On March 25, 2021 we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, a bloody revolution for the Greeks’ freedom from the despotism of the Ottoman Empire. Is it important to examine the content of the Greeks’ freedom – that is, to highlight its historical path and in what form and substance the value of freedom was established in the Greek communities under the Ottoman Empire.
Dionysios Solomos, in his poetic composition “The Free Besieged,” introduced the idea of man, who, although subjugated physically, maintains his moral freedom intact. “Your power is an ocean. My will is a rock,” which means that no material force can erode the intangible essence of the ideal of freedom.
From the poetic conception, we will pass to the historical substantiation of the idea of freedom in the historical evolution of the Greek world, setting freedom as the parameter for evaluating societies’ evolutionary course. This new epistemological methodology for examining societies’ evolution based on the parameter of freedom is called “cosmosystemic gnoseology.” It constitutes an innovative and pioneering narrative of history. It looks to what extent the citizen is autonomous in each society, to what extent he manages his existence politically in the society in which he lives.
Based on this historiographical approach, the question arises as to how the subjugated Greek experienced the value of freedom in the Ottoman Empire. In 1453, shifting from the anthropocentric societies of Byzantium to the post-Byzantine world under the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks retained their substance of freedom. Living in their Greek communities – islands of autonomy within the Ottoman Empire – the Greeks were self-governed, and they were conscious that they belonged to the Greek nation.
In the period 1453-1821, the Ottoman despotism asserted its dominance in the Greek world and set upon the Greek communities’ autonomy; it did not abolish them. On the contrary, the Ottoman administration compromised with the Greek communities’ existing socio-economical and political structures. This historic compromise included the continuity of religious practices and the Patriarchate’s privileges, being the patriarch, the Christians’ spiritual leader. The Ottoman administration allowed the autonomous Greek communities institutions while imposing on them heavy taxation and despotic sovereignty. Nevertheless, the Greeks could elect their Greek magistrates (proestous, demogerontes, epitropous ephorous) and maintain the citizenry’s integrity by living with collectivity and autonomy in their communities. The subjugated citizenry substantiated the coexistence of the democratic organization within the Greek communities with the Ottoman Empire’s sovereignty over the Greek world and thus remained a vehicle of freedom.
The primary sources of the time that refer to the post-Byzantine Greeks’ political organization clarified the qualitative characteristics of the Greeks’ freedom under the Ottoman Empire. The community of Meleniko’s “Politeia of Melenikou” (1813) was first published in the Serres Chronicles journal in 1938 and republished by Georges Contogeorgis in his book “Social Process and Political Self-Government: The Greek City-State Under Ottoman Rule” (1982). Written in Greek, the constitution of the community of Meleniko was ratified by the hierarch Anthimos, bishop of Meleniko, in the name of the Indivisible Trinity, proving that the Church and the citizens were a single body in the Ottoman Empire’s communities. According to this community’s statute, the Assembly of Meleniko was addressed as “Politai Melenikou” (Citizens of Meleniko). This document explicitly states that the Greeks, although subjects of the Ottoman Empire, maintained intact the “citizen” status and conscience inside the Greek community. The community’s elected magistrates were a synodal body consisting of three church commissioners (epitropoi) and three public trustees (ephoroi), elected by members of the community among the most prudent.
The statute of Meleniko ordained that if a magistrate did not want to serve or proved insufficient or harmful to the community, he would be relieved of his duties. Yet a significant amount had to be contributed to the community as compensation; the koinon would elect another magistrate in his place. The Assembly of the koinon included members without discrimination in all its ranks and elected the magistrates accountable to the community. Anyone who refused to pay the compensation or profaned or displayed assertiveness or ambition or vanity was excommunicated. The goal was to maintain order and harmony in the community, serving its common interest. Meleniko cotton traders and manufacturers contributed financially to the public fund. From the statute’s provisions, it appears that the goals of the community of Meleniko were: the maintenance and increase of its capital, the proper operation of the manufacturers, the maintenance and progress of the schools, aid for meeting the needs of the poor and needy, solidarity as regarded the tax burden, waiving taxation for those who could not afford it, care for the orphans, the sick and the needy, but not of those who were irresponsible and lazy. There was care even for prisoners, by providing them with food and heating.
In contrast to the liberalism of the West, Greek freedom consists of collectivity, solidarity, democracy and philanthropy within the communities. Every citizen of the community adheres to these fundamental values. The provisions mentioned above are not included in Western constitutions. In Europe, at best, the citizen has secured his individual rights and has deferred the political power to the constitutional or non-constitutional monarchy.
In his “New Political Administration” (1797), Rigas Feraios incorporated the fundamental principles and realities of the Ottoman Empire’s Greek communities. He envisioned replacing the Ottoman Empire – as it appears in his “Map of Greece” – with the Greek Democracy, “Hellenike Demokratia.” In his “New Political Administration,” among other provisions, the community shows solidarity with those in need by the fair distribution of taxes. Also, there is collective participation in the public sphere, a generalized plan of education for all citizens, male and female, and slavery and torture are not practiced under Greek sovereignty. In addition, the principles of meritocracy, tolerance and equality before the law are also included, and the corrupted administration is recalled.
Furthermore, Rigas Feraios introduced the concept of a “people’s emperor” who would command everything through his envoys to the nation’s government. Moreover, his “Map of Greece” (1797), with symbols from antiquity and Byzantium, depicts the Greek world’s greatness and evolution as well as his revolutionary vision for “Greek Democracy.” The sleeping lion with the sultan’s insignia, lying next to Hercules’ club, a symbol of the Greek power against barbarism, is the encrypted revolutionary call of Rigas Feraios, imprinted on his map, “Charta tes Ellados.”
The Greeks’ political experiences and revolutionary projects derive from the political education and practices in their communities in the Ottoman Empire, vehicles of anthropocentric societies in freedom. The Greeks’ freedom has a different substance as compared to the West’s liberalism that has followed a different trajectory. Western citizens’ political identity focuses on individualism and individual liberties, while the Greeks’ identity focuses on collectivity and participation in self-government. The individuality of the Greek is enriched with the institutionalized collectivity, and it becomes a political individuality that assumes the responsibility of its collective destiny.
From antiquity to the Greek War of Independence, the Greek world has experienced democracy as holistic freedom: individual, social and political. In its historical course, Hellenism has been the vehicle of the fundamental values of freedom substantiated as collectivity, participation in the public sphere, autonomy, socio-economical democratic organization in the Greek manufacturers’ associations, and, last but not least, solidarity among the members of the community.
The Greeks fought with self-denial and heroism for this freedom. They gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire rightly. Still, their political project failed: The absolute European monarchy’s implantation was incompatible with Hellenism’s political organization. The Bavarian monarchy deconstructed the Greeks’ political identity by abolishing the Greek communities and their foundational values. For the first time in their history in the modern Greek state, the Greeks entirely disconnected from the spirit of collectivity they used to practice in their Greek communities. The monarchical regime brought them into the private sphere’s realm without participation in the public sphere. Being limited in the private sphere, the Greeks did not partake in the political function; they were limited to negotiating their vote with the politicians. This transformative condition, combined with foreign intervention and partisanship, nurtured political clientelism, patronage and nepotism throughout the Greek state’s modern history.
Hellenism’s historical narrative as a continuum of an anthropocentric society in freedom from antiquity to the War of Independence from the perspective of the parameter of freedom sets an entirely different framework for understanding the Greek Revolution of 1821 and its ideological preparation. It also sheds light on how we can understand our present and envision our future with optimism, seeking Hellenism’s fundamental values, not only for Greeks, but I would say for the world.
Given that the citizen in modernity feels more and more disconnected from the public realm and politics, it is essential to consider whether Hellenism’s political values and institutions could inspire the modern world to endeavor for a more participatory society with more democracy and more autonomy.
Dr Polyvia Parara is a visiting professor at the Department of Classics of the University of Maryland College Park, USA.