On this date in 1798, the Greek revolutionary Rigas Feraios and five co-conspirators were strangled by their Ottoman captors on the Danube River en route to Constantinople to prevent their rescue.
A Vlach by blood, Feraios was a hero — and ultimately a martyr — of Greek independence years before the revolution against Ottoman rule that would deliver it.
A Renaissance man for the Greek Enlightenment, Feraios had a variegated youthful career knocking about the Ottomans’ Balkan possessions and absorbing the revolutionary Zeitgeist abroad in Europe.
Settling in Vienna in his mid-thirties, he brandished his pen in the service of an imagined pan-Balkan, pan-Hellenic uprising to shake off the Turkish yoke. He edited the first Greek newspaper, published a map* and constitution for the imagined realm of the “Inhabitants of Rumeli, Asia Minor, the Islands of the Aegean, and the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia”, and churned out blood-stirring poetry in Demotic, the vernacular tongue — most memorably, the Thourio, i.e., “War Hymn”.
… and a little taste of the gist, in English:
How long, my heroes, shall we live in bondage,
alone,like lions on ridges, on peaks?
Living in caves, seeing our children turned
from the land to bitter enslavement?
Losing our land, brothers, and parents,
our friends, our children, and all our relations?
Better an hour of life that is free
than forty years in slavery.
This sort of fire-breather is not the sort of man the Ottomans were keen on seeing involve himself with Bonaparte, most especially now that the French kingpin had started outfitting Oriental adventures. The Turks’ Austrian allies nabbed Feraios in Trieste en route to confer with Napoleon’s Italian subalterns about interfering in the Balkans.
Shipped to the governor of Belgrade, Feraios was to be sent to Constantinople for adjudication by Sultan Selim III. A Turkish buddy of the poet’s, however, happened to be blocking the way with a sizable force of his own who’d been administering a rebel statelet carved out of Ottoman territory. Tipped that this gentleman was keen to liberate the Turks’ unwelcome prisoners if they tried to pass, the local authorities had them summarily strangled and their bodies dumped in the Danube.
A Rigas Feraois monument in Belgrade. (Author’s photograph, in terrible light.)
* Including Constantinople. The dream of “Greater Greece” would persist long, and die hard.