200 years of the Greek Revolution: An introduction

By Giorgio Zambello

The Greek Revolution for independence started in the 25th March 1821. After almost 400 years of Ottoman dominion, many revolts broke out in several regions, seeking to re-establish the Greek identity and sovereignty. In this series of articles, after a careful introduction about the political situation in Europe and Greece at the time, we will focus on the events which took place in Epirus, Peloponnese, Attica, and Macedonia.


To understand the Greek revolution, we need to travel 200 years back and explore Europe. In a Europe devastated by the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815 a congress was held in Vienna to re-establish  the Old Continent – the balance between states, before the French Revolution. This sanctioned a return to absolute monarchies on European territory, restoring the power of those monarchs who had been ousted by the advent of Napoleon.

This re-established balance held until 1820, the year in which the first of a long series of revolts took place throughout Europe, intended to gain greater political rights to the bourgeois classes through the granting of a Constitution. The revolts of the time are also called “bourgeois revolts” (as Marx described them) because they were organized and supported mainly by the bourgeoisie to obtain more rights – often only in favor of this social class.

But what is the Constitution? The Constitution is what would guarantee those rights, at that time present only in France and England, for which the educated aristocrats, the students (during this period young people coming only from the wealthier classes), the intellectuals and the bourgeoisie, tired of living in an absolute monarchy, claimed, such as the constitution of a parliament, the possibility to create political parties and greater freedom of expression in the then organs of the press.

Another important characteristic of the revolts during these years was that they were, in many cases, promoted by military officers (in Spain, but also Italy) who coincidentally had previously served under Napoleon’s rule. This controversial character, throughout his military conquests, helped to spread the ideals of the French Revolution, summarized by the motto: “Libertè, Egalitè, Fraternitè”, throughout Europe, a factor that proved decisive in the occasion of the protests occurred in these years.

Among the major promoters of the revolts of 20-21, in addition to the army, we see the secret societies. These, scattered throughout Europe, brought together some of the most influential personalities at the time intending to change the status quo imposed by the Congress of Vienna (1825). Among the most famous we find the “Carboneria” in Italy, the “Comuneros” in Spain, or the “Filiki Eteria”, which acted in the Balkans in opposition to the Ottoman Empire (its role will be explored later when we deal with the revolts in Greece).

The revolts of 1820 opened on January 1 in Spain. In this country, there was the revolt of the military (which had the task of embarking to the New World to quell the revolt of Simon Bolivar independence in the colonies) at the port of Cadiz led by some army officers. Firstly, a Constitution was granted and the Parliament was convened, but after these first successes, with the Battle of Trocadero the revolt was suffocated and promtly ended.

Following the Iberian events revolts in Italy began. In the Kingdom of Naples (Italy was not yet a united country, as we know it today, but it was divided into various kingdoms and duchies, the largest were: the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Habsburg Empire in the north, the Papal States in the center and the Kingdom of Naples in the south) there were protests both in Sicily and in the capital of the Kingdom (Naples) which, organized with the help of the “Carboneria” will be repressed with the intervention of the Empire of Austria, the main advocate of the Restoration established in the Congress of Vienna.

Among all the independence revolts that raged in Europe at that time, only one was successful and saw the creation of a new and independent Kingdom, the one that took place in Greece, of which we will now speak in more detail.


Under the Ottoman rule, Greece, unlike other territories that had gradually lost their cultural cohesion over the centuries, maintained its own national identity. This was probably due to the cohesive force of religion and of the Orthodox clergy, which was highly developed in that area, in part due to the influence of the Patriarch of Constantinople, who continued to exert a high influence over the entire Greek territory.
A strong spirit of revenge was kept over the centuries, leading first to numerous ocasional revolts, and then to a continuous period of guerrilla warfare (perpetrated by the Klepht, anti-Turkish militia), against which the Ottoman Sultan activated the “Armatoloi” corps, of mainly Romanian origin. These, however, became increasingly mixed with the ‘Klephts’, to such an extent that in 1821, when the War of Independence broke out in Greece, these two forces made up the bulk of the Greek revolutionary army.
At the beginning of the war, the main funding sources of the Greek forces came from abroad, mainly obtained from the many Greek expatriates present, especially in Venice and the Russian Empire. Of particular importance was the city of Odessa (modern day Ukraine, though being a Russian territory by then), where there was a strong Greek presence throughout the Hellenic history. In fact, it was in this city that the “Filiki Eteria” was born. This was a secret society plotting for the independence of the Balkan people from the Ottoman yoke.
As mentioned earlier, 1821 was the year when the revolution broke out. There were many reasons pushing the Greeks to start their fight for independence.
For political reasons, the Empire of the Sublime Porte faced during the 19th century, a period of weakening that led other nations to call it ‘the great sick man of Europe’. Simultaneously, the Ottoman Empire engaged in one of many wars against Persia, along its eastern frontiers. Finally, a revolt in Epirus forced the Sultan to move his divisions in Greece, already meagre, northwards in order to suppress the rebels.


The uprisals of 1821 led the European public opinion to favour the Greek claims, a factor that later proved to be paramount (we will see why later). However, the revolution was initiated outside Greek territory. On 6th of March 1821, Alexander Ypsilanti, at the head of a group of volunteers from the Filiki Eteria, symbolically called the ‘Holy Battalion’, crossed the Prust river from the Russian Empire. They entered Wallachia, a territory which corresponds to Romania today, under Ottoman rule at the time, and joined the Romanian rebels to start an attempt to drive the Ottomans out of those territories.
Why not start directly from Greece? The case was that the Filiki Eteria movement was convinced that the only by creating riots comprising all the Balkan people, could they gain the upperhand against the Sultan’s forces. Despite being a good strategy in theory, it ended up to be a failure. Having collaborated with the ‘Sacred Battalion’ and have even managed to take the city of Bucharest, the Romanian rebels wanted to consolidate their power over the territory and thus defend it. On the other hand, following the principles of Filiki Eterì, Ypsilanti intended to continue with the revolt and descend into Bulgaria and then Greece. This inevitably split the front in two. Once the Ottoman army arrived, it defeated the Filiki Eterì troops in two battles, forcing Ypsilanti to retreat to Austria, where he was imprisoned.
Still, this was not the end of the Greek revolts.

Timeline Greek Revolution – Designed by Marco Scarangella.

Post Author: Balkan Hotspot

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