Greek Independence Day

Today, Greeks around the world celebrate their freedom from oppression, it is a day of national pride and their National Day of Independence from Ottoman Turk rule, which began in 1453 at the Fall of Constantinople.  The next four hundred years saw many failed attempts by the Greeks to overthrow the Ottoman Turks.  In 1821, the Greek Revolution began and after eight and half years of bloodshed, the Greeks could claim victory.

Greek nationalism began to assert itself during the 19th Century in part due to the French Revolution and influence from Europe.  Economic developments saw the ascent of two merchant groups to prosperity: Greek sailors became affluent maritime merchants and as commerce expanded, independent traders rose to become merchant bankers.  They generated the wealth necessary to found schools, libraries and pay for young Greeks to study at universities in Europe.

Young Greek students encountered radical ideas of the European Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Romantic Nationalism.  Educated and influential members of the large Greek diaspora, such as Adamantios Korais and Anthimos Gazis, tried to transmit these ideas back to the Greeks, with the double aim of raising their educational level and simultaneously strengthening their national identity. This was achieved through the dissemination of books, pamphlets, and other writings in Greek, in a process that has been described as the modern Greek Enlightenment (Διαφωτισμός.)

Ρήγας Φεραίος – Rigas Feraios is considered one of the most influential Greek writers who was deeply influenced by the French Revolution; he was one of the first to organise a comprehensive national movement aiming at the liberation of all Balkan nations.  However, his movement failed due to betrayal, he was subsequently imprisoned and sentenced to death by strangulation which propelled him to martyrdom.  His death ultimately fanned the flames of Greek nationalism and his last words were “I have sown a rich seed; the hour is coming when my Country will reap its glorious fruits.”

Another influential Greek writer and intellectual was Ἀδαμάντιος Κοραῆς – Adamantios Korais whose primary intellectual inspiration was from the Enlightenment and he borrowed ideas from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While in Paris he witnessed the French Revolution and saw the democracy that came out of it. He convinced wealthy Greeks to build schools and libraries to further the education of Greeks. He believed that a furthering in education would be necessary for the general welfare and prosperity of the people of Greece, as well as the country. Korais’ goal was a democratic Greece much like the Golden Age of Pericles but he died before the end of the revolution.

The Greek cause began to draw support not only from the large Greek merchant diaspora in both Western Europe and Russia, but also from Western European Philhellenes.  That is, those that loved Greek culture, an intellectual fashion prominent mostly at the turn of the 19th century.  It contributed to the sentiments that led Europeans such as Lord Byron, British poet, peer, politician, and a leading figure in the Romantic movement to advocate for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Byron joined the Greek War of Independence fighting the Ottoman Empire, Greeks revere him as a national hero.

An extract from Byron’s The Greek Isles

The mountains look on Marathon

And Marathon looks on the sea;

And musing there an hour alone,

I dream’d that Greece might yet be free

For, standing on the Persians’ grave,

I could not deem myself a slave.

Must we but weep o’er days more blest?

Must we but blush? – Our fathers bled.

Earth! render back from out thy breast

A remnant of our Spartan dead!

Of the three hundred grant but three,

To make a new Thermopylae.

Lord Byron fought with the Greeks in Missolonghi, it is also where he died in 1824 after contracting sepsis.  Missolonghi was a symbol of Greek defiance against Ottoman power. It held out for months, heroically in the eyes of the Europeans. Its fall to the Muslims added to a new wave of support for the Greeks across Europe, with the idea that Greece had to be saved for European civilization. Already, financiers in London had contracted loans for the Greeks. The Greek effort was helped by the arrival of money and volunteers from abroad, bringing the complaint from the Turks that they were “no longer fighting the Greeks but all Europe.”

In October 1828, France landed troops on the Peloponnese Peninsula, and under French protection the Greeks regrouped and formed a new government. The Greeks took back Athens, Thebes and other territory, and the European powers imposed a ceasefire. With the aid of three great powers Great Britain, France and Russia, the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832 finally recognised Greece as an independent state.

Happy Independence Day!

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