- James Houser
March 25, 1821 - The Greek War of Independence
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
March 25, 1821. Metropolitan Germanos of Patras, one of the leading Orthodox clergymen in Greece, raises the banner of Revolution along with the holy cross. Allegedly. Whether it happened or not, in the memory of Greeks this symbolic act marks the beginning of their national liberation. So begins the Greek War of Independence.
Since the 1450s, the majority of Greece had been occupied by the Ottoman Empire. A Sunni Muslim state whose ruler held the titles of both Sultan (a secular ruler) and Caliph (as the heir of Muhammad), the Ottomans had a peculiar method of rule over their Christian territories. The vast majority of Greece, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and many other territories had remained Christian under Ottoman dominion.
Through the Ottoman *dhimmi* system, non-Muslim “people of the book” – Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians – could continue to practice their faith and live by their own laws. In return, they paid a special tax – the Jizya – and in theory gave up a fixed proportion of their sons to be trained as Janissaries, the Ottomans’ elite forces. The Greeks had not prospered under this system, but they had not exactly suffered. The traditional Janissary recruitment methods had long since fallen away, and Greek boys were no longer taken as slave soldiers.
This relatively light hand did not keep the Greeks from longing for freedom. Multiple small-scale uprisings had occurred since the 16th Century and the fall of Byzantium; almost all of these were crushed. However, by the 1820s the Ottoman Empire was looking pretty weak. It had lost many of its lands to Austria and Russia, and Egypt had virtually split away under its native rulers the Mamelukes. Attempts to reform the outmoded and obsolete military had met with revolt from the Janissaries, who unseated any Sultan that displeased them. The Ottomans looked like they were on the verge of collapse.
The true spark of Greek resistance, however, came from the European cultural and literary scene. The Enlightenment had come to Greece via European trade routes, stirring a new interest in the ancient history of Greece and its glory days. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic period had lit the flames of nationalism across Europe and spread ideals of both revolution and romantic patriotism across the continent. Finally, the Russian support for the Orthodox Church and its constant wars with the Ottomans served as a point of inspiration. All across Europe, Greeks were travelling, soaking in the cultural scene, and making valuable contacts. The romanticization of Ancient Greece among Europe’s intelligentsia was a useful propaganda tool in the hands of pro-Greek nationalists.
A Greek Secret Society known as the Filiki Eteria (“Friendly Society”) plotted a revival of the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as the capital. They planned a number of revolts for April, but one radical jumped the gun and with a small band of followers tried to invade the Ottoman Empire from Russian lands. Without Russian support and with little backing from the Ecumenical Patriarch – the ranking clergyman of the Greek Church - in Constantinople, this group was run down and suppressed within a month.
This failure had two important effects. First, the Greeks across the Empire – especially in the Peloponnesus, site of Sparta and Corinth and the hotbed of Greek nationalism – had to start their revolts before they expected, and less ready than they wanted to be, to take advantage of the Ottoman diversion of troops from Greece. It was in this context that, so oral tradition goes, Metropolitan Germanos made his impassioned plea at the Monastery of Agia Lavra. This day, March 25, 1821, is still celebrated as Greek Independence Day. The full story, speeches and all, first shows up in a French book from 1824, and Germanos is recorded saying extremely nice things about the French. Nevertheless, at least some newspapers reported him making such a pronouncement – though with far less detail. Facts don’t get in the way of a good story, though.
The second effect of the revolt’s initial failure was the Ottoman overreaction. By the end of March, the Greeks effectively controlled the countryside, with Turkish forces shut up in their forts and Greek partisans roaming the land under General Theodoros Kolokotronis. In this climate of anxiety, the Ottomans unleashed deadly reprisals against any Greeks in their midst.
Despite the lack of violence in Constantinople itself, Muslim mobs tore through the city and lynched any Greek they caught. Ottoman generals in the countryside turned “Greek hunts” into sport, pulling some “Most Dangerous Game” style atrocities with peasants they captured, then released to hunt down, often impaling them when caught. The Sultan ordered the execution of the Ecumenical Patriarch in April 1821, even though he had not assisted the revolt and in fact condemned it.
All this violence drove more Greeks into the arms of the independence fighters and shocked the Christian nations of Europe. European public opinion was strongly in favor of the Greek rebels, even though the Great Powers held a lukewarm view – they didn’t want their own ethnic minorities getting any funny ideas. The press in Europe was rife with any story of Ottoman atrocities, especially the 1822 massacres at Chios where tens of thousands of Greek civilians were slaughtered – though they glossed over Greek atrocities in the Peloponnese, including the extermination of local Muslims. Notable European romantics, such as the physician Samuel Howe and the poet Lord Byron, travelled to Greece to fight in the war of independence – Byron would die in the Siege of Missolonghi in 1824.
By the end of 1821, the Ottomans had been run out of the Peloponnese, and the makeshift Greek navy was inflicting heavy losses on Ottoman ships in the Aegean. Cruelty having failed to end the war, and locked into a stalemated war with Persia that also required its attention, the Ottoman state looked like it was in a bind. However, not all was lost. For one thing, different Greek factions fought each other as often as they did the Turks, and this cause them to lose several battles. The Ottomans also ended their war with Persia. Finally, they had a trump card to pull.
After negotiations with the Mameluke Chief Muhammad Ali of Egypt, the Ottomans managed to get military assistance from their nominal subject in exchange for giving up some territory in Syria. Muhammad sent his son Ibrahim Pasha with a well-trained army to Greece to suppress the revolt. Ibrahim was both brutal and effective, rooting out the resistance and crushing the Greek stronghold of Missolonghi in 1826 after years of siege. He had succeeded by now in retaking most of the Peloponnese, and had also captured Athens. The rebellion was in grave danger.
The Greek War of Independence was only saved because all the other European powers were scared of Russia. Britain and France, especially, were afraid that Russia would take unilateral action of they failed to coordinate some sort of intervention – Russia had been making noises in that direction, they had always regarded themselves as the protectors of Orthodoxy, and deeply coveted Constantinople. Russia was the 800-pound gorilla in the room of Europe: everyone was afraid of their power, and God help Europe if Mother Russia could stretch her arm into the Mediterranean by tearing the Ottoman Empire to shreds. Britain and France soon became convinced that whatever the decision was, they had to be part of it - to keep the Greeks free, the Russians out, and the Ottomans alive.
Britain, France, and Russia had all tried to convince the Ottomans and Greeks to negotiate. The Greeks were willing on the basis of independence, but the Ottomans weren’t – they were winning, of course. Following the Greek defeats, the European powers finally decided they were going to have to step in. The combined Anglo-French-Russian fleet confronted the Ottomans at Navarino on October 20, 1827, and it wasn’t even a contest. The thrashing the Ottomans received was made worse by the arrival of a French expeditionary force in the Peloponnese, and after eight years of war, Greece was finally recognized as an independent state in 1830.
The European powers weren’t going to let Greece get away with being some newfangled rinky-dinky republic, now. They quickly found a Bavarian prince willing to be the King of Greece, because you gotta have good blood in there, you know. (Seriously, they went through a whole file cabinet full of blue-bloods and negotiated over it for two years before they settled on one that wouldn’t piss anybody off.) So Greece’s new King was Otto I, not even 18 years old yet and not speaking a word of Greek. Thus the carnival of European royalty spins around once again.
This wouldn’t be the end of it. The new Greek Kingdom only contained a third of all Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, and the kingdom’s rulers and people sought the eventual union of all Greeks in a single state, which would be a struggle that carried them into the next century – to World War I and beyond. The Greeks still living in the Empire, meanwhile, were widely viewed as traitors and lost their privileged status to Jews and Armenians. The victory of 1830 set up many struggles to come. Nationalism is a hell of a drug.
Nevertheless, this was a major event in European history as well as in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Greek independence inspired multiple other nations to unite all their kin under one flag. The Polish Uprising of 1831 (the poor Poles!) took the Greek uprising as its major inspiration, and German and Italian advocates for unification saw the fulfillment of their desires in Greek freedom. The other subject Christians of the Ottoman Empire – Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians, and Armenians – also took notes, and these groups would combine to help bring the Sultan’s domain to near extinction in the leadup to World War I.
Leonidas would have been proud.
Book Recommendation: David Brewer, The Greek War of Independence: The Struggle for Freedom from Ottoman Oppression and the Birth of the Modern Greek Nation (New York: Overlook Press, 2003).