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The slaughter of civilians on this Aegean island finally prompted Europe to help Greece throw off four centuries of Ottoman rule.

In 1823, shortly before his death in Greece and after having spent much of his fortune to help finance the ongoing 1821–29 Greek War of Independence, English poet Lord Byron shared his unfavorable impression of the country with Julius Millingen, the British physician who would attend him in his last days. “I know this nation by long and attentive experience,” he told the doctor. “The Greeks are perhaps the most depraved and degraded people under the sun.” Earlier that year he had expressed similar disgust at the lack of local response after a road building accident. “They are such barbarians, that if I had the government of them, I would pave these very roads with them.”

Odd that a people who originated the term “barbarian” as a name for anyone who was not Greek should have the term applied to themselves, but Byron had a point. While the poet referred to Greece as a nation, it wasn’t one in any sense of the word. Its people spoke the same language, but they were a far cry from their classical forefathers who had founded and inspired Western civilization. The revolution was certainly not what anyone would call a well-organized event, as the Greeks were divided into political factions based on deep regional hatreds, with a largely illiterate peasantry and leaders obsessed with gaining power for themselves. In the midst of it the Greeks waged two civil wars, and in its aftermath an opposing political faction assassinated the founding president. In 1832, when after nearly 400 years of occupation by the Ottoman empire and a decade of war Greece at last secured its independence, the European powers wisely found a king to govern the country. It had taken a massacre to get their attention.

Under Ottoman rule Greece was a complicated place. The Greek Orthodox Church was headquartered in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), the very heart of the Ottoman empire, and Sultan Mahmud II was pledged by an extant treaty with Russia not to interfere with the church and to protect Christians from insult and injury by his fellow Muslims. Some of the sultan’s closest advisers and many in the Ottoman bureaucracy were Greek. In Greece itself Turkish and Greek merchants lived side by side and traded freely with each other. Constantinople’s rule was largely nominal—functionaries collected taxes, small garrisons occupied the cities and towns, and feudal overlords held sway in the countryside.

Still, Turkish governance was neither consistent nor stable. The Ottoman armies that occasionally marched in to enforce rule in areas prone to resistance were scarcely better disciplined than the Greek rebels opposing them. The mountain-dwelling klephts (Greek for “thieves”), as one group of rebels was known, engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Turks, though they were willing to switch sides if to their advantage. The armatoloi, armed Greek bands ostensibly fighting for the Ottomans, also shifted their allegiance when convenient, as did the warlike Souliotes, from the namesake northern mountain fastness of Souli. In the early 19th century Greeks comprised a patchwork of tribes, clans, brigands, peasants and scattered intellectuals schooled in western Europe, and they dwelt in a state of chaos characterized by shifting loyalties and the deceitfulness on which Byron often remarked.

One issue on which Greeks largely agreed, however, was their desire to break the Ottoman yoke. Taxes were onerous, and the collectors corrupt. Greeks were Christian, the Turks Muslim. Ottoman rule was arbitrary and often cruel, and when the Turks needed soldiers, they simply took them, one son per family. The Greeks were willing to fight for their independence, but as their loyalties remained localized, it became nearly impossible to create a national government, assemble a national army or act collectively in any way. They were plenty determined and courageous, but European-style warfare—with well-organized armies maneuvering in the open—was unknown to them, and they had little in the way of artillery.

Still, they wanted freedom and had risen over the centuries in abortive revolutions. They also had the sympathies of the western European powers. Greece was the fountainhead of Western civilization—all Europe knew of Plato, Socrates, Thucydides, Pericles and Aristotle—and the feeling was universal its people ought to be free.

The spark that ultimately led to the Greek uprising was the creation of the Filiki Eteria, or Society of Friends. Formed in 1814 in Odessa, Russia, by three expatriate Greeks determined to overthrow Ottoman rule, the secret society started with no money, few members and no inkling how to achieve its goals. Over the next several years the group slowly gained supporters in the thousands, first among the émigré population of Greek merchants in Russia and Western Europe and then among notable military figures and intellectuals within Greece itself.

The actual fighting began in 1821 in the Ottoman domains of eastern Europe. Alexandros Ypsilantis, a Russian officer and former aide-de-camp to Czar Alexander I, was the newly elected leader of the Filiki Eteria. He believed that by provoking unrest in the Ottoman-ruled Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, he might inspire Greece and the Balkan countries to rise against the Turks.

Knowing Greece would need outside support to succeed, Ypsilantis sought to pull Russia into the revolution, but there his hopes were dashed. While Czar Alexander was an Orthodox Christian and sympathetic to Greece, he was also an old school autocrat who believed in established authority. Russia condemned the uprisings, the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church denounced them, and Ypsilantis was unable to coordinate rebel forces. That June, in the only real battle with Turkish forces, the Greeks were cut to pieces on a plain in Wallachia. Out of the 400 or so inexperienced student volunteers Ypsilantis had recruited into his Sacred Band, more than half were killed. Ypsilantis and the survivors fled the field.

By then, however, Greece had risen against the Turks. Earlier that year regional leaders had gathered at Vostitsa (present-day Aigio), a port on the Gulf of Corinth, to discuss plans. Predictably, they couldn’t agree on a course of action, but unrest spread, rebels gathered, and in March widespread fighting broke out. In one town a force of 2,000 armed Greeks simply marched on the town’s small Turkish garrison. No shots were fired. The Turks surrendered on a promise of mercy—they did not receive it. Few survived.

The rebels easily took several other small towns, but then came the rising at Patras, a large and prosperous commercial port with foreign consulates and a central citadel. As a Greek army of 5,000 gathered, many Turkish residents left, while others sought refuge in the citadel. Ottoman troops searching a house for hidden arms set fire to the structure when the owner barred the door. The fire quickly spread, and some 200 houses were consumed in the ensuing conflagration. Fighting broke out in the streets, the Greeks cut the water supply to the fortress and began digging a mine beneath its walls. Patras would have fallen had it not been for the arrival of Turkish reinforcements, who staved off repeated—and ultimately unsuccessful—attacks on the fortress.

In the early days of the rising klepht commander Theodoros Kolokotronis, a onetime British officer, emerged as a preeminent rebel leader. He was among the first to impose some sort of military structure on Greek forces, and under his leadership they won a decisive early clash at a village called Valtetsi. As the Ottomans approached, Kolokotronis ordered his men to fortify the church, cut firing slots in the walls and build redoubts atop a commanding slope. Though the Greeks had run from such pitched battles, this time they stood their ground, held off the Turks and then, as the enemy withdrew, fell on them in a fury and killed hundreds. It was the first major rebel victory of the war.

Other victories followed as the Greeks gained in numbers and focused their attacks on the Ottoman fortresses ringing the Peloponnese, southwest of Athens. They failed to take them all, however, and as the conflict swung back and forth, they lost many of the ones they had seized. But taking any of them was a symbolic, heartening victory for the Greeks. As they lacked siege artillery, they relied on cutting water supplies to the citadels and starving out the defending Turks. That’s exactly what happened at Tripolis, a fortified town whose walls were 6 feet deep and 14 feet high. Kolokotronis saw it as the linchpin fortress in the Peloponnese chain. The siege began in the spring of 1821 and stretched into the fall. It ended when Greek rebels broke through a blind spot in the defenses and opened a gate from within. By then starvation, disease and death were endemic, and the surviving 8,000 Turkish soldiers and 30,000 citizens were in no shape to do anything but plead for mercy.

A small Turkish cavalry contingent managed to fight its way out of Tripolis. Still others held out within the citadel at the heart of town. When that fell, Kolokotronis entered to claim the riches gathered there for safekeeping, while outside the citadel his unrestrained rebel troops indulged their bloodlust. One observer estimated the Greeks massacred 8,000 Turks the first day. Two thousand civilian refugees earlier granted safe passage from the city were taken to a ravine and murdered.

It was going to be an especially nasty war.

While Greece lacked a formal navy, the residents of its many islands owned fleets of ships that traded throughout the Mediterranean. Their vessels were smaller but faster and far more agile those of the Ottoman navy, and the Greek tactic of ramming enemy warships with explosives-laden fire ships soon negated the advantage of the Turks’ superior guns. A fire ship could do more than sink a single vessel; sometimes the resulting inferno spread and took out whole fleets.

When it appeared the Turks at Navarino were about to launch a fire ship, the European naval guns opened up and quickly decimated the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet. (Bouterwerk Friedrich/ RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY)

It helped that the Turks weren’t particularly good sailors; theirs was largely a land-based empire. At the outset of the revolt most of their captains were Greeks, whose subsequent departure left the Ottoman navy leaderless—a handicap exacerbated by the Turks’ poor gunnery skills. In the opening years of the conflict the Ottoman navy sallied forth several times each summer but accomplished little other than to resupply the citadels along the Peloponnese coast.

Within months of the massacre at Tripolis the Turks exacted their revenge on the Aegean island of Chios. Chios was famous for its principal product, a translucent resin called mastic that originates as sap from small trees on the southern end of the island. Known by the Greeks as “tears of Chios,” it remains an ingredient in food products throughout the Middle East and was popular among harem women as chewing gum, as it whitened teeth. In 1822 the Greek population was peaceful, the Turkish garrison quiet and the hand of government light, leaving Chios to run itself. That spring a small Greek fleet arrived, attacked the garrison and sought to persuade islanders to join the rebellion. Some did, but the vast majority refused, insisting they could contribute little to the war and noting they were only a few miles from the Turkish mainland.

Like it or not, however, Chios was at war. In response to the rebel incursion, Turkey sent 1,000 soldiers to the island. The Greeks responded with 1,500 troops of their own, and battle was joined. When the sultan sent 15,000 more men—mostly volunteers with plunder on their minds—the small Greek contingent fled, leaving the 120,000 islanders helpless. The result was a massacre; the Turks killed randomly and rampantly, enslaving those Chians who survived. Estimates of the number of those slaughtered ran upward of 50,000, with an equal number enslaved.

While the massacre on Chios was an immense tragedy, it represented a major turning point in the war. Until then the European powers had kept out of the conflict, declaring their neutrality. Many had profitable trade agreements with the Ottomans, and their governments and monarchs generally frowned on rebellion under any circumstances. But the bloodbath on Chios disgusted the people and leaders of Europe. Britain threatened the withdrawal of its ministers from Constantinople. In France painter Eugène Delacroix exhibited his depiction of the massacre at the 1824 Paris Salon, further arousing public opinion. Across the continent sympathy for the Greek cause solidified.

The Greeks, despite their successes in the Peloponnese, certainly needed Europe’s help—financial in particular. Greek troops were hard enough to control under ordinary circumstances. Without pay they were virtually impossible, routinely heading home between battles and focused on plunder instead of fighting. The establishment of a recognized government was also extremely problematic. Rivalries abounded. Military leaders disliked and distrusted civilian leaders and vice versa. Under such circumstances what government was going to lend them money?

It was not a government that broke the logjam, but an English poet—Lord Byron. Answering an appeal from rebel leaders, he sailed to Greece in the summer of 1823, landing on one of the British-held Ionian Islands and trailing his extraordinary fame behind him. He had been in Greece before and loved the people, but he entertained no illusions about their character. He advanced his own money to the cause and helped secure substantial loans from a private British committee dedicated to helping the Greeks win their independence. Months passed before he could venture to the Greek mainland at Missolonghi, which had been under siege by the Turks for nearly a year. In early 1824 he was slated to lead an expedition against the Turkish fortress at Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth, but he fell ill and died of a fever before firing a shot.

These decades removed, it is hard to appreciate Byron’s popularity and impact. As a leading poet of the era he had gained fame to a degree only a Hollywood star could hope to achieve in our time. The young noble was the embodiment of the Romantic movement and in death became a martyr to the cause of liberty. Sympathy for the Greeks, already strong across Europe, surged following news of Byron’s passing.

Reinforcing the growing popular and governmental commitment to Greece’s independence were Greek reverses in the war and the revolution’s internal politics. First came civil war. The opposing factions—a Peloponnesian one led by Kolokotronis, the other by political forces representing much of continental Greece, with the bigger Greek islands also becoming involved—came to blows in 1824 over who would lead the country, levy taxes and ultimately control the nation’s fate. It was a shooting war but with little bloodshed. Following later that year, the second was a reprise of the first. Each conflict featured a clash of egos, as well as opposing regions. The power struggles that had plagued Greece for centuries were all in evidence—and then there was Kolokotronis, whose desire for control could not be contained.

The Greeks set aside their differences only when forced to unite again in 1825 against the sultan, who had called in his own foreign help—a force under Ibrahim Pasha, son of self-declared Egyptian Khedive Muhammad Ali, who added his territorial ambitions to the mix. In return for their help the Egyptians wanted not only Crete and Cyprus, which had joined the revolution, but all of the Peloponnese. And in a series of campaigns they took it. But as one British observer noted, “Ibrahim marched where he pleased but only ruled where he was.” It is one thing to defeat a country, something else entirely to occupy it.

The fighting dragged on another few years, but growing British, French and Russian intervention sealed the fate of Ibrahim’s army and guaranteed victory for the Greeks. The European triumvirate’s demands for a cease-fire and negotiations grew increasingly insistent even as British, French and Russian naval units gathered in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottomans and Egyptians put together a new fleet to bring yet more reinforcements to Greece, the ships gathering in Navarino Bay on the west coast of the Peloponnese. On Oct. 20, 1827, the European fleet entered the anchorage. When it appeared the Ottomans were preparing to launch a fire ship against the European ships, shooting broke out. The firing quickly spread, erupting into a full-scale naval battle within the confines of the bay. When the smoke cleared, the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet had lost most of its ships and thousands of men, while the Europeans lost not a single ship and fewer than 200 dead.

The aftermath involved prolonged, complex negotiations among the western European powers, Russia, the Ottoman government, the Egyptians and the Greeks. Peripheral conflicts included a yearlong war between the Russians and Turks that ended with Russian troops camped 40 miles from Constantinople, as well as a naval blockade of Egypt. Continued negotiations resulted in the installation of a minor European aristocrat, Otto of Bavaria, as king of Greece in May 1832.

All that remained was to turn Greece into an actual functioning nation. 

A frequent contributor to Military History, Anthony Brandt is the author of The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage. For further reading he recommends The Greek War of Independence: The Struggle for Freedom and the Birth of Modern Greece, by David Brewer, and The Greek Adventure: Lord Byron and Other Eccentrics in the War of Independence, by David Howarth.