Book Review: Brigands with A Cause: Brigandage and Irredentism in Modern Greece, 1821-1912 by John S. Koliopoulos

Brigands with a cause: Brigandage and Irredentism in Modern Greece, 1821-1912 by John S. Koliopoulos (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), $69.

Here is a fascinating and important scholarly work by a Professor of Modern History at the University of Thessaloniki Greece. Articulately written, meticulously documented, and refreshingly impartial, this book scrutinizes the often overlooked role of brigandage and irredentism in Greece since the War of Independence, revealing the intrinsic bond between the two and their influence on Greek politics and identity.

For our readers, this book is most poignant in its examination of the fatal blow these government-supported “rebels” delivered to the “Vlah” population. Here, the word “Vlah” designates migratory shepherds of diverse ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds, including the Aromanians. Greek officials and others so misused and confused the word “Vlah” that it practically lost its original meaning of “Roman” and became so tainted that in certain quarters of Greek society even today the word can invoke revulsion.

The setting is Greece and Ottoman possessions to the North. Enlightened Greeks of the diaspora sought to break away from Ottoman influence and bring their newly-won nation-state into modernity by emulating the West. An obstacle to the Greek nation’s realization of the ideal of a respectable Western nation with an effective judiciary system was the embarrassing problem of brigandage. Several Western travelers published scathing accounts of plunder, kidnapping, and murder, forcing the Greek government into action. Europeans, especially the British, “ferociously” charged Greece with responsibility for one especially bloody abduction and Greece responded in turn “by masterfully exploiting” the weak points of the British attacks with “an impressive collection of half-truths and untruths.” European powers, Turkey, and Arvanitovlachs (Albanian Vlachs) were blamed for Greece’s condition. In the minds of Parliament, the nation was blameless.

Two factors ignited the Greek brigand phenomenon:

First, the annexation of the province of Thessaly to Greece disrupted winter migration from the Pindus, where most Aromanians were concentrated. This intensified brigand activity near the Greek-Turkish border where Ottoman lands provided a safe haven. The shepherd was at the mercy of the ruthless gendarmes and corrupt state tax officials who controlled the new border.

Second, the Greek government channeled this potentially explosive situation within its own borders by incorporating brigands into paramilitary units, thereby creating a semblance of legitimacy and ensuring state security. Regular military units worked with government-organized brigands (irregulars) in irredentist activities directed across the border into Turkish Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace.

There also existed a cultural dichotomy which the Greek state exploited. The agricultural peasant was regarded by officials as a “solid and conservative” citizen while the migratory shepherd was viewed with vindictive hostility. Wherever you found a shepherd, a brigand was not far away. Shepherds provided immediate food, money, shelter, and a cover for brigands. The brigand could also be hired to protect the transhumants from other brigands. It was a symbiotic relationship that nevertheless caused much tragedy for the shepherds. Shepherds often became brigands, for reasons ranging from unemployment and personal vendetta to insecurity and poverty — the money was easy.

But the living was not necessarily easy. Most brigands did not become wealthy and retire to a respectable life on an estate or to a cushy post in the government. They lived brutal short lives of solitude and bachelorhood; were constantly on the run; were exposed to the elements and to rugged terrain; and ended up beaten, imprisoned in frightful dungeons or, worse, dead at a young age. Their prison companions might be shepherds accused of “collaboration” and left to rot without a trial.

One suspects that it was the Aromanians who suffered most from brigandage and state persecution. Whereas the Sarakatsani usually wintered on the coasts of Epirus and Acarnania, the Aromanians chose the Thessalian plains. Moreover, the existing biases against Aromanians among Greeks helped justify actions taken against Aromanian shepherds at this time.

Through painstaking research, Koliopoulos reconstructs a lost world and demystifies the mythic/heroic aura that often surrounded the pallikaroi (Greek braves).

The book lacks detailed reference to the various nationalist movements in what was to become Greek territory. Koliopoulos refers readers to Douglas Dakin’s The Greek Struggle in Macedonia, a pro-Greek examination of the various propaganda; he might have balanced this by making reference as well to H.N. Brailsford’s Macedonia. But there is a limit to what one book can include.

This reviewer is admittedly unqualified to give the professional critique this book so richly deserves. But the astute history buff will recognize in Brigands a major scholarly work. Brigands with a Cause brilliantly explores a key force in the genesis of the Greek nation; the self-deception practiced by some of its founders; the destruction of a mountain society which up until then had largely been under its own rule; the legitimation of brigandage and its incorporation into the state; and the resulting retarding of modernization in Greece. Read in conjunction with the works of Winnifrith and Wace & Thompson, this book is vital to understanding the recent history of our people; I highly recommend it.


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