The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe  
by Mark Mazower.
Allen Lane, 574 pp., £30, November 2021, 978 0 241 00410 4
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In​ 1751, a pamphlet began circulating in the Greek-speaking lands under Ottoman rule. Known as The Oracles of Agathangelos, it purported to be the collected prophecies of a Byzantine monk who had lived in Sicily four hundred years before. Agathangelos had foreseen both the Turkish sack of Constantinople and the rise of Protestantism. He had predicted the reign of Peter the Great and Frederick the Great. Tantalisingly for Greeks in the 1750s, he also offered a vision of what awaited their descendants: an ‘era of destruction of the Mohammedans’ and the resurrection of an Orthodox empire with the help of the ‘kings of Europe’. Philologists soon demonstrated that The Oracles of Agathangelos was a forgery written by an itinerant 18th-century priest, Theoklitos Polyeidis. But the final vision, and the text’s only genuine prediction – that the Greeks would defeat the Ottoman Empire and consolidate their own state through European intervention – was fulfilled.

Mark Mazower opens his history of the Greek Revolution with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. As Gramsci wrote of Croce, there is a politics of start dates. By choosing 1815, Mazower signals that he wants to incorporate the revolution in a wider story about European unification. But the process that resulted in Greek independence could be said to have begun half a century earlier, with Catherine the Great’s defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1774. This Russian victory had two long-gestating consequences for the Greeks. First, the northern rim of the Black Sea and its farming steppe were opened up to Russian incursion, forming a new mercantile frontier that Catherine studded with cities with Greek-sounding names – Odessa, Kherson, Mariupol – before recruiting actual Greeks from Crimea and Anatolia to settle there. By the late 18th century, tens of thousands of Greeks had answered the call, flying Russian flags on their ships and becoming prosperous middlemen between the Black Sea and the Levant.

As well as transporting grain and furs west, many Greeks started moving new ideas east. These modern Enlightenment notions – industry, nation, liberty – were already being absorbed by Greek intellectual enclaves in Central Europe. Vienna’s first Greek-language newspaper (founded in 1790) provided dispatches from the French Revolution. Soon, treatises on republican patriotism were being directed towards the three million Greeks in Ottoman lands. Even more important were the arguments explaining why the Hellenes mattered so much and to whom. Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1796 diverted the Grand Tour to Greece, where visitors were struck by the juxtaposition of ancient grandeur with the debasement of Ottoman rule. As these Western Europeans watched the ideals of the French Revolution sacrificed to Napoleon’s rise, the cause of Greek liberty became a new outlet for their idealism. The Greeks had once modelled freedom for the world; they might do so again. Greek merchants took these ideas – the possibility of a new, secular Europe that they themselves might create – from one port to the next.

Catherine the Great’s victory over the Turks also had an effect on the Ottoman Empire itself. In the wake of this ruinous defeat, Istanbul struggled to reassert control over its provinces. The result was a leaking of power away from the Ottoman central state towards the ayans, local magnates who oversaw tax collection and military recruitment on behalf of the sultan. By the early 1800s, many of these ayans were would-be sultans themselves, ruling autonomous statelets from Yemen to Caucasia to the interior of Anatolia. In no corner of the empire was Ottoman rule more precarious than in the Balkans. Along the Danube, a rebellion by Serb-speaking chieftains that began in 1804 took the Porte nine years to crush. Further south, a crop of renegade Albanian warlords proved even more troublesome. Sultan Mahmud II was busy trying to defeat the richest and most entrenched of these, the octogenarian Ali Pasha, based in Ioannina, when the Greeks broke out in revolt in 1821.

How was the Greek uprising different from earlier provincial insurrections? Mazower finds his answer in the Black Sea, more particularly in the market stalls of Odessa, a magnet for Greek merchants since its consolidation as a free trade port in 1794. Twenty years later, three Greeks – a former physics student, a hat maker and a bankrupt olive oil trader – founded a secret fraternity they called the Filiki Etaireia, the Friendly Society, the aims of which were to disarm Muslims and liberate the Greeks. Its rituals were deemed preposterous by some contemporaries: initiates, known as ‘priests’, swore a blood oath to the Etaireia and used language – the uprising was the ‘great fair’; money was ‘footwear’ – filtered through a cryptographic code. Its hierarchy was murky, with few initiates seeming to have much idea who controlled the organisation – many aspirationally speculated that it might be Tsar Alexander. A year after its foundation in 1814, it had no more than fifty members.

Few moments in Europe’s history have seemed less conducive to the success of a secret society conspiring for ‘national liberation’. The Pentarchy – Russia, Austria, Prussia, Britain and France – wanted all such movements crushed. The Greeks in particular threatened the painstakingly constructed post-Napoleonic order. There were three million of them, Christians who lived across an area stretching from the Greek mainland to Cyprus to the coasts of Asia Minor to Constantinople itself, all within an Ottoman Empire whose decline was the subject of open diplomatic speculation. ‘What is Greece?’ Metternich had asked when the prospect of an independent Greek state was raised at the Congress of Vienna. No one could give a precise reply.

The Etaireia’s success was in many ways predicated on ignoring such questions. Its priority was to mobilise as many pieces of the patchwork Greek world as it could. The challenge was not just that Greek-speakers were so scattered – there were also many kinds of Greek. More than half of the Etaireia’s eventual members were merchants; there were also lawyers and priests and scholars. But, crucially, the Etaireia also initiated many mountain chieftains on the Greek mainland – the failure to enrol a comparable group (the brigands of Campania) in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had doomed the Neapolitan Carbonari’s anti-Bourbon uprising of 1820. And though most Etairists were steeped in Enlightenment principles and saw themselves as on the side of free capital, they were careful in their proclamations to invoke the Orthodox millenarianism – that is, the impending restitution of a Byzantine golden age – that had inspired Greek peasants for decades and that owed its prominence to the recitation of texts like The Oracles of Agathangelos. The Etaireia aspired, one founder recollected, to activate ‘the age-old superstition of the enslaved Greeks’.

Historians have recently tended to downplay the reach of the Etaireia, seeing it more as a reflection of revolutionary impulses than their primary cause. But Mazower is adamant about its importance. From its unpropitious beginnings the Etaireia evolved into what he calls ‘by far and away the most successful’ of the revolutionary fraternities operating in Metternich’s Europe. By 1818 it had shifted its base to Istanbul and was scheming against the sultan within a stone’s throw of his palace walls. ‘For some time now, vagrant and bachelor Greek infidels have been accumulating in Istanbul and performing such occupations as grocer and vine-grower,’ one Ottoman bureaucrat later reported. ‘However, these infidels are not innocuous individuals who mind their own business, and it is obvious that they will seek to engage regularly in treachery and abominable deeds against Muslims.’

The Etairists hatched a mad plan to eject the Turks from Europe, aiming for simultaneous uprisings to take place in the far reaches of the Balkans. In the north, Alexandros Ypsilantis – a major general in the tsar’s army who lost an arm fighting at Dresden in 1813 – would lead an army of Greeks, Bessarabians, Albanians and others across the Prut River into Ottoman Moldavia, before seizing the provincial capital of Iași and, aided by Serbian revolutionaries, stirring up a mass Romanian peasant rebellion against the Porte. Pushkin, aged 22, was in Odessa, where he saw ‘crowds of Greeks … gathering together. All had been selling their property for nothing; they had been buying sabres, rifles, pistols. Everybody was talking about Leonidas, about Themistocles.’ At the same time, a thousand miles to the south, Ypsilantis’s brother Dimitrios would kickstart a revolt in the Mani, with Greek brigands, landowners and peasants sweeping the Turks out of the Morea, the ancient Peloponnese, starting from continental Europe’s southernmost crag.

In the spring of 1821, the Etaireia was encouraging two false rumours. The first was that the tsar supported its plans. In fact, when Alexander I was first informed that his major general had led an army across the Prut, he was furious, going so far as to invite Mahmud II to dispatch a force to the Danube to crush it. The second lie was that Ypsilantis’s invasion of Moldavia had been successful and that he was now marching on Istanbul at the head of eighty thousand Balkaners. In fact, most Serbs and Romanians had refused to join him; his forces had been routed, and Ypsilantis had scuttled away to the Carpathians, where he was thrown into a Habsburg prison.

News of Ypsilantis’s defeat had only just reached the Morea when, in April 1821, Dimitrios helped lead hundreds of armed Greeks to the hills above the provincial capital of Tripolitsa. The bulk of the Ottoman garrison was not in the city to defend it, since tens of thousands of infantry and cavalry were busy subduing Ali Pasha in Epirus. The Greeks captured Tripolitsa after a five-month siege. For years Greek intellectuals had debated whether their compatriots were ready to rise up against an Ottoman state with vast military and diplomatic resources. The Paris-based intellectual Adamantios Korais – who had never set foot on mainland Greece and never did – reckoned it would take until at least 1851 for the Greeks to achieve national emancipation. But the organisational success of the Etaireia, whose logistical prowess Mazower details, changed the schedule.

The war’s grim logic was apparent from the outset. For nearly every philhellene who convened in Marseille before travelling to Greece in the first year of the rebellion, another was to be found heading home, appalled by the brutality of the people they had come to help. By the autumn of 1821, four centuries of Ottoman – and nearly two millennia of Jewish – existence in the Morea had been all but eliminated. At Tripolitsa as many as twenty thousand Muslims were killed or enslaved; tens of thousands more were driven out, never to return. In the Peloponnese such savagery was deliberate policy. The view of the Greek landowning clansmen was that the revolution required, as Mazower puts it, ‘convincing the peasantry’ that the struggle was an existential one, precluding any possibility of their ever living alongside Muslims again. For the Greek brigands, clearing out the Turkish population enabled a colossal redistribution of wealth; the capture of Tripolitsa alone produced 52 horseloads of treasure for the warlord Theodoros Kolokotrones. This spoils system extended into the Aegean where, as the historian Gelina Harlaftis has recently demonstrated, the volume of maritime trade actually increased during the War of Independence, in part as a result of the unprecedented quantities of slaves and plunder created by the conflict. For many ordinary Greeks, the war was – at least in its opening years – a murderous, almost messianic affair: the long-awaited moment to restore a Christian age.

The war was never a binary Greek-Turk conflict. Almost everywhere religious divisions superseded linguistic ones. ‘At Peta the two armies were so mixed that nobody knew who was on the Greek side and who was with the Turks, because we were all dressed the same,’ Kanellos Deligiannis, a Peloponnese notable, recalled. The Ottoman forces by and large consisted of Albanians, Bosnians and, crucially in the later phase of the war, Egyptians; the sight of an ‘eastern Turk’ was rare enough that a Greek chronicler remarked on it when describing the siege of Patras in 1821. On the Greek side, Christian Albanians – among them, the ship captains of Hydra and Spetses who corresponded in their Arvanitika dialect so that the other Greek leaders couldn’t understand them – were an outsized presence. North of the Corinthian Gulf, in the other theatre of the anti-Ottoman uprising in Roumeli, Muslims formed too large a proportion of the local population to be quickly eliminated and the mountainous terrain prohibited the formation of large landowning clans that could easily command the peasantry. Instead the Greek chieftains entered into a revolving series of truces and alliances with their Ottoman counterparts.

One of the few unaddressed questions in Mazower’s account is what the Ottomans themselves thought of the Greek revolt. As the historian H. Şükrü Ilıcak recently observed, the Porte’s response to the Rum Fesadı, the ‘Greek sedition’, had not entailed monitoring the rising tide of liberal movements in Western Europe and accommodating their influence in the Levant. Instead, officials visited the palace library to consult the works of Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century Arab philosopher who argued that empires rose and fell, bursting onto the world stage full of nomadic vigour before fizzling out due to laziness. The Ottomans believed that the Greek rebellion had only become possible because of their own slide into decadence. ‘The infidels could dare to revolt because they discerned that the Ottoman dignitaries and officials were engaged in debauchery … and did not have the energy to take action,’ Mahmud II declared in the summer of 1821, ordering his officials to reset the cycle of decay, reacquaint themselves with their nomadic roots, and ‘acquire horses instead of wasting money on expensive shawls’.

The Porte, too, used ethnic cleansing as a means to end the war. Examples were made of Greek communities. Kydonies, a city home to as many as 30,000 Greeks on the Asia Minor coast, was set ablaze in June 1821, its population killed or enslaved. At nearby Izmir, the British consul watched in disbelief as hundreds of defenceless Greeks were slaughtered. Before the war, the Ottoman Empire imported on average 17,000 slaves from Africa every year; in the month of April 1822, after the sack of Chios, it enslaved 50,000 Greeks, as well as massacring up to 40,000 others. As Mazower notes, the population of the island has never recovered. The episode stunned Western Europe and, to this day, a visit to the abandoned village of Anavatos is a harrowing experience, its churches desolate and the gutted homes collapsing in slow motion down a mountainside surrendered to goats. Similar outrages were committed on the islands of Kasos and Psara, where uncollected bones littered the coasts for years.

It’s partly a consequence of Greek resolve – what Mazower calls ‘the inexhaustible patience of the people’ – that the Porte’s strategy failed. Over the next four years the sultan’s commanders waged an astonishingly inept anti-insurgency campaign. Securing supply lanes between the two major theatres of the land war – the Morea in the south and Roumeli in the north – required the Ottomans to hold either the port of Messolonghi in the west or Athens in the east, but both remained in Greek hands until 1826. And although the final defeat of Ali Pasha’s revolt in January 1822 freed up nearly thirty thousand men for action against the Greeks, the Ottoman general Dramali Pasha still failed to retake the Peloponnese; by June, thousands of his soldiers had disbanded in the Argolid, and thousands more were cut down at the Dervenakia pass during a disastrous retreat to Corinth in July. At sea, the Greeks also took the empire by surprise. Frigates from the three most prominent shipping islands – Hydra, Spetses and Psara – successfully engaged the Ottomans off the coasts of the Peloponnese and near the island of Leros. Meanwhile, Greek fireships – small boats loaded with munitions and brush, set alight and directed towards enemy fleets – restricted the Ottomans’ ability to resupply their land forces across the Aegean.

TheGreeks were also attempting to construct a state – a necessary step towards mobilising international opinion and gaining the financial and military backing that would secure their independence in the long term. The revolution’s leaders grasped the most important rule of almost any successful uprising: don’t wait for outside powers to recognise your grievances and claims to statehood, simply declare yourselves a state and become a problem that has to be addressed. In a book that often avoids comparison, one of Mazower’s few pivots is to connect the Greeks’ premature declaration of statehood with that of the Algerians in the 1950s, which also activated international opinion. But in many respects Greece’s struggle more closely resembles that of Israel: an independence movement started from the diasporic periphery, and relying on ambitious appeals to historical continuity in order to carve a religious-based state out of a declining empire with the backing of Western powers.

Early in 1822 the Greeks set up a provisional government led by Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a Pisa-based intellectual and confidant of Mary Shelley who had disembarked at Messolonghi the year before with only his personal fortune and a printing press. The Etaireia had by this time virtually disappeared as an organising force. The Greeks had realised that this version of their cause was not very palatable to the Great Powers. Ottoman savagery provided a better one: Christian solidarity.

In one sense, the 1820s were conducive to revolution. Throughout the decade, as Mazower points out, radicalism and finance were bedfellows. After the Napoleonic Wars, British investors began to fund incipient national projects from Argentina to Mexico. Britain had begun to push its own version of liberalism: a vision of liberty bearing little relation to the revolutionary principles popular on the Continent, but which held that freedom involved the unencumbered flow of capital and goods. Two years into the conflict, the Greek Committee of London began meeting weekly at the Crown and Anchor tavern in the Strand to discuss the Hellenic cause. Scouts were dispatched to the Morea to report on the state of the war effort and its leadership. In February 1824 the committee made a loan of £800,000 to the Greeks, followed by two million the next year. Its immediate impact on the war effort was, as Mazower shows, hardly significant; much of it was squandered or spent on fighting fellow Greeks. Its real legacy was to give international credibility to a young Greek government that was quickly losing control of its own revolution.

Most English-language histories of Greece’s revolution are concerned with the story of the philhellenes rather than with the Greeks themselves. But for Mazower, Byron and the others are almost a sideshow to what was happening in Greek villages and ports and encampments. The narration of the conflict presents certain challenges: the Greek Revolution produced no Napoleon or Garibaldi, no figure on whom its fortunes rested. There were instead regional power networks, with different groups leading or undermining the war effort depending on how it suited their interests. It was possible, for instance, for the Morea to consider the Greek Revolution as both an all-or-nothing struggle against the Ottomans, and a worrying encroachment on its own financial and military power. The encroachment was on the part of the Greek islands (who demanded some of the region’s tax revenues in order to maintain their fleets) and Roumeli (whose soldiers entered the Morea in 1825 to beat down an insurgency headed by Kolokotrones, the conqueror of Tripolitsa). Greece’s War of Independence was as much about stamping out parochialism as it was about ousting the Ottomans. In one brilliant chapter Mazower focuses on the confounding wartime situation of the largely Catholic island of Syros, which continued to pay taxes to the sultan well into the conflict for the simple reason that little was to be gained from joining the Greek cause: local merchants were getting rich from the trade in captives, which the new Greek constitution of 1823 had prohibited.

By 1824, with French as well as British financiers now invested in a Greek victory, Mahmud II resorted to outside help of his own. That spring, he called on Muhammad Ali – born into the Albanian community of Northern Greece and the de facto ruler of Ottoman Egypt – to send an armada to the Aegean to end the rebellion, offering the pashalik of the Morea as a reward. One of the ironies of the sultan’s reliance on the Egyptians was that it accelerated the imperial unravelling it was meant to prevent: Ali, more attuned than anyone to the fracturing of the Ottoman system, launched a rebellion of his own in 1831. In the short term, however, he proved ruthlessly effective at restoring Ottoman control over Greece. Trained in France and armed with bayoneted rifles, 17,000 Egyptians disembarked in the Morea in early 1825 under the command of Ali’s son Ibrahim. In the west, Messolonghi fell to the Ottomans; in the east, Athens was seized and Georgios Karaïskakis, the most enterprising of the Greek chieftains, was killed in what would become the area of Palaio Faliro in Piraeus, not far from where a huge football stadium now bears his name. In the Peloponnese, Tripolitsa was retaken, Kalamata fell and what remained of the Greek resistance retreated from mountain fold to mountain fold as Ibrahim Pasha – running supplies in and out of the Bay of Navarino at will – began making plans to scorch the earth of Messenia, hacking and burning its olive groves. The Greeks were not only to be defeated; their land was to be made uninhabitable.

And then, just as it seemed that the Greek cause was lost beyond salvation, it all ended. For five years the Pentarchy had sat on the sidelines of a conflict which pitted two of its foundational principles – Christian brotherhood and conservatism – against each other. Slowly, Europe’s courts began to choose Christian solidarity. As early as 1823 the tsar was floating the prospect of an autonomous Greece under Russian suzerainty; Metternich, fearing for the balance of power, retorted with the idea of a sovereign Greek state. There had been little progress from this point when, in late 1826, rumours of Ibrahim’s tactics reached them. In August 1827, a combined British and French fleet – later bolstered by the Russians – was dispatched to the Eastern Mediterranean with vague orders to deter Ibrahim from carrying out his objectives. Sailing within sight of the Peloponnese, they saw the bonfire of mountain villages and received reports that the Greek population was on the cusp of mass famine. On 18 October, under the command of a British admiral, Edward Codrington, more than two dozen allied ships sailed into the Bay of Navarino, only to be fired on by a small Ottoman ship. Codrington fired back, annihilating the six-year Ottoman war effort in an afternoon. What had begun as a deterrence mission ultimately led to the European overseeing of the evacuation of Ibrahim’s Egyptian forces and the sultan’s forced acceptance of an independent Greek state.

The Kingdom of Greece established by the London Protocol of 1830 was a safety valve against more extreme national currents. The Western Europeans drew Greece’s borders from the Gulf of Arta in the west to the port of Volos in the east. They installed a German princeling as king, believing that this would prevent any Greek effort to re-engage the sultan and liberate the two million Greeks who remained under Ottoman rule. Bavarian advisers, infantrymen and architects were fixtures of the new state, which was in hock to Western European creditors. In the new capital of Athens – seat of ancient glory, though never much more than a malarial town during the Ottoman centuries – the leaders of the revolution and their families (whom many peasants had long despised) spent the following decades arranging marriage alliances and consolidating their hold on the countryside through the new parliament. ‘What really happened after Greece’s independence?’ the Acropolis newspaper asked eighty years after liberation, in a passage quoted by Kostas Kostis. ‘The powerful – the chieftains, captains, notables and fighters for independence – they themselves, their children, their grandchildren, their sons, their protégés, their supporters, did they not share all the benefits among themselves?’

When the Greek revolution began in earnest has never been in doubt. When it ended – in 1832, with the recognition of the Kingdom of Greece; or in 1843, with the bloodless revolution against King Otto that resulted in the establishment of a constitutional monarchy; or even in 1922, with the Greek irredentist thrust into Anatolia that ended with the burning of Smyrna – is more difficult to say.

For a century, parties across the Greek political spectrum have been laying claim to the mantle of 1821. At a congress of the Greek Communist Party in 1945, Nikos Zachariadis, a leader of the Elas resistance which dogged the Nazi occupation from the same mountainsides, declared that ‘the fighters of ’21 would not hesitate to take the same oaths as the Elasites of our days.’ A generation later, the Junta – a group of middling colonels who took power after a coup in 1967 – used the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the revolution to attribute to themselves the spirit of insurgency embodied by the old brigand chiefs. When democracy was restored three years later, Andreas Papandreou paid his own rhetorical homage at the founding of his new socialist movement. ‘Pasok is a revolution,’ he claimed.

No less self-serving was the committee that organised last year’s bicentennial anniversary celebrations, of which Mazower was a member. It oversaw the creation of an Artificial Intelligence Research Institute and featured collaborations with the US Embassy on how best to nourish Greece’s burgeoning tech sector. Its head, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, one of Greece’s richest women, was quick to reassure Greek taxpayers that no public funds would be spent on any of this – unlike the Athens Olympics, which she organised in 2004 and which had a large role in the metastasising Greek debt over the next fifteen years. But beneath the pageantry and the slogans (‘the rebirth of our country’) it was clear enough that with the economic and refugee crises seemingly over, Covid in abeyance, and the fires of last summer dampened, the latest version of the Greek elite was promising yet another fresh start.

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