Klephts (Greek: κλέφτης, pl. κλέφτες - kleftis, kleftes, which means "thief" - and perhaps originally meant just "brigand") were highwaymen turned self-appointed armatoloi, anti-Ottoman insurgents, and warlike mountain-folk who lived in the countryside when Greece was a part of the Ottoman Empire. They were the descendants of Greeks who retreated into the mountains during the 15th century in order to avoid Ottoman oppression. They carried on a continuous war against Ottoman rule and remained active as brigands until the 19th century.
After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and then the fall of Mistra in the Despotate of the Morea, most of the plains of present-day Greece fell entirely into the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The only territories that did not fall under Ottoman rule were the mountain ranges (populated by Greeks and inaccessible to the Ottoman Turks), as well as a handful of islands and coastal possessions under the control of Venice. This situation lasted until at least 1821, although there were some parts of Greece, such as Macedonia and Epirus, that still remained in Turkish hands until the 20th century. This period of time in Greece is known as the Τουρκοκρατία or "Turkocracy."
Ottoman lands were divided up into pashaliks, also called eyalets; in the case of the lands that form present-day Greece, these were Morea and Roumelia. Pashaliks were further sub-divided into sanjaks which were often divided into feudal chifliks (Turkish çiftlik (farm), Greek τσιφλίκι tsifliki). Any surviving Greek troops, whether regular Byzantine forces, local militia, or mercenaries had either to join the Ottoman army as janissaries, serve in the private army of a local Ottoman notable, or fend for themselves. Many Greeks wishing to preserve their Greek identity, Orthodox Christian religion, and independence chose the difficult but liberated life of a bandit. These bandit groups soon found their ranks swelled with impoverished and/or adventurous peasants, societal outcasts, and escaped criminals.
Klephts under Ottoman rule were generally men who were fleeing vendettas or taxes, debts and reprisals from Ottoman officials. They raided travelers and isolated settlements and lived in the rugged mountains and back country. Most klephtic bands participated in some form in the Greek War of Independence. During the Greek War of Independence, the klephts, along with the armatoloi, formed the nucleus of the Greek fighting forces, and played a prominent part throughout its duration. Yannis Makriyannis referred to the "klephtes and armatoloi" as the "yeast of liberty".
Klephtic songs (Greek: Κλέφτικα τραγούδια), or ballads, were developed in mainland Greece. They are part of the Greek folk music genre, which includes folk poetry, and are thematically oriented on either the achievements and death of a single klepht or the generic life of the klephts as a group. Klephtic songs are especially popular in Epirus and the Peloponnese. Dvořák, the Czech composer, wrote a song-cycle named Three Modern Greek Poems: the first one is entitled "Koljas - Klepht Song" and tells the story of Koljas, the klepht who killed the famous Ali Pasha.
The most famous klephtic and modern Greek folk song is The Battle of Mount Olympus and Mount Kisavos, a ballad based on a musico-poetic motif dating back to classical Greece (specifically the poetic song composed by Corinna pertaining to a contest between Mount Helicon and Mount Cithaeron). Concordance between klepht songs and Homer's Iliad was explored by Michael M. Nikoletseas in The Male Totem in Klepht Poetry: Parallels with the Iliad.
The famous Greek dish klephtiko (or kleftiko), a dish entailing slow-cooked lamb (or other meat), can be translated "in the style of the klephts". The klephts, not having flocks of their own, would steal lambs or goats and cook the meat in a sealed pit to avoid the smoke being seen.
- Odysseas Androutsos
- Markos Botsaris
- Athanasios Diakos
- Geórgios Karaïskákis
- Antonis Katsantonis
- Theodoros Kolokotronis
- Dimitrios Makris
- Nikitas Stamatelopoulos
- Dontas 1966, p. 24: "Born in 1800, Demetrios Makris, a kleftis, had succeeded his father to the kapetaniliki in the district of Zyghos. A simple yet very stubborn man, like Dimo - Tselios he was a great patriot."
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc 1995, p. 564: "Other Greeks, taking to the mountains, became unofficial, self-appointed armatoles and were known as klephts (from the Greek kleptes, "brigand")."
- Sowards 1989, p. 75: "Greek irregulars had operated as bandit klephts and anti-Ottoman insurgents since before the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s."
- Cavendish 2009, p. 1478: "The klephts were descendants of Greeks who fled into the mountains to avoid the Turks in the fifteenth century and who remained active as brigands into the nineteenth century."
- Encyclopedia Americana 1919, p. 472: "KLEPTHS, klēfts (Greek, "thieves"). Greek bandits who, after the conquest of Greece by the Turks in the 15th century, kept themselves free in the mountains of northern Greece and Macedonia, and carried on a perpetual war against Turkish rule, considering everything belonging to a Turk a lawful prize."
- Encyclopedia Americana 1919, "KLEPTOMANIA", p. 472.
- Vacalopoulos 1961, p. 333: "Οί πυρήνες τών μαχητικών του δυνάμεων είναι οί άρματολοί καΐ οί κλέφτες...ν'άποτελέσουν τήν «μαγιά της λευτεριάς», όπως παραστατικά λέγει ό άγωνιστής τοϋ 21 Γιάννης Μακρυγιάννης."
- Trypanis 1981, "The Klephtic ballads", pp. 592–594: "The Klephtic ballads developed in mainland Greece, and in the eighteenth century represented the final and supreme stage in the evolution of modern Greek folk poetry. They can be separated into two groups, one dealing with the achievements or the death of an individual Klepht and the second with the life of the Klephts in general...Among them is a notable series of songs that deal with battles between mountains, a motif that goes back to antiquity, as we know from a fragment of Corinna found on a second-century papyrus in which Mount Helicon and Mount Cithaeron are fighting. Such battles of mountains in Greek folk songs have survived in Crete and in Carpathos, but the most famous of all is the Pan-Hellenic ballad of The Battle between Mount Olympus and Mount Kisavos."
- Nikoletseas 2014.
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