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The Greek Revolution: A Victory for Human Agency but an Unfinished One

By on March 23, 2021
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

Inequalities and inequities have existed throughout history, almost as certain to the human condition as death (and taxes). Often enough, revolutions designed to remedy an inequity beget others, or are consumed by their absolute quests, or their unavoidable heritage. Success or failure is often balanced on a knife’s edge and is measured in both the short and long term.

So how does Greece’s Revolution stack up now that we take stock after 200 years?

Pretty well, I would suggest, allowing of course for the bias that I am talking about my country, both from a heritage perspective, and, as a Greek citizen, a legal one. “As an idea whose time ha[d] come,” to paraphrase Voltaire, there is no doubt the Revolution was a success. Despite the complete hostility of European governments to the Revolution, it succeeded in hearts and minds both in Europe, and across the Atlantic, where American Philhellenes rushed to the cause, and where another American Republic, Haiti, born of a slave revolt, became the first nation to recognize Greek independence.

The idea resonated for Greeks too, who, despite many human failings and private arrangements, went all in “with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor,” to paraphrase another, earlier revolutionary, Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Greed and graft there was aplenty, and atrocities on all sides too bloodcurdling to recall.

Yet the Greek identity, emerging from the Byzantine, held in suspended animation for 400 years by the Ottomans, resurrecting the direct inspiration of the Ancient Greeks, and forged in war, proved to be even stronger than the state it created. Few national consciousnesses are as raw and viscerally felt as the Greek one, whether you are in Athens, Greece, or Athens, Georgia. This is an unquestioned success.

While we celebrate, rightfully, our reemergence in the concert of nations, we might think a bit about what happened—and is happening “behind the curtain.” While the Greek Revolution was an act of agency to reclaim our Byzantine and Classical heritage, often enough the means to this end, and the activities of state, recalled the Ottomans who we fought so hard to expel.

While the Constitutions of various Greek governments were often far reaching in their expansion of the suffrage (except to women, who would wait until 1952), and the immediate banning of slavery, all too often in practice Greek politics was a closed shop, dominated by a clientelist system that recalled more than anything Ottoman pashas of the past. At times, this system directly barred the Greeks’ own Diaspora from any involvement in the country, despite its financial and personal sacrifices for Greece.

In every conflict, Greeks came home to fight, whether Greeks from a comfortable commercial presence in Egypt, or laborers like my grandfather, in Utah mines. They left Greece—the most painful thing in the world—to escape the “closed shop” but readily returned to give “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” when needed.

If there is a score sheet for the last two hundred years, we must honor the Greek Revolution and identity as authentic, we also can be proud that Greece stood on the right side of history in every major conflict since independence, inspiring so many with her present history as much as with her past. This must be balanced with a real concern that much of the country’s Ottoman heritage remains in a governing system that is more about control and machinations, rather than uncontrolled innovation—the very seed of Greek success at sea and in the Diaspora. If we are also fair, the country also has treated those who do not measure up to the political and social definitions of Hellene in a manner unbecoming of a Western Democracy.

There is also room for criticism for the Hellenic Republic activities in the Diaspora, which rather than importing innovation from abroad, ineffective “Ottoman” machinations have been exported. Time to put this under the microscope.

We now must rightfully celebrate the Hellenic Revolution as authentic and largely a great success, a great step for human agency. The Hellenic Evolution—well this is a work in process, and one that needs work from all Hellenes, in Greece and in the Diaspora.

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.