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Philhellenism ("the love of Greek culture") was an intellectual fashion prominent at the turn of the 19th century, that led Europeans like Lord Byron to advocate for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Byron provided concrete assistance in commissioning several seagoing war vessels that proved to be useful in the successful Greek War of Independence in the early 1820s, as well as sacrificing his life to the cause.

The later nineteenth-century European Philhellenism was largely to be found among the Classicists, a field undergoing a growing split between anthropological and Classicist approaches to ancient Greece.

The legacy of Philhellenism

In the period of political reaction and repression after the fall of Napoleon, when the liberal-minded, educated and prosperous bourgeois class of European societies found the romantic revolutionary ideals of 1789–92 repressed by the restoration of old regimes at home, the idea of the re-creation of a Greek state on the very territories that were sanctified by their view of Antiquity — which was reflected even in the furnishings of their own parlors and the contents of their bookcases — offered an ideal, set at a romantic distance. Under these conditions, the Greek uprising constituted a source of inspiration and expectations that could never actually be fulfilled, disappointing what Paul Cartledge called "the Victorian self-identification with the Glory that was Greece".

Another popular subject of interest in Greek culture at the turn of the 19th century was the shadowy Scythian philosopher Anacharsis. The new prominence of Anacharsis was sparked by Jean-Jacques Barthélemy's fanciful Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece (1788), a learned imaginary travel journal, one of the first historical novels, which a modern scholar has called "the encyclopedia of the new cult of the antique" in the late eighteenth century. It had a high impact on the growth of philhellenism in France: the book went through many editions, was reprinted in the United States and was translated into German and other languages. It later inspired European sympathy for the Greek struggle for independence and spawned sequels and imitations throughout the 19th century.

In German culture the first phase of philhellenism can be traced in the careers and writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, one of the inventors of art history, Friedrich August Wolf, who inaugurated modern Homeric scholarship with his Prolegomena (1795) and the enlightened bureaucrat Wilhelm von Humboldt. In the German states, the private obsession with ancient Greece took public forms, institutionalizing an elite philhellene ethos through the gymnasium, to revitalize German education at home, and providing on two occasions high-minded philhellene German princes ignorant of modern-day Greek realities, to be Greek sovereigns.

Schiller s 1788 poem "The Gods of Greece" contrasted the exquisite and beautiful world inhabited by the Greek deities with the calculating, joyless and uncreative present.

During the later nineteenth century the new studies of archaeology and anthropology began to offer a quite separate view of ancient Greece, which had previously been experienced at second-hand only through Greek literature, Greek sculpture and architecture. Twentieth-century heirs of the nineteenth-century view of an unchanging, immortal quality of "Greekness" are typified in J.C. Lawson's Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion (1910) or R. and E. Blum's The Dangerous Hour: The lore of crisis and mystery in rural Greece (1970); according to the Classicist Paul Cartledge, they "represent this ideological construction of Greekness as an essence, a Classicizing essence to be sure, impervious to such historic changes as that from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, or from subsistence peasant agriculture to more or less internationally market-driven capitalist farming."

Among the modern historical relativists, the Classical heritage is only one facet of the vision of Greece that is imagined as ancestral. The theme of Nikos Dimou's The Misfortune to be Greek is the perception that the Philhellenic West's projected desire for the modern Greeks to live up to their ancestors' glorious past has always been a burden upon the Greeks themselves.

Philhellenism and art

Philhellism also created a renewed interest in the artistic movement of Neoclassicism, which idealized fifth-century Classical Greek art and architecture., very much at second hand, through the writings of the first generation of art historians, like Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The groundswell of the Philhellenic movement was result of two generations of intrepid artists and amateur treasure-seekers, from Stuart and Revett, who published their measured drawings as The Antiquities of Athens and culminating with the removal of sculptures from Aeginamarker and the Parthenonmarker (the Elgin marbles), works that ravished the British Philhellenes, many of whom, however, deplored their removal.

Philhellenes in Antiquity

In antiquity, the term 'philhellene' ( , from φίλος - philos, "dear one, friend" + Έλλην - Hellen, "Greek") was used to describe both non-Greeks who were fond of Greek culture and Greeks who patriotically upheld their culture. The Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon defines 'philhellen' as "fond of the Hellenes, mostly of foreign princes, as Amasis; of Parthian kings[...]; also of Hellenic tyrants, as Jason of Pherae and generally of Hellenic (Greek) patriots.

Some examples:

Roman philhellenes

The literate upper classes of Rome were increasingly Hellenized in their culture during the third century BCE.

Among Romans the career of Titus Quinctius Flamininus (died 174 BCE), who appeared at the Isthmian Games in Corinth in 196 BCE and proclaimed the freedom of the Greek states, was fluent in Greek, stood out, according to Livy, as a great admirer of Greek culture; the Greeks hailed him as their liberator.


  1. Cartledge
  2. The history of pedagogically conservative philhellenism in German high academic culture has been examined in Suzanne L. Marchand, Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970 (Princeton University Press, 1996; she begins with Winckelmann, Wolf and von Humboldt.
  3. S.L. Marchand, 1992. Archaeology and Cultural Politics in Germany, 1800-1965: The Decline of Philhellenism (University of Chicago).
  4. Cartledge 1995
  5. Η δυστυχία του να είσαι Έλληνας, 1975.
  6. It often selected for its favoured models third and second century sculptures that were actually Hellenistic in origin, and appreciated through the lens of Roman copies: see Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Antique Sculpture 1500-1900 1981.
  7. Philos, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
  8. Philellen, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
  9. A. Wardman, 1976. Rome's debt to Greece.
  10. A modern assessment is E. Badian, 1970. Titus Quinctius Flamininus: Philhellenism and Realpolitik0


  • Paul Cartledge, Clare College Cambridge, "The Greeks and Anthropology" in Classics Ireland 2 (Dublin 1995)

Further reading

  • Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (Nan A. Talese, 2003)
  • Stella Ghervas, « Le philhellénisme d’inspiration conservatrice en Europe et en Russie », in Peuples, Etats et nations dans le Sud-Est de l’Europe, (Bucarest, Ed. Anima, 2004.)
  • Stella Ghervas, « Le philhellénisme russe : union d’amour ou d’intérêt? », in Regards sur le philhellénisme, (Genève, Mission permanente de la Grèce auprès de l’ONU, 2008).
  • Stella Ghervas, Réinventer la tradition. Alexandre Stourdza et l'Europe de la Sainte-Alliance, (Paris, Honoré Champion, 2008). ISBN 978-2-7453-1669-1
  • Emile Malakis, French travellers in Greece (1770-1820): An early phase of French Philhellenism
  • Suzanne L. Marchand, 1996. Down from Olympus : Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970
  • M. Byron Raizis, 1971. American poets and the Greek revolution, 1821-1828;: A study in Byronic philhellenism (Institute of Balkan Studies)
  • Terence J. B Spencer, 1973. Fair Greece! Sad relic: Literary philhellenism from Shakespeare to Byron
  • William St Clair, That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence (Open Book Publishers) ISBN 978-1-906924-00-3

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