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Rigas Pheraios: My Kind of Hero

By on November 13, 2013
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

I “met” him rather early in life, through his immortal words of the Thourios Ymnos, drummed into our heads by our Greek School Teacher in anticipation of the March 25th Celebration. In the Pantheon of Modern Greek heroes, Rigas Pheraios’ somewhat portly picture stands in contrast to the frock coats of Phanariotes or Koraes, or the dashing Foustanellas of Kolokotronis and Makrigiannis, or the baggy vrakes of my Hydriot ancestors. Pheraios is the Balkan merchant, the functional intellectual, the thinking revolutionary.

I always had a certain fondness for Pheraios. He was a man of letters and of action, a patriot and a cosmopolitan. I liked his vision of a federated Balkans, where what united was more important than what divided. However, as with most historical figures we learned about in our childhood, his words and deeds faded into my subconscious.

In my years in Serbia and Greece, we kept “running” into Pheraios. We lived in Serbia’s northern province, Vojvodina, where the Austrian Empire once bordered the Ottoman Empire, and both regimes are central to Pheraios’ story. We loved to travel in this region, tracing both the Greek and Serbian Diasporas in the old Hapsburg Empire.

Rigas Pheraios' statue in Belgrade, Serbia

Rigas Pheraios’ statue in Belgrade, Serbia

Rigas Pheraios was born in a Thessalian village, Velestino, now an exit on Greece’s north-south autobahn, in 1757. His mother tongue was probably not Greek, but rather the Vlach dialect so often spoken in the area in the past, to a lesser degree in the present, in various Thessalian, Macedonian, and Epirote hamlets. He lived in an era when the Greek’s identity (and that of other Balkan Orthodox Christians) was basically defined by religion and culture, rather by ethnicity or language.

Pheraios’ nationalism was cosmopolitan, basically seeking to remove the Sultan and restore Byzantium, albeit a federated, republican version of such, where all ethnicities, including the Turks and other Muslims, would be citizens in the French Revolutionary model. The age of empires and subjects faced a direct challenge from the ideology of state and citizen, and Pheraios avidly subscribed to this new creed for his homeland.

Like so many talented Greeks at the time, particularly those from Thessaly and Macedonia, Pheraios gravitated towards the Greek communities established in the Austrian Empire. After years of warfare, as the Austrians pushed the Turks back to the Danube and Sava Rivers, Greek and Serbian merchants and settlers flocked into the Austrian Empire, including to Vojvodina where we once lived.

Among those merchant immigrants was the young Pheraios. In Vienna, where he settled in 1793, interests went far beyond the commercial. He had cut his teeth with klephts in the mountains as a youth, and he believed in putting his talent for words into action. Once established in Vienna, he quickly threw himself into publishing, with the support of many in the wealthy Greek mercantile community. We should remember that Greek appeared in print for the first time in Vienna, and Pheraios was one of the Greek newspaper’s first editors. He published a “Map of Great Greece,” incorporating much of the Balkans and Asia Minor, a copy of which I found prominently displayed on the walls of the Greek Community Center in Budapest, Hungary.

While visiting Vienna in 2010, I managed to retrace my steps as a student over twenty years earlier to find Vienna’s Greichenviertel (Greek Quarter). Not far from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral – a beautiful structure with a late eighteenth century façade – I found the yellow baroque building where Pheraios edited his newspaper, Efimeris. A plaque commemorates his work there, as well as one on another Greek Church nearby on Greichengasse (Greek Lane). In a real sense, in addition to being the first martyr “protomartyras” of the modern Greek nation, he is a founder of the modern Greek press. Within the Church compound, the Vienna Greek School was in session when we visited. Founded in 1804, the students no doubt studied many of the same poems I had learned, and their author penned many of his stirring works just steps away from their school. I felt a chill run up my spine, with the presence and proximity of history.

While Vienna and the Austrian regime of his time provided many opportunities for the Greek community, the authorities were extremely hostile to any and all revolutionary activity. Pheraios wanted to overthrow the Ottoman Empire and restructure it as a “Greek” republic but with full rights for all nationalities, including the Turks. This goal posed not only a threat to the Ottoman Empire, but to the Austrians’ own multiethnic monarchy. At the time, the consequences of the French Revolution were still being felt throughout Europe and its supporters and adherents were actively looking to export its ideology. In Pheraios, the French Revolution had an avid admirer who sought to implement their ideals to the facts on the ground in the Balkans. Accordingly, Pheraios set out for Trieste in 1797.

Over the Alps from Vienna, there is another lovely former Austro-Hungarian city, the Italian port of Trieste, which was once Austria’s key maritime outlet. Like Vienna, it also had a very active and influential Greek community. On our family’s visit there, last year, while enjoying the city and taking in its Greek and Serbian churches and monuments, we once again ran into Pheraios’ footsteps.

Taking coffee one lovely May morning in the Caffé Degli Specchi, a Triestine landmark café founded nearly two centuries ago by Greeks, I sat with Archimandrite Gregory, the current Greek priest, an urbane, learned, and pious fellow. I mentioned to him how much I loved the city’s café culture; cafés were the center of Triestine commerce, culture, and conspiracies. Apparently outside one famous Trieste café, the Caffé Tomasso that we had visited the day before, “our own Rigas Pheraios was arrested by the Austrian secret police.” Again, serendipitously, we had traced Pheraios’ footsteps.

In both Vienna and Trieste, we had met up with Pheraios by accident. Yet later, in Belgrade, we met again, this time by design.

Belgrade today is a bustling, sophisticated, if somewhat chaotic European capital straddling both sides of the Sava and Danube Rivers. For centuries, Belgrade was the first frontier fortress of the Ottoman Empire. Having apprehended Pheraios, the Austrians dispatched him, along with his co-conspirators across the Danube to Belgrade, where the Turks eagerly awaited him. After a sufficient round of tortures, in June 1798, Pheraios and his comrades were strangled and their corpses flung into the Danube.

At the foot of Belgrade’s majestic Kalemegdan Fortress, there lies a Turkish-era structure known locally as Nebojsina Kule (Nebojsa’s Tower). Nebojsa’s Tower is just steps from the Sava’s confluence to the Danube River, the site of Pheraios’ watery grave. The main complex of Kalemegdan fortress rises steeply from the tower.

Just off the road and tramway ringing Kalemegdan, a statue stands at a fork in the road. It is Pheraios, Riga od Fere to the Serbs. His name is inscribed in both Greek and Cyrillic Serbian, along with a short inscription, grcki i srpski narod (Greek and Serbian nation). As he was carried off to strangulation, he proclaimed, “I have sown a rich seed which others will reap.” In a real sense, the fruits of this seed are the modern Greek and Serbian states.

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.