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Where We Come From...

The Death of Leonidas at Thermopylae in 480 BC

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)

In the process of building the nation, no European country could look back to its history quite as far as could Greece. Antiquity, the flowering of culture and the territorial expansion of Greek hegemony were of extreme importance to Greek self-awareness. During the rule of the Ottoman Empire and on up through the 19th century, consolation was sought in the memory of Greece’s glorious past. Two heroes of antiquity enjoyed special veneration in 19th century Greece: Leonidas, king of the Spartans, who in 480 BC fought with his troops against the superior forces of the Persian king Xerxes and was killed in battle. The second was Alexander the Great, who was able to extend his empire from Macedonia to the Indus and annihilate the Persian Empire within a brief period of only thirteen years.

The veneration of Leonidas was inspired by the hero who sacrificed himself for his homeland. The pinnacle of his popularity was reached during the Greek struggle for independence from 1821 to 1830. Jean Evariste Fragonard’s picture shows an exhausted soldier kneeing before a memorial stone on which the inscription refers to the valiant Leonidas and his sacrifice.

The myth of Alexander had a twofold function. To begin with, the victorious general evoked the former greatness and importance of Greece. This fame was supposed to encourage the freedom fighters in the 19th century to win back at least part of the former empire. The German artist Karl Theodor von Piloty takes up this theme in his picture, which shows the death of Alexander the Great, who is mourned by his people, to whom he leaves his heritage as an obligation. As this example illustrates, it was especially the philhellenism that had emerged since the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century that popularised the image of Greece and Greek antiquity through the visual arts; in Greece itself the memory of Alexander was kept alive primarily through folk art.


Faith and War

The Fall of Constantinople, 1453

It was not easy for the Greek state to find historical foundations on which to base the young nation. The reference back to antiquity was just as impossible to fuse with Christianity as theocratic Byzantine was with the libertarian ideas of antiquity and the Enlightenment. And very few Byzantine rulers and events were suitable for a national mythology. One episode that was suited, however, was the fall of Constantinople on 29th May 1453 and the death of the last Byzantine emperor in the course of the fighting. The capture of the city by the sultan, Mohammed II, the heroic death of Constantine XI and especially the last Christian liturgy held in the Hagia Sofia were the central elements of the depictions.

The dramatic end of Byzantium, erected on the ruins of antiquity, proved the ideal symbol for the reconciliation of modern Greece with mediaeval history. For the fall of Constantinople lent itself to an explanation both of the historical turning points since 1453 and of the struggle for independence since 1821, which in contemporary understanding was seen as a revision of the events that had occurred four hundred years before. The artist Panagiotis Zografos makes use of this construction in his work on the fall of Constantinople, which belongs to a portfolio of 25 prints about the struggle for independence and other important events in Greek history. In a contemporary description of the engraving, the flight of the Byzantines was explained thus: »The brave and patriotic Hellenes would not let themselves be subjugated, but fled to the mountains, where they lived for many years until, through the power of God and the help of the European powers, they recovered their independence.«



The Greek Struggle for Freedom, 1821-1830

The Fall of Missolonghi 1825/26

Greece is one of the countries that gained independence in the 19th century through a series of long, bloody battles. Beginning in 1821 the Greeks battled for nine years to shake off four hundred years of Ottoman domination. The admiration for classical antiquity that had spread throughout all of Europe paved the way for this liberation by bolstering Greek self-awareness and readiness to rise up in arms while at the same time attracting the attention and support of other nations. When the struggle for freedom threatened to founder because of the superior strength of the Turks, Great Britain, Russia and France helped the Greeks to victory. In 1830 Greece became a sovereign kingdom.

7.jpg (16383 Byte)The national identity of the young state rested on two foundations: the memory of antiquity and the orthodox religion, which set them apart from the Moslem occupying forces. Many artworks therefore contained entreaties that God should help the cause of the Greeks. The personification of Greece as a woman in the picture by Theodoros Vrysakis is shown as giving a blessing. She is surrounded by famous warriors and their supporters during the war of independence. The exodus from Missolonghi played a particularly significant role in keeping the memory of the struggle for freedom alive. As a result of a long siege the Peloponnesian city was in a hopeless situation. Instead of capitulating the besieged inhabitants decided to attack the enemy forces, but met with death. Their heroic bravery in the face of a desperate situation, also inherent to the myths of other European nations, made the inhabitants of Missolonghi famous throughout the whole of Europe.


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