The Greek struggle for independence

War of national liberation or social revolution?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

22 Pages, Grade: very good



1. Introduction

2. The Ottoman Empire at the dawn of the nineteenth century

3. The social structure of the Greek population
3.1. The Orthodox Church
3.2. The Phanariots
3.3. The wealthy landowners and notables
3.4. The Greek bourgeoisie
3.5. The peasantry in the Balkan Peninsula
3.6. The Greek intelligentsia in the Exile

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Armed uprisings, revolutions or civil wars do not come out of the blue. Historians as well as scholars from numerous other social sciences have defined as one of their main tasks the understanding and explaining of reasons and origins of conflicts in past human societies. The Greek struggle for independence - as it is usually called in numerous historical books - which started in 1821 and continued till to the eventual formation of a Greek nation state through external powers in 1832, is one of these highly controversial issues.

There was and still is a vehement debate about the nature of this historical event. The beginning of the uprising in the spring of 1821 may have come as a surprise for the Porte in Istanbul[1] or the great international powers[2], but military actions and widespread armed raids occurred too numerous all over the Balkan peninsula as that one could assume an entirely disorganised and spontaneous revolt. It was assumed that at least something like a fundamental conviction that it is necessary to take up arms had to be prevalent amongst the population of the southern parts of the Balkan. Some scholars, not surprisingly predominantly of Greek origin, have tried to explain this event as a war of national liberation, driven by a strong national identity amongst the Greek population in the Balkan peninsula.[3]

I would like to challenge this explanatory model and want to show the very diversity and heterogeneity of the several groups within the movement for an independent Greek nation state. If we explain the events between 1821 and 1832 only in terms of a united national struggle against a foreign and hostile oppressor then we have problems to explain convincingly why this movement turned after its successful beginning into a catastrophic and nearly suicidal civil war. Obviously, there emerged soon a broad range of very different opinions and ideas about the further direction of the armed uprising.

That is why I would like to explore the main social groups within the Greek population as well as their main intentions. The main object of this essay is to provide an explanation of the constellation of the main economic, social and political forces in the Greek community, and especially I will focus on the divergent and sometimes contradictory intentions of these forces. How many different groups can we identify, what was their position in the social structure of the disintegrating Ottoman empire and what therefore were their resulting intentions are my main questions. I do not intend to narrate the history of the movement for independence, but rather to provide a framework for its interpretation.

However, I will not discuss the influence of other European powers or the impact that a wider European public, especially the movement of Philhellenism, had on the Greek war of liberation, although I am convinced that these external factors were the most decisive contributions to the eventual solution of the Greek question.

2. The Ottoman Empire at the dawn of the nineteenth century

In the following I will give an overview of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century. The specific role, position and importance of the several social, economic and political groups of ethnic Greeks in the so called Tourkokratia will be regarded separately and in more detail in the following chapter, but since the Ottomans took over large parts of the Balkans since 1453[4], we have to have a rough picture of the situation in the Ottoman Empire as well as an idea of the administrative structure of their state to understand the conflicts and problems which emerged during the beginning of the 19th century.

The Ottoman Empire can be best described as an authoritarian, very hierarchically organised feudal system.[5] The main administrative principle of its political structure was the power and the authority of the sovereign, the sultan, who stood at the centre of the Empire. The main functional principle of this political system was developed in the early times of the Ottoman rise and was therefore based on ongoing territorial expansion and colonisation through successful wars of conquest. The failure to reform this internal structure in the late 17th and 18th centuries, when the Ottoman expansion came finally to an end and the basic supposition of the Empire was therewith destroyed, generated one of the main causes for its steady disintegration in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.[6] Other decisive reasons for the numerous domestic problems were of external nature, mainly in the form of increasing economic, political and military pressure caused by the emergence of an international system of competing absolutist and colonial powers. It is very difficult to reconstruct the very complexity of this slow decline, especially because it is hardly possible to define a fundamental or original fault in the complex web of interwoven factors. Therefore, the following sketch cannot be much more than an subjective attempt, based on highly personal selections.

The original military and economic backbone of the Ottoman Empire was the timar system. At this point it is necessary to take into consideration that the possession or at least the ability to control the distribution of land were the main sources of wealth and power in feudal organised societies. In the early Ottoman system, the sultan (as God’s representative on earth) had not only the right to allocate the domestic soil, but also the right to redistribute the conquered land. Parts of this land were usually given to sipahis, who formed as reward the dreaded Ottoman cavalry, the core of the army. Such a piece of land, the timar, was also given in return for service in the local or central administration. The peasant worked the soil for a fixed set of taxes, usually a tenth of the crop and some other dues, which were used for the state costs that included military, administrative and other expenses of the sultans’ court.

There are several explanatory patterns to identify the decisive developments and influences that led to the removal of this comparatively moderate system of land rent with fixed tax services and caused eventually the implementation of an excessive and disastrous system of land tenure with exaggerated and arbitrary dues. It is, for example, argued that the massive introduction of gunpowder in warfare made a trained infantry armed with guns more efficient than the traditional, but now very vulnerable Ottoman cavalry. Therefore, the formation, education and equipment of well-trained infantry soldiers became not only more important, but were also very expensive for the Ottoman sovereigns.[7] The need of more cash income and the inability of the traditional timar system to raise the necessary amount of money therefore led to the introduction of a new type of landholding, the ciftlik system.

A more elaborated and complex model places this change of the social and economic structure into a broader European context. The stepwise introduction of capitalist methods in Western Europe resulted in an increasing demand for agricultural products and raw materials. For the Ottoman government the export of these goods was one possible way to get devices which were necessary to balance the Ottoman budget that suffered strongly from the steady loss of territory in Europe and increasing state expenses. The steady territorial reduction of the Empire resulted in a serious loss of tax revenues and led eventually to a lasting weakening of the central power, caused by the chronicle shortage of finances. Finally, the Ottoman government was only interested in receiving, at any cost, money or other sorts of revenues like food, raw materials or military supplies from the provinces.[8]

No matter how the increasing weakness of the central power was caused, it resulted in the emergence of so called chiftlik estates, which were huge areas of land controlled by local, predominantly Muslim, leaders. At the end of the 18th century these so called ayans were de facto acknowledged by the Ottoman central government, which was not able to restrict their increasing regional power, but was very much dependent on their dues and taxes. These ayans usually concentrated in their hands not only the power over extended agricultural land, but they were also responsible for tax collecting, the maintenance of general public order and functioned also as a kind of representative of the central administration.[9]

The decline in the authority of the central government had various effects on ethnic Greeks, especially in the Peloponnese, but also across central Greece, in the Danubian Principalities and on numerous Aegean islands. I will elaborate this point in the next chapter and show how a small group of ethnic Greeks became especially during these times wealthy landowners and were as so called notables part of the Ottoman ciftlik system, how other territories reached a high degree of autonomy, but also how ethnic Greek peasants suffered under the increasing tax burden.


[1] The term “Porte“ was used to identify the Ottoman government. It refers to the impressive building in Constantinople that accommodated the main government offices.

[2] The main powers involved were Russia, Britain and France.

[3] Richard Clogg, A concise history of Greece (1992) and C.M. Woodhouse, Modern Greece: a short history (1998) identify it as a struggle for national independence and describe it as a national movement. Charles and Barbara Jelavich, The establishment of the Balkan national states, 1804-1920 (1977) are more careful and doubt the usefulness of an approach that describes it as a national revolution. William St. Clair, That Greece might still be free: the philhellenes in the war of independence (1972), names it also a war of independence, but explains it as a sort of social revolution.

[4] The fall of Constantinople 1453 marked the end of their piecemeal conquest of the Byzantine Empire. Although the Ottomans already started their occupation of the Balkan in the 14th century and captured Adrianople in 1360, they finally came in the 16th century into power over the main parts of the Balkan peninsula.

[5] The best and most illuminative analysis I came across are given in Charles and Barbara Jelavich, The establishment of the Balkan national states, 1804-1920 (1977), esp. ch. 1, pp. 3-25 and in Richard Clogg, ‘Aspects of the Movement for Greek Independence’ in his The Struggle for Greek Independence: essays to mark the 150th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence (1973), pp. 1-40, to which I will mainly refer in the following.

[6] With the failure of the siege of Vienna in 1683, the territorial and military withdrawal of the Ottomans began.

[7] This explanation can be found by Charles and Barbara Jelavich, The establishment of the Balkan national states, pp. 12-14.

[8] cf. Richard Clogg, Aspects of the Movement, pp. 3-5 and Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans: eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (1983), esp. ch. 1 ‘Balkan Christians under Ottoman rule’, pp. 39-126. Jelavich argues that the Ottoman government was never able to approach its high ideals, because the success of the Empire was based on a strong and intelligent ruler and a stable victorious expansion. Additionally she reminds that the Ottoman economy suffered from the meaning loss of the great trade routes to Asia, which were replaced by naval trade or Atlantic routes.

[9] One of these local warlords, who questioned the authority of the central power was Ali Pasha of Janina (or Ioannina), whose power reached from Epirus and western Macedonia, across central Greece, even into parts of the Peloponnese, see also Stefan K. Pavlowitch, A history of the Balkans 1804-1945 (1999), p.23.

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The Greek struggle for independence
War of national liberation or social revolution?
University of Essex  (Department of History)
Comparative Nationalism in Europe
very good
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Armed uprisings, revolutions or civil wars do not come out of the blue. But what were the main reasons of the Greek war of independence? Some scholars have tried to explain this event as a war of national liberation, driven by a strong national identity amongst the Greek population. This essay intends to challenge this explanatory model by exploring the very diversity and heterogeneity of the several groups within the movement for an independent Greek nation state.
Greek, Comparative, Nationalism, Europe
Quote paper
Nico S. Koppo (Author), 2002, The Greek struggle for independence, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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