The Botsaris Family
Section 2, Number 37
Just behind the Agios Lazarus Church in the First Cemetery there is an imposing obelisk proclaiming in large letters that this is the grave of Demitrios Botsaris, son of Markos Botsaris. Of course I knew Markos Botsaris was a famous Souliot hero of the War of Independence, but I was struck by the fact that his son would have the relationship writ large on his grave since his famous father is buried elsewhere - and that shows how little I understood about modern Greek history.
Dimitrios, son of the hero of 1821, Markos Botsari ...
For generations after the Greek War of Independence, claiming kinship with one of its heroes was not just an honour, it was a passport to acceptance in the halls of government, the military, and the royal court. This was especially true for the orphans of such heroes.
Dimitrios and Katerina Botsaris
Dimitrios M Botsaris was born in Corfu c 1814 and was still a child when his famous father died at in battle at Karpenisi in 1823. Although certainly not any compensation for the loss of a father, this tragedy made him a very privileged orphan and changed the course of his life.
A portrait of young Dimitrios M Botsaris by Albert Riegel, painted in 1829: now at the Benaki Museum in Athens.
He was sent to Munich to study at the "Panhellenion", a school for orphans of the Greek revolution, founded by philhellene King Ludwig 1, father of Greece’s first king. He went on to military college there (then the best in the world) and, when he returned to Greece, he joined the Greek army where he reached the rank of Colonel. He served as Minister of Military Affairs in 1859 and 1856 and died well respected in 1871.
Markos' son, Dimitrios, soldier and politician
Katerina ‘Rosa’ Botsaris was born in Ioannina c 1818 during a period when her father had allied himself with Ali Pasha in Ioannina. When the revolution broke out, she was spirited away by the Ottomans to today’s Drama in Northern Greece. There she remained in the seraglio of Mahmud Dramali Pasha before being returned in a prisoner exchange. She then came under the protection of the Queen Amalia and became one of her ladies in waiting. In this capacity, she travelled to many European courts with the queen. During one visit to Bavaria her portrait was painted by Joseph Karl Stieler.
Ludwig was an admirer of beautiful woman and had portraits painted of 36 of them, including Katerina. They still hang in the Southern Pavillion of Nymphenburg, Ludwig’s sumptuous summer palace near Munich.
Ludwig’s summer palace, far more grand than the Athens’ palace, is a museum today
Of course, Katerina married well, to Greek general Georgios Karatzas, the grandson son of a Greek prince of Wallachia. (These princes, under Ottoman Suzerainty were as close as Greeks have come to being royals.) She died in 1872 and is buried with her husband beneath another large obelisk in the First Cemetery, not far from her brother’s.
Section 2, Number 100
Katerina’s name is at the top of this list
In the First Cemetery there is one other Botsaris who fought in the 1821 revolution:
Dimitrios N Botsaris was the son of Notis and first cousin to Dimitrios and Katerina Botsaris. Born in 1808, this Dimitrios was old enough to fight alongside of his father in many of the major battles of the War. Sadly, like so many youngsters, he spent he spent his teenage years in the midst of bloody battles. Like his cousin, he became a soldier in the Greek army and in 1854, during the Crimean war, fought again in western Greece in a second unsuccessful attempt to wrest the area from the grip of the Ottomans. He became an adjutant of King George 1 and in 1863 Minister of Military Affairs. He died in 1892.
There is quite a family resemblance!
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many family members have continued to be active in the Greek military or in politics. The name Botsaris is still instantly recognized and respected in Greece.
This was not always so. In the 18th and early 19th centuries it was not just the Ottomans who considered armed mountain clans like theirs as untrustworthy outlaws who preyed upon inhabitants of the plains below their hideaways.
The war of 1821 changed all that.
How the clan got ‘civilized’ is one of those fascinating and complicated stories that make reading about this era so fascinating.
From Mountain Outlaws to National Heroes
The Botsari were just one of a several clans which by the 1700s had formed a loose federation of villages in the rugged mountain area of south of the town of Paramythia between Parga on the coast and the Ottoman capital of Ioannina.
Parga, Ioannina, and Paramythia are circled in black.
There was an Albanian ethnic component to all these clansmen, hardly surprising given their geographical location, but just how much is an interesting question all by itself. Such distinctions did not interest the Turks and the Souliots were simply listed as Orthodox Christians. Contemporary accounts called them Albanian Christians but as time passed and a national cultural myth was in the process of developing, historians made them more Hellenic by first suggesting that they were “Greek in spirit” or that they were bi-lingual, and then that they had been Greek speakers all along. (1)
At its height, the Souliot federation numbered around 12,000 souls and comprised 60 small settlements. Their raison d'être was their refusal to knuckle down under Ottoman rule.
Souliot territory south of Paramythia
All lived a hand to mouth existence and of necessity emerged from their mountain fastness to prey on the Ottoman towns as well as the settled Greek farmers living in the lowlands. (2) Sometimes a clan hired itself out to an Ottoman strong man who wanted to maintain order in his territory or expand his influence. As a result, one Souliot clan in the federation might find itself facing another Souliot clan hired by the opposite side! Epithets of ‘traitor’ were not uncommon and did not do much for the federation’s cohesion.
But traitors to what or to whom? Who could a clan have trusted - the ever changing parade of venal pashas sent by the Sultan to tax and subdue the local population, their fellow countrymen who endured and sometimes prospered under Ottoman rule, their own loose federation formed out of necessity in what was, in fact, a mountain desert?
As a result, family ties within the clan trumped any wider loyalty unless the Ottoman threat was imminent and, sometimes, not even then. At times the two most famous Souliot clans, the Botsaris and the Tzavellas clans, were allied in an endeavour; sometimes not.
You could say that, until 1821, clans like the Botsari were rebels without a cause.
Ali Pasha and the Souliots
Ali Pasha had taken over the Ioannina in 1789 and was hell bent on enlarging his territory to form an entity independent of the Sultan. The Souliots were a thorn in his side. He tested their cohesion by offering financial inducements to individual clan leaders to fight for him. Betrayal was most often the common currency of these agreements.
When the coastal town of Parga fell into French hands in 1797, Ali feared they would arm the Souliots against him so he built a fort at Kiafa between Souli territory and Parga, and waited... Cut off from their vital supply base, the Souliots were forced to come to terms in 1803. They accepted exile in the Ionian islands in exchange for keeping their arms and a free passage out of Souli.(3)
And that is how some 3,000, hard fighting men, including the young Markos Botsaris and his father, Kitsos, found themselves exiles on Corfu in 1803 when it was the Septinsular Republic under the dual sovereignty of Russia and the Ottomans.
A Corfu Interlude
During their years of exile on Corfu, the Souliots would live under Russian-Ottoman, then French, then British control. Each new overlord had different and often shifting objectives in the region.
So Many Flags!
In 1803, they were officially listed as Albanesi or Suliotti and there was some concern about what to do with them. The solution was the formation of the Legion of Light Riflemen, a regiment to help guard the Island’s borders and to be on call for any military actions that might arise.
Then came the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 and the French. They incorporated them into a new regiment, the Régiment Albanais. It had a nominal strength of 3,254 men in three battalions of nine companies each, and a 14- command staff, all under the command of Colonel Jean-Louis Toussant Minot.
By 1809 battalion leaders included Souliot Fotos Tzavellas (father of Kitsos Tzavellas ) and Kitsos Botsaris, the father of Markos. The Albanian regiment offered stability, army pay and a chance to keep fighting fit if a return to the mainland were ever possible. Their down side as soldiers was twofold: their continuing preference to follow their clan leader rather than the regiment commander and each clan leader’s ingrained preference to lead rather than to follow.
In 1814, the new British overlords preferred a rapproachment with the Ottomans and disbanded the regiment leaving many Souliots destitute. Some took up farming and herding. Some gravitated to relatives on other Ionian Islands. One group attempted to seek aid from Russia and, although that effort ended in failure, it did put them in contact with the newly formed Filiki Etairia in Odessa. According to some accounts, Markos joined the Filiki Etairia during these years but he also joined forces with Ali Pasha in Ioannina in exchange for the lost villages of Souli.
No one ever questioned their fighting ability but, many of their contemporaries regarded them with deep mistrust. (4)
This was the situation as the Greek War of Independence began and the Souliots at last found themselves in a war worth fighting.
Their independence, their costumes, and their fighting ability captured the imagination of Byron and other Philhellenes who poured into Greece. When Byron landed in Cephalonia, he hired a group as his personal body guards. European Romanticism was in full bloom, and it would have been hard to find a group more ripe for their admiration than the Souliots.
A typical romantic depiction of the Souliots, one that would persist in art and periodicals well into the late 1800s. (From “Travels in Sicily Greece and Albania” by Thomas Smart Hughes. Published in London in 1820.)
Martyrdom and Apotheosis
The sudden death in battle of Markos Botsaris at Kapenisi in 1823 when he was in his prime (33) and Byrons death’ soon after (aged 36) catapulted both men into the sphere of legend. They became exalted martyrs to the cause, which indeed they were. Throughout the 19th century, their story was repeated and embellished again and again, encapsulating as it did the aspirations of the nation. (5)
“The oath of Lord Byron at the grave of Markos Botsaris” in Messolonghi by Ludovico Lipparini
The Botsaris story became famous all over Europe. I was surprised to see that there is even a Metro station named after him in Paris (in 1913).
Look again at the portrait of Dimitrios M Botsaris, painted in 1929: the large eyes, long nose, small mouth, the gaze, - even the ribbon keeping the hair under control. All that is missing is the halo. By 1829, this child had already become a national icon.
The Souliots becoming so firmly integrated into the national myth has had a lasting effect. There is a persistent and deep seated admiration for the outlaw or brigand as hero throughout modern Greek history. This has had real consequences during the Macedonian struggle and the Greek civil war. In Greece the Modern Sequel, the authors call this phenomenon the Pallikari Syndrome, an interesting topic all by itself...
(1) There has been a great deal written on this issue. To me, it seems unimportant.
(2) This phenomenon of outlaw clans was not restricted to western Greece. We have to look no farther than the Peloponnese to see that Klefts, like Theodoros Kolokotronis and clan leaders like Petrobey Mavromichaelis. There were more but these groups never federated.
(3) Safe passage for some only . A group of Souliot women were attacked at Zolongo by the Ottomans as they fled to Arta and they committed suicide rather than be captured. See: https://athensfirstcemeteryinenglish.blogspot.com/2020/05/kitsos-tzavellas.html
(4) The provisional Greek government when it was formed as well as Philhellenes, Byron included, were frustrated by the Souliot tendency to keep for themselves any prize they wrested from the enemy, and their constant demand for pay. None of the above was inconsistent with their life experience but it caused comments like this on from Alphonse de Beachamp: The Albanians are as little capable as the Greeks of resisting the temptation of Gold. By Greeks he is likely referring to clans from the Peloponnese. There was more than a little racism evident in many Philhellenes. They wanted noble ancient Greeks, not the rag tag army of resistors they found in 1821.
(5) Sometimes it is hard to separate fact from fiction in this history; it has been studied and reviewed from so many modern perspectives.
The Ionian Islands: Aspects of their History and Culture by Patrick Sammon. Most of this fascinating book is on line and a good read. Google Botsaris clan to get it.
Greece the Modern Sequel by J. Koliopoulos and Thanos Veremis
Brigands with a Cause: brigandage and irredentism in modern Greece, 1821-1912 by J Koliopoulos