Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 6: The Greek Revolution and the Greek State

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Twenty-FIve Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). List of lectures. – Humanities Commons (

Lecture 6: The Greek Revolution and the Greek State


The Greek revolution that began in 1821, followed by the war of independence, was the second of the “national revolutions” in the Balkans. Again we need to ask: to what degree was this a revolutionary change, and how “national” was it? To answer, we can again examine conditions prior to the unrest, developments during the revolution itself, and what the Greeks did after their victory.


The life of the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire was more complex than that of the Serbs. If a Serbian revolution was hampered by the weakness of the Serbs, a Greek revolution was hampered instead by Greek strengths. In Serbia, the wealthiest or most educated elements of society were most likely to encounter Western European revolutionary ideas and to accept them as beneficial. Among the Greeks, on the other hand, wealthy or educated elements already enjoyed substantial privileges in Ottoman society. Revolution was not so attractive for such Greeks, who had much to lose.

The Greek establishment

Greek life did not end when the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453. When the Ottomans imposed the millet system, the Greeks began with some obvious advantages relative to other Balkan Christians and added others as time went by.

Greek Orthodox clergy controlled the Orthodox millet. The Turks lumped together all their Balkan Christian subjects, Greek or Slav. Greek clergy therefore had substantial religious, educational, administrative and legal power in the Ottoman Balkans. The “Phanar” or lighthouse district of Istanbul became the center of Ottoman Greek culture after the patriarch took up residence there, and the well-connected Greeks of that city were known as Phanariots. Orthodox culture, faith and educational systems became identified with Greek culture. Educated Orthodox Slavs were likely to become Hellenized.

Greeks also benefited from reductions in the autonomy of the non-Greek churches. For example, when Serbs assisted invading Habsburg armies in the 1600s and 1700s, Serbian bishoprics were abolished as punishment. Greeks acquired political and economic power in the Romanian districts of Wallachia and Moldavia through similar events. Until 1711, the Ottomans picked the governors or hospodars of these provinces from the local Romanian boyar class. After Romanians supported a Russian invasion in 1711, Phanariot Greeks replaced Romanians as hospodars.

Greeks held administrative roles in the central Ottoman administration itself. Greeks ran the office of the Dragoman, the head of the sultan’s interpreters’ service, because Muslims were discouraged from learning foreign languages. Greeks therefore participated in diplomatic negotiations and some became de facto ambassadors. At a lower administrative level, Phanariots secured most of the contracts for tax-farmers (men who bid to collect a district’s taxes, and took their profits from excess revenues squeezed out of the peasants). Greeks also acted as contractors to the Ottoman court, supplying food and other services.

Such advantages slowed the Greek encounter with national identity in the modern form. Religion, not ethnic descent or language, was the first criterion for identification in the millet system. Religion, not language or residence, distinguished wealthy Orthodox Greeks from their Muslim Ottoman counterparts. Some Anatolian Greeks did not even speak the Greek language. Nor was “Greece” a definable place. Only half of the four million Greeks lived in modern mainland Greece as we know it today: the Morea, Thessaly, Epirus and Thrace. The other two million were scattered in towns along the coast of Anatolia, the Black Sea or the Mediterranean.

On the Greek mainland, Greek notables already exercised substantial local power. Because the Morea or Peloponnessus was rather poor, in 1800 only 40,000 Turks lived there among 360,000 Greeks. The Turks owned two-thirds of the land, but lived in a few cities. Large stretches of countryside had no Turkish presence at all. In those areas, Greek primates or “kodjabashis” virtually ruled themselves, meeting in regional assemblies to supervise taxation and other administrative matters. Greek militia or “armatoli” kept the peace while “klephts” or bandits flourished in the hills.

Greek shipowners in the islands enjoyed similar advantages. Greeks dominated Balkan commerce by the 1700s. Some islands paid no taxes in cash, instead contributing via the labor of sailors. As Christians, Greek traders were exempt from certain Muslim ethical and legal restraints on money-lending at interest. Greeks were permitted commercial contacts with non-believers, an awkward matter for Muslims. Turkish hostility toward Western Europeans also played into Greek hands. Tiresome regulations and occasional anti-European riots discouraged Western Europeans from coming to Turkey: instead Westerners who did business in the region used local Jews, Armenians or Greeks as agents for reasons of safety, language and convenience. Different branches of the same Greek family often operated in different cities, so that ties of kinship reduced the risks of trade.

Greeks were not merely commercial agents, but also shipowners and captains. Between 1529 and 1774 only ships under Ottoman registry could navigate in the isolated waters of the Black Sea, so Greek trade there grew without competition from the Venetians. When the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji opened the Turkish straits to Russian commerce, there were not enough Russian ships to meet that country’s export needs: the treaty allowed Ottoman Greeks to register their ships in Russia, and so they benefitted from the new rules. Anglo-French naval warfare during the Napoleonic Wars also cleared the seas for Greek ships: most Western merchant ships found the Mediterranean too dangerous. By the 1810s there were over 600 Greek trading ships afloat, many armed with cannon because of the threat of piracy.

Revolutionary influences

For these leading groups, Ottoman rule was tolerable. Rich shipowners on the island of Hydra, prosperous merchants, high officials in the Orthodox Church, tax-farmers, Phanariot hospodars in Romania, primates in the Peloponnessus and members of the interpreters’ service all had much to lose and little to gain by political adventures. How then can we explain the movement that led to revolution in 1821?

First, not all Greeks shared in the power and prosperity of collaboration with the Ottomans. Poor peasants, poor village priests, poor sailors and the like had no such investment in the status quo. Without ideas or leadership, dissatisfaction among such people led to little except banditry by klephts and occasional minor rebellions. By the 1700s, however, there were significant cultural developments at work, many of them coming from abroad.

Greek civilization was never completely separated from the rest of Europe. After the fall of Constantinople, some Greeks fled to Italy and played a role in the Renaissance. There were Greek printing presses at work in Venice in the 1500s and trading contacts sustained some minimal level of exchange of ideas. Greek traders returning from the West brought knowledge of new manufacturing techniques, like those used to start a soap factory in the 1760s.

New ideas came too. Merchants and entrepreneurs found the economic and political concepts of liberalism and the Enlightenment attractive. Greek wealth also paved the way for new forces in Greek culture. Wealthy Greeks commissioned the printing of books. For students who could not travel to the West to study, schools were founded at home. There was a revival of interest in Greek learning and traditions, including a higher appreciation of classical mythology, and of traditional tales and epic poems about Orthodox martyrs and heroic klephts.

Among the leaders in this revival was Adamantios Korais. Korais was born in 1748, the son of a merchant in Smyrna on the Anatolian coast. Pursuing his education, he travelled to Paris. He was heavily influenced by French Enlightenment thought and the ideas of Hobbes and Locke, and then by the doctrines of the French Revolution, to which he was an eyewitness. He supported the idea of a revolution in Greece. His chief contribution to Greek rebirth was not political but cultural. In order to improve the Greek language and revive memories of Greek glories, he wrote modern versions of tales from Greek antiquity, translated parts of Herodotus and Homer, and composed a Greek language dictionary. As a secular humanist, his interests were not meant to conform to those of the Orthodox leadership of the Greek millet at home. Korais died in France in 1833.

Another contrasting but prominent figure in the Greek revival was Rhigas Pheraios, who was born in 1757 in Thessaly. He began his career as an interpreter in the ranks of the Phanariot establishment, but left Turkey to further his education. In Western Europe, he too was influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution and of Romanticism. He was an active participant in secret societies and lodges, and wrote revolutionary tracts addressed to his fellow Greeks. In 1798, he was arrested by the Austrian police while on his way back to Turkey as part of a conspiracy. Turned over to the Ottoman authorities, he was executed. He left behind a poem known as the “War Hymn”, an exhortation to revolt.

Clearly, the French Revolution played a role in the minds of some revolutionaries. Its practical effect at the level of active participants in the fighting of 1821-1829 is hard to gauge.

Most Greeks could not go to France to be exposed to foreign ideas, but during the Napoleonic Wars the French came to Greece. After defeating the Austrians in Italy in 1797, the French seized and then annexed the Ionian Islands, the chain of islands lying at the mouth of the Adriatic between the heel of Italy and the west coast of Greece. At certain points in the war the British replaced the French as occupiers, but British ideas of liberalism and constitutional government had an influence that was almost as subversive. Nearby Dalmatia also became part of the French Empire as the “Illyrian Provinces.” The French presence in these adjacent territories was accompanied by the fanfare of revolutionary fervor, the tri-color flag and the spread of revolutionary ideals and laws.

If the French advance to the Ionians was not enough to alarm the Ottomans about the spread of revolutionary zeal, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 was. While the British Navy ultimately helped defeat the French invasion, the old way of life in Egypt was swept away and this Ottoman province was soon on its way to reform and revival. After 1804, the example of the Serbian Revolution also pointed toward possible change. All of these activities in nearby places were a spur to Greek subversives and patriots.

One can get a good picture of the Greeks for whom change was attractive by looking at the members of the conspiracy of 1821. The original instigators of the uprising were members of a secret society called the “Philike Hetairia” or “friendly society.” It was founded in 1814 in the Russian port of Odessa. Like other lodges that were fraternal groups or self-help associations made up of merchants, the society copied the Freemasons in its elaborate rituals, ranks and secrecy, but its true purpose was revolt. The three founders of Philike Hetairia are representative. One was the son of a Greek fur dealer living in Moscow, who already had been a member of a Greek society while living in Paris. The second was a Greek merchant of Odessa, another veteran of an anti-Turkish secret lodge. The third was a merchant from the Ionian Islands, a member of a Masonic lodge there who had contacts in the National Guard created by the British occupation government. In their merchant associations and their connections to the outside world, these three were typical of the members who put together the plot.

From 1819 records of the lodge’s Odessa branch, we know the occupation of 348 of the 452 members. 153 identified themselves as merchants and shippers, 60 as notables, 36 as soldiers, 24 as priests, 23 as minor officials, 22 as teachers or students, 10 as doctors, 4 as lawyers and 16 as men with other professions. With the possible exception of the notables and professional men, most members were not wealthy or influential.

The idea of revolution was also attractive to some of the powerful. In the last months of preparation, Philike Hetairia sacrificed secrecy in favor of seeking extensive membership, and sent representatives into Ottoman territory to recruit. A number of important klephts and district notables enrolled, who could be counted on to control whole villages or bands of armed men. Some of these men dropped their reservations because of the promise of Russian aid. This was plausible because of the participation of two prominent Greeks who were in Russian service. One was Count John Capodistrias, the tsar’s foreign minister. He had been born on Corfu in 1776. After some time studying in Italy, he returned to Corfu and played a role in the administration of the island, rising to become secretary of state. When the island was transferred to French control, he left and used old contacts to get a post in the Russian foreign service. His excellent reports on the Balkans brought him to the tsar’s attention, and he attended the Congress of Vienna in 1815. While he favored a Greek uprising and was in close contact with the plotters, he shrank from the actual event and from leadership. When fighting broke out the suspicious tsar fired him.

Another Greek with Russian ties was Alexander Ypsilantis. Born in Istanbul in 1792, he had grown up in Russia in exile with his father. He attended the military cadet school and served with distinction in the tsarist army, rising to the position of aide de camp to the tsar. More willing to risk a crisis, he had less actual influence than Capodistrias.

The date for the uprising was first set for 1820, then pushed back to the spring of 1821. Turkey was at war with Persia, and in the Balkans Ali Pasha was in revolt. The Great Powers (who opposed revolutions on principle in the aftermath of Napoleon) were already preoccupied with revolts in Spain and Italy. The radicals therefore believed that there would be no better time to act.

The Revolution of 1821: First Phase

If the Serbian uprising of 1804 began with a spontaneous national response to Turkish attacks, the Greek revolution of 1821 began as a planned conspiracy, in which only selected elements of the Greek nation had a role. The modern idea of nationality remained elusive, even for the most self-conscious of revolutionaries. One need only examine the plot itself for signs of this confusion.

Philike Hetairia planned to start the uprising in three places. One was the Peloponnessus, where a core group of klephts and primates supported the plot. The second site was Istanbul, where there were plans for rioting among the Greek Phanariot community. The third part of the plan involved an invasion of Moldavia and Wallachia (in Romania) by Greek forces crossing the Russian border from Odessa.

Because Greek Phanariots had ruled these Romanian provinces as hospodars for a century, Greek leaders thought of the area as a Greek national center, ignoring the fact that the local boyar notables and peasants were ethnic Romanians. Alexander Ypsilantis and a corps of student volunteers expected to lead Romanian peasants into battle against the Turks, assisted by a Romanian ally Tudor Vladimirescu. Vladimirescu was a peasant, about 30 at this time, who had acquired some education and administrative skill in a boyar’s household. Appointed to an office in the rural police, he grew wealthy. During the Russo-Turkish war of 1806 he helped the Russian army and emerged with Russian citizenship and a new job in the Russian consular service, where he met Capodistrias. Connected as he was to the Russians, the Romanian boyars and the plotters, he seemed like a natural ally and was charged to organize the planned peasant uprising.

When Ypsilantis and 450 men of the “Sacred Battalion” entered Moldavia in March 1821, however, the Romanian peasants ignored the Turks and instead attacked the manor houses of their local boyar landlords. Vladimirescu and his boyar allies also ignored the Turks: their goal was to throw out the Greek Phanariots so as to become hospodars themselves. The Greek invasion of Romania was a complete fiasco. Ypsilantis retreated into Austria, where he eventually died in prison. With our modern awareness of ethnicity, the reasons for this failure are obvious, but for the Greek plotters — who conformed to an Ottoman way of thinking by dividing the world into Orthodox and Muslim halves — it was a surprise.

At the same time, the class divisions in Greek society undercut the success of the uprising in Istanbul. The Turks reacted by hanging the Greek Orthodox patriarch. The new patriarch and other well-connected Phanariots took the hint and condemned the revolution.

The only success was in the Peloponnesus. Most of the powerful primates originally opposed the uprising but they were now summoned to appear before the Turkish pashas. In fear of arrest or execution, in self-defense they now joined the revolt. The revolution swept across the Morea: Turkish towns were taken and the Muslim population was massacred. Turkish forces meanwhile massacred Greeks where they could, including the island of Chios. So ended the first phase of the war.

Phase Two

After the success of 1821, the war in the south became a stalemate until 1825 for several reasons. First, neither side was strong enough for a decisive victory. The Ottoman army had to begin each year from bases in Thessaly. Without a strong fleet, two land columns worked their way south along the coast roads each spring, then withdrew in the fall because they could not secure a winter base in the south. On their side, the Greek irregulars were too weak to take the offensive against the Turks: they could only defend the Morea.

A second cause of the stalemate was internal dissension among the Greeks, reflecting pre-existing class differences. The armed peasants and former klephts in the Morea were loyal to Theodore Kolokotrones, a former klepht (whose memoirs are worth reading). Opposing him were the civilian leaders in the National Assembly, including Alexander Mavrokordatos and George Koundouriotes. Mavrokordatos came from a well-connected Phanariot family. Koundouriotes was a wealthy shipowner from the island Hydra. They typified the assembly, which spoke for the wealthy notables, influential primates and rich merchants. By 1823 the two sides were engaged in a civil war.

The third cause of the stalemate was intervention by Britain, France and Russia. Each of these states had strategic political and economic interests in Turkey, and wanted to make sure that the results of the war in Greece would not hurt them. In Lecture 10 we’ll look more closely at the “Eastern Question” — the dilemma faced by the Great Powers, who had to choose between an unstable Turkey and an unpredictable future if they allowed the Ottoman Empire to collapse. For now, it is enough to know that the British were sympathetic to the Greek cause (in part out of sentimental Phil-Hellenism, the result of education in the Classics) but unwilling to see Turkey become so weak that Russia might gain control of the Turkish Straits and threaten the Mediterranean trade routes. The Russian tsars in turn had sympathy for the Orthodox Greeks, but also feared both the concept of revolution and a possible outcome in which a new Greek state might become a British ally. French interests were partly financial, partly strategic. French trade with Turkey was very important, and French investors also held large numbers of Turkish state bonds that would be worthless if Turkey fell apart. France was also anxious to re-enter world politics after the defeat of 1815, and played an active role partly for the simple sake of doing so.

From the perspective of the Great Powers, the stalemate showed that the Greek revolution would not go away. These three states were prepared to intervene to make sure the final result was acceptable to their interests.

Phases Three and Four

The third phase of the war was characterized by foreign interference, and ran from 1825 until 1827. It began with an unlikely-seeming intervention by the armed forces of Egypt, a vassal of Turkey that had undergone sweeping reforms under Mehmet Ali after the French invasion of 1798. Mehmet Ali had ambitions and later tried to overthrow the sultan, but at this time he was able to make a deal with the central regime. In return for a promise that he and his sons could rule what they captured, Mehmet Ali’s modernized navy and army invaded Greece in 1825, where they captured the port of Navarino. This gave them the kind of base never held by the Turkish army, and the Egyptians might well have defeated the Greek resistance.

The Great Powers would not accept a powerful Mehmet Ali who controlled both Egypt and Greece. In 1827 the British, French and Russians agreed to seek a mediated peace and backed up their demands by sending a combined three-Power fleet of 27 ships to Navarino Bay in October to observe the Egyptian navy. In the crowded bay, a musket shot escalated into a battle and the European fleet sank 60 of the 89 Egyptian ships. The sultan was now without any armed force that could reclaim the Morea or resist the Great Powers.

The fourth and last phase of the war coincided with the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1830. To end Turkish stalling, the Russians invaded Turkey. The sultan gave in when the Russian army almost reached Istanbul in 1829. Russia accepted British and French participation in the peace settlement. The London Protocol of 1830 created a small, independent Greek kingdom ruled by Prince Otto of Bavaria, a German prince acceptable to all three powers.

After the revolution

As was the case with Serbia, the achievements of the Greeks in 1830 are ambiguous. If Serbia seemed to have only exchanged Muslim pashas for an Orthodox one, perhaps Greece had merely increased the power of the very un-revolutionary oligarchs by removing their major hindrance, the sultan. Moreover, the decisive victory of 1830 was won less by the Greeks themselves than by the intervention of England, France and Russia, who thereafter claimed a major role in Greek politics. The new King of Greece was not even Greek, but a Bavarian German prince, who brought German cabinet ministers and German soldiers with him.

The new state faced several key problems and the way in which it proceeded tells us a good deal about the degree to which 1830 was a “national revolution” after all.

First, there was the land question. After the fighting, the country was full of displaced refugees and empty Turkish estates. By a series of land reforms over several decades, the government distributed this confiscated land among veterans and the poor, so that by 1870 most Greek peasant families owned about 20 acres. These farms were too small for prosperity but the land reform signaled the goal of a society in which Greeks were equals and could support themselves, instead of working for hire on the estates of the rich. The class basis of rivalry between Greek factions was thereby reduced.

Second, the new state had to decide its relationship to the Greek nation at large. Some 800,000 Greeks lived in the kingdom, but 2 1/2 million remained under Ottoman rule. Greek foreign policy quickly showed its “national” character. The most popular party (the “French” party of John Kolettes) was a proponent of the “Megale Idea”, the great idea of unifying all Greeks in one country.

Third, the Greek response to the foreign imposition of the Bavarian King Otto led to wider national participation in politics. Greek domestic politics began as a continuation of the quarrels of the revolutionary period, with “Constitutionalist” oligarchs opposing the central power (much like similar events in Serbia).

Two characteristic features of Greek political life soon made their first appearance. In 1843, the army responded to budget cuts with a military coup (the first of many in modern Greek history). The result was a new Constitution in 1844 under which King Othon shared power with an upper chamber of oligarchs appointed for life and a lower chamber elected by a very wide manhood suffrage. Kolettes then used this arrangement to create a mass political machine known as “the System” which delivered votes to the ruling party in return for patronage and favors for the voters. No prefect, tax official, judge or policeman served without an exchange of favors with party leaders. The System was corrupt, but it was also a mass organization that made the Greek people participants in the political system.

The “national” character of Greek politics was underlined in a new constitutional crisis in 1862-1864. Another military coup ousted Othon, largely because of his failure to pursue the Megale Idea. He was replaced by a Danish prince, George I, but more important the Constitution of 1844 was replaced by another in 1864. That document placed political power squarely in the hands of the most democratic elements of Greek life: the senate was abolished in favor of a uni-cameral legislature elected by direct, secret manhood suffrage. The politics of patronage remained but there was no question that the entire nation could take part in political life. The coups against Othon also reduced the influence of the Great Powers, because Greek elements prevailed over the Powers’ chosen king. King George managed to remain in power until 1913 largely by leaving Greek politics to the Greeks.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created 12 June 1996; last modified 11 January 2023.

Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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