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Romeiko, or the Greek Reconquista: Greek Revolutionary Mythos as Synthesis of Byzantium and Hellas by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Romeiko, or the Greek Reconquista: Greek Revolutionary Mythos as Synthesis of Byzantium and Hellas

Statue of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (1405-1453), located in Mitropoleos Square, Athens, Greece.

The Greek revolution of 1821 and its vision of nationhood synthesized Biblically-based, medieval prophecy with the modern recovery of classical antiquity: it provides the context for a recovery and reconciliation of the past and the discovery of a deeper coherence.

It is spurious to insist, as many do, on a contradiction between conceiving of Greek independence through a yearning for the Byzantine past, on the one hand, and the romantic-nationalist lionizing of ancient Hellas, on the other. Indeed, the last emperor of Byzantium himself recalled the ancient Hellenes, as well as the Romans, during his final stand against that force which the new revolutionaries were now, over three-hundred years later, about to finally cast off. 

By truth and justice I swear, and before the Supreme Being, that I will guard with my life the mystery that is about to be revealed to me.

The temple is a drafty upper room in an old Odessa apartment, but it is a temple all the same. After all, how long were the Israelites deprived of Jerusalem in Babylon? Likewise, before blue flags and wreathed crucifixes, these latter-day exiles take their oath, weeping homeward. 

I swear by Thee, my sacred, suffering Country, I swear by the tears which for centuries thine children wept, and by my own tears now.

They are the Filiki Eteria, the Society of Friends, a secret order of people sworn to the cause of Greek independence from Ottoman rule. Founded in 1814, their oath, like the traditional lamentations for Constantinople, recall that theurgic longing which in ancient times was said to elevate seers, as though weeping could cause mercy to pour forth from above, as though the falling of tears could raise up prophets. 

O that mine eyes were springs,
And mine eyelids a fount of tears.
For how shall I lament for Zion,
And how shall I mourn for Jerusalem? (2 Baruch, 35:2-3)

The mysticism around this struggle is not new. In the year 1700, a holy man from the Greek city of Smyrna, by the name of Athanasius, was put to death by the local Ottoman governor after arguing with an educated Turk concerning matters of religion, and refusing to recant during a subsequent trial. The governor’s son, Musa, was so affected by this spilling of innocent blood, that he fled to the island of Corfu were he was baptized, taking the name Daniel, and became a monk. He would eventually travel to Constantinople, where he is said to have been visited by the soul of that recently martyred and now canonized St. Athanasius, who guided him to various holy sites around the city. According to accounts of these events, referred to as the “Vision of kyr Daniel,” the monk went on to meet the Virgin Mary, following a tradition according to which Constantinople is under her patronage, and was eventually shown the coming defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Depending on the manuscript, the vision took place either in the year 1764 or 1704. 

Another important vision would come a few decades later, in 1822, when a 70-year-old nun at the Kechrovouni monastery, which stands above the port city of Tinos, awoke after an extraordinary dream. Her name was Pelagia and it was a Sunday in July when she reported having been visited by a queen-like figure who informed her that a great edifice was to be built nearby. The woman had even given her the name of the man who was to undergo this construction. The elderly nun, however, did not give the dream credence, except that it repeated seven days later, and a third time after that, whereupon the queenly lady revealed that she was the Virgin Mary and warned concerning the consequences of not following her instructions. 

Pelagia acted, therefore, recounting the dreams to the abbess of the nunnery, who found the man whose name had been revealed. He was Stamatelos Kagkadis, a person of means. The local archbishop, for his part, determined that the dreams received by Pelagia were, indeed, neither spurrious nor the fruit of spiritual deception. 

And so, with this, the building project was underway, but it would not proceed unhindered. The owner of the plot of land in question was away, and his wife was slow to agree to allow Kagkadis to go ahead. Furthermore, upon beginning, it was found that an old church lay buried there, as well as a spring which began to gush forth. More problems were encountered when a ship from Constantinople brought a deadly plague to Tinos, adding hardship to an already struggling region full of war refugees—we should recall that the revolt against the Ottomans was now in full swing throughout much of Greece.

Digging resumed at the beginning of 1823, with an old, long-buried wonder-working icon being uncovered on the feast day of the Three Holy Hierarchs. The plague in the region did not spread among the people there, and stories circulated of healings, including that of the son of a supervisor at the monastery. The boy’s father had soil from near where the icon had lain and holy water applied to his son’s swelling, after which the child’s health was restored. After the end of the plague epidemic, visitors would continue to report being miraculously cured, and the phenomenon was not limited to the Orthodox. Nor would this be the only example of dreams leading to the discovery of buried icons (a similar thing happened years later in Naxos).

During the construction of the new church, as per the instructions given to Pelagia, Kagkadis’ brother was offered a possible peace settlement by a Muslim well-wisher who put himself forward to negotiate on behalf of the port city, should Tinos agree to accept the sultan’s sovereignty over it. Tinos was in a precarious position, after all, being near a maritime route regularly used by the Ottomans—so much so that a group of fighters from the city once fired upon Turkish vessels when these happened to pass too near. Fortunately, Tinos was never captured by Ottoman forces following the beginning of the revolution in 1821, nor did Kagkadis’ brother ever acquiesce to return his home to the sultan’s fold. 

As Mark Mazower reflects in his history of The Greek Revolution

In the face of such fears and temptations, the Virgin Mary reminded the islanders of their past sufferings—in the form of an icon half destroyed during the Saracen raids hundreds of years earlier—and of their ability to survive through centuries of tribulations.

Given the prominence of the Virgin in this period, it is no wonder that the feast day of the Annunciation to Mary was chosen as the national day of an independent Greece. 

The same religious sentiment was writ large in the general struggle for independence, 

At the Etaireia’s critical meeting … in October 1820 when it was resolved to launch the uprising, the majority had set aside warnings that it was too soon with a simple argument: they would “leave the rest to God.” It was in this specific sense that they regarded theirs as a holy struggle … When Kolokotronis gathered three hundred men outside kalamata, the first thing they did was to paint the cross on their banners. 

Of course, “[t]heir enemies invoked faith too … and in the spring of 1821 the sultan had declared the war against the rebels to be a holy war.”

Granting the role of religion in uniting the Greeks, there was, however, also plenty to sow discord. We may discern two visions and two temperaments driving (and dividing) the Greek side. On the one hand, we have the revolutionary leader mentioned by Mazower above, Theodoros Kolokotronis He was a kleft or brigand, from a clan of hardy raiders about whom local folklore tells us that

On a horse they go to church,
On a horse they kiss the icons,
On a horse they receive communion.

A gentleman might ride his horse for leisure and warfare, having an estate to tend to the rest of the time. The kleft, it seems, never dismounts, is always at the ready, always about. Klefts remind us of the Cossacks and similar peoples whose ethos is opposed to serfdom of every kind, but who too often fall into ignoble rapine. Indeed, atrocities were committed against innocent Muslim communities during the Greek revolution, and some klefts continued stealing from Christians and allies during the struggle. 

On the other hand, we have Alexander Ypsilantis and his brother. Alexander, an aristocrat who had served as a senior officer in the Russian Tsar’s imperial cavalry, was made leader of the Filiki Eteria and led an unsuccessful campaign in Moldova and Wallachia, following which he disparaged his men during a speech in which he informed them that they were unworthy of the title, “soldiers.” His younger brother, Demetrios, also an army officer, would go on to participate in military actions in Greece. 

The Ypsilantis brothers lacked the local knowledge and perhaps the gritier charisma of a kleft leader—they would not ultimately take the commanding position one might have expected of them, but their bravery should not be discounted. They participated prominently in the armed struggle, over the course of which they willingly risked their lives. 

Of course, it is Ioannis Kapodistrias, a notable from Corfu who served as Russian imperial foreign minister, who is usually credited with being the father of the new Greek state, despite the fact that no single figure ever really emerged as its definitive patriarch. 

Apart from the temperaments of klefts and aristocrats, another significant dichotomy is that of the more traditional concept of restoration, hearkening back to Byzantium and medieval lore—the mass of folkloric literature around what was called the Romeiko, the restoration of medieval splendor and eastern Roman imperium— on the one hand, and the modern, liberal republican conception of Hellenic nationhood, with its romantic appeal to classical antiquity, from thinkers like Adamantios Korais to the poetry of Lord Byron, on the other. 

Certainly, national struggle can develop under the patronage of a foreign guardian or under an imperial umbrella. The Greeks were hopeful that the Russian empire would sanction their cause and provide it with material support, which never happened. However, the above dichotomy is more often referred to in terms of a cultural or aesthetic clash.

As the Pasha of Jannina put it to a group of Christians, attentive to their reactions: 

You Greeks are getting strange ideas. You no longer baptize your children Ioannis, Petros and Kostas, but Leonidas, Themistocles and Aristides. You must be cooking up something.

And yet this is not a rejection of the Christian and medieval legacy. In a sense, the recovery of Greek names, bringing them into a struggle with clear religious and civilizational implications, serves to highlight the specificity of that struggle while also effecting a kind of latter-day christening of pagan names, a taking up and reconciliation of the past. 

However much these different temperaments—the aristocratic Ypsilantis and the brigand Kolokotronis—and traditions—Byzantine restoration and Romantic Hellenism—may have been seen as contradictory, or may now be seen as such by modern historians, we should look to the underlying unity of the emerging national mythos within which they coexisted.

“Bishop of Old Patris Germanos Blesses the Flag of Revolution” (1865), a 164 x 126 cm oil on canvas by Theodoros Vryzakis (1814 or 1819-1878), located in the National Art Gallery, Athens.

It is often said that the modern Greek state invented an artificial identity for itself, because the Greek Byzantines had not considered themselves Greek at all, but Roman, their capital being the new Rome, looking askance at the ancient pagan Greeks. This may have been a common conception but the issue is not at all so straightforward (for their part, Ottoman authorities did refer to the Greeks as Roman, but this is a general ethnonym inherited from the Arabs to refer to Europeans in general, as it appears in the second volume of al-Tabari’s Histories—local Iberians were also designated as “Rum” in al-Andalus, for example).

Let’s turn to a few Greek sources. In his Panathenaic Oration, the 2nd century Greek writer Aelius Aristeides maintained that Rome is supreme in rule, in law, and Greece in culture. In this line, the 4th century Constantius II, in his Address to the Senate concerning Themistios (21a) explained that “in receiving from us a Roman rank, [Themistios] offers us Hellenic wisdom in exchange.” In Against the Latins (2.27), the mid-13th century scholar Georgios Akropolites wrote the following: 

No other nations were ever as harmonious as the Greeks (Graikoi) and the Italians … for science and learning came to the Italians from the Greeks. And after that point, so that they need not use their ethnic names, a New Rome was built to complement the Elder one, so that all were called Romans … And just as they received the most noble name from Christ, so too did they take upon themselves the national (ethnikon) name.

Much of this proceeds from the ideas of the 1st century BC Greek historian Dionysus of Halicarnassus. 

19th-century depiction of Constantine XI with classical Greco-Roman armor from Issue 238 of Historica Magazine.

Scholarly opinion, therefore, understands the emergence of Byzantium as a synthesis between Greek and Roman identities, not a replacement of the one by the other. Indeed, at the end of the Byzantine era, during his speech on the eve of war against the Ottomans, the last eastern emperor, Constantine XI (1449-1453), described his people as “descendants of the Greeks and the Romans,” thereby lionizing the soldiers who were assembled there, ready to fight with him. 

It seems spurious, therefore, to claim there is a contradiction between conceiving of Greek independence in line with the yearning for the Byzantine past, on the one hand, and with the romantic-nationalist laudation of ancient Hellas on the other. Again, the last emperor of Byzantium himself recalled those ancient Hellenes, as well as the Romans, during his last stand against that force which the new revolutionaries were now, over three-hundred years later, finally casting off. 

Furthermore, although I will not develop the point here, because it deserves its own, longer exploration, the Bible itself contains an endorsement of political articulation delineated by national units (which is not to say these should not also participate in larger, imperial, or transnational institutions). Specifically, this endorsement extends to the Greek city-state and the mixed constitution of the Roman Republic. 

A certain, excessively zealous segment of medievalist, reactionary intellectuals often tell us that such ideas are modern inventions which contradict the medieval, Biblically-based worldview. In fact, the scriptures, specifically 1 Maccabees 8, praise them. Again, this deserves a more detailed exposition—suffice it to write that the attempt by Greek revolutionaries to formulate a national identity based on both Christian medieval and certain antique Greco-Roman precursors does not pose a necessary contradiction. 

The idea of Greek nationhood is still deeply evocative. The nation, understood as an artistic project, an aesthetic category, presents her artists with a challenge as well as with inspiration. Of late, the image of Greece has often been demeaned and unfairly stereotyped in foreign (and probably domestic) media, but anyone who approaches her songs, her memory, be it of the 1821 revolution or of her Jerusalem, Constantinople, finds a gravity welling up from vast reservoirs of deep religious devotion and an unwillingness to leave the past untapped and untransformed.

The challenge today is to reverse the ravages not of war, but of peace—the inclement pressures upon a nation with so many of its young living abroad and so much of its potential stagnating on account of enduring economic woes. Struggle is always cloven-hoofed, two-horned: both external and internal. Indeed, we are now faced with the twin needs of rejecting encroaching state and supra-state powers, and of an international economy dominated by oligopolies. This requires policies and markets that respond to the needs of healthy communities (for example by shortening supply-chains to deal with crises, and by valuing the ability of our youth to prosper in their own country and in the countryside). Greece may glean ways to improve her fortunes from the past. 

And today, for Europe at large, joining the frayed strands of her inheritance—a creative recovery of tradition and a transformative conquest of modernity—represents a challenge to be embraced. 

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.