Empire of Liberty: Via Militaris

Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921

For the third time in less than a month the situation in the Balkans (and Europe) shifted dramatically. Craiova had destroyed Austrian offensive power, Mischkolz had killed the Emperor and thrown the Hapsburg realms into disarray, and now Vidin had destroyed Russian power in the region. This all combined to make France the preeminent power in the Balkans. Yet, Napoleon’s job was not finished. The war started because of the janissaries and by this point he intended to finish that ancient order and march triumphantly across the Hippodrome to the Haigia Sofia.

Napoleon entered Sofia on June 12 and sent reinforcements from his army south towards Macedonia to force a decisive showdown between the French and the Turkish army under the command of Muhammed Ali. On June 18, his army entered Plovdiv and set up camp to wait for news from either Moreau’s Greeks, or Russian or Turkish opposition. Ever abundant in his energies, Napoleon immediately met with prominent locals, established a governing council with a quasi-republican charter, financed the construction of a library and began working with his military engineers and local surveyors on ways to build formal roads. Lost in ancient history, his obsession from Plovdiv (which he often referred to by its ancient name Philippopolis) until his return to France became restoring Hellenism in the east which seamlessly transitioned to larger, more Romanesque, imperial dreams. For now though, he would settle for building academies, establishing social institutions and rebuilding the great Via Militaris to connect Belgrade with Constantinople just as it had once connected Singidunum with Byzantium [1]. By all accounts during these weeks it appears that Napoleon conveniently forgot that he happened to be fighting to preserve these lands for his ally Selim III. A June 13 letter to Josephine gives a glimpse at his ambitions for the region:

“For too long these lands have been mired in superstition and wretchedness. Its people forget that they are the heirs to Phillip, Pyrrhus, Diocletian and Constantine. I shall rouse the potential of this slumbering land and free its people of their provincial lethargy. One day, I foresee a series of republics surrounding Servia and Greece with a robust economy and an intelligent citizenry.”

“One day” was not immediately. Despite some strong lobbying by locals and his own officers, Napoleon never went as far as to begin proclaiming independent republics as Hoche had once done in northern Spain. Despite the evolution of the campaign, the First Consul did not entirely forget his allies and the war’s purpose. His Consular policy to not establish new republics wherever the army went (save for already rebellious Serbia and Greece of course) split with the old revolutionary policies of the first two coalitionary wars. His tepid approach to enlightenment institutions in the Balkans during this time also fit his character for pragmatic administration. In places like France or Holland, widespread enlightened reforms (culminating in his Napoleonic Code) could and would be accepted. The more provincial locations such as the Italies, Spains, Balkans and Egypt saw lesser implementations of enlightenment principals and institutions and more continuation of feudal tendencies and respect for historic institutions such as churches and lordships.

Another factor was that Napoleon still had to contend with the last army still standing in the region outside of Greece. Alemdar Mustafa Pasha was a powerful Ottoman janissary, and one of the few still loyal to Selim. An Albanian born in northern Moldavia, he had risen to prominence as a military officer and provincial notable in Rusçuk, a prominent town in the Ottoman Eyalet of Silistra [Northern Bulgaria and the Black Sea Coast]. A supporter of Selim’s reform efforts he opposed the rogue janissaries and certainly opposed the events in Constantinople that caused Mustafa’s rise to power. Commanding a powerful army of Bosnians and Albanians he found himself fighting a three front war against Mustafa’s forces to the south, Russians to the north and remaining janissary forces to the west. On October 4, 1803 a Russian naval detachment captured the port of Varna from the sea, driving Pasha’s forces inland to the safety of the rugged Balkan Mountains. Stubbornly holding out for months, Pasha outlasted his situation. Over time, more and more Russian divisions pulled away from the exhaustive mountain fighting, transferred to western fronts to combat the Austrians and then the French. A similar story occurred for Turkish soldiers who were sent into Anatolia to oppose Selim or into Greece and Albania to reinforce Muhammed Ali. Napoleon’s victory at Vidin allowed Pasha to finally come down from his mountain strongholds and take the fight back into the Danubian plains. The two commanders finally met at Sofia on June 15 (notably two days after Napoleon’s letter to Josephine about his ambitions for the region). Despite France’s continued support for the Greek and Serbian rebels and Napoleon’s not so quiet attempts to promote enlightenment ideals throughout the Balkans, a tenuous alliance held. Ultimately, both Napoleon and Pasha wanted the same thing: a triumphant victory to liberate Constantinople. Despite his blustery proposals about establishing Thracian and Dacian Republics, Napoleon stood content to let the situations in Greece and Serbia play out while he sought a crowning achievement for his legacy in Byzantium.

Militarily, Napoleon was correct to wait and evaluate his situation. By this point, the Consul was fully informed of Francis’ death and the collapse of Hapsburg power. Ever the political chess player, dozens of letters made their way back to the Italies and France inquiring about the state of the Hapsburg realms, the political opinions in the Holy Roman Empire, and intelligence on Prussian and British courts among many other topics. A June 8 letter rightfully predicts that the Ferdinands in Vienna would accept a harsh Russian peace that would include shutting off the narrow salient throughout which French supplies flowed from northern Italy into the Balkans. On June 19, Napoleon formally ordered his ordinance officers and logisticians to prepare a supply ferry system to operate from France and Italy to Thessalonica. Interestingly, Napoleon dispatched this order before either himself or Moreau were even in position to capture Thessalonica. In his memoirs, Napoleon would later indicate that he risked the maneuver because of his uncertainty in the Hapsburg political situation, but also because the supply line from Venice to Thrace had simply become too unwieldy. Napoleon also wanted to keep an eye out on the Zubov’s army in Hungary that could easily march south and restart the whole mess in Serbia. Napoleon did successfully reason that any movement by the Zubov’s would put the Russian army into a precarious resupply position and threaten the major gains the Tsar stood to obtain from the Hapsburgs. In a June 23 letter to Josephine:

“The Tsar speaks of protecting the Eastern Christians of these lands but these are mere words. He would sell them to the Turks in perpetuity if it meant Russia would forever have a presence in Constantinople and could secure all of Poland and Ukraine. At the end of the day Alexander is the Tsar of All the Russias, not the Tsar of All the Russias, Serbias, Wallachias, and Bosnias. [2]”

His predictions held true. The distant Duchy of Belgrade faded from the Tsar’s mind when faced with the prospect of adding valuable territory in Austrian Poland and Ruthenia. The Zubovs never moved from Hungary until August when they crossed back into Russia proper. By early June, full reports of the Battles of Craiova and Mischkolz had made their way back to St. Petersburg. Once more, the Tsar became the toast of the Russian people. Seeking to remove the Russians camped in Hungary as quickly as possible; Ferdinand gave the Count von Warthausen significant leeway to conduct peace negotiations. The subsequent Treaty of St. Petersburg was harsh on the Hapsburgs. The Hapsburgs would pay an indemnity to Russia, relinquish any claims on territories south of their pre-war borders, close the resupply routes to the French, and ceded the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (to which New Galicia was removed and attached) and the Duchy of Bukovina to Russia. Knowing that any further obstinacy would threaten Transylvania or perhaps even Hungary itself, Ferdinand agreed to the peace. On August 1, 1804, the treaty formally went into effect.

This made securing Greece, and the vital port at Thessalonica, all the more important.


Excerpt from Dr. Dora Avramopoulos’ “A History of Greece, Vol. III: 1453 to the Present”, University of Athens Press, 2014

At the turn of the century, Ottoman Greece (like much of Europe) still had very feudal foundations. Under the old law, the land belonged to the Ottoman Sultan who granted it for productive use to various Turkish and Greek landlords, the Orthodox Greek clergy and some Islamic religious institutions. Most industrial investment was concentrated in central Greece and centered on the production of textiles and a smattering of luxury goods to be sold in Turkey or to wealthy landlords in Greece. As in most feudal societies, distribution of wealth was excessively unequal and usury was oppressive, thus wage growth and economic investment were dismally low.

Yet, as we have seen, Greece is a historic seafaring state. A changing geopolitical situation and the prominent rise of many Greeks within the Sultan’s court gave merchants an opportunity to escape the economic malaise. As a result, commercial opportunities, a wealthy middle class, a sizable Greek diaspora around Europe and the ability to send students to European universities all contributed to ensure that Greece did not miss the 18th century enlightenment movement. Beginning with Iosipos Moisiodax’s “Apologia”, published in in Vienna in 1780 (notably written in Modern Greek) leading Greek thinkers began to switch from an embrace of enlightened absolutism to an embrace of republicanism. Interestingly for Moisiodax, he did not draw from the ancient examples of democracy from his ancestors but rather cited the “commonwealth of the Swiss” as a good example of rule of law, equity and political participation. An admirer of scholars like Descartes, Galilei, Wolff, Locke and Newton, Moisiodax believed that mathematics stood at the center of good philosophy and advocated for the replacement of Aristotelian logic from academia in favor of more modern schools of thought. He was also a notable early advocate for the teaching of modern vernacular Greek in classrooms rather than the standard, and difficult, classical Greek. Unknown to Moisiodax, he began an explosion in Greek scholarly work that brought the enlightenment to the cradle of democracy.

Closer to the turn of the 19th century, many prominent intellectuals found themselves in prime position to take leadership of the region all while inadvertently fostering a sense of Greek nationalism. Scholars like Neophytos Doukas, Anthimos Gazis, Adamantios Korais and Theoklitos Farmakidis helped to polish a purified version of modern vernacular Greek that helped foster a sense of “Greekness” amongst its (youthful) speakers [3]. Others, like Theophilos Kairis and the late-Rigas Feraios (who was the first Greek to ask Napoleon for military assistance back in 1798) pressed for a more modern revolution where a “Greek State” would take control of its own affairs, promote enlightenment ideals, restore the famed democracy of the ancient world and even promoted the separation of church and state. These radical liberal notions ranging from modernized language to secular government captured the minds of young Greeks while simultaneously offending the conservative sensibilities of pro-Ottoman Greeks, especially the privileged Phanariotes in the capital.

A showdown seemed inevitable but larger events usurped any organic revolution. The War of the Janissaries and the August 1803 emergence of two claimant sultans in Anatolia divided Christian society in the empire.

Conservative elements in Greece, Serbia, and Wallachia sought to support Selim against the oppressive janissaries and retain the Rūm Millet and their relatively privileged positions in the larger empire. At the time, the Ottoman Empire could be legally subdivided based on nationality and geography, not just geography alone. The 15th century reforms of Mehmet II led to the creation of the Rūm Millet, literally “Roman Nation” within the empire. In this system, all Orthodox Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Vlachs and Serbs, as well as Georgians and Arab Christians, were considered part of the same millet despite the differences in ethnicity and language. While the various ethnic groups never really disappeared, for a time it meant far more to individuals to be a member of their particular millet than a member of their particular ethnicity. A millet was a separate court of law under which a certain religious community (Muslim, Christian or Jewish) was allowed to rule itself under its own laws. This system guaranteed Christians some limited protections and a certain degree of autonomy with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople recognized as the highest religious and political leader, or ethnarch, of all Orthodox subjects. Over time, the system backfired as the surrounding geopolitical situation changed. Notably, the 1774 Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca allowed Russia to intervene on the side of Ottoman Eastern Orthodox subjects, something it clumsily tried to do in 1802 before allying with the janissaries. Merchant wealth, divisions amongst the empire’s Muslim subjects and outside influences (namely French influences) led to a concentration of power by the Rūm Millet. Greeks came to dominate the 18th century Ottoman Court (a key factor in the janissary uprisings against Balkan Christians and their revolt against Selim) and Christians increasingly established their own separate schools, hospitals, courts and other infrastructure. As we can see in Serbia and Greece, nationalist movements placed tremendous strain on the millet system.

Of course, the privileged positions of many Phanariotes in Constantinople took a blow when the janissaries captured the capital and installed Mustafa as their sultan. It was no secret in the lead up to the capture of the city that the Phanariotes and other prominent Christians in the capital supported Selim against Osman Pazvantoğlu and the excesses of the other janissaries. This meant that when Mustafa expelled Selim from the capital, many Christians were now in immediate fear of reprisal. Dozens of prominent Christians (especially Greeks as the revolution continued across the Aegean) left Constantinople around this time, destined for Greece, Napoleon’s army, Italy, Britain and Austria. An interesting diaspora community emerged in Alexandria as several hundred Anatolian Greeks sought refuge in Napoleonic Egypt, possibly spurred on by ancient remembrances of Ptolemy. More conservative Christians who desired to put at least some distance between themselves and Mustafa crossed the Black Sea to the nearby communities in Black Sea towns like Trabzon or Odessa even if those locations were either still under Mustafa’s or Russia’s control. Russia’s intervention on the side of the janissaries threw many conservatives for a loop and forced them to side with their Greek cousins or retreat into Europe. For insistence, the prominent phanariote Prince Constantine Ypsilantis the former Grand Drogomon to Selim’s court and current Hospodar [Prince] of Wallachia, fled the capital with his family two days after the janissaries captured it. With Selim’s fate still unknown, and unable to flee to Russia who now counted the janissaries as his allies, the family settled in Vienna. Constantine’s sons, Alexander and Demitrios would later play crucial roles during the Eastern War. The Hospodar of Moldavia, Alexander Mourouzis, would be removed from office by Mustafa in September of 1803 as part of his government’s agreement with Russia to cede Wallachia and Moldavia to the Tsar. Records show that Mourouzis would later be poisoned after having fled to Berlin.

The Greeks living in Mustafa’s territory were correct in their fears. Mustafa had Callinicus V, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, hung despite the fact that he condemned the Greek and Serbian Revolutions and denounced Napoleon as the antichrist. He was hardly alone in his fate. Dozens of Greeks were executed in Constantinople ranging from pious monks to incredibly wealthy bankers and merchants. In the mostly Greek city of Smyrna [Izmir], a mobilizing Turkish force committed a pogrom. A local observer wrote:

“3,000 ruffians assailed the Greek quarter, plundered the houses and slaughtered the people; Smyrna resembled a place taken by assault, neither age or sex being respected”

Naturally the reprisals only strengthened the resolve of the revolting Greeks and fueled nationalist fires that a Franco-Greek force should immediately liberate Constantinople, the Pontic Coast and Ionia. Indeed, younger and more radical elements saw the crisis as a way to assert independence. Many of the leading enlightenment Greeks always hoped that Greece would be the next domino to fall after the Serbs brought the American and French Revolutions to the Balkans. Yet, even these younger liberals found their ranks highly divided. Some sought a more reactionary break with conservative elements of society similar to France’s purges of ecclesiastical and noble traditions. Others sought a more Americanized approach where titles would be abolished, church and state separated, but wealth and property rights clearly defined under a strong code of laws. Still others harbored more nationalistic dreams of a Neo-Byzantine Empire encompassing Greece, Crete, Macedonia, Thrace, and Asia Minor with Constantinople at its center. By the end of 1804, only a handful of the more conservative Greeks still supported finding a middle ground with Selim.

The 1802 Serbian Revolution was an organic event stemming from the perceived weakness of Selim and his inability to prevent harassment from local janissaries. Greece’s revolution was less organic due to the assistance of Jean Victor Marie Moreau but the societal liberalism was already in place and Greece already had a lengthy history of revolts and unrest when Ottoman power waned over the years. Certainly, catching Turkish military forces flatfooted, the distribution of French-made weapons, and the rapid success of Moreau as he marched through the Peloponnese and Attica into Thessaly assisted in pushing the revolutionary cause further than it might have gone if Greece had risen on its own without French support at the same time.

Regardless of the “organicness” of the revolution, liberal Greek elements sprang to action to support their surprise revolution and create a new governmental system. Unwilling to waste critical weeks marching down the Attica Peninsula, and hoping the battle would galvanize Greek support for the cause (and his army), Moreau left the liberation of Athens to his Greek allies. A city of roughly 10,000, Athens in that time could be divided in two with half of its citizens being Greek Christians and the other half being Muslim Turks, Albanians and Greek converts. The Greek attack on Athens caused the Turkish garrison and many civilians to retreat to the Acropolis where the defenders were soundly defeated and much of the Muslim population put on ships bound for Anatolia. Amalgamated from several smaller Peloponnesian senates, the First National Assembly of Athens convened on July 12, 1803 even as Moreau and his sizable Greek contingents pushed Turkish opposition back across Thessaly. In Athens, the 73 representatives whose ranks included merchants, archpriests, landowners, ship-owners, military leaders, scholars and a newspaper editor (11 from towns not yet freed in the ongoing war) began work on establishing a new country, crafting a formal declaration of independence and debating a new constitution.

The Athenian Assembly became a diplomatic sore spot between Napoleon and Selim. On one hand, the Greek revolutionaries had been supported by Moreau’s efforts while on the other hand they had also acted independently. We should not forget that Moreau’s initial May 1803 invasion occurred when France and Selim’s Ottoman Empire were at war and Russia and Austria appeared poised to carve the proverbial Turkey. The French could hardly be faulted for fighting their enemy at a time when their current ally was their enemy. Of course, in life and diplomacy pragmatic reality often falls by the wayside in the face of raw emotion. In the coalition’s case the August 9, 1803 Greek Declaration of Independence might have rained on Mustafa’s coronation parade, but it also rubbed salt in the wounds of the humiliated Selim when he reemerged in Antalya. Only a few months after Moreau’s invasion and the declaration of a Greek Republic did the nature of Russia’s alliance with the janissaries reveal itself (let us also not forget that Pazvantoğlu’s fatwa stemmed from the dramatic Turkish loss at the Greek town of Elateia) causing Napoleon to find peace with Selim and continue his fight against the janissaries alone. Desperate for allies, Selim was in no position to call out France’s continued support of the Greek Revolution. Whenever the issue was brought up in closed diplomatic sessions, the French ambassador Horace François Bastien Sébastiani de La Porta merely shrugged off the accusations stating the Greeks were operating independently of Turkish opposition, or French support. We should also remember that after Craiova and Vidin, Napoleon did not exactly need Selim’s support to exert his will on the Balkans. All the while, Moreau hardly raised any concern and frequently allowed his officers to travel the countryside and interact with locals, which allowed considerable political discussions about enlightenment principals and the French Revolution to disseminate further into Greek society. A wealthy man after his campaigns in the Germanies during the War of the Second Coalition, Moreau privately funded the construction of schools in Kalamata, Sparta, Corinth, Athens, Naxos, Lamia, Trikala and Larissa.

Still, Moreau was perceptive enough to understand that a formal Greek adoption of a constitution would be a diplomatic blow against Mustafa and Selim. The Athenian representatives grumbled as they passed a temporary governing charter that essentially mirrored pre-existing Ottoman Greek society to continue the operations of the government, even while their drafters made ongoing changes to their constitution. For Greece to survive as a liberal republic the political and legal timing needed to be perfect and Moreau just learned that Napoleon had taken the Via Militaris to Adrianople.

—————- Author’s Notes —————

[1]: These being the old Greek and Roman names for Belgrade and Istanbul.

[2]: The title “Emperor of All Russia” (sometimes incorrectly referred to as “all the Russias” thanks to its wording when reading the title or replacing “Emperor” with “Tsar”) is a Russian imperial title that began during the reign of Peter the Great in connection with the victory in the Great Northern War and appeared as the adaptation of the Tsar’s title under the accepted system of titling in Europe. From what I can tell, it stems from the medieval practice of whereby the Grand Duke of Muscovy would title himself “Grand Duke of Muscovy and all Rus’” since in those days the Kievan Rus (predecessor to Russia) was a collection of principalities of which Moscow came to dominate. Moscow eventually formed a “Russian State” which formally became the “Russian Empire” under Peter the Great with Peter acting as “Emperor of All Russia”. In this fictional quote, Napoleon is misinterpreting the title to claim that Alexander is the “tsar of all the russia(n)s” and will do what is best for Russia, not necessarily all of the other Slavic peoples.

[3]: A seriously underrated part of the enlightenment and the late 18th century and early 19th century European nationalist movements was this revitalization of local languages at the expense of common languages like German, French and Latin. At the same time these movements were occurring in Greece, intellectuals in Hungary were polishing modern Hungarian at the expense of Latin (still used for administration and academics) and German (the preferred linga franca of the Hapsburg lands). This tied heavily with cartography (often fudged by the mapmakers) which produced series upon series of regional maps that often pushed certain narratives (we saw this in “Serbian Revolution” chapter when a late 18th century atlas showed the Serbian people their widespread national boundaries at the expense of Ottoman and Austrian imperial stability. It also played on national histories such as the Serbian idealization of a brief medieval empire or the Slovak idealization of the ninth century Great Moravian Empire. In short, the late enlightenment led to a massive boom in scholarly work, which was published in regional languages and often coopted by the nationalistic sentiments of the young people who studied them.

Source Materials

Karayiannis, Anastassios; Ithakissios, Dionyssios. “Hellenic Nomarchy: A Discourse on Freedom. An Early 19th Century Greek Humanist Treatise.” Stora Delpensiero Economico, 1999.

Kitromilides, Paschalis. “From Republican Patriotism to National Sentiment A Reading of Hellenic Nomarch”. University of Athens and Institute for Neoheilenic Research/NHR, 2006.

Roberts, Andrew. “Napoleon: A Life.” Penguins Books, 2014.

Trencsényi, Balázs; Kopeček, Michal. “Discourses of collective identity in Central and Southeast Europe (1770–1945): texts and commentaries”. Central European University Press, 2006.

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