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.
The first region of Greece to revolt was the Peloponnese, which was the area that had historically opposed Turkish rule for the longest time. Here, the rebels managed first to take control of the countryside and then drive out the few remaining Ottoman troops in the cities, which fell one by one until the last one, Patras, was finally liberated in January 1822. These enterprises were led by an Orthodox priest who called himself Papaflessas.
Further North of the Peloponnese, however, the Ottoman forces were more numerous. In Viotia, for example, the insurgents immediately managed to gain the upper hand. Still, with the descent of some 8,000-10,000 Ottoman troops from Epirus, under the command of Omar Vrioni, they retook the territory occupied by the insurgents. However, this conquest was not without its problems. The Greek forces in the area, although beaten, managed to inflict severe damage on the enemy on multiple occasions. An example of this was the famous Battle of the Tavern of Gravia, where 120 Greek rebels managed to block the troopes of the Sublime Porte for an entire day, claiming around 800 victims, compared to only 6 Greek losses. These difficult victories convinced Vrioni of the urgency for more fighters before invading the rest of Greece, thus, he stopped near Athens, intending to wait for reinforcements from the capital. However, while likely to be in great difficulty in open battle, the Greek rebels proved perfectly capable of dealing with the troops from Istanbul trying to reach Vrioni’s army, who were forced to abandon Attica and Athens.
Then, there were revolts in other territories such as Macedonia, Crete and Cyprus. If the Ottoman response was slow from the military point of view, it was very violent from the local perspectives. There were pogroms (widespread massacres) against the Greek population, both among the lower classes (the bloodiest events took place on the island of Chios) and among the richer ones (even in Istanbul itself, where even high ranks of the imperial bureaucracy were killed for their alleged support to the revolt).
The final stabilization of the kingdom of Greece
In the meantime, in liberated Greece, an attempt was made to organise a government and issue the first constitution. Problems soon arose due to internal divisions within the revolutionaries. The Filiki Eteri, for example, not very present in the territory, progressively lost its influence. Conflicts also developed between Athenian and Peloponnesian origin, with the latter trying to assert their numerical excellence and military strength. Such led to a civil war between 1823 and 1824, with clashes between the two factions only weakening the Greek front. The only thing the provisional government was able to do in this period was to find support from abroad. For instance, England provided funding for the uprisings in two tranches, which were, nonetheless, badly managed. At the end of 1824, however, the civil war died down. This was because a new enemy emerged. Not the Ottomans (who in the meantime had finished the war with Persia and were still preparing an army for the invasion of Attica), but the Egyptians. At the time, Egypt was still formally part of the Ottoman Empire. For decades, it had enjoyed very high autonomy from the government in Istanbul, which convinced the Egyptians to intervene in the conflict in Greece with the promise of further concessions.
From Africa, Ibrahim Pasha, commanding an army of 10,000 men, landed in Morea in February 1825. Initially, underestimated by the Greek revolutionaries, the Egyptian army was very well prepared, as a result of some French trainers who had made it an (almost) modern army in previous years. The Egyptians, therefore, quickly reconquered much of the Peloponnesian territories, even managing to kill Papaflessas himself in a battle. Meanwhile, the reorganised Ottoman forces descended from the North, defeating the rebels in Attica and laying siege to the main cities. Helping the Greek revolutionaries during this critical phase was Europe’s public opinion. News of the massacres perpetrated by the Egyptians spread throughout the Old Continent (even if the stories were often exaggerated). This shifted the interest of some European powers (even if often reluctantly) towards events happening in Greece. First, Russia, then France and finally England decided to send their fleet to the Aegean Sea to support the revolution.
In October 1827 a battle between the Egyptian fleet and the three European powers’ fleet assembled in Navarino Bay. The Battle of Navarino Bay saw almost the entire Egyptian fleet destroyed, with no loss to the fleet of the independence front. This battle also prompted Russia to invade the Ottoman Empire by land, forcing the Muslim troops to move north. The naval defeat, meanwhile, led the Egyptians to negotiate with England for their return home. Istanbul, on the other hand, continued fighting, not intending to surrender Greek territories. Furthermore sending an additional 15,000 troops from France into the Peloponnese and defeating the Sultan’s army at Petra (northern Boeotia), the Ottoman Empire was forced to grant independence to Greece. Interestingly, the leader of the Greek army in this battle was Demetrios Ypsilantis, brother of Alexander Ypsilantis, who started the revolution. The Treaty of Constantinople of 21 July 1832 gave birth to Greece’s Kingdom (the European powers chose the Bavarian, Otto of Wittelsbach, as the first Greek sovereign). The Greece that emerged from this first agreement did not correspond in size to the present one, as it was still missing most of the islands. including Crete. and the Northern part. However, it was an embryo of the Greek state that other conflicts lead to the Hellas we know today.