In this lesson, we examine the revolutionary and nationalist movements in Italy and Greece. We’ll also look at the obstacles both states had to overcome to become internationally recognized nations.

Italy and Greece

Sometimes, the same event can have different results in different places. For example, election fraud in the United States often results in court cases, new elections, arrests, and sometimes even jail sentences for the perpetrators. In other, less stable areas, election fraud can cause civil war. The same thing can be said about 19th century nationalism in Europe. Nationalism, or the pride in one’s own country and its common language and/or values, manifested itself across the continent in the 19th century. In two such places, Italy and Greece, nationalism had significantly different obstacles in results, as both fought for the creation of their own independent states.


For most of the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, the territory that makes up modern Italy was a fragmented region, often under control of monarchs elsewhere in Europe. While the Pope carved out states around Rome as his own personal kingdom, northern and southern Italy often alternated between rule by local kings and periods under control by foreign powers, like Austria, Spain, France, or the Holy Roman Empire. This political reality had created large regional differences between different parts of the peninsula, though most of the region still came from a similar ethnic background and shared similar customs and the Italian language.

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The man with the real political power and acumen to unify Italy was Camilo Benso di Cavour, the prime minister of the most powerful independent Italian state in the early 19th century, Sardinia. In addition to the island of Sardinia, the state also controlled Savoy, Piedmont, and Nice in northern Italy. Cavour realized that the most powerful nation in northern Italy in the mid-19th century was Austria, who possessed the large and rich territory of Lombardy. Knowing Sardinia could not defeat the Austrians by themselves, Cavour tried to position Sardinia in a politically advantageous position by entering the Crimean War on the side of France, Great Britain, and the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century.

Meanwhile, Cavour continued to strengthen Sardinia and its territories from within, building railroads and improving the military. Though Sardinia joined the war late and made very little real impact on the outcome, Cavour’s move had gained Sardinia powerful international friends in Great Britain and France, who were simultaneously upset with Austria for steadfastly refusing to get involved in the Crimean War. With help secured, Cavour stirred up nationalist rebellions in the territory controlled by Austria. Cavour’s troops invaded from the Sardinian territory of Piedmont and Napoleon III of France immediately sent French troops to aid in the Sardinian effort.

The conflict did not take long and Austria surrendered Lombardy to Sardinia. At the same time, Italians in Parma, Tuscany, and other central and northern Italian states rebelled against their independent rulers and joined Sardinia in the hope of creating a pan-Italian state. With northern Italy now largely under the Sardinian flag, Cavour sent Giuseppe Garibaldi with a small force to southern Italy in 1860. Garibaldi was a long-time Italian revolutionary and had been part of a force that had attempted to set up a republic in Rome in 1848. Garibaldi’s forces were wildly successful, but the assault on the southern territories nearly stopped before it even began.

After learning that in return for French help against the Austrians, Cavour had ceded Savoy and Nice to France, Garibaldi was furious with Cavour and Sardinia. Garibaldi was from Nice and was outraged: the very city with which he was hoping to unite Italy was now French. Somehow, Cavour placated him and Garibaldi began his campaign, swiftly conquering Sicily before crossing to the southern Italian countryside, encountering little resistance along the way.

Garibaldi finished his campaign in October of 1860, turned his conquests over to Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia. In 1861, Victor Emmanuel proclaimed all of his territory to be the ‘kingdom of Italy’. In 1866, the new Italian state annexed Venice and the remaining Papal States reluctantly joined Italy in 1870, largely creating the Italian borders we know today.


While prior to Italian unification Italy had been controlled by various states, Greece had for centuries been under the auspices of a single power: the Ottoman Empire. Despite this, the Greek language, culture, and the Greek Orthodox Church had endured and Greeks still maintained a sense of cultural and ethnic identity. As nationalist movements grew in Europe during the 19th century, Greeks began organizing their own organizations promoting Greek independence, the most important of these being Philiki Etaereia, or the ‘Friendly Brotherhood’.

The timing of the growth of Greek independence movements during the 19th century was fortuitous. In prior centuries, independence movements would likely have been easily quashed by the Ottoman military. However, in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was considerably weaker than in previous centuries. Numerous wars with other European powers like Austria and Russia during the 18th century had cost the Ottomans territory in Europe and in central Asia. Additionally, the loss of territory and costs of war had drained the Ottoman treasury, who were in significant economic straits by the time Greeks began clamoring for independence. In addition, military or economic reforms that would change Ottoman fortunes were hard to enact because conservative elements in the Ottoman military and bureaucracy had deeply entrenched interests in maintaining the status quo.

As a result, Greeks were optimistic when the revolt began in March of 1821. The leader of the Friendly Brotherhood, Alexandros Ypsilantis, began an open revolt with a small contingent of troops in Moldavia. Though he was soon defeated, the movement spurred further revolts across Greece. By early 1822, the rebels had firm control over Peloponnesus, enough that they felt comfortable declaring the independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire in January of 1822.

Greek nationalists repulsed several Ottoman attacks in the ensuing years but internal problems soon weakened the resolve of the Greek nationalists. Rivalries between the newly formed government and guerrilla armies broke into open conflict in 1823. Infighting continued between the two sides until the January 1822 government led by Georgios Kountouriotis established itself as the legitimate government of the Greek nationalists. The damage from the internal fighting was done, however, and when a new Ottoman-allied army arrived from Egypt in 1825, the Greek nationalists were defeated and scattered. The Egyptians soon took control of large parts of Peloponnesus, as well as the largest city traditionally in Greek territory, Athens.

The Greek state was only saved through international intervention. In 1826 and 1827, European powers tried to negotiate an end to the conflict. When the Ottoman Empire refused to negotiate, claiming that Greece was a rebellious Ottoman province and should be treated as such, Great Britain, France, and Russia sent its navies to Greece where they destroyed the Ottoman and Egyptian presence and offered the Greek state its protection. Indeed, in 1830, Great Britain recognized Greek independence and other European states soon followed suit. The Ottoman Empire initially refused to accept Greek independence, but was ultimately forced by the circumstances. What was left of the Ottoman Empire’s naval presence was little match for the European forces now protecting Greece and in July 1832, the Ottoman Empire recognized Greece and its independence from the Ottoman Empire via the Treaty of Constantinople.

Lesson Summary

The creation of the Italy and Greece that we know today are both the result of 19th century European nationalist movements. However, they both formed from entirely different circumstances. Italy had never really been its own country; it had been controlled by various states and religious figures for centuries. Italy was really only united through a common language and ethnic background. Greece, on the other hand, had a long and rich history and culture, indeed one of the oldest in Western civilization that was distinct despite being governed by the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

Because of this, despite both states’ nationalist motivations for becoming a state, both had radically different experiences. Italy came together through the piecemeal acquisitions and substantial political maneuvering of Sardinia’s Camilo Benso di Cavour while Greece fought a guerrilla independence movement against its Ottoman overlords. Despite the disparate nature of their wars, both states eventually needed international help and recognition of their nationalist movements in order to fully realize the new Greek and Italian states.

Learning Outcomes

When the video lesson ends, you could have accumulated the knowledge required to:

  • Understand the nationalistic movements in the 1800s in Italy and Greece
  • Describe the efforts of Camilo Benso di Cavour and Garibaldi to unify Italy
  • Remember the purpose of the guerrilla movement in Greece
  • Discuss the effects of the Ottoman attacks on the Greek nationalists