it flesh.

If we look at our three revolutions, we thus see three very distinct historical models. The American Revolution was the prototype of the kind of revolution we might call imperial secession: the separation of a colonial society grown mature and impatient for independence from the mother country. The French Revolution, like the Russian, was about the radical transformation of an established society from within, in which the adversary was not a power beyond the seas but a domestic government grown sclerotic and unresponsive, or overwhelmed by circumstances and events it could not control. The Greek Revolution—the principal model in the modern world—involved the construction of a nation where none had ever been before, at least in the sense that the nation-state has had for us over the past two centuries. It is in a certain sense the profoundest, and the most fateful kind of revolution our era has produced. Revolutions have come and gone, as those in France and Russia demonstrate. The nation remains.

The Greek Revolution did not end with the 1820s. It went on for another century, as successive wars and revolts—that of Crete most notably—expanded the territory of the new Greek state from its relatively small base in Attica, the Peloponnesus, and Thessaly to its present frontiers, with the final major accession of territory in its annexation of the Dodecanese islands from Italy at the end of World War II. But it also showed the limitations of the nationalist idea. Greek irredentism—the Megali Idea, the dream of reconstituting all lands once Greek or substantially inhabited by Greeks in a single ethnos, a single state, had received its definitive expression in 1844 by Ioannis Kolettis, who in his youth had been the personal physician of one of the sons of Ali Pasha, the Albanian who had ruled Greece for the Sultan:


The Kingdom of Greece is not coterminous with the free country of today. This is only one section, the smallest and poorest part of Greece. Greeks are not only those who inhabit the present kingdom, but they are also those who live in Ioannina, in Salonika, in Adrianopolis or Constantinople, in Trapezous or Crete or Samos or any other land of Greek history or Greek race. . . . There are two great centers of Hellenism today. Athens is the capital of the kingdom. Constantinople is the grand capital, the polis, the dream and hope of all Greeks.1


Greece would not be the only country to dream of recovering the utmost extent of its ancient glory, but that dream would face its limitation in the Asia Minor disaster of 1922, in which long-settled Greek communities in Anatolia were uprooted. Their forced repatriation into Greece made the country more populous and ethnically homogeneous; it also cost it territory it had been recently awarded, and would be unlikely to regain. In that sense, 1922 was the watershed of Greek nationalism and the terminus of Greek expansion. Hereafter, Greece would be confined to the European continent, although whether to its destiny remains an open question at present. Disputes still remain about certain areas, notably Macedonia. But, at least in terms of its physical borders, the Greek Revolution seems complete.

What, though, of its other aspects, and its larger meanings today? Greece is a nation; but it is also, as before its national identity coalesced in a modern state, still an idea. In this it resembles America, but with a critical difference. The American ‘idea’ was born with the nation itself; what had existed before was a transplanted English culture that had, to be sure, its distinguishing marks and its characteristic figure, the Yankee, but which embodied no general ideal that might cross its borders. That came after, with Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln, with the great trial of the Civil War and the great project—also steeped in blood—of continental expansion, and with the creation of an immigrant nation. America is still being defined and therefore also tested at the bar of history. But the Greek ideal is in a sense settled. It is true that the uneven seams of Greek history have never quite joined, and that its classical, Byzantine, and modern elements are not easily assimilable as a narrative or cultural synthesis. In few if any countries is the sense of a proud heritage and an underlying identity deeper; in few, however, is it more difficult to specify its exact particulars. Yes, it is Greek to drink ouzo and listen to the bouzouki and dance the Kalamatiano, and this is the Greece most accessible to tourists. It is what Greece does, but not what it means.

If that meaning can be summed up in a single word, it is freedom. Greece has known many tyrants and despots, foreign and domestic, but it always comes back to the idea of freedom. It is an idea contested by the Greeks themselves, for example in the figure of Socrates, who sacrificed himself to it but refused to define it, and who is for that reason, I contend, the most important figure in modern Western intellectual history. It is an idea the Greeks nourished with their own blood in the Revolution of 1821, and which seems to demand the extremest sacrifice at times, as Abraham Lincoln noted when he called the travail of the American Civil War “a new birth of freedom” at Gettysburg. I do not think the Greeks would be as fully credited with it but for the blood they shed for it at Chios and Souli and elsewhere.

Greece stood for freedom again in 1940, and this time not for itself alone but for all of Continental Europe, crushed by the Nazi heel. England, it is true, stood against Hitler in the dark days of that year after the fall of France; but England was defended by its waters and its fleet, and aided by its Commonwealth. When Greece said its “Oxi!” to fascist Italy, with the specter of the German Wehrmacht behind it, it did so without assistance or ally, and against all odds. It is passingly ironic that the Greek leader who uttered that single word in which a whole people’s defiance was given voice was himself no democrat, but a military dictator, Ioannis Metaxas, who introduced goose-stepping into the Greek army and who remains an ambivalent figure in Greek history to this day. Metaxas was many things we should not admire, but, at the moment of crisis, he was Greek, and he found that he, too, could not live without freedom.

Greece withstood Mussolini’s army, and drove it back where it had come from. Months later, it paid the price in a brutal German invasion and occupation that cost 200,000 lives. But, for the six-month period between October 1940 and April 1941, Greece stood alone on the continent whose civilization it had created in defending its core value. It is impossible to overestimate the vital symbolic importance of this, particularly in America, where many still resisted the idea of being drawn into another European war. On November 4, 1940, a week after General Metaxas had delivered his “Oxi!”, Time Magazine featured King George of Greece on its cover. Six weeks later, another Greek general, Alexandros Papagos, was its cover image, and, on the same day, Life Magazine displayed a Greek Evzones blowing a trumpet on its cover, with the Parthenon in the background. Editorial cartoonists likened the Greek resistance to the stand of the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae. The Boston Globe declared that “Armies cannot slay the spirit of Greece. Modern Italy, with her German ally, may defeat the Greek army, but the Greek spirit is deathless” (December 1, 1940). The Greek War Relief Association delivered some 700,000 tons of supplies to embattled Greece. And when a seventeen-year-old boy pulled down the Nazi swastika that had been set to fly above the Acropolis, there was only one word to describe his act: Freedom.

In 1967, Greece was again handed over to tyranny, and in 1974, on the day it regained its liberty—against all odds again—I opened a newspaper in Mexico City to see the world celebrating it. Other countries have lost and regained their freedom, many times. It is not the same when Greece does it. The poet Robinson Jeffers may have put it best:


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


Into one time; the waves of barbarism and civilization have eclipsed but have never quenched it.


For the Greeks the love of beauty, for the Romans of ruling; for the present age the passionate love of


But in one noble passion we are one; and Washington, Luther, Tacitus, Aeschylus, one kind of man.

(“Shine, Republic”)


Not all freedoms are political, though all have a political dimension. In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met on a ship in the Atlantic to proclaim the four essential freedoms of the world community. Among them was “freedom from want.” The quest for social justice was thus enrolled by two great statesmen as one of humanity’s essential goals. Today, Greece stands at the forefront of that fight. Seven years ago, the world financial system was brought to the brink of collapse by a worldwide episode of licensed greed, credit abuse, and predatory lending. It destroyed eighty trillion dollars of global wealth, decimated businesses and pension systems worldwide, plunged tens of millions of workers into prolonged and in many cases permanent unemployment, and created desperate hardship in some of the richest countries on earth, including mass hunger, the loss of elementary shelter, and the dashing of dreams not only for a better life but for even a minimally secure and decent one: in a word, want. In Europe, once again under the thrall of a German hegemony, policies were adopted by the leading banks and enforced by the political leadership of the so-called European Union—the very elites most directly responsible for the crisis—to protect creditor interests at the expense of basic human needs, and the fundamental human freedom defined seventy years earlier by Roosevelt and Churchill.

To no country on earth was the brutal policy of fiscal “austerity”—economic assassination, to call it by its rightful name—applied more crushingly than to Greece, with the consequence that, within five years, the economy of a modern Western state had been reduced to the status of barter. In the paralysis of the reigning two-party system, a threat to political democracy itself emerged in the rise of a nakedly fascist party, and not in Greece alone. But, today, defiance has been signaled, and hope has come again to the land that, as the poet said, had embodied the idea of human freedom since its first day of reckoning at Marathon, and had inspired Byron to lay down his life. We are once again at a day of reckoning, and, once again, the small nation that has so often led the world stands in the forefront of a great fight that concerns not itself alone but humankind itself. It is a time for all Greeks to stand with their country, wherever they live, and for all Philhellenes—which means, not only those who love Greece, but those who love freedom and justice, the gifts bequeathed by Greece to us all.




  1. George Kousoulas, Modern Greece: Profile of a Nation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), pp. 25-26.


Robert Zaller is Distinguished University Professor of History at Drexel University, and a frequent commentator on Greek affairs.





The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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