Historians call the 18th Century the Age of Enlightenment due to the circulation of ideas that promoted the equality and liberation of all men from all kinds of servitude. Rigas Feraios was one of the champions of liberation movement
18th Century intellectuals criticized institutions such as the monarchy and the Church and social classes such as noblemen and the clergy due to the privileges they enjoyed. The 18th Century gave rise to modernist ideas that are still very much disseminated to this day.
The Romanian Principalities at the time were under the Ottoman sphere of influence. In Bucharest and Iasi, the capitals of the two Romanian Principalities, the rulers were appointed from the Phanar district of Constantinople, inhabited mainly by rich Greeks who more often than not bought their way up the social ladder. The Phanariotes had long been considered corrupt officials of the Ottoman Empire who sought riches while the people starved.
The Phanariote regime was indeed corrupt, yet to a point. Considering the specific timeline and the local context, in over a century of Phanariote rule, from 1714 to 1821, there had been corrupt rulers, but also enlightened rulers who promoted liberalism and nationhood. The Greek-Romanian mix at the helm of the Romanian Principalities led to the rise of national liberation movements. One of the champions of the Greek liberation movement in the province of Wallachia was Rigas Feraios, also known as Rigas Velestinlis, whose ethnic origin remains a bone of contention between Greece and Romania.
Rigas was born in 1757 in Velestino, a village inhabited by Aromanians in the northern part of Thessaly in present-day Greece. Some Romanian historians say he was an Aromanian, while Greek historians say there are no historical documents to support the claim. What is certain is that Rigas was an iconic advocate of Hellenism and supporter of the Greek modern state. For many he is remembered as a hero. He taught in a village close to his birthplace.
Following a conflict with an Ottoman official, Rigas murdered him and took refuge in the uplands, joining a band of Greek insurgents. Later he became part of the community on Mount Athos and eventually travelled to Constantinople, where he became the secretary of the Phanariote ruler Alexander Ypsilantis, one of the leaders of the Filiki Eteria, a secret national organization. In 1775 the young Rigas arrived in Bucharest as Ypsilantis was appointed ruler of Wallachia. He remained in the service of his successor, Nicholas Mavrogenes.
Historian Georgeta Penelea-Filiti refers to Rigas as a public agitator who, upon arriving in Bucharest and coming into contact with the ideas of the French revolution, underwent radicalization: “This Rigas is a very interesting character. Some sources depict him as a teacher, others as an estate administrator for various noblemen. He was a princely secretary. He wrote extensively and struggled to write a Constitution. His version was enforced for all the peoples of the Balkans, without making any mention as to what role each should serve. The focal point was liberation from the Ottoman rule. He ended tragically – the Austrian authorities handed him over to the Ottoman governor of Belgrade, who had him tortured and strangled to death in Kalemegdan Fortress in 1798”.
During his stay in Bucharest, Rigas worked as a dragoman for the French Consular office in Wallachia. Exposed to the revolutionary current, he wrote “Thourios”, commonly considered to be a Greek version of the Marseillaise, a liberation song later made famous by Lord Byron. During his stay in Vienna in the 1790s, he lobbied the Greek liberation cause with the upcoming Emperor Napoleon. He published numerous republican pamphlets as well as a map of regions inhabited by Greeks. Rigas Feraios’ contribution to the emancipation of Southeastern Europe was his appeal to Romanians and Greeks to set up a pan-Balkan alliance against the Ottoman Empire. He urged all Christians in general to make their stand against the Ottoman tyranny.
Scholars who’re familiar with Rigas Feraios’ works consider him a radical republican, an adept of Liberalism. While in Vienna, in 1797, he published “The New Map of Wallachia and part of Transylvania” as well as “The General Map of Moldavia”, along with the aforementioned map of Greece. His intention spoke for itself: he wanted the readers to acknowledge that these were conquered territories illegitimately held by the Ottoman Empire. The only remaining copies of the Romanian Principalities are at the Library in Chios, in the case of Wallachia, and the National Greek History Museum in Athens, in the case of the map of Moldavia.
Rigas life ended violently in 1798, when he was 41 years old. While in Vienna he tried to contact the French revolutionary army, Austria’s archenemy, who were deployed in Italy. An ally of the Ottoman Empire, Austria handed Rigas and his accomplices over to the Belgrade authorities who carried out his death sentence. His legacy commends him as a pioneer of the Greek War of Independence who also spent a good part of his life in Bucharest. (Edited by D. Vijeu)