Hellenes and Philhellenes


In March 2021, Greeks all over the world are celebrating two hundred years since they became an independent country after the revolution against their Ottoman rulers. They had been under this rule for 400 years as a result of the fall of Constantinople.

It was of course thanks to their own will and struggle combined with the fact that the Ottoman Empire was experiencing its fall, that Greeks finally got rid of the rulers and regained their land, their language, their religion, their freedom. But it was mostly thanks to the efforts of the Diaspora Greeks who lived in Italy, in the Danubian hegemonies that the resistance and insurrection was organised and financed. It was thanks to them mainly that the movement of the Philhellenes was born, intellectuals from all over Europe who started collecting money, writing touching reports and literary works, painting pictures and even going to Greece to fight and die for the people whom they had idolized in their minds as offspring of the ancient Greeks.

Lord Byron was certainly the most illustrious among the Philhellenes but he wasn't the only one. The Garden of the Heroes in Athens and the one in Missolunghi includes statues of the best known heroes, Greek or foreigners, of the Greek Struggle as it is commonly known. Among them Theodore Kolokotronis, a hero of almost mythical dimensions, the General Commander of the Greeks who rode his horse in every corner of the Peloponnese, in an effort to control every single battle taking place there.

We have all heard of Kolokotronis and Byron; Greek children learn in their history books about the heroic sacrifice of Athanassios Diakos, of Papaflessas, of Karaiskakis. These are familiar names given to main streets all over Greece. Greek boys to this day may be given the name of Byron (greekified as Vyron) as first name.

Some of us have recently realized how important the role of Admiral Codrington during the sea battle of Navarino has been for the salvation of our nation.

If it weren't for the Greek bad habit since the Homeric times, to be divided by different opinions and strong wills, Greece wouldn't have entered a civil war right after their independence. A civil war which had been followed by a second one and by a third one. They wouldn't have killed the best leader they could ever have, Capodistria, they wouldn't have put Kolokotronis in jail. And perhaps they wouldn't have gotten a foreign King as the King of the Greeks. But we Greeks never learn from our mistakes. We had another civil war after the WW II was over. But this is another chapter...

Well, we are honouring the heroes 200 years after. And we are honouring the friends and allies of Greece from all over the world. On a personal note, as a Greek living in Leipzig, Germany, I was happy to find out that this was the city where the first German Philhellene lived and worked. His name was Wilhelm Traugott Krug and he was a professor of Philosophy at the University of Leipzig. He wrote about Greece and urged his country people to participate in the Renaissance of Greece. If it weren't for the pandemic, I would have visited his grave and left some flowers.

Let me end this short homage to the anniversary of the Greek revolution with a poem by a lesser known French Philhellene, Pierre-Antoine Lebrun, who visited Greece in 1820, when the country was still under Turkish occupation. I'd like to translate here a few verses, although I'm sure there are older and better translations of his work. As the poet approached the coasts of Greece aboard the ship "Themistocles", he felt a great enthusiasm and wrote in praise of this country:

"Sparta was there, hidden.
And I, high up on the mast
Towards her, towards her mountains, my eyes brought in haste
And stared focused, with tension and with thirst
I looked for her all over, her name I whispered
I laughed and I cried. Freedom, glory
Leonidas, Helena, legend and history
Greece with her arts, her wise men, her heroes
Was rising in front of me on the horizon of the waves
I was facing Greece and could not believe it!
The more I felt her approaching…
At a moment like this someone else would have lost his memory!
O my heart, how you beat at this remembrance alone!"

As he’s about to set foot on the land, he’s thinking:

"I’m Greek just like them
Yes, this is my country
And yes, like them, I’m returning to the beloved coast
I know all the streets, I’m familiar with all the names."

(From Le Voyage de Grece) 

First published on the blog of the Lit & Phil on the 25th of March 2021.