Philhellenism and new perspectives (part three): The Greek Revolution as a global event

“The revolution of the Greeks as news or a spectacle, as an encouraging message or as a reality … became a structural element of historical change. If the revolution did not respond to the needs of its time, it would not have had an international acknowledgement. And unless it had obtained that international acknowledgement, its outcome could have been different.” Antonis Liakos describes in these terms the way in which the 1821 Greek Revolution, having crossed the borders of the Ottoman Empire, was an event with a particularly resounding international impact. As he points out, the international appeal of the revolution did not only concern Europe, that is, the area most directly connected to the philhellenic movement, but also regions such as the United States, the Caribbean, India and the Far East.[1] In fact, the global reception of the revolution is of particular interest, regardless of geographical location, as it reveals the ways in which the events of 1821 were an inspiration and a footing for change, depending on the sociopolitical conditions that prevailed in each region.

In the case of neighbouring Italy, for example, the presence of the Greek diaspora in Italian cities seems to have played a special role in the explosion of philhellenic sentiment in favour of the 1821 Revolution.[2] A typical example would be the case of the Greek students at the University of Padua, whose philological activity contributed to the creation of sympathy for the subjugated Greeks as early as the 17th and 18th centuries, long before the outbreak of the revolution.[3] The contribution of Italians to the Greek War of Independence covers the whole classic spectrum of the philhellenic movement, from the production of artistic and literary works to the practical contribution to the revolution’s war operations by “freedom fighters” such as Santore di Santarosa, and was largely based, both on the common Greco-Roman past but also in the centuries-long coexistence of the two peoples in the context of Venetian domination.[4] In fact, it is noteworthy that the experience of this common past went beyond philhellenism and led to the formation of a transnational patriotism, that was both Italian and Greek at the same time, which was basically articulated by Ionian intellectuals and politicians, such as Ioannis Kapodistrias, Ugo Foscolo and Dionysios Solomos, among others.[5] Furthermore, it seems that the Greek Revolution was a source of inspiration and a living example of the fulfilment of a national state that was used in Italy to achieve Italian unification, as seen through Italian public discourse even after the end of the revolution.[6]

One case that highlights the global dimensions of 1821 was that of Haiti. After all, Haiti was the first free country to acknowledge the Greek Revolution, a fact that was widely discussed in the public sphere the previous year. One could claim that the reception of the 1821 Revolution in Haiti had purely political terms that can be traced back to the liberal ideas of the Age of Revolutions, as solidarity between two peoples who claimed their freedom as well as equality;[7] in Haiti, this had a racial character, as a black state against white European imperialism, while in Greece it had a religious character, as Christians rebelled under Muslim rule.

The 1821 Revolution was discussed under both humanitarian and social terms. The “Greek fever”, to use Sakis Gekas’ phrase, manifested itself in a mass of newspaper publications, and was basically humanitarian and Christian in nature, as it contrasted with the official stance of the American state. Also, one of the reasons that philhellenic sentiments were developed in the US public opinion was the parallelisation of the enslaved Greeks with slavery in America, and assumed great dimensions in the context of the abolitionist movement.[8] Additionally, American philhellenism as a humanitarian movement contributed to the active participation of women in US political life, thus contributing to female emancipation.[9]

Finally, the echo of the Greek Revolution even reached Asian countries such as India and the Far East. With reference to the case of India, the case of the Indian intellectual and liberal reformer Ram Mohan Roy is noteworthy, as he brought up the Greek Revolution as a topic of discussion, mainly in the context of the liberal revolutions of the time, and despite the existence of an “Asiatic patriotism” that viewed 1821 as an expression of European interventionism against an Asian empire, as the Ottoman Empire was. Regarding the reception of the revolution in the Far East, it was manifested by Chinese intellectual-patriots, who, being in exile in Japan, learned about the Greek Revolution through the publication of a book on its history in Japanese in 1898. These intellectuals, therefore, read the revolution as the rebirth of an ancient nation that managed to free itself from a foreign dynast. Thus it seems that they identified their own ancient nation with the Greek revolutionaries and at the same time paralleled the Ottomans with the Qing Dynasty, a foreign, Manchurian dynasty who were ruling China at the time.[10]

In conclusion, it appears that the impact of the Greek Revolution, whether located within the narrow framework of philhellenism or beyond it, was felt at a global level. In addition, it played a role as a carrier-amplifier of revolutionary and reformist ideas with a wide range of demands, both national-political as well as social and humanitarian, depending on the particular sociopolitical conditions of each region. In this sense, if we consider the positive reception of the Greek Revolution as a form of philhellenism, it could be argued that the limits of the philhellenic movement, both in geographical and temporal terms are far wider than what they have been perceived so far.

Konstantina Tortomani, Postdoc researcher in modern and contemporary European history at the Department of History and Ethnology, Democritus University of Thrace

[1] Antonis Liakos, “Η διεθνής απήχηση της επανάστασης του 1821” [The international impact of the 1821 Revolution], paper presented to the Greek Community of Melbourne, 30 September 2021, https://youtu.be/cT4MJTXoeCk.

[2] Domenica Minniti-Gonias, “Οι δύο αδελφές χώρες: Ιταλικός Φιλελληνισμός και Ελληνική Επανάσταση” [The two sister countries: Italian philhellenism and the Greek Revolution], paper presented as part of the “21 in 21” series of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, 19 May 2021, https://youtu.be/Ash-iqpnTAY.

[3] Francesco Scalora, “Φιλελληνισμός πριν τον Φιλελληνισμό: Το όραμα της μόρφωσης, της παιδείας και η ωρίμανση της ιδέας του έθνους μέσα από τα συγγράμματα των Ελλήνων φοιτητών στο Πανεπιστήμιο της Πάδοβας (17ος–18ος αι.)” [Philhellenism before philhellenism: The vision of education and the maturity of the idea of the nation through the writings of Greek students at the University of Padua (17th–18th century)], paper presented to the conference “Nationalist movements and philhellenism”, Athens, 5 February 2021, https://www.blod.gr/lectures/synedria-ii-i-geiton-kai-i-makrini-hora-tis-elladas/.

[4] Domenica Minniti-Gonias, “Οι δύο αδελφές χώρες: Ιταλικός Φιλελληνισμός και Ελληνική Επανάσταση” [The two sister countries: Italian philhellenism and the Greek Revolution], per presented as part of the “21 in 21” series of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, 19 May 2021. https://youtu.be/Ash-iqpnTAY. For more information on the Italians’ contribution to the Greek War of Independence, see Italian Support for the Greek Revolution: 1821-1832, A Dress Rehearsal for the Risorgimento (Athens: ETP Books, 2021), which has also been published in Italian and Greek.

[5] Konstantina Zanou, Transnational Patriotism in the Mediterranean, 1800-1850: Stammering the Nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). The book has been translated in Greek by Alexandria (2022).

[6] Antonio D’Alessandri, “O ιταλικός εθνικός λόγος και η Ελληνική Επανάσταση. Πολιτική, λογοτεχνία, τέχνη (1821-1847)” [The Italian national discourse and the Greek Revolution: Politics, literature, art (1821–1847)], paper presented to the conference “Nationalist movements and philhellenism”, Athens, 5 February 2021, https://www.blod.gr/lectures/synedria-ii-i-geiton-kai-i-makrini-hora-tis-elladas/.

[7] Ada Dialla and Michalis Sotiropoulos, “1821: τι το ελληνικό και επαναστατικό είχε;” [1821: what was Greek or revolutionary about it?”], paper presented to the lecture series “2021/1821: Dialogues in the digital era,” Athens, TWIXTlab and RCH, 28 January 2021, https://youtu.be/1Is7i3B1d7k.

[8] Sakis Gekas, “‘Ελληνικός Πυρετός’: Η Ελληνική Επανάσταση και η δημιουργία του Αμερικανικού Φιλελληνισμού” [“Greek fever”: The Greek Revolution and the making of American philhellenism], paper presented to the conference “Nationalist movements and philhellenism”, Athens, 5 February 2021. https://www.blod.gr/lectures/synedria-iv-o-pyretos-tis-ellinikis-epanastasis-se-ena-kosmo-se-kinisi/.

[9] Maureen Connors Santelli, “Philhellenism and the development of female-led reform in the United States,” paper presented to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1 January 2021. https://vimeo.com/558626781. For more on the reception of the Greek Revolution in the United States, see Connors Santelli, The Greek Fire: American-Ottoman Relations and Democratic Fervor in the Age of Revolutions (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020). The book has been translated in Greek by Psychogios (2022).

[10] Liakos, “Η διεθνής απήχηση της επανάστασης του 1821” [The international impact of the 1821 Revolution].

Picture: Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot (4 – march 24, 1802). Original illustration by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert.

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