• Stavros Papagianneas

A Romantic Revolution


I was born in Athens, and I love the city. It has a special vibe, an outgoing feeling, due to the mild weather and friendly people. A city by the sea where the Parthenon is visible from almost every street corner.


2021 is a highly symbolic year for Greece as it marks the 200th Anniversary of the outbreak of the country’s Independence War against the Ottoman rule in 1821. Unfolding in the direct aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the political and military drama in Greece was eagerly followed in newspapers across Western Europe.


Mani was the place where the Greek revolution actually started on 17 March 1821. The Mani Peninsula - in Greek: Μάνη - also long known by its medieval name Maina or Maïna (Μαΐνη), is a geographical and cultural region in the south of Greece. It is the place where my father came into the world. The name Mani finds its origin in the Frankish castle le Grand Magne.


The region remained impregnable during the period of Ottoman rule, despite repeated attempts by the conquerors to enslave it. The area enjoyed a kind of independence thanks to its alliance with Venice. Its mountainous, barren terrain made it easy to defend it from attacks.


Today, the celebration of the 200 years since the outbreak of the Revolution of 1821 and the War of Independence is a key historical event. It is both an occasion to recognise the struggles and high sacrifices of the people in Modern Greece but also of the bright philhellenes from France, Britain, Italy, Russia and other countries who helped - while it also requires us to think about the present-day position of the country in Europe and the world and the future.


Since Antiquity, Greeks have lived dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin and the shores of the Black Sea. From Empurias in Spain to the large minorities in Egypt and Jerusalem, to Constantinople and the Trapezuntine Empire in the Pontus region, Greeks were everywhere to take just a few examples.


Despite their fragmentation into multiple city-states, they felt a sense of cultural, linguistic and religious unity, which manifested itself, for example, in "pan-Hellenic" ceremonies such as the famous Olympic Games. During late Antiquity, the Greeks were Christianised.


After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the schism between the Pope and the Patriarchs of the East, then the arrival of Turkish conquerors, the Orthodox religion - in a new regime which classified its subjects according to their religion - was together with the Greek language, the decisive element that helped Greece survive occupation and maintain its culture and national identity.


Even before the 1821 liberation war, a sympathetic interest in Greece had been growing in Western Europe. In addition to the general influence of Ancient Greek thought on Western culture, travel writing of the late 18th and early 19th century helped foster philhellenism in Europe and elsewhere. What they saw was an oppressed and dejected people - a far cry from the splendour of Classical Greece.


French historian and travel writer Claude Denis Raffanel wrote: "Près des marbres majestueux…ma vue s'arrêtait avec douleur sur les tristes chaumières où végétait, dans une lâche abandon, la servile postérité des héros."


Although the Greek Revolution is the result of a long struggle that started many decades before 1821, European Romanticism supported the independence war. Once revolution broke out in 1821, the struggle was successfully promoted internationally by mobilising European "romantic" ideas about Ancient Greece, in the service of "reviving" a long-suppressed but latent nation-ideas espoused in different ways by leading English Romantic poets of the time, Lord Byron and P. B. Shelley.


The impact of the Romantic message is observed in poetry, fiction, public architecture, and language reform. The projection of the contemporary Greek nation back through three thousand years of history is a Romantic endeavour. In literature, the effects of Romanticism are there to stay. In Kostis Palamas's (1859–1943) poetry, the synthesis of the different phases of the Greek past with the present reaches its fullest exploration.


Romanticists used different means of action to convey their message and advocate for the Greek cause. Some famous Romanticists had infuenced political decisions in their country. For instance, François-René Chateaubriand, a member of the Académie Française, wrote the pamphlet "Note sur la Grèce" encouraging France to become involved in the Greek War of Independence.


"Note sur la Grèce" was a clear example of Romantic philosophy applied to politics; it was simultaneously an emotional plea and a measured argument.


The massacre of nearly the entire population of the island of Chios by the Turkish army shed light on the Greek ordeal and attracted Europeans' attention. Eugène Delacroix depicted this terrible scene in his "Scènes des massacre de Scio" in 1824.


Romanticists capitalised on various forms of art to influence western European countries' public opinions and politicians. Art enabled them both to settle an aesthetic which pictured Greece as the land of arts, the cradle of culture and the homeland of freedom and denounce the barbarian acts of the Ottoman regime.


Νostalgia of Classical Greece, emotional legacy, liberation combat, the refusal of conventional boundaries, huge sacrifice and the strong desire for freedom and human rights were key ingredients for a highly successful PR campaign.


Through the application of Romantic philosophy to international politics and their art to shape and spread the message and garner support, the Romantics had a positive influence for the independence of Greece.


Some historians insist that the Greek Revolution was a nationalist movement for the establishment of a Greek nation-state. In reality it was a grass root movement for human rights and freedom, a vertical movement that united most social classes under a common goal: the establishment of a common public sphere in which people could live with equal rights, dignity, justice and solidarity.


It was a revolution of the common people against despotism and the oppression of an autocratic ruler who was not able to understand change. It was so much more than a Romantic Revolution - just as strategy is so much more than a campaign.


Picture: Stavros Papagianneas, Stoupa Messinian Mani

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