The Italians Who Fought For Greek Independence

What motivated as many as 200 Italians to leave their homeland and go to fight for the independence of a country that wasn’t their own?

Greek Independence
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Athens, Greece. Photo: George Kourounis on Unsplash.

What motivated 200 Italians to leave their homeland and go to fight for the independence of a country that wasn’t their own?

The Greek War of Independence, which began on March 25, 1821 and lasted nine gruelling years, immediately captured the imagination of Europe. If the governments remained immovable, their people did not. In the most heroic manifestation of philhellenism, as many as 1,200 volunteers from across Europe came to fight alongside the Greeks in their struggle against the Ottoman Empire.

Philhellenism. The word emerged almost spontaneously at the beginning of the 19th century to describe the surge of international sympathy that accompanied the Greeks in their plight. Much of this had its origins in the rediscovery of Ancient Greek culture, refracted through a heavily romanticized lens, that washed over an entire generation of Western artists and intellectuals. The logical endpoint of this desiderium was an implied moral obligation for Europe to restore liberty to Greece as a kind of payment for the civilization which Greeks had once given to the world.

In Italy, philhellenism had begun much earlier. The flight of Greek scholars to Italy after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 helped bring about the Renaissance, while southern Italy had historic links with Greece going back millennia. Wealthy Greeks studied in Italy, mixing with Carbonari and setting up chapters of Filiki Eteria, the secret society that would later initiate the Greek Revolution. Both were connected by shared membership of the Freemasons, creating an overlapping network of secret societies buzzing with revolutionary fervour. The writers Giacomo Leopardi, Enrico Mayer and Ugo Foscolo captivated Italians with their poetry, interweaving the imagery of ancient Greece and Rome with modern ideas of nationalism, while the magazine Antologia — published in Florence by Giovan Pietro Vieusseux and edited by the Corfiot Mario Pieri — was one of the main vehicles by which the cause of Greek Independence gained a fashionable acceptance among Italian intelligentsia. Indeed, by the time of the revolution, Italy was probably the most philhellenic place outside of Greece itself.

In 1820-21, Italian Carbonari staged two revolts in Naples and Turin. Both were crushed quickly and their leaders, often high-ranking commanders in the military, fled the country. Two of them — Andrea Dania and Pietro Tarella — boarded a boat for the Greek island of Hydra. They had been in communication with Alexandros Mavrokordatos, an educated and well-travelled Greek revolutionary leader, who had been trying to lure experienced foreign generals to train and lead a Greek army. Both Dania and Tarella fit this description. They had served as generals in the French Army — Dania being award the Legion of Honour and Tarella fighting alongside Napoleon in Waterloo — before returning to take up leadership roles in the newly restored Piedmontese Army. These were sophisticated and serious men who were moved by the plight of the Greeks and swept up in the revolutionary possibilities of the era.

Their first job upon arriving in Greece was to create a modern, united and disciplined army out of the disparate Greek clans that were waging guerrilla warfare against the Ottomans. Despite the parlous conditions in the Peloponnese, Dania and Tarella managed to create the first modern Greek army, train them in Western military tactics and score some surprising victories, capturing the town of Tripoli in July 1821 and liberating Nafplio six months later.

But things soon deteriorated. In summer 1822, a misguided expedition north to Epirus was exacerbated by the desertion of Greek troops. The remaining army — comprised mainly of philhellenes and Greek irregulars — was routed at the town of Peta by a numerically superior Ottoman brigade. Dania and Tarella both commanded units in this battle. As the historian Richard Stites notes, “The lucky ones perished on the battlefield. The vengeful Turks forced the captives to carry the severed heads of their comrades from the field to the Ottoman camp. Two were beheaded and twenty of the prisoners, including Dania and Tarella, were impaled.” The catastrophe at Peta was a huge setback for the insurgent revolution, and a warning to philhellenes as to the very real dangers they were signing up for.

While Dania and Tarella had gone straight to Greece, other Italian exiles took a more circuitous route, with many ending up in London. Annibale Santorre di Rossi de Pomarolo, Count of Santarosa (mercifully known simply as Santarosa), had cut his teeth fighting in the French Army, where he had reached the rank of lieutenant. He later joined the Piedmontese Army and fought against the French at the Battle of Grenoble in 1815. An instigator of the revolution in Piedmont in 1821, he was arrested by the Austrians, sentenced to death, escaped to Paris, was arrested by the French, escaped again and fled to London, where he lived in exile with his wife and eight children.

In London, many Italian exiles bonded around the London Greek Committee, which had been founded with the aim of cultivating support for the Greek Revolution. Among its members were Santarosa, Alerino Palma, Giuseppe Pecchio, Pietro Gamba, Giacinto Provana di Collegno and Luigi Porro Lambertenghi.

The philhellenism of the participants was self-evident, and often drew up on the two nations’ communal past and a belief in their shared historic destiny. “Greece is our mother country,” declared Palma at one meeting, while Pecchio referred to Greece as “the ancient sister of Italy” and wrote a book about the interwoven history of the two peoples. “I regard them as brothers,” wrote Santarosa. “Throughout the ages, the destinies of Greece and Italy have always been connected.”

This historic fraternity gained a new urgency during the revolutionary period. In November 1822 the HMS Sally, carrying dozens of Italian revolutionaries, left England and arrived at the provisional Greek capital of Nafplio. Among its passengers were Santarosa. “I do not know if I can be useful, but I am prepared for all sorts of difficulties,” he wrote. “Since I cannot do anything in my country, I consider it a duty to dedicate to Greece some years of activity.”

When the Italians landed in Nafplio, they received a huge shock. “The first thing that gets you is the smell,” one wrote. Many Italian volunteers took one look at the impoverished swamplands that greeted them and got straight back on the boat. According to one witness, shortly after arriving Santarosa, surveying the chaos around him, sat down on a rock, stared at a picture of his wife and — realizing what he had signed up for — began to weep uncontrollably.

The next day, Santarosa travelled to Athens where he read from his copy of Plato while wandering the Acropolis. In exile, he had imagined that the Greeks would put him in charge of a battalion, or even a government ministry. On the contrary, the Greek politicians were alarmed by the arrival of this notorious Carbonaro, believing that he would scare off the British, French, and Russian governments whose intervention they were trying to secure.

Instead, they forced him to adopt a pseudonym, dress in Greek peasant clothes and volunteer as an ordinary soldier. Santarosa may not have expected a hero’s welcome, but he never could have imagined being treated with such contempt by the people he had come to help. And so Santarosa, the 41-year old aristocrat, scholar, poet, skilled revolutionary and experienced military commander, solemnly and dutifully joined the Greek army as a humble foot soldier. He died at the Battle of Sphacteria in May 1825 while making a heroic last stand against Ottoman troops. He has been called the soul of the Piedmont revolution, the most iconic Italian martyr of the Greek revolution and a hero on two peninsulas. The historian Stathis Birtachas ranks him as the most renowned figure of philhellenism after Lord Byron.

For a time, it seemed like every Carbonaro in Europe was descending upon Greece. It would be impossible to do justice to all of them, but here are a select few: Giuseppe Chiappe fought in numerous naval battles before settling on Hydra and founding The Friend of the Law, the longest-running newspaper during the Greek Revolution. After independence, he worked as a court secretary in various provincial towns of Greece before dying in 1848.

Vincenzo Pisa had done time in numerous national armies before returning to Naples to take part in the 1820 revolution. He was captured and sentenced to death but found his way to Greece, where he led an army and was wounded during the siege of the Acropolis. He stayed on in the country after independence and became a general in the Greek armed forces.

Pietro Gamba was one of several Italian counts to fight in Greece. He knew Lord Byron from Ravenna and followed him to Missolonghi. When Byron died, Gamba accompanied his body back to London but was later inspired to return to Greece, where he took up arms and fought in several battles. He died of fever in 1828.

Perhaps the most mercurial Italian to arrive in Greece was Giuseppe Rosaroll. He had the typical backstory: decorated military commander, subversive revolutionary, had fled to London after the events of 1820-21 and was sentenced to death in absentia.

He had written to Mavrokordatos demanding Greek citizenship in return for offering his services. Mavrokordatos refused, but Rosaroll came anyway. From his base in Zakynthos, Rosaroll communicated in secret with Giovanni Romei, a fellow Carbonaro who had wound up in the service of Ibrahim Pasha in Ottoman-allied Egypt. “It’s an abominable crime to associate with the Ottomans,” wrote Rosaroll, “selling yourself to the sacrilegious enemies of the Greeks and of universal freedom!” Remarkably, he won over Romei who became a valuable double agent for the Greeks, providing names of European and Greek traitors and information on the tactics and capacity of the Egyptian fleet.

Despite being a skilled military commander, he failed to endear himself to the Greek leadership. For one thing, he was open about his desire to use the Greek army to eventually liberate his hometown of Naples. In November 1825, he travelled to the Peloponnese to begin training a Greek cavalry unit but died of typhus soon after.

The historian William St Clair records 940 foreign volunteers who came to fight alongside the Greeks. Of those, Italians made up the third largest nationality, with 137 volunteers, behind France (196) and Germany (342). In reality, the true number was much higher as most volunteers were never recorded. Perhaps 1,200 came to Greece, including 150-200 Italians. Around a third of them died during the campaign.

It should be obvious that focusing solely on the Italians does not offer a full picture, but rather a tiny detail in the rich, complex tapestry of the Greek War of Independence. It’s important, too, not to exaggerate their role compared to the Greeks of the revolution who made up most of the soldiers, leaders and intellectuals, nor to detract from the role of other notable philhellenes, such as Karl von Normann, Charles Fabvier and of course, Lord Byron.

But they provided important tactical and military contributions as well as vital moral support. They served dutifully and bravely even in the face of certain death. As the first volunteers in Greece, they were pioneers motivated not by money or security but by a revolutionary spirit. Their ideology of liberal internationalism infused with romantic nationalism, classical education and gilded youth was symbolic of the golden age of the roving revolutionary, sailing from port to port, fighting oppression and tyranny wherever they saw it.

The Greek War of Independence became the first liberal-national movement to succeed in Europe and an inspiration to future revolutions, but it also represented a genuine and idealistic example of international solidarity among oppressed people. Its success began a tradition of volunteers enlisting to fight abroad that reached its climax with the Spanish Civil War. Today, even in the smallest of gestures and the unlikeliest of places, the spirit of these volunteers lives on.

Bibliography

That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence, William St Clair, 2008.
Philhellenism in Italy: political friendship and the Italian volunteers in the Mediterranean in the nineteenth century, Gilles Pécout, 2004.
The Resilience of Philhellenism, George Tolias, 2017.
Manifestations of Italian philhellenism during the 1820s, Stathis Birtachas, 2015.
The Four Horsemen: Riding to Liberty in Post-Napoleonic Europe, Richard Stites, 2014.

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