Theodoros Kolokotronis

(Also spelled Theodore Colocontranes)


Important leader of the Greek revolt against the Ottoman Turks during the War of Independence

Excerpt from the book "The Greek Adventure" by David Howarth

Copyright 1976 by David Howarth.

[David Howarth, 1912-1991, was a british writer who specialized in historical and military history. His writing contains a certain informal element punctuated with humor that make his books entertaining while still factually accurate and analytical in the format of a mainstream, popular history.)

NOTE: The spelling for Kolokotronis name varies in English language history books)

From the chapter REVOLT, from the section Greeks & Philhellenes, 1821-1822

"[In the North of Greece] the only sizeable gangs of fighting men were being led by Colocotrones the klepht.


Colocotrones had no hereditary rank and no tribe or territory of his own; he said he was born in the mountains under a tree. His forebears had been fighters for at least a hundred years, sometimes as brigands and sometimes in the armed guards the primates maintained as a kind of police force - sometimes, in other words, against the law and sometimes on its side. But in his father's time, the brigands had been too successful and rapacious, and the Turks had made a special effort to put an end to them. His father was killed, and he himself had to flee the country and go into exile in the Ionian Islands. It gave him a standing grudge against the Turks, but to be fair one must add that they were not to blame. It was the Greek peasants who suffered most from the brigands' raids, and they had asked the Turks to protect them from their own compatriots.

The portraits of Colocotrones do not make him look an attractive person. His hair is long and lank, his moustache droops grimly down, and so do the corners of his mouth and eyes: he has a forbidding air of cunning and ferocity. Certainly those were two of his characteristics, and he may have found it useful to look like that. His higher qualities, like most people's in this story, are hard to assess. Some people said he was clear-headed and good-natured, and exalted him as more heroic than any mere man can be; others said he was greedy, selfish and ambitious. But these differing judgements reflected the prejudices of the men who made them, rather than inconsistency in himself. He had two kinds of critics: the men who wanted to do what he did but were not so good at it, and the men from abroad who imported the foreign idea of national patriotism, and expected a leader at least to try to disguise his private ambition with patriotic slogans, in short, he was the kind of leader the peasants and brigands wanted, but not the kind the foreigners thought they ought to want: and it remains a matter of taste to prefer the bare-faced brigand or the wily phanariot.

When Colocotrones reached the Ionian Islands, they were nominally a republic under the joint protection of Turkey and Russia, for the Republic of Venice, which had owned them for centuries, came to an end in 1797. In 1807 they became a part of Napoleon's empire, and in 1815 they became a republic again, but under British protection. Most of the time, Colocotrones made a living importing cattle from Greece to feed the foreign troops; but the British recruited a regiment of Greeks, and he joined it. He had no special sympathy for the British, but they made him a captain and then a major, so the pay was good. He was one of the early members of the Hetairis, and before the revolution started he left the British service and went secretly back to the Peloponnese and waited. By then, be was fifty.

Wikipdeia Portrait Colocontranes

Thus he became the only native leader in Greece who had served in a European army. His European critics afterwards said he had not learned anything from the experience. But more probably he had the common sense, which they did not, to see that no human power could turn the Greek brigands and peasants into a formal army, or persuade them to drill and manoeuvre and fight in the disciplined ranks that Wellington or Napoleon commanded. When he came home after fifteen years in exile, plenty of men remembered his reputation as a brigand chief and were ready to join him; so he simply became a brigand chief again, with a brigand's technique of strategy and tactics.

He was present at the sacking of Kalamata, and then he set off on his own. He was reported first with thirty followers, and then with three hundred, and a week or two later with six thousand. Probably nobody counted them, and most figures in this war were vastly exaggerated; but certainly he soon had enough to lay siege to a minor town, and through all the vicissitudes of war he was never without a private army of his own. Even when he was imprisoned by his own government, his followers faithfully waited for him to get out again.

His first foray was a failure. His force, whatever its size, was routed by some Turkish cavalry who were numbered at five hundred. Colocotrones had to run with the rest; and in fact he ran so fast that he lost his rifle.

The Greeks' habit of running away when a battle seemed to be going against them was one of many things that scandalized European officers a little later; for the officers, who began to arrive in Greece before the year was out, were schooled in the virtue of fighting to the last round and the last man. But running away was not a custom peculiar to the Greeks; it was the common-sense tactic of guerilla fighters anywhere, and it was really of more practical use than the heroic death that European armies glorified. Colocotrones may have thought the rout of his men was a set-back, but certainly not a major disgrace or disaster: they knew very well they could not fight against cavalry, so it was stupid to try.

That was not the only habit that shocked the foreign officers, who had fought either for or against Napoleon. They disapproved entirely of the Greeks' idea of tactics, and never made any attempt to understand them. The Greeks would not fight in the open like European armies, or march in formation. They always had to take cover, usually behind rocks, and if they could not find rocks they built themselves little walls of stones. From there, they would open fire, and also shout insults and make obscene and derisive gestures at the enemy. Few of them had rifles, most had muskets, and no doubt most of the muskets were very old. A musket at best was a very inaccurate weapon. Even a skilled man using Brown Bess, the musket of Wellington's armies, needed luck to hit a rank of men at much more than seventy paces; and the Greeks - perhaps became their weapons were so old - preferred to fire from the hip and were said to turn their faces away when they pulled the trigger. So what with one thing and another, few men were killed in their battles, and as soon as anyone had that misfortune his enemies were likely to forget the fight in a rush to strip and behead the corpse. It was a method of war that so far had only been tried against rival brigands and small detachments of Turks. It remained to be seen how well it would work against a formal army. But the Greeks had the utmost faith in it."

From the book The Greek Adventure, Lord Byron and Other Eccentrics in the War of Greek Independence, Copyright 1976 By David Howarth.

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