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That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence

That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence William St Clair
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A classic account of the Greek war of Independence.
The Times Literary Supplement

A compelling, beautifully nuanced historical account [and] also a powerful and poignant cautionary tale for the 21st century Western idealists and ideologues alike.
Peter W. Graham, The Wordsworth Circle

When in 1821, the Greeks rose in violent revolution against the rule of the Ottoman Turks, waves of sympathy spread across Western Europe and the United States. More than a thousand volunteers set out to fight for the cause. The Philhellenes, whether they set out to recreate the Athens of Pericles, start a new crusade, or make money out of a war, all felt that Greece had unique claim on the sympathy of the world. As Lord Byron wrote, "I dreamed that Greece might still be Free"; and he died at Missolonghi trying to translate that dream into reality.

William St Clair's meticulously researched and highly readable account of their aspirations and experiences was hailed as definitive when it was first published. Long out of print, it remains the standard account of the Philhellenic movement and essential reading for any students of the Greek War of Independence, Byron, and European Romanticism. Its relevance to more modern ethnic and religious conflicts is becoming increasingly appreciated by scholars worldwide.

This revised edition includes a new introduction by Roderick Beaton, an updated bibliography and many new illustrations.

That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence
William St Clair | November 2008
xxi + 419 | 35 illustrations and 5 maps | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781906924003
ISBN Hardback: 9781906924010
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781906924027
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781906924027
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781906924027
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0001
BIC subject codes: HBJ (Regional and national history), HBJD (European history), 1DVG (Greece), 3JH (circa 1800 to 1900); BISAC subject codes: HIS042000 (HISTORY/Europe/ Greece), HIS037060 (HISTORY/Modern/19th Century), HIS055000 (HISTORY / Middle East / Turkey & Ottoman Empire), HIS027130  (HISTORY / Military / Wars & Conflicts (Other)); OCLC Number: 779672187.

Introduction by Roderick Beaton

1. The Outbreak
2. The Return of the Ancient Hellenes
3. The Regiment
4. Two Kinds of War
5. The Cause of Greece, the Cause of Europe
6. The Road to Marseilles
7. Chios
8. The Battalion of Philhellenes
9. The Battle of Peta
10. The Triumph of the Captains
11. The Return Home
12. The German Legion
13. Knights and Crusaders
14. Secrets of State
15. Enter the British
16. Lord Byron joins the Cause
17. 'To bring Freedom and Knowledge to Greece'
18. Arrivals at Missolonghi
19. The Byron Brigade
20. Essays in Regeneration
21. The New Apostles
22. The English Gold
23. The Coming of the Arabs
24. The Shade of Napoleon
25. 'No freedom to fight for at home'
26. French Idealism and French Cynicism
27. Regulars Again
28. A New Fleet
29. Athens and Navarino
30. America to the Rescue
31. Later

Appendix I: Remarks on Numbers
Appendix II: The Principal Philhellenic Expeditions

Notes on the Select Bibliography
Select Bibliography
Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Material Since 1972


William St Clair is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and of the Centre for History and Economics, University of Cambridge. His works include Lord Elgin and the Marbles and The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature.

Eight months after Ali Pasha of loannina’s act of mutiny, rebellion broke out almost simultaneously at two new centres. One was at the northern extreme of Ottoman territory in Europe, in Moldavia; the other in its southernmost reaches, in the Morea — this time it was the Romioi laying claim to independence. Yet when compared to the staunch resistance put up by the pasha, the latter uprisings seemed feeble — a few harsh measures against the Romioi in Istanbul and Smyrna might suffice to strike terror into the hearts of the unseasoned revolutionaries.

Yet it soon emerged that events were taking a very different turn. The moment the sultan realized that Russia would allow him to act unchecked, the rebellion in Moldavia was easily quashed. But in the Peloponnese the revolutionaries put the few Turks to the sword, and forced the remainder to take refuge in a handful of strongholds, while the rebellion spread to south Roumeli and the islands. And the strangest thing of all was that almost overnight, a powerful sympathy movement made its appearance in Europe: money was raised; poems were printed; societies and committees sprang up; vessels were chartered; and shiploads of volunteers began to sail for the lands in revolt. In what was for many an unanticipated paradox, philhellenism burgeoned overnight.

Wishing to comprehend that paradox and explain it to us, William St Clair wrote a captivating book that is a veritable fount of information. Never before had so many names of volunteers been recorded, never before had numbers been made available. This was a systematic attempt to classify and thus gain a deeper understanding of the various tendencies that led philhellenism to flourish; ever since it appeared progress has only been made in subordinate issues. So it was not without reason that when first published in 1972, the book was hailed as a classic. It has now been reissued with an updated bibliography and a new Introduction by Roderick Beaton. Demanding readers might have wished for a full chronology, which would aid a fuller and more analytic approach to the phenomenon.

Though it was never the author’s aim to write a strictly academic textbook, it has all the features that make for scholarship — systematic use of primary sources, exhaustive knowledge of the wider political context, erudition and an insistence on illuminating details.Yet the final target, the reader whom the author had in mind, was the educated European. And that is where the book’s chief virtue lies: though the author has a sound, often impressive grasp of all aspects of his topic, he leaves details aside so as to focus on the overall outline. This leads his readers to comprehend how and why certain cultured Europeans so doggedly sought to become involved in a bloodbath between Christians and Muslims at the western extreme of the Ottoman empire, at what was often great loss of life.

Without any doubt there were those wandering mercenaries who were keen to offer their services once left high and dry by the peace of 1814. Some were motivated by ambition, others fired by the democratic aspirations born of the French revolution and kindled by Napoleon’s victories, which had ultimately been defeated on the battlefield. Others were simply out to make a living. There was also the movement of educated professors and students raised on a love of classical Greece. Naïve and inexperienced, buried in lifeless books and lofty ideals, they believed that in Greece they would meet the descendants of Pericles, Sophocles and Philopoemen. Lastly, there were those romantic oppositionists scattered across Europe who, disappointed by Waterloo and the Holy Alliance, were stubbornly dedicated to any action directed against the restoration of kings, and who supported uprisings of all kinds: the Carbonari in Italy, the constitutionalists in Spain, the Christians in the South Balkans and, later on, the Polish nationalists.

Such is the general framework William St Clair proposes. He sets it out well and, as we said, backs it up with plenty of evidence and a captivating narrative. As Roderick Beaton rightly points out in his introduction, stressing the author’s sense of foresight, a whole series of events have altered our perspective since 1972: ethnic cleansing in the Balkans of the 1990s, holy wars and so on. Yet I would add that the perspective of many historians has also changed over exactly the same period: doubt has been cast on the feasibility of any grand-scale narrative, while a post-colonial view has sought to undermine the right of ‘westerners’ to cast negative judgement on the cultural conduct of ‘others’. Personally, I am glad that William St Clair gave himself and his narrative the right to express his opinions — for in doing so he forces his readers to think for themselves, search and judge.

At several points I believe the narrative really does go beyond mere information, takes on a life of its own and wins one over, leaving the careful reader with a number of questions unanswered. It is true that large numbers of philhellene volunteers were so sorely disappointed that they returned home, and their memoirs obviously describe actual conditions most accurately. Yet the stream of volunteers did not dry up. Here we have a fact that lends us a more comprehensive understanding of things — a fact which, while contained in the book, is not in thread in the narrative. Though it is true that in all conflicts the barbaric, boorish forces led by the kapetanoi came out on top of the European-educated politicians, ultimately it was the latter who won the war. It was they who began the struggle for independence, and they who imposed their opinions at the end of the day. True enough, the central government was weak and never managed to control the fighters’ dispositions, yet for all the internal strife and conflict it never ceased to exist. Likewise, somewhere along the line the narrative forgets that via some incredibly fast process — in a flash, one might say — the uncivilized, illiterate Romioi became Hellenes. How and why this happened has not yet been analysed to a sufficient degree, but happen it did. That, after all, is why philhellenism did not evaporate. And why, despite the military failure of the revolution, it succeeded in forcing European governments to intervene and impose Greek freedom on the sultan — whereas Ali Pasha’s mutiny was quelled without anyone taking the slightest interest in the matter.

We may still be due one final chapter, offering a comprehensive overview of the phenomenon. Yet we can be sure that it will rest firmly on the foundations laid by St Clair’s book, which is why this reissue is to be warmly welcomed.

— Alexis Politis, The Anglo Hellenic Review (Spring 2010). Reproduced with permission.