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The Impact of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars on the Greek Independence Movement

By Dale Pappas

The bloody sword of the French Revolution swept across Europe like a plague beginning in the final decade of the 18th century.  It was not long before it arrived in what would become known as the “Powder keg” of Europe, the Balkans.  The region had been engulfed in war for centuries as the Ottoman Empire expanded into Europe.  At its height, the Ottoman Empire controlled most of the region, including Greece, a country with a rich ancient history which was familiar to the rest of Europe.  However, little was known of Greece by the West beyond the ages of Pericles and Alexander the Great. Thanks in part to the state of Europe during both the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, it would not be long before the Greeks would declare independence from the Ottomans and begin a new chapter in their country’s history.

A Crumbling Empire: Ottoman Turkey in the 18th Century.

Although the Ottomans continually lost territory in Europe, the Middle East was firmly in the hands of the sultan until the early 20th century.  By the late 18th century, European Turkey consisted of five governorships Roumelia, Bosnia (including part of Bulgaria), Silistria (including Belgrade), Djezair which included Morea and numerous Greek islands, and Crete.  These governorships were again divided into provinces and then districts. The ruler of Roumelia or beylerbey (Prince of Princes) was the commander-in-chief of Turkish forces in Europe during a time of war.  The governorships included nine pashaliks, of which six were located in Greece.  The two Danubian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were also possessions of the sultan.  Wallachia and Moldavia had achieved quasi-independent status and were ruled by wealthy Greek families from Constantinople (Phanariotes).  Many races and religions existed in Ottoman Europe.  By 1801, European Turkey was 238,000 square miles and had 8,000,000 inhabitants and it had already suffered significant territorial loss.[1]

By 1700, the once formidable Ottoman Empire had begun to collapse due in large part to the hostility of neighboring countries.  Venice, another deteriorating empire, had dealt the Turks a string of defeats including its participation in the battle of Lepanto in 1571.  The Venetians also had a considerable influence in Greece, controlling certain areas during the 17th and 18th centuries.  To the north, the Ottomans faced threats from both Austria and Russia.  The three powers would inflict considerable damage on the Ottomans throughout the 17th century which resulted in the disastrous treaty of Karlowitz in 1699.  In this treaty, Sultan Mustafa II ceded Hungary to the Austrians, and Morea as well as several Aegean islands to Venice. The agreement would be the first but certainly not the last time the Ottomans would accept defeat as they soon ceded the valuable Black Sea port of Azov to the Russians.[2]

Unfortunately for the Venetians, their rule in Greece would be rather brief.  After yet another war with the Ottomans, which lasted from 1714-1718, Morea was returned to its former owner.  However, another empire was on the rise in Russia which would have a profound effect on the fate of Greece.  The Russian empire, since the days of Peter the Great, had great interest in the Greek people as fellow Orthodox Christians.  Russian agents in Greece hoped to spark revolts in different areas of Greece.  One region in particular, the Mani Peninsula in the southern Peloponnese, became a target of the Russians towards the end of the 18th century.

Mani, a Peninsula in Revolt: 1770-1815

Russia and Turkey went to war in 1768, which created an interesting situation in the Mani.  Tsarina Catherine the Great hoped to weaken the Ottomans with the support of the Greeks.  In 1769, the Orlov brothers initiated a naval campaign which resulted in the destruction of the Turkish fleet at Çeşme the following year.  However, the people of Mani were not enthusiastic about participating in a war against the Ottomans that did not guarantee their independence.  Although this campaign failed to ignite a revolution, the Maniots did not have long to wait before another confrontation with the Turks.

In 1780, the Ottoman official in the Mani, Hatzi Pasha conducted a campaign against some rebellious subjects.  Maniot chieftains managed to create several strongholds that the Ottomans could not seize.  Although they would defeat several Ottoman armies dispatched against them, the Maniots could not gain their independence.  However, the area continued to function as a center for revolutionary activity leading up to the actual Greek independence movement.  By the dawn of the French Revolution, the Ottoman Sultan, Selim III was faced with a number of problems.  The government of revolutionary France would soon become hostile and war with Russia resumed.  The rebellious Maniots attempted to take advantage of the empire’s weakness with additional revolts. 

Napoleon led a French army into Ottoman Egypt in 1798, which marked the beginning of a war with Turkey.  The Russians were not the only party interested in Greek independence, as Napoleon had agents in Mani during this time.[3]  The French shipped weapons and supplies to a Maniot chieftain named Zanetbey in hopes of keeping the Turks occupied in Greece while Napoleon conducted a campaign in the Middle East.  In 1804 Zanetbey was defeated by Veli Pasha and forced to flee.  Once again a revolt with European aid was thwarted.  The Maniots would fight the Ottomans unsuccessfully in 1807 and again in 1815.  The numerous revolts did not stop the Maniots from participating in the Greek War of Independence.

Rigas Feraios and Greek Independence

Rigas Velestinlis or Feraios was born circa 1757 in Velestino, Thessaly.  He served the Prince of Wallachia, in Romania and later became governor of the region of Craiova.  In 1790 Rigas arrived in Vienna, which had a large Greek community.  While in Vienna, Rigas began his now famous literary career by writing for a Greek newspaper in the capital of the Hapsburg empire which promoted the ideals of the French Revolution.  Rigas came to fame in 1797 when 3,000 copies of his revolutionary manifesto appeared throughout the Ottoman empire.  In it, he called for all Balkan Christians to fight for independence from Ottoman Turkey.

Also included in the manifesto was a constitution based on those of France in 1793 and 1795.  The new Balkan state that the revolutionary dreamed of was not much different than the current Ottoman system.  However, Rigas promoted a government without the Turks and the Christians who had come to power with their aid.  Administrative posts would be held by those who qualified, regardless of faith.  Greek was to be the official language and nationalities of this new Balkan state were to be meaningless, as all would be permitted to vote and hold administrative positions.  Rigas wanted to establish compulsory education for both sexes and also suggested that women should be able to serve in the military.[4] 

The publication of this manifesto was spurred by Napoleon’s victories in Italy and the French occupation of the Ionian Islands through the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio.  Napoleon himself was impressed with the enthusiasm of the Balkan peoples and their interest in the French Revolution.  Rigas had planned to spread his manifesto into other areas by traveling to Trieste in December 1797.  However, he was apprehended by suspicious Austrian officials and turned over to the Turks. He was strangled in Belgrade in June of 1798 but already knew of his importance to the impending Greek War of Independence.  Shortly before his execution, Rigas said “This is how brave men die.  I have sown; soon will come the hour when my nation will gather the ripe fruit.”[5]

Napoleon: Savior of the Hellenes?

French victories in Italy and the invasion of Egypt coupled with the revolutionary language of Rigas Feraios led to a genuine affection for Napoleon in several regions of Greece, notably in the Mani.  Maniots saw Napoleon as a savior and possible liberator.  Some went as far as to say that Napoleon was himself a Greek and that he was descended from the Maniots who had fled to Corsica.  In many Maniot homes, portraits of Napoleon hung with a lamp before them “as before that of the Virgin.”[6]  Regardless of his interest, Napoleon would be unable to conduct a campaign in the Balkans because of the constant state of war in other areas of Europe.  A campaign in the Balkans would have only increased the tension between France and the eastern empires of Austria and Russia.

Ali Pasha: An Unlikely Figure of the Greek Independence Movement 1788-1822

As a symbol of defiance to the Ottomans for decades, Ali Pasha has a special place in Greek history.  Ali was a fierce ruler of one of the most dangerous parts of the Ottoman empire, Epiros, located in northwestern Greece and part of Albania.  Born in 1744, Ali became a powerful bandit while still in his youth.[7]   In 1786, Ali became pasha of Trikala and two years later Ioannina, which began a brutal 34-year reign.  His cruelty was evident in 1803 when he took possession of the remote region of Souli, in northern Epiros.  Souli was populated by Christian clans which profited from raids into villages around Ioannina.  Ali was furious when his forces were defeated in 1799 and vowed to destroy the population led by a young leader, Lambros Tzavellas. By 1803, Ali was prepared to finish off one of the few groups of people that still stood in his way. The Souliots remained steadfast and refused to surrender to Ali’s forces.  However, Ali blockaded the villages which forced the Souliots to flee.[8]  The Souliots broke into three groups and fled their homes for the final time.  The first group reached the safety of Russian forces to the north, while another was surrounded and defeated.  The third group, made up of women and children, fled to high ground above the monastery of St. Demetrios.  The women threw their children off the steep precipice and then themselves rather than face the wrath of Ali Pasha.[9]

The destruction of the Souliots was a major victory for Ali as he was awarded the title beylerbey of Roumelia, which included Bulgaria, Thrace, and Macedonia.  In addition, Ali’s son Veli was given the pashalik of Morea.  Just as his father had done in the north, Veli began to wage war on those who were in opposition.  The threat of Ali and Veli became too great for many Greek clans, so they began to unite.  Theodoros Kolokotronis became one of the leaders of this united force of both Greek and Albanian clans who had grown weary of the pashas’ harsh rule.  Planning had begun for a war against the pashas when the British arrived in the Ionian Islands in 1809.  The clansmen, intrigued by the promise of British pay and dissatisfied with the French, chose to wage war against Napoleon rather than the pashas. 

Ali would not be destroyed by his Greek and Albanian subjects, but by the sultan himself.  The pasha of Ioannina had angered his master by negotiating with both Napoleon and Britain during the Napoleonic Wars and continually refused to support the Ottomans.  Eventually, Ali lost favor with the sultan and was murdered in a monastery near Ioannina in 1822.  Despite his numerous enemies, Ali as a symbol of resistance to higher authority became one of the main figures of the Greek War of Independence.

The Ionian Islands: 1797-1821

Perhaps no area of Greece was as strategic as the seven Ionian Islands during the Napoleonic Wars.  The French, British, Russians, and Ottomans treasured the islands as naval bases and viewed them as an important area from which to control the remainder of Greece.  In 1797, the Treaty of Campo Formio transferred the islands from Venetian control to France.  Although the Ottomans accepted the treaty, they soon allied themselves with Russia in an attempt to expel the French from the area.  A Russo-Turkish fleet laid siege to Corfu, the largest and most important island beginning on 4 November 1798.  The besieged held out until 3 March, when Turkish forces defeated a minor garrison.[10]

The Ottomans retained control of the islands until 1801 when the Septinsular Republic was formed under the protection of both Turkey and Russia.  It was during this time that Ioannis Kapodistrias came to power by effectively controlling the new administration.  However, the French returned to the islands after the peace of Tilsit in 1807.  Unfortunately for Napoleon, Britain was prepared to use force to take control of the islands.  The campaign began in October of 1809 when a British force under Major Richard Church seized the island of Zante.  While occupying Zante, Church organized the Duke of York’s Greek Light Infantry, which included a captain named Theodoros Kolokotronis.[11]  Captain Kolokotronis was among the scores of Greeks that enlisted in the British army in hopes of obtaining aid in which to gain independence from Turkey.

One by one the Ionian Islands fell into British hands.  The Greeks began to feel that Britain would truly assist them in gaining their independence.  However, shortly after the first peace of Paris in May of 1814, the British disbanded the Greek forces in their army.  Despite this action, the British remained in the region by creating the “United States of the Ionian Islands” under the protection of King George III.  Sir Thomas Maitland, the former governor of Malta became the first “Lord High Commissioner” of the new government.  The purpose of a Lord High Commissioner was to ensure the introduction of a new constitution for the seven islands.  A bicameral legislature was created in 1817 with Italian serving as the official language of the government.  English was also widely used even though Greek and Greek Orthodox were still the official language and religion of the population.[12]

The seven Ionian Islands also included four continental dependencies, including Pàrga.  Only the latter remained in control of the European powers during the Napoleonic Wars, the others having fallen to Ali Pasha.  A Russo-Turkish agreement in 1800 had ceded the dependencies to the Ottomans however Napoleon refused to accept those terms and ordered troops to occupy the region while France controlled the Ionian Islands.  Fortunately for the Ottomans, the British respected the treaty of 1800 and agreed to transfer Pàrga to Ali Pasha, at that point still a servant of the sultan.  In 1819 the area was awarded to Ali and the majority of the citizens fled to Corfu.  It was to be the last success for Ali and consequently for his family as Veli had been removed from the prominent position of pasha of Morea.  Veli became pasha of Lepanto and soon he and his father would be murdered at the sultan’s order.

The Return of Russian Influence and the Filiki Eteria: 1807-1821

The Russians had lost interest in a possible Greek revolt by the time of the death of Catherine the Great in 1796.  Her successor, Paul I disagreed with the reforms of his mother and set out to change Russia’s policies.  Unfortunately for Paul, his rule was cut short as he was murdered in 1801.  Paul’s son, Alexander I supported the reforms and ideals of his grandmother, which included pressuring the Ottomans in the Balkans.  Several Greeks, including Kapodistrias and Alexandros Ypsilantis rose to positions of power during the reign of Tsar Alexander I.

Alexander renewed the dream of conquering Constantinople and placing his brother Constantine on the throne as the new Byzantine emperor.  His hopes of uniting other Christians, including Napoleon to fight the Ottomans failed with the treaty of Tilsit.[13]  The failure to attract Napoleon’s interest in the matter did not deter Alexander.  He improved relations with the Greeks and protected them as co-religionists.  The tsar was also influenced by the Greeks in his service, notably Ypsilantis, who served as his aide.  Arguably the most important event leading to the Greek War of Independence occurred within the borders of the Russian empire.

Three men of Greek descent, Athanasios Tsakalov, Nikolaos Skoufas, and Emmanuil Xanthos, created an organization dedicated to liberating Balkan Christians known as the Filiki Eteria or the Friendly Society in Odessa in the year 1814.  All three had been members of a secret organization prior to the formation of the Friendly Society.  The men were influenced by the ideals of Rigas, although not much else was known at the moment.[14]  The society was not well organized, which led to a lack of interest until 1816, when a young Greek from the island of Ithaca, Nikolaos Galatis arrived in Odessa.  Galatis became the society’s envoy to St. Petersburg, where Kapodistrias was serving as Russia’s foreign minister.  The members hoped Galatis could persuade the Russians to support a Greek independence movement.  However, Kapodistrias was furious with Galatis for talking of a possible Greek revolt with Russian aid because of the fragile peace that existed in Europe. Unfortunately for Galatis, Russian police arrested him after spreading the news of a possible conspiracy against the Ottomans, with who Russia was presently at peace.  The tsar, hesitant to begin another war decided to warn the Greeks that Russia would have nothing to do with a revolt at that moment.

The failure of Galatis to convince the Russians only emboldened the members of the Filiki Eteria.  In the spring of 1818, the headquarters of the eteria was moved to Constantinople itself.  Skoufas died the following year, as did Galatis, who was murdered by other members because he had threatened to expose the organization.  Despite the loss of two valuable members, the eteria created its official structure during this time.  Instead of creating lodges like the Freemasons, the eteria adopted the system of apostles.  This system was comprised of twelve trusted men who were responsible for the recruitment of other supporters of an independence movement throughout the regions of Greece.[15]  Within two years, hundreds of Greeks from throughout Europe enrolled in the eteria.  Fortunately for the society, numerous chieftains of the warrior Greek clans supported the cause and pledged to fight after Alexandros Ypsilantis was named President.  The turbulent period was about to reach its climax, as Ypsilantis led an army into the Danubian Principalities from Russian territory, thus initiating the Greek War of Independence.[16] 

Although this initial campaign failed, it was not long before the revolt spread throughout Greece.  The ideals of the French Revolution produced the pen behind the independence movement in Rigas Feraios.  The swords of the revolution, including Ypsilantis and Kolokotronis gained experience as officers in the Russian and British service respectively during the Napoleonic Wars.  Also, the already seasoned clansmen sharpened their military skills during the period between 1797 and 1821.  Once again, the Ottoman Empire had been exploited by the powerful nations of Europe, including France, Britain, and Russia.  All three nations would play a major role in the final days of the Greek War of Independence.  Unfortunately for the Ottomans, the 19th century would see their other Balkan possessions rebel and eventually, Turkey itself.  After the next landmark conflict in Europe, the First World War, the Ottoman Empire would be no more.

Some Notable Figures of Greek Independence

Ioannis Kapodistrias (Giovanni, Conte de Capo d’ Istria)

Born on the island of Corfu in 1776 but educated in Padua, Italy.  During the Napoleonic Wars, Kapodistrias presided over the Septinsular Republic.  He later served as Russian foreign minister and would eventually become the first President of Greece.  However, he was unpopular with the rebellious Maniots and was assassinated in 1831 after ordering the arrest of the chieftain Petros Mavromichalis (Petrobey).[17] 

Theodoros Kolokotronis (1770-1834)

The son of a notorious clansman, Kolokotronis was born on 3 April 1770 in the Peloponnese.  During the Napoleonic Wars, he fought in the British service.  During the war of independence, he became arguably the most valuable Greek officer, harassing the ally of the sultan, the Egyptian army under Ibrahim Pasha in the Peloponnese.

Patriarch Gregory V (1762-1821)

The ecumenical patriarch emerged from poverty as one of the most passionate members of the Orthodox clergy.  His relationship with the Ottomans was volatile as he was deposed twice prior to his third appointment as patriarch in 1818.  Although he attempted to remain neutral at the outbreak of the war, he was hanged and his body mutilated at the order of Sultan Mahmud II after it was found that his brother had taken up arms with the rebels.[18]

George, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

The renowned English poet visited Greece several times and became an active supporter of the Greek cause.  He was one of many foreigners who would arrive in Greece during the war to fight alongside the descendents of Leonidas of Sparta and the Athenian general Miltiades.  Unfortunately for Byron, he contracted a fever and died at the besieged Messolonghi on 19 April 1824.


Dakin, Douglas. The Greek Struggle for Independence, 1821-1833. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973.

Gerolymatos, André.  The Balkan Wars.  New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Glenny, Misha.  The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999.  New York: Penguin, 2001.

Goodwin, Jason.  Lords of the Horizons.  New York: Owl Books, 2000.

Miller, William.  The Ottoman Empire and Its Successors , 1801-1927.  London: Frank Cass, 1966.

Pope, Stephen.  Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars.  New York: Facts on File, 1999.

Quataert, Donald.  The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.


[1] Miller, William. The Ottoman Empire and its Successors.  London: Frank Cass, 1966. Pgs 16-17.

[2] Quataert, Donald.  The Ottoman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pg 41.

[3]Dakin, Douglas. The Greek Struggle for Independence.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973. Pg 30. 

[4]Ibid; Pg 29.

[5]Ibid; Pg 30.

[6]Miller; Pg 4.

[7]Gerolymatos, André. The Balkan Wars.  New York: Basic Books, 2002. Pg 134.

[8]Dakin;  Pg 31.

[9]Gerolymatos; Pg 141.

[10]Pope, Stephen. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Facts On File, 1999. Pg 268.

[11] Dakin;  Pg 33.

[12]Miller; Pg 61.

[13]Ibid; Pg 39.

[14]Ibid; Pg 42.

[15]Miller; Pg 65.

[16]Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999. New York: Penguin, 2001. Pg 26.

[17]Gerolymatos; Pg 186.

[18]Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizons. New York: Owl Books, 2000. Pg 282.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2008; updated December 2008

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