Friday, March 28, 2008


The Greek Revolution of 1821 was a remarkable achievement. That it ever got off the ground was even more of a miracle, given that its inception lay in the nationalistic daydreams of three idealistic and inept Greek migrant businessmen with a penchant for parody of secret Masonic ceremonial. While more capable and pragmatic personages soon took control of the effort to construct the ideology of a Modern Greece and set about liberating the areas that conformed to this, the precedent set by the three founders of the Filiki Etaireia, Skoufas, Xanthos and Tsakaloff remains with us to the present day. Their spectre is particularly invoked in the secretive efforts of various deluded Greeks abroad to create organizations that they believe can influence events in the motherland and even ‘save’ her. When questioned as to extent of their folly, they inevitably cite the Filiki Etaireia as proof that Greeks abroad can bring about cataclysmic changes in fortune.
Of course this is true. Especially when said cataclysm is occasioned by the perpetration of what is one of the major contenders for the biggest scams in Greek history. Simply put, it is this: The founders of the Filiki Etaireia structured it along Masonic hierarchical lines so that one had to be initiated into its upper echelons. They propagated the idea that the highest link in the chain, the «Ανώτατη Αρχή» (Highest Power) was a world power directly interested in toppling the Ottomans and resuscitating the Byzantine Empire. Their not-too-subtle hints implied that this power was Holy Mother Russia, protectress of all Orthodox peoples. Through a brilliant public relations coup, this lie was cemented by the recruitment of the Russo-Phanariot Princes of Pontian extraction, Dimitrios and Alexandros Ypsilantis, who enjoyed commissions in the Tsar’s army and thus could be convincingly be held to be his agents. The Russian Imperial Foreign Minister Count Ioanni Capo d’ Istria, also a Greek, prudently declined to take part in what he considered to be a quixotic scheme, though his refusal was hushed up. A little less prudently, under the name and suitably hellenised style of Ioannis Kapodistrias, he agreed to rule over a free Greece and was subsequently assassinated by the Maniot Mavromichalis family, for impinging upon their family privileges.
Through its fallacious promise of foreign intervention (for Greeks seemed to have difficulty in believing that they could liberate themselves), the Filiki Etaireia managed to rally a good many fervent patriots to its standard. By the time it fumbled and stumbled its way into existence by such ingenious methods as attempting to liberate Greece by raising the standard of revolt in Moldavia, thus infuriating the natives’ own nationalistic aspirations and causing the flower of the Romano-Greek youth to perish miserably in Focşani, various world powers decided that they did have an interest in freeing Greece, even if that interest was strategic and not that of the Greek people.
This is just a well because in usual Greek fashion, exhilarated by their early successes in freeing Peloponnesus, the Greek kapetanaioi turned their weapons on each other and vied to secure their own power and sphere of influence within the projected new Greek state, even before it had come into existence. The ensuing Civil Wars left the Revolution in such a parlous state, that the Albano-Egyptian Crown Prince Ibrahim Pasha was able to reconquer most of the liberated territories through a campaign of extreme terror and brutality, and plan the genocide of the Greek people, who were to be replaced in the region with Egyptian fellahin.
Arguably, if it were not for the widespread public sympathy in European capitals for Greece, which stemmed not only from the valiant efforts of the Greek freedom fighters but also the influence of neo-classicism as a revisionist and reconstructionist intellectual movement – that caused the world powers to intervene on behalf of the Greeks and set up a state as a condominium of four protecting powers, it is quite possible that the Revolution would have been crushed, and we would now be just a quaint Christian people in dhimmitude, on the verge of extinction, like the Assyrians in Iraq and Turkey. Ultimately then, the scamsters of the Filiki Etaireia pulled through big time.
Yet this was not the first time that as a people, we contrived to cause Revolution and mayhem, something that seems to be a favourite pastime with us. As far back as the twilight of the Byzantine Empire, the precursor to the Filikoi scamsters was none other than the Emperor, Michael VIII Palaeologos, the primary plotter and instigator of the War of the Sicilian Vespers. In short, he caused a rebellion in Sicily in 1282 against the rule of the Angevin king Charles I of Naples, who had taken control of the island with Papal support in 1266. The rising ostensibly had its origin in the struggle between the Hohenstaufen-ruled Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy for control over Italy. When Hohenstaufen Manfred of Sicily was defeated in 1266, the Kingdom of Sicily was entrusted to the French Charles of Anjou by Pope Urban IV.
Charles regarded his Sicilian territories as a springboard for his Mediterranean ambitions, which included the overthrow of the Byzantine emperor Michael. His venal French officials mistreated native Sicilians, especially the significant Greek Orthodox minority, through the perpetration of rape, theft and murder.
There are two interpretations, not necessarily exclusive, of events. The one held by the late eminent Byzantine scholar and philhellene Sir Steven Runciman, stresses the weltpolitik of Michael Palaeologus and the Aragonese king Peter III, Manfred's son-in-law, in fomenting the revolt; the other concentrates on the unpopularity of Charles's rule among native Sicilians. However, there is no doubt as to what the Emperor Michael VIII thought about his complicity in the revolt. In his autobiography wrote: “Should I dare to claim that I was God's instrument to bring freedom to the Sicilians, then I should only be stating the truth.”
Michael’s primary motivation seems to have been merely self-protection. He wanted to divert the energies of the rapacious French to fighting the Germans rather than invading Byzantium. However, being conscious of the continued adherence and devotion of the persecuted Greeks of Sicily to him and to the Orthodox faith, he also contrived to render them free from persecution with an ultimate view of wresting control of the island himself. In the months leading up to the insurrection, numerous Byzantine spies were despatched to the Greek-populated areas of Sicily to forment revolt against the French.
The insurrection began at the start of vespers on Easter Monday, 30 March 1282, at the Church of the Holy Spirit, just outside Palermo, known to its Greek inhanitants by its ancient name of Panormos. Thousands of Sicily's French inhabitants were massacred over the next six weeks. The events that started the uprising are not known for certain, but the various retellings have common elements.
According to Steven Runciman, Sicilians at the church were engaged in holiday festivities and a group of French officials came by to join in and began to drink. A sergeant named Drouet dragged a young married woman from the crowd, pestering her with his advances. Her husband then attacked Drouet with a knife, killing him. When the other Frenchmen tried to avenge their comrade the Sicilian crowd fell upon them, killing them all. At that moment all the church bells in Palermo began to ring for Vespers.
According to Leonardo Bruni’s 1416 account, the Palermitans were holding a festival outside the city when the French came up to check for weapons and on that pretext began to fondle the breasts of their women. This then began a riot, the French were attacked first with rocks, then weapons, killing them all. The news spread to other cities leading to revolt throughout Sicily. “By the time the furious anger at their insolence had drunk its fill of blood, the French had given up to the Sicilians not only their ill-gotten riches but their lives as well.” Palaeologos’ agents thus seem to have done their work well, for the uprising was far from ‘spontaneous’ and had more of a nationalistic-religious character than the Italian historians of the Risorgimento care to admit.
Taking advantage of the revolt, King Peter III of Aragon launched a successful invasion, becoming also Peter I of Sicily, while Charles remain king of Naples. While Michael VIII was successful in keeping the French invading hounds at bay, he could also congratulate himself for forming not only a perfect scam, but also a secret society, a precursor of the Filike Etaireia, that still exists today.
Refugees fleeing the conflict in Sicily, crossed the straits of Messina to Calabria. There, in a region already heavily populated by Greeks, they determined not to bow down to French persecution. As a result, they formed a secret society devoted to permitting them to retain their reigious and cultural freedom. From the feats of strength that were required to maintain their rugged individualism, they named themselves «Ανδραγάθημα» (manly feat of strength). In time, as the Calabrians became latinised and found less and less to protest about, this organization, which still exists to the present day, became known as ‘Ndrangheta – the Griko version of the original name. It acquired a social character, especially after the unification of Italy, when the local populace was impoverished while squires from the north took over large southern estates and heavy taxation was imposed. In this situation ‘Ndrangheta became a vehicle of violence and retribution by Calabrians who wanted to resist all forms of authority.
It exists even today, as the Calabrian version of the mafia. It is believed that John Paul Getty III was one of their victims, though the kidnappers have never been caught. It possibly is one of the reasons why the Greek language is still still tentatively being spoken in ever diminishing pockets of Calabria. Who knows what Emperor Michael would have thought of the legacy of his War of Sicilin Vespers? It certaintly is a trans-Atlantic one. On 10 September 1931, mobster Lucky Luciano ordered the murders of the heads of the rival Maranzano and Masseria families. These murders, which marked the end of the Castellammarese War in New York, are known in mafia parlance as the Night of the Sicilian Vespers.
We should therefore celebrate our day of National Awakening, not only with pride, but also with the smug awareness that our own innate subversiveness has the ability to having lasting, if not wholesome, then certainly fascinating reverberations down the ages. Until next week, Ζήτω το (shifty) Έθνος.

First published in NKEE on 31 March 2008