The Greeks and the Greek Revolution – an international debt
Hellas: a lyrical drama, composed shortly after the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821, is generally not considered one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s best poems. But the preface to the poem contains the most succinct and powerful summary in English of the debt that Western civilization owes to the ancient Greeks. “We are all Greeks,” Shelley wrote. “Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their roots in Greece.”
Over 150 years later, French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing did the same when he launched a passionate plea for Greece, newly freed from military dictatorship, to be integrated into the European Economic Community, later to the EU. “What is Europe without Plato? He asked.
The admiration of Western Europeans and Americans for the ancient Hellenic culture played a vital role in ensuring that an independent Greek state emerges from the fierce struggle against Ottoman suzerainty in the 1820s. The Greek cause was at stake. great difficulty until the British, French and Russians destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Navarino in 1827 – “the last great naval battle of the age of sailing”, as Mark Mazower puts it. The Greek Revolution. Each great power had its own motives for intervention, but for Philhellenes everywhere, to support the Greeks was to support freedom, justice and civilization itself.
Greece’s independence set a precedent that resonates through two centuries of European history to the present day, says Mazower. From Italy and Germany in the 1860s and 1870s to Montenegro and Kosovo in the past 15 years, the formation of new nation states, large or small, has been a constant theme of political development in the Europe. Yet the history of Greece is not the same as the history of the Greeks as a people, like that of Roderick Beaton. The Greeks: a global story amply illustrates.
His book is interspersed with examples of the global reach of Greek culture over the past 3,000 years. 18th century Greek merchant networks extended from Marseilles to the Sea of Azov in a pattern similar to that of the 7th century BC. In the middle of the 17th century, the Greeks opened the first cafes in London (Greek Street in Soho testifies to their lasting presence in the life of the capital).
Constantine Cavafy, one of the greatest modern Greek poets, was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria – founded by Alexander the Great around 331 BC – and rarely visited Greece. After British novelist EM Forster met Cavafy in Alexandria in 1917, he wrote: “He was a loyal Greek, but Greece for him was not territorial. . . Racial purity bothered him, so did political idealism. And he could be caustic about the tight-lipped little peninsula overseas.
Beaton, Emeritus Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College London, is an authoritative guide to the myriad ways Greek words and ideas have shaped the modern world. Alphabet, athletics, democracy, drama, history, pandemic, physics, politics, rhetoric – these are all words that originate from ancient Greek. Much of the Greek influence was filtered through the Roman Empire. The poet Horace, writing in the first century BC.
An important theme of Beaton’s scholarly and very readable book is how the great centers of Greek civilization such as Alexandria, Constantinople, and the southern Black Sea coast lie outside the borders of the modern Greek state. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Constantinople became the capital of an Eastern Greek-speaking empire that became Byzantium. Yet after the Western Crusaders plundered the city in 1204, Byzantine power never recovered.
Most Greek speakers, from the Mediterranean Sea and the Aegean Sea in Cyprus and Anatolia, lived for the next seven centuries under the rule of foreigners – Aragonese, Catalans, Florentines, French, Genoese, Venetians and, especially after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Ottomans. Athens, its own shadow, was ruled in the 13th century by a barony family of Burgundy.
Ordinary Greeks were never more than second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire, but things could have been worse, as Beaton suggests when reminding us of the expulsions of Jews and Muslims from Spain from 1492 onwards. In the 18th century, the Ottomans relied on Greek-speaking aristocrats known as the Phanariotes to rule the provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, which are now part of Romania.
Beaton’s book focuses, however, primarily on the ancient and medieval eras. It is three quarters completed before it tells of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Readers who want a more comprehensive treatment of Greece’s turbulent experiences since 1821 can turn to his 2019 book. Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation, a story of rare quality.
Mazower, a professor at Columbia University, makes it his job not only to tell the familiar story of the Greek struggle for independence, but also to place the event in the larger context of modern European history. Her book unfolds as an engaging combination of quick storytelling and insightful analysis. Alongside the abolition of slavery, the cause of Greek freedom “was to reveal for the first time in modern history the international power to transform public opinion expressed in the written press and fueled by associative life. He writes.
Both sides committed atrocities during the war, and Mazower argues that some Western European Philhellenes who went to fight for the Greeks were shocked by episodes such as the 1822 massacre of Muslim civilians in Corinth. However, it was the Ottoman massacre of the Greeks in Constantinople in 1821, and the public hanging of the city’s Greek Orthodox patriarch, that ignited European opinion.
Klemens von Metternich, ultra-conservative chancellor of Austria, wrote that “beyond our eastern borders, three or four hundred thousand hanged, strangled or impaled do not count for much”. It couldn’t have been wider than expected. Philhellenism and public outrage at repeated Ottoman atrocities created a liberal European consciousness, an impulse for interventionism that resurfaced during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
As Greek civilians fled from Ottoman forces in Asia Minor, the Peloponnese and vulnerable islands, the crisis “transformed international affairs by drawing the world’s attention to a new topic: suffering non-combatants,” writes Mazower. On the east coast of the United States, donations for Greek refugees poured in from towns, schools, colleges, churches and even the military academy at West Point.
However, these efforts fell short of what was needed to turn the tide of the war in favor of the Greeks. Internal divisions on the Greek side were so sharp that in 1824 a civil war broke out as part of the war against the Ottomans, a clash that foreshadowed similar splits in Greece during World War I and the Civil War of 1946-49 . “The democratic spirit was genuine among the Greeks, but it made military organization impossible and led to a strong sense of rivalry which was one of the main factors in the prolongation of the fighting,” writes Mazower.
The prospects for the Greeks were so dire in February 1826 that Colonel Charles Fabvier, a French veteran of the Napoleonic wars who fought with the Greeks, wrote: “Greece only exists in name. As the campaign season begins, there are no more provisions, no more soldiers or no money. Yet the following year, the British, French and Russians agreed to push for a settlement that would establish Greek autonomy under Ottoman suzerainty. The Three Powers did not explicitly threaten war, but did suggest that if the Ottomans rejected their initiative, some form of military intervention would follow.
The result was Navarin, an Ottoman defeat so complete that Greek independence became inevitable. Yet, as Mazower explains, the British government viewed Navarino as “the most controversial and undesirable of triumphs.” Under George Canning, Foreign Secretary from 1822 to 1827 and briefly Prime Minister until his death in 1827, British politics had moved in an increasingly pro-Greek direction, but his death put the government in the hands of anti-Russian and pro-Turkish politicians. In his 1828 King’s Speech, George IV went so far as to call Navarino “the untoward event”. However, the die was cast.
The Greeks were barely involved in the three-party talks in London in 1830 which resulted in an agreement to establish their country as a fully independent monarchy. Against all odds, Greece became the first new nation-state to emerge from the multinational empires that dominated the political map of Europe in the early 19th century. Earlier this year, somewhat moderately due to the pandemic, the Greeks celebrated the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of their war of liberation. There is no better time to remember, as Mazower says, that independence for the Greeks was “the greatest miracle of all”.
The Greeks: A global story by Roderick Beaton, Faber & Faber £ 25, 588 pages
The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the making of modern Europe by Mark Mazower, Allen Lane £ 30, 608 pages
Tony barber is the FT’s European affairs columnist
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