The Territorial Expansion of Modern Greece


I recently finished A Concise History of Greece, Third Edition by Richard Clogg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Clogg is a now a retired professor of modern Greek history, but previously lectured in London and Oxford. The book is just what it advertises – a concise history of modern Greece from 1770 up to the present time. It must be one of the standard histories on the subject as it has gone through eighteen printings in three editions, something any academic would envy. I am sure it is a textbook in universities, and anybody moving to Greece or just interested in the place would do well to read it.

Several themes emerge in the history of the past 250 years. First, repeatedly, the “Great Powers” of the day have been instrumental in the modern history of Greece, beginning in the 19th century with France, the UK, Russia, and continuing into the 20th Century with the Soviet Union, the United States, and the European Union. A second theme has been the see-saw politics between whether Greece would be a monarchy or a republic. The original Greek revolutionaries wanted a republic, but the Great Powers imposed a Bavarian prince on the infant nation of Greece in the 1830s. There have been various depositions, abdications, republics, and restorations since. The issue was only resolved in 1974 by a referendum on the question, which abolished the monarchy. A third, related theme has been the movement back and forth between military dictatorships and democracy. A fourth theme has been the threat of the Ottoman Empire, and then its successor state Turkey. A fifth theme has been the territorial expansion of the Greek nation (there are undoubtedly others, but this will do for now).


A useful map from Wikipedia: Credit

As the map above shows, the original Kingdom of Greece was less than half of its present territory. Greeks had risen up in revolt in 1821, and were supported by Philhellenes – literally, “Greek-lovers” – from Germany, the UK, France, and Russia. After many years of indecisive battle political leaders from those nations tried to negotiate some sort of a solution with the Ottoman Empire, and sent their fleets down to the area to keep an eye on things. It is not clear how deliberate it was, but the last decisive naval battle of the sail era was fought with the Ottoman-Egyptian navy at the port of Navarino on the west side of the Peloponnese, and the British and their friends pretty much destroyed the opposing naval force. The Ottoman Army, mostly made up of Egyptians, was stranded and unsuppliable, and peace was negotiated by the Great Powers over the heads of the Greek revolutionaries. The British insisted on setting up a monarchy and chose the son of the King of Bavaria to be that king.

At independence there were more Greek speaking peoples outside of Greece than inside it. Most of them were in the areas to the north, in Crete, in Constantinople, on the Aegean islands, and in Ionia in Anatolia. There were sizeable Greek communities on the south shore of the Black Sea around Trezibond, in Albania and Bulgaria, in Armenia and Russia, in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, and Sicily and southern Italy. There were even ethnic Greek communities in Cappadocia in eastern Anatolia, where the people spoke Turkish but were ethnically Greek and Orthodox Christians.

The history of Greece is the story of additions to that original territory, to the point of over-reaching.

  • In 1864 the UK handed over the United States of the Ionian Islands, which they had been “protecting” since taking them over from Napoleon in 1815. Napoleonic France had taken them from the Venetian Republic, and interestingly they are the only part of Greece that was never part of the Ottoman Empire.
  • In 1881, after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, Greece was given Thessaly, the area north of Central Greece.
  • In 1897 the Greeks of Crete erupted in rebellion against the Ottoman Turks (this had happened repeatedly the previous hundred years) and the Ottoman Turks, as usual, responded harshly. Mobs of angry Muslim Cretans attacked Greek Orthodox Cretans, and the Greeks responded in kind. The Muslim Turk vigilantes went too far, though, and a number of citizens of the Great Powers were murdered by mobs, including the British Consul in Crete. The Great Powers sent in their armed forces and forced the Ottoman Empire to grant almost complete sovereignty to the island, and the brother of the Greek king was made the governor.
  • In 1913, after two Balkan Wars Greece, Greece received Macedonia and Epirus, as well as formally annexing Crete.
  • After sitting out most of the First World War, Greece joined the side of the Allies (and eventually forced the abdication of the German-favouring king and replaced him with his brother). After the war, in 1919, the Kingdom of Greece received West Thrace from Bulgaria, which had been on the losing side with Germany and the Ottoman Empire.
  • As well, Greeks saw an opportunity to expand into East Thrace and Anatolia with the Treaty of Sevres which was imposed on the Ottoman Empire by the victorious Allies. The Ottoman Empire fell apart, but out of its ashes Kemal Ataturk formed the new, secular nation of Turkey, based in Ankara in central Anatolia. The new Turkish nation disavowed the Treaty of Sevres, and its new army challenged the Greeks for the territories in Anatolia. At first, in 1921, the Greek Army had success as they marched towards Ankara, but then lost a series of battles. Some 300,000 Greek Orthodox in Anatolia died, Smyrna burned, and the Greeks lost the war. With the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 Greece conceded its losses, and the two nations exchanged populations – some 300,000 Muslims (many Greek-speaking) were expelled from Greece, and over 1,000,000 Orthodox (many Turkish speaking) were expelled from Anatolia. The dream of Greater Greece died in this, in what is now known in Greece as The Catastrophe.
  • In the Second World War, in October 1940, Greece was invaded by Italy from occupied Albania. Greece fought back so effectively that they controlled southern Albania, which many Greek nationalists thought should have belonged to them anyway. The Germans took over the war against Greece in the spring of 1941 and fairly quickly outflanked the Greeks and their British allies, and conquered the nation. The Germans only left after the unconditional surrender in May 1945.
  • In 1947 the Dodecanese (“literally, “Twelve Islands”) was yielded to Greece by Italy. Italy had taken the islands, the largest of them being Rhodes, in 1912, after the Italo-Turkish War (the one where the Italians conquered Libya). When the Italians in 1943 reversed sides the Germans promptly occupied the islands, and after Germany lost the war the British occupied them. When Italy signed a peace treaty with the victorious Allies in 1947 it was obliged to surrender all of its colonies, including the Dodecanese.
  • This was not the end to enosis, the desire to unite all Greeks into one country. The island of Cyprus had been a British colony since the 19th century but granted independence in the 1950s. While Cyrus had a majority Greek-speaking population, there was also a sizeable Turkish minority. In 1974 the military junta ruling Greece conspired with Cypriot Greeks to overthrow the government of Cyprus and effect a union of Cyprus with Greece. This resulted in an international crisis, the invasion of the Turkish army, the failure of the coup in Cyprus, the country being split into a Turkish north and a Greek-speaking south, and the fall of the junta in Athens. Cyprus remains its own country, but one divided. The only good thing that emerged out of this is that Greece turned its back on military rule and restored democracy.

Following the Catastrophe and with the cessation of the Dodecanese, the ordinary citizens of Greece ceased to have any more territorial ambitions. Their focus has shifted to defending what it has, building better relations with their neighbours, and developing the economy. However, given that the country had been conquered in living memory, and that it is not yet a century since the end of the dream of a Greater Greece on the eastern shores of the Aegean, the people are still sensitive about the integrity of its territory. This past explains much of the current foreign policy of the nation.

We live across Souda Bay from the Chania airport, which is also a NATO air force base and the second largest air base for the Greek air force. Military jets take off all the time, and I suspect most of them are heading off to challenge Turkish military jets entering disputed airspace. There is interest in both Turkey and Greece to drill for oil in the Aegean, but there is no agreement between the two nations as to where their respective maritime jurisdictions meet. Thus there is a large base at Souda for the Hellenic Navy. While the nations have not actually been to war since 1923, they have come awfully close, especially in 1974. While all out war is unlikely, both sides remain armed to the teeth. It makes for an interesting place to live.

Sig short

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
This entry was posted in Crete, Greece, War and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s