Inside Stories

“Freedom or Death”

On the mantle above the fireplace in the Mayor’s Reception Room, in the Lowell City Hall, proudly sets a bust of Pericles, the famous Athenian General and statesman and fastened to its base is an inscription of his words that have rung true through the centuries. “Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the  courage to defend it.”

And, not to be out done, from the ancient Spartans came the cry,  “For Sparta, for Freedom, to the death.”

In other words, “Freedom or Death”…that has been the fundamental tenet of achieving and preserving Freedom, the mortar, that has bound Greece to America since the birth of the United States.

From the days of the ancients, over 2500 years ago, Freedom came to mean Democracy.

That was the system that provided the greatest opportunity for the pursuit of happiness for the individual, rule of the majority and protection of the minority, individual rights balanced with the public good. “Freedom or Death” that was exactly the message that Pericles carried to the Athenians and King Leonidas exemplified to the Spartans.

It is important to understand that that political philosophy…that message of Liberty…that clarion call of Freedom….burns in the hearts of all men and women desiring to be free.

Though sometimes just a glowing ember for centuries upon centuries, it survived and blazed again in the minds and hearts of many of America’s founding fathers, who studied the classics and appreciated the ancient struggles of the Greeks and the birth of democracy  and embraced the Greek idea in America’s fight for freedom.

The American Revolution has forever been symbolized by the words of Virginian Patrick Henry and you can almost imagine the specter of Pericles or the great Spartan, King Leonidas, standing with him in solidarity, when he said,  “Give me Liberty (Freedom) or give me Death.”

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, once wrote, “To the ancient Greeks…we are all indebted for the light which led  ourselves…American colonists, out of gothic darkness.”

Within our Constitution are enshrined many of the Greek ideals of freedom…that all power is derived from the people and the constitutional guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Some 45 years later, the words ”Freedom or Death” again rang through Greece as the battle cry for freedom and independence after over 400 years of Ottoman oppression and occupation.

Over 400 years, the Ottoman empire systematically tried to stamp out all that was Greek, its religion, its language, its culture, and most of all, its ancient Greek desire to be free.

On March 17th in 1821, in the southern Peloponnese of Greece, in Aeropolis, led by Petros Mavromichalis,  2,000 Maniates, who were direct descendants of the ancient Spartans and whose progeny were many of the Greeks that settled in Lowell, declared war against the Ottoman Empire with the battle cry “Eleftheria i Thanatos”…… “Freedom or Death.”

By March 23rd, after joining thousands of other Greek revolutionary troops, the Ottoman stronghold of Kalamata was finally returned to Greek hands.

March 25th would become the Greek July 4th for it has come down to us that on that day, Metropolitan Germanos, the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Patras, at the monastery of Agia Lavra in  Kalavryta, after the singing of Christian Orthodox Holy Hymns, blessed the flag of Independence and the revolutionary Greeks, who were there assembled.

The Greek revolution and war for independence was supported by many influential Americans, who gave money, arms and in some cases went over to join the fight like Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe of Boston.

They appreciated the historic and political debt that America owed to Greece and they were heartsick over the sad irony of the reality that the country that gave birth to democracy and its ideals of freedom to the world, had found itself, enslaved.

“Freedom or Death,” that was the exact chord struck by Kolokotronis, the Greek revolutionary leader, when he wrote to the Philhellenes (Friends of the Greeks) in America and said,  “Greece is forever grateful to the philanthropy of our Christian American brothers…who share her struggle and who also support with their funds her just war for  independence….The GREEKS DETERMINED TO LIVE OR DIE FREE, do not fear shedding their blood…and they are ready to accept death rather than slavery.”

And, it was this commitment to “Freedom or Death” by a unified Greek people that finally broke the seemingly unbreakable subjugation at the heavy hands of the Ottoman empire and returned the first democracy to freedom.

It would be the beginning of the fight for democracy and freedom that swept through Europe two decades later.

Through the twentieth century and up today, only a handful of countries have stood with America, bound together by the guiding principle of “Freedom or Death.”

One of those few countries and one of America’s most loyal allies was and is Greece.

To truly appreciate modern Greece’s commitment to Freedom, one should only look at WWII.

When the Axis powers, led by Hitler’s Nazi forces, marched through Europe, one after another, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and Yugoslavia fell and were conquered with little or no resistance until they got to Greece.

On October 28, 1940, the Italian leader Mussolini confidently issued a demand to Greece for its unconditional surrender.

Within three hours, he got his surprising response, “OXI”…. “NO”.

The Italians outnumbered the Greeks almost 7-1…10-1 in terms of arms, but they misjudged  the Greek spirit of Pericles and Leonidas and Kolokotronis and their commitment to “Freedom or Death.”

The Greeks drove the Italian army back into Albania with a humiliating defeat.

This would be the first victory by the Allies over the Axis powers but it had even further significance and is credited for being one of the chief reasons for the Allies’ final victory over Germany in WWII.

The Greek victory caused Hitler to delay his invasion of Russia by almost two months, as he now had to send troops headed for Russia into Greece. This delay caused his Russian campaign to fall into the throes of one of the earliest and coldest Russian winters in history, causing its ultimate failure.

Because of the Greek’s heroism and courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, made this observation for the ages, “Today we say that all Greeks fight like heroes, from now on we will say that all heroes fight like Greeks”

“Freedom or Death,” that is what unites the first democracy, Greece,  with the greatest democracy, America.

That commitment made America the land of the free and home of the brave.

However, there is, also, another land of the free and home of the brave and that is Greece.

Wherever Freedom and Democracy stand, whether it’s in America or a country fighting for its freedom like Ukraine, there stands Greece.

For all …all, who are Democratic and Free, are its offspring.

Whenever, we as Greeks gather as a community in this wonderful city of Lowell, Massachusetts, the fourth oldest Greek community in America and where, at one time, over 20% of its population was Greek, we have to take a moment to remember and thank those who came before us, that person or persons in our family who made that decision to seek a better life for themselves, their children and their children’s children.

Today, on March 25th, 2024, as we remember and honor the historic struggle and victory of our forefathers and mothers for Greek Independence, we stand together as the beneficiaries of their struggle and sacrifice, as well as the beneficiaries of the struggle and sacrifice of that family member, who came to what was a foreign country, most with little,  if any, money and not knowing the language or the customs.

Whether it was our Yiayia or Papou, father or mother, or a great grandparent or yourself, we say humbly thank you for this life of opportunity and hope and of freedom and prosperity.

If not for you…where would we be?

Thank you and God Bless

Zito Hellas

3 responses to ““Freedom or Death””

  1. Great article!
    I learned a lot about my fellow tribesmen
    (some things that I never realized).

  2. Peter Demis says:


  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this review of the history of the Greek committment to democracy and freedom, and the heroic people who paid for it in blood.

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