Theodoros Kolokotronis, who lived from April 3, 1770 to Feb. 4, 1843, is undoubtedly the ultimate symbol of the Greek War of Independence, which took place from 1821 to 1830. More than any other individual, he is the man who completely embodied the battle cry “Liberty or Death”.
Kolokotronis was born at Ramavouni in Messenia to a family who had rebellion in their blood. He grew up in Arcadia in the central Peloponnese. The Kolokotronis clan was well-known, powerful and respected in the Arcadia region in the eighteenth century.
The family had found itself in a state of constant war with their Ottoman overlords since the sixteenth century. From 1762 to 1806, seventy members of the greater Kolokotronis clan were slain in clashes with the conquerors.
The legendary pride — and insubordination — of the Kolokotronis family is even commemorated in a well-known folk song written during that time:
“On a horse they go to church,
On a horse they kiss the icons,
On a horse they receive communion
From the priest’s hand.”
The Greek Revolution found Theodoros Kolokotronis in Morea organizing a company of Greek rebels into a more effective army. He was already 51 years of age, an old man by nineteenth-century standards, and by any standard among fighting men. Among his comrades he was known by the nickname “The Elder of Morea.”
Despite his age, the Greek commander claimed victory after victory, and his forces were unstoppable. The Battle of Dervenakia, in August 1822, inflicted great damage upon the forces of the Ottoman army, and equally important, upon its prestige.
Kolokotronis went on to liberate the town of Nafplio in December of 1822. He is said to have ridden his horse up the steep slopes up to the castle of Palamidi to celebrate his victory.
He was also famously quoted as saying, “Greeks, God has signed our Liberty and will not go back on his promise.”
In 1825, Kolokotronis was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Greek forces of the Peloponnese.
After Greece’s winning of independence over the Ottoman Empire, the indomitable fighter became a supporter of Greece’s first ruler of modern times, Ioannis Kapodistrias. Kolokotronis was also a proponent of an alliance with Russia.
When Kapodistrias was assassinated by a clan of Mani landowners on Oct. 8, 1831, Kolokotronis created his own administration in support of Prince Otto of Bavaria as the new king of Greece.
However, the former freedom fighter later opposed Otto, and on June 7, 1834, he was charged with treason and sentenced to death. He was ultimately pardoned in the year 1835. Theodoros Kolokotronis died in 1843 in Athens.
Kolokotronis had learned to write in the twilight of his life, just so that he might be able to complete his autobiography. His memoirs have been a perennial favorite ever since throughout Greece, and they have been translated several times into English and other languages.
Kolokotronis’s famed helmet, preserved in almost perfect condition, may be seen today along with the rest of his arms and armor in the National Historical Museum of Greece in Athens.