Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717 – 1768), German art historian, Hellenist and archaeologist. The prophet and founding hero of modern archaeology.

Konstantinos Polias

An important facet of the philhellenic dimension among philosophers and intellectuals in Europe during the 18th and 19th century is the almost unanimous recognition in the humanistic tradition, of ancient Greece as a cultural ideal of fundamental significance for the identity of European, or of Western modernity. Τhis does not amount to philhellenism in the strict sense of acts by foreigners in support of the liberation of modern Greece from the Turkish rule during the revolution of 1821. This recognition of ancient Greece[1] was established during the second half of the 18th century, at the same time as the beginning of the regeneration of Greek national consciousness. It laid the groundwork for justifying philhellenism in the strict sense, based on the argument of the cultural debt of Europe, or of the West, to ancient Greece. As pointed out by Terence Spencer, philhellenism “derived from a classical partiality in favour of the supposed descendants of ancient pagan Hellenes; and it inspired the notion that there existed an urgent moral obligation for Europe to restore liberty to Greece as a kind of payment for the civilization that Hellas had once given to the world.”[2]

The work of German classicist, historian and art theorist Johann Joachim Winckelmann is emblematic of the recognition of ancient Greece as ideal of Europe, or of the West, which took the form of a “Graecomania” [3]. His work had a great influence on philosophers and intellectuals, such as Herder, Kant, Goethe, Schiller and more generally on German Idealism and Romanticism. In his book Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks of 1755, Winckelmann claims that “the only way for us to become great or even inimitable if possible, is to imitate the Ancients and what someone said of Homer, that he who has learned to understand him well has learned to admire him, is also true of the art of the Ancients, and of the Greeks in particular.”[4]

Furthermore, in his book History of the Art of Antiquity of 1764, Winckelmann outlines the reason why the works of the ancient Greeks were so far ahead of their time and were the ideal of art worth emulating. This was: the political freedom which characterized the political composition and their government; with Athenian democracy its zenith which shaped the mentality of people.[5] In a similar way, Helvetius responds in 1758 in his book Of the Spirit to the question of the difference between the modern and the ancient Greeks. He refers to difference in the form or the spirit of their government that shapes the “spirit of nations”.[6]

Winckelmann’s work is a basic source for the cultivation of the ideal of ancient Greek culture that Voltaire uses in his Pindaric Ode on the occasion of the present war, that is the insurrection of the Greeks against the Turks in 1770 during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774. In the Ode that documents Voltaire’s philhellenism in the strict sense, Pallas Athena expresses his hopes for the outcome of the struggle:

I want to revive Athens,/ Let Homer sing your combats/

Let the voice of a hundred Demosthenes/ Revive your hearts and your arms/

Come forth, be born again, lovable Arts,/ From these deplorable ruins,/

That hid you under their debris;/ Take back again your antique brilliance.[7]

Αs David Roessel points out, in the poem, the independence of modern Greece is not “an end in itself but rather a prelude to the regeneration of ‘Greece’ an artistic, spiritual, and/or political ideal”, whereas according to Olga Augustinos the “liberation meant “not the creation of independent Greece but the victory of reason and human rights”.[8] This ideal of the cultural inheritance of ancient Greece also explains the iconic phrase of Percy Bysshe Shelley “We are all Greeks” in the preface of the lyrical drama Hellas that predicts the success of the revolt of the Greeks against the Turks in 1821 and was published in 1822.[9]

Percy Bysshe Shelley. Hellas. A lyrical drama. London 1822. Collection SHP.

As Shelley explains: “Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their root in Greece.”[10] The other meaning of this phrase that Roessel also attributes to Voltaire’s poem is that the liberation of the Greeks is at the same time a European liberation due as well to the cultural inheritance from ancient Greece.[11] The crucial element here is that the ideal of political liberty of the ancient Greeks and also the realization of the liberation of modern Greeks is important to these intellectuals because they are themselves living under conditions which are far from free.

Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion, published in 1797, refers to the Greek insurrection of 1770. The hero Hyperion is a modern Greek patriot who returns to Greece: “The beloved soil of my fatherland gives me joy and grief once more“, the novel begins[12]. The contrast between joy and grief follows the contrast of the Spinozan introvert “nature” and the Kantian extrovert “human vocation” (freedom) in a way that is characteristic for early romanticism. Thus after a hymn to the natural beauty of the “holy earth” [13] he will wonder: “But what is that to me? The howl of the jackal, singing its wild dirge amidst the rubble of antiquity, jolts me from my dreams.”  And then he goes on, making clear his interest in the modern enslaved Greece: “Happy the man for whom a flourishing fatherland gladdens and fortifies the heart! Being reminded of mine is like being pitched into the mire, like having the coffin lid slammed shut over me, and whenever someone calls me Greek, I always feel I ‘m being throttled with a dog collar.”[14] In what follows, Hyperion participates enthusiastically in the liberation movement of the Greeks which eventually failed, referring to the insurrection of 1770 during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774.[15]  Hyperion returns to Germany and to “nature” [16], but the novel ends with the characteristic phrase “More anon” [17], implying the “human vocation” (freedom), which is the opposite of “nature”.

Hyperion oder der Eremit in Griechenland. Second edition. 1822. Collection SHP.
50% of the revenues from the sales was used to support financially philhellenic committees in Germany.

News of the revolutionary movement of the Greeks in Moldovlachia in February 1821 led by Alexander Ypsilantis spread. In Germany the first to react was the Kantian professor of philosophy Wilhelm Traugott Krug from Leipzig.

Lithography with Alexandros Ypsilantis (Ypsilanti. Leader of the Greeks). Germany. Early 1820’s. Collection SHP.

Pipe showing Alexandros Ypsilantis and soldiers / volunteers of the Sacred Company. Germany. Early 1820’s. Collection SHP. Inscriptions: Ypsilanti and Hetäristen. Collection SHP.

He called for support of the Greek revolution. In April, on Palm Sunday, he gave a speech entitled The Rebirth of Greece. A Program for the Resurrection Celebration that was enthusiastically received by the audience[18] and was published with a dedication to his Greek students[19]. In agreement with the connection between the rebirth of Greece and the Resurrection, also stated in the preface in terms of the Kantian “human vocation” [20], Krug begins his speech with the concept of “Christian politics”[21]. Thus he adds the other basic element of the philhellenic argumentation (in the strict sense), beyond that of the debt for the cultural inheritance of ancient Greece[22], namely the community of Christian faith. Abroad, “Christian politics” has to fight with the non-Christian”.[23] Once again, Krug uses, for the first time, the argument of the illegal “sovereignty of the Turks”, since it was acquired in violation of international law through a war of aggression. Additionally he invokes the Lockean argument that the Turkish regime treats its subjects in an extremely arbitrary manner.[24]  In August 1821, Krug makes the first call for the foundation of associations that would support the Greek revolutionaries, which leads in many occasions to a reaction on the part of the authorities.[25] Krug’s call had however a major impact and numerous associations were founded.[26]

Four months after the revolution, the professor of philology Friedrich Thiersch became active in a similar way in Munich through the publication of a series of articles in the Allgemeine Zeitung.[27] Like Krug, Thiersch also uses the two basic arguments for the justification of philhellenism (in the strict sense), namely the debt for the cultural inheritance of ancient Greece and the community of Christian faith.[28] In addition, Thiersch promoted the bold plan of recruiting and sending to Greece a “German legion” to assist Greek revolutionaries.[29]

In 1812, Thiersch had already given a speech to the Munich Academy of Sciences on the subject of Greece’s rebirth, based on reports from Greece.[30] The focus was on the efforts of the Greeks in the creation of a national cultural and political consciousness[31], and in particular the foundation of educational institutions and the promotion of the increasingly important sciences[32]. In Vienna in 1814 he became a member of the Philomousos Society and met Kapodistrias. He also met the Metropolitan Bishop Ignatios and Dean Anthimos Gazis, who was the editor of Hermes o Logios, and was informed by them about the plans for liberation.[33] As member of the Academy of Munich he ensured that well known Greek scholars including Korais, Gazis and Mustoxidis[34] became corresponding members and he also arranged for the immediate support of Greek schools in the Ottoman Empire[35]. As the Philomousos Society was sending young Greeks to study in Germany on scholarship, in 1815 Thiersch implemented the idea of a special educational institute to prepare them for their studies. He did so at his own home and it was called the Atheneum.[36] It was from those students that Thiersch learned to speak modern Greek fluently.[37] His activity in this first phase, as well as after the revolution of 1821, provoked the Austrian government to place him under surveillance following the revolution.[38] In particular, it was the “German legion” issue which led to the intervention of Metternich himself, and thus Thiersch had to reject the idea in public.[39]

Later on, after a two-year stay in Greece in 1831-1832, during which he played a mediating role in the civil conflicts after the death of Kapodistrias, Thiersch published in Leipzig a two-volume book in French under the title Kapodistrias’ Greece. The Present Situation of Greece (1828-1833) and the Means to Achieve its Reconstruction. In this book, one of the things he advises the Greeks is to follow a policy of neutrality in foreign politics.[40]

Goethe’s decision to include six folk songs or klephtika in an issue of his journal Über Kunst und Altertum of 1823 is remarkable. And he did so before the publication of the infamous collection of folk songs by Claude Fauriel.[41]

FAURIEL (C.). Chants populaires de la Grèce moderne, 1824. Collection SHP.

Even if his intention was not to express his philhellenism in the strict sense, his decision to present with all his authority, the modern Greek folk songs turn him into a “basic factor of literary philhellenism”, as Chryssoula Kambas notes.[42] In the next issue of the journal, Goethe published the folk song “Charos”, noting the special impression which the poem had made on all his “mental powers” and “especially on the imagination, so that he wanted to see it as a painting”[43]:

Why are the mountains black and tearful?/ Is it the wind that battles them, Is it the rain that beats  them?/ It is neither the wind that battles them, nor the wind that beats them;/ It’s only the Grim Reaper passing by with the dead;/ He drags the young men in front, the old men behind;/ And also the little kids he has gradually forced onto his saddle;/ The old men beg and the young men kneel;/ “Grim Reaper come to the village, come to the cold fountain”;/ “For the old men to drink water and the young men to throw stones”;/ “And the little ones to pick flowers”;/ “I will come neither to the village, nor to the cold fountain/ The mothers come there for water, they recognize their children;/ Husbands and wives recognize each other, and then they cannot be separated.[44]

The philhellenism of Lord Byron, whose poetry was admired by Goethe[45], is of particular importance. This is because he is an intellectual who took part in the Greek revolution from January 1824 in Missolonghi, as the loan commissioner (together with Colonel Stanhope and Lazaros Kountouriotis) of the London Philhellenic Committee.[46] In fact, he lost his life there.

Lithography 19nth century. Lord Byron. Collection SHP.

In Missolonghi, Byron worked with Alexandros Mavrokordatos and organized an army of Souliotes and artillery, at his own expense.[47] His philhellenism can be seen in the references of his poetry to ancient and modern Greece, which were inspired by his first journey to Greece, where he stayed from 1809 to 1811. The experiences during that period are recorded in Canto II of his renowned work Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage of 1812 which made him famous and established him as one of the most important poets in Europe. His references are characterized by admiration for ancient Greece and its monuments and his questioning of the circumstances of the modern enslaved Greeks:

Fair Greece! Sad relic of departed worth!

Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great!

Who now shall lead thy scatter’d children forth,

And long accustom’d bondage uncreate?[48]

Byron would deal with this concern by calling on the Greeks to rebel on their own, thus clearly connecting himself in the eyes of his followers with philhellenism in the strict sense, despite his generally cautious stance as to the potential for liberation:[49]:

Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not

Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?

By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?[50]

Byron’s death in Missolonghi on April 19, 1824 from fever and bloodlettings by the doctors[51] contributed significantly to the raising of public interest in the Greek case on an international basis.

In October 1823, the journal La Muse française, an instrument of romanticism under the direction of Victor Hugo, published a poem by Hugo with philhellenic lyrics: “[…] handed over to the tyrans […]/ Greece shows to the Christian kings its enslaved cross “.[52] Here we have a combination of the love of freedom with the community of the Christian faith.[53] The next year the journal published a text by Hugo that glorified the death of the great romantic poet Byron in Missolonghi.[54]

Lithography 19nth century. Victor Hugo. Collection SHP.

According to Hugo, as noted by Tabaki-Iona, Byron’s death honors romanticism, which “in opposition to classicism no longer refers to the gods of antiquity, but admires the battle of the modern Greeks, of the protagonists of the new Thermopylae who have become symbols of heroism.”[55]

The contribution of the great romantic author François-René de Chateaubriand was of particular importance to the French philhellenic movement, although his support for the revolution of 1821 came rather late.

Lithography 19nth century. François-René de Chateaubriand. Collection SHP.

In 1807, after a journey to Greece, he published texts that refer to the Turkish tyranny in Greece in the journal Mercure de France, and in 1811 he published the infamous Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalen, in which he juxtaposes even more intensely “the glorious generations of antiquity to the Greeks whom he saw suffering under the Turkish tyranny.”[56] In 1811 he was elected a member of the Academy[57] and afterwards he went into politics. In fact, in 1816 he proposed the abolition of slavery for the Christian population to the French Parliament. The proposal that passed referred to human rights and the elimination of shame in Europe.

Proposition a la Chambre des Pairs de France (1816). François-René de Chateaubriand. Collection SHP.

In 1822 he became the Foreign Minister of France.[58] His commitment to the policy of his government however, did not allow him to intervene in favor of the Greek case, but once he left the government and went into the opposition he engaged himself in the French philhellenic movement.[59] In 1825, he published the Note on Greece, where he defends the possibility of liberating Greece from the viewpoint of the foreign policy of the great powers[60], and he also uses the two abovementioned basic arguments for the justification of philhellenism (in the strict sense)[61].

Note sur la Grèce (1826). François-René de Chateaubriand. Collection SHP.

The thesis concerning the fundamental character of the ideal of ancient Greece for Europe or the West to understand themselves, clearly had a widespread influence on philosophers and intellectuals (philhellenism in the broad sense). But over and above this, as we have seen above, a number of philosophers and intellectuals expressed their support for the Revolution of 1821. These included: Krug and Thiersch from Germany; as well as the friends Shelley and Byron from England and Chateaubriand and Hugo from France. We must also note the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who responded to the proposal of the Greek government in 1823 to submit his remarks on the first Constitution of Epidaurus[62]. They contributed significantly, largely through their texts which were important to the philhellenic movement in the strict sense and to the efforts of liberating Greece from the Turkish tyranny and of regenerating the Greek nation. The basic argument was the debt for the cultural inheritance from ancient Greece and the community of Christian faith. Another important factor was the love of freedom, especially in the case of Byron’s decision to participate personally in the Greek Revolution. [63]



[1] Loukia Droulia observes that “the initial meaning of the ancient term φιλέλλην was ‘friend of the Greeks’, admirer of ancient Greek literature and of ancient Greek culture”. “This was the case also during the Renaissance, when e.g. Aldus Manutius addressed in his prefaces the “φιλέλληνες”, those that loved ancient Greek literature.” Loukia Droulia,The Revival of the Greek Ideal and Philhellenism. A perambulation”, in: M. Borowskiej, M. Kalinowskiej, J. Lawskiego (eds.) (επμλ.), Filhellenizm w Polsce. Rekonesans, Warszawa 2007, 25-38, here: 26.

[2] As cited in George Tolias, “The Resilience of Philhellenism, in: The Historical Review, Section of Neohellenic Research, vol. XIII (2016), 51-70, here: 55.

[3] Evangelos Konstantinou, “Graecomania and Philhellenism”, in: European History Online (2012),

[4] Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerey und Bildhauerkunst, Dresden/Leipzig, 1756, 3.

[5] Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, Dresden 1764, 78, 128, 130.

[6] David Roessel, In Byron’s Shadow. Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination, Oxford/New York 2002, 23.

[7] As cited in Roessel, op. cit., 14.

[8] Roessel, op. cit., 14-15. Roessel also mentions Jerome McGann, who, with regard to Byron, claims that “Childe Harold (1812) is obsessed with the idea of the renewal of human culture in the west”, something which also concerns Greece as a “political entity” in the sense of the “‘objective correlative’ for this idea” (Roessel, op. cit., 15).

[9] Roessel, op. cit., 15. Roessel highlights the fact that for the Greek intellectuals the adoption of the ideal of ancient Greece was the medium to convince the West that the Greeks are civilized people (Roessel, op. cit., 16).

[10] Percy Bysshe Shelley, Hellas. A lyrical drama, London 1886, Preface, viii-ix.

[11] Roessel, op cit., 15.

[12] Friedrich Hölderlin, Hyperion, or the Hermit in Greece, translation Howard Gaskill, Cambridge 2019,, 7.

[13] Hölderlin, op. cit., 8.

[14] Hölderlin, op. cit., 7.

[15] Hölderlin, op. cit., 82ff. and 101-102.

[16] Hölderlin, op. cit., 134-137.

[17] Hölderlin, op. cit., 137.

[18] Regine Quack-Eustathiades, Der deutsche Philhellenismus während des griechischen Freiheitskampfes 1821-1827, München 1989, 19.

[19] Wilhelm Traugott Krug, Griechenlands Wiedergeburt. Ein Programm zum Auferstehungsfeste, Leipzig 1821.

[20] Krug, op. cit.,Vorwort [without pagination].

[21] Krug, op. cit., 11.

[22] See Quack-Eustathiades, op. cit., 36-37 for Krug’s argument regarding the debt due to the ancient Greek cultural inheritance; and 31 for the claim that the revolt shows that the modern Greeks are descendants of the ancient Greeks.

[23] Krug, op. cit., 11.

[24] Krug, op. cit., 18-20. See Ludwig Spaenle, Der Philhellenismus in Bayern 1821-1832, München 1984, 37 and Quack-Eustathiades, op. cit., 220-221.

[25] Spaenle, op. cit., 37 and Konstantinou, op. cit., 27.

[26] Κonstantinou, op. cit., 27.

[27] Spaenle, op. cit., 37. Τάσος Βουρνάς, «Φρειδερίκος Τιρς» [Tasos Vournas, “Friedrich Tiersch”] in: Φρειδερίκος Τιρς, Η Ελλάδα του Καποδίστρια. Η παρούσα κατάσταση της Ελλάδος (1828-1833) και τα μέσα για να επιτευχθεί η ανοικοδόμησή της [Friedrich Thiersch, KapodistriasGreece. The Present Situation of Greece (1828-1833) and the Means to Achieve its Reconstruction], 7-41, here: 14.

[28] See Hans-Martin Kirchner, Friedrich Thiersch. Ein liberaler Kulturpolitiker und Philhellene in Bayern, München 1996, 171-172 and Quack-Eustathiades, op. cit., 41.

[29] Spaenle, op. cit., 37.

[30] Spaenle, op. cit., 46.

[31] Spaenle, op. cit., 46.

[32] Κirchner, op. cit., 170.

[33] Kirchner, op. cit., 170.

[34] Kirchner, op. cit., 170.

[35] Spaenle, op. cit., 46.

[36] Spaenle, op. cit., 46-47.

[37] Kirchner, op. cit., 171.

[38] Βουρνάς [Vournas], op. cit., 7.

[39] Kirchner, op. cit., 178-179.

[40] Βουρνάς [Vournas], op. cit., 37-38.

[41] Chryssoula Kambas, ”Das griechische Volkslied Charos in Goethes Version und sein Bild des neuen Griechenland”, in: Gilbert Heß, Elena Agazzi, Elisabet Décultot (ed.), Graecomania. Der europäische Philhellenismus, Berlin/New York 2009, 299-328, here: 301-302.

[42] Kambas, op. cit., 302.

[43] Kambas, op. cit., 304-305.

[44] Kambas, op. cit., 309.

[45] Βασίλης Λαζανάς, «Η ζωή του Byron» [Vasilis Lazanas, “Byron’s life”], in: Lord Byron, Το έπος «Η πολιορκία της Κορίνθου» [The epic “The Siege of Corinth”], Athens 1995, 5-24, here: 17-18.

[46] C.M. Woodhouse, The Philhellenes, London/Athens 1977, 119-120, 139. Δημήτρης Κακαμπούρας, Η Βρετανική Πολιτική, ο Μπάιρον και οι Έλληνες του 21 [Dimitris Kakampouras, British Politics, Byron and the Greeks of 21], Athens 1993, 81.

[47] Roderick Beaton, Βyron’s War, Cambridge 2014, 211ff. and 214-216.

[48] Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, London 1859, Canto II, LXXIII, 107.

[49] Roessel, op. cit., 17, 50.

[50] Lord Byron, op. cit., Canto II, LXXVI, 109.

[51] Beaton, op. cit., 259-262.

[52] Fridériki Tabaki-Iona, Poesie philhellenique et périodiques de la Restauration, Athens 1993, 23. It is the Ode”À mon père“.

[53] Fridériki Tabaki-Iona, ”Philhellénisme religieux et mobilisation des Français pendant la révolution grecque de 1821-1827″, in: Mots. Les langues du politique (2005),, 19.

[54] Tabaki-Iona, Poesie philhellenique et périodiques de la Restauration, Athens 1993, 25-26.

[55] Tabaki-Iona, op. cit., 26.

[56] Émile Malakis, ”Chateaubriand’s Contribution to French Philhellenism”, in: Modern Philology, Volume 26, Number 1 (Αύγουστος 1928), 91-105, here: 93-95.

[57] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ”François-Auguste-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand”, in: Encyclopædia Britannica,

[58] Malakis, op. cit., 96-98.

[59] Malakis, op. cit., 98-99.

[60] Μ. le Vicomte de Chateaubriand, Note sur la Grèce, Paris 1825, 9-10.

[61] That is to say, the debt for the cultural inheritance from ancient Greeks and the community of Christian faith. Chateaubriand, op. cit., 8.

[62] Κωνσταντίνος Παπαγεωργίου, Φιλήμων Παιονίδης, «Εισαγωγή» [Konstantinos Papageorgiou, Philemon Paionidis, “Introduction”], in: Ο Ιερεμίας Μπένθαμ και η Ελληνική Επανάσταση [Jeremy Bentham and the Greek Revolution], Athens 2012, 11-45, here: 28ff.

[63] William St Clair, That Greece Might Still Be Free. The Philhellenes in the War of Independence, Cambridge 2008,, 151-152