The Klepht tradition

Greece came face-to-face with its own history in Macedonia at the beginning of the 20th century. The third generation after the Revolution of 1821 had already associated the foustanela, the white kilt, and the doulamas with military valour, raising the klephts into symbols of daring. How could Greeks fight frankoforemenoi —wearing Western clothes? Konstantinos Mazarakis wrote in his memoirs: “The Greek doulamas electrified them. There were some who became “klephts’ just to wear the foustanela”. Even though the photographs of the fighters as well as the captains of the Struggle for Macedonia show them weighed down in all their ornaments, reality required a far more simple appearance with leather clothes.

In practice, the adoption of other aspects of the Klepht tradition was far more meaningful than clothing and ritual. The number of men in each band was small, 24–45 individuals, so as to be effective without being immediately noticed. Fighting and moving around were as a rule done at night, whilst they slept during the day. Those in the mountains took great care over their retreats and beds.

Many veteran klephts who had joined the bands for several reasons showed that the knife and a hard life were also integral parts of the klephts life and tactics. As such, their compliance with the diplomats, soldiers and other volunteers was not always a given fact. These latter sensed that if the Struggle was to succeed then it also needed diplomacy. If they were to win the battle for consciences then they should not psychologically distance the villagers by appropriating the effective but violent stance of the Bulgarian Committee. Melas was the first to show the impressive potential, but also the limits, of ideological tutelage and gracious behaviour.