Deconstructing Pavlos Melas

Pavlos Melas statue thessaloniki

A statue of the hero of the Macedonian Struggle Pavlos Melas who died this month in 1904 has been receiving criticism recently. Situated in the park opposite the White Tower in Thessaloniki, the bronze likeness portrays a thin, almost emaciated figure, perched upon spindly legs.

His visage appears neither heroic or decisive. Rather, it seems indecisive, unsure and wracked with ennui.

“This statue is completely unsuitable,” one commentator writes. “We needed someone with a more muscular torso.” “A failed attempt judging by the result,” another writer opines. “Spindly legs, shapely waist; it looks like the sketch of a fashion designer, not a likeness of a warrior.” “Regardless of what he looked like, we need statues that exude dynamism and strength in order to inspire younger generations of Greeks to glory.”

Pavlos Melas statue Thessaloniki

The sculptor is Natalia Melas, Pavlos’ grand-daughter and having never met her grand-father, she used as her model, the iconic photograph of Melas, posing in a Macedonian doulamas, this being the image that is most commonly conjured up of the man, in the popular consciousness.

That photograph was taken in an Athens studio, for Melas wore pants when on campaign and only seems to have donned the doulamas a month and a half before his death, in order to impress his men.

As he wrote to his wife on 27 August 1904: “Yesterday… I wore the dreaded doulamas for the first time and appeared so armed before my men. I made a favourable impression on them, for prior to that I was wearing that terrible straw hat and a pair of pants and I did not really look the part in their eyes.”

Melas is widely considered to be the most significant figure in the Greek struggle to liberate Macedonia. As a scion of a wealthy bourgeois family married into the Dragoumis political dynasty, he is considered an ideologue, a man so concerned with fulfilling the national aspirations of Greece that he gave up his privileged position in order to give his life fighting for the freedom of Macedonia, proving instrumental in the process, for the union of that region with Greece.

Much is also made of his Victorian family values, his utter and passionate devotion to his wife and children, constituting him one of Greece’s most romantic of heroes, a mythologisation that has taken place largely as a result of his family’s deft handling of his correspondence after his death.

A perusal of that correspondence reveals however, a more complex personality than the single minded freedom-fighter we know and love. While the correspondence between Melas and his wife Natalia do evidence a close relationship, it is one that seems to place Natalia, as a member of the Dragoumis clan (her father served as Prime Minister of Greece), as the dominant partner, directing Melas’ movements and ordering the deaths of Bulgarian komitajis, primarily in order to further the political aspirations of the Dragoumises, a far cry from the image of the submissive, passive wife waiting patiently and anxiously for her hero husband to return, cultivated in the Athenian press.

Further, plausible evidence exists to suggest that far from being the model of spousal fidelity as portrayed in myth, Melas was actually carrying on an affair with his sister in law, Efi Kallergi.

Melas was certainly well connected. His elder brother Georgios was a confidant of and later served as secretary to King Constantine, his other brothers Leon and Constantine served as members of Parliament for Patras and Ioannina respectively, and from his letters we glean the impression of a man frustrated at growing up in the shadow of his more capable and higher achieving siblings whilst also revealing a contempt for those who he considered to be of a lower socioeconomic class.

Melas made his first appearance on the public stage in 1894, when as a young sub-lieutenant, reacting violently to an article in the newspaper Acropolis protesting against violence committed against civilians by Greek army officers, he joined 84 of his colleagues who ransacked, looted and destroyed the home of Acropolis’ owner, Vlasis Gavriilidis.

A month later he joined the “National Committee,” a deep state organisation responsible for inciting the disastrous 1897 Greco-Turkish War, which saw Turkish forces completely rout the Greek army and advance on Athens. Melas’ task was to transport would be guerrillas to Volos.

In his letters home to his wife, he gushed at the prospect of war: “I will return to my post, for I am confident the firing will begin.” For all his enthusiasm, Melas learned of the collapse of the front while participating in a Good Friday Epitaphios procession.

Indeed, Melas though expressing his disappointment as his fleeing erstwhile comrades who as he wrote: “sold their rifles left and right,” he never participated in a battle. The closest he got to the fighting wa,s according to his own admission, observing the Battle of Pharsalos from behind the safety of the artillery lines with Swedish lieutenant, Erland af Kleen.

Discredited by his association with the National Committee, many of whose leading members were prosecuted, Melas public activity was primarily restricted to duels with law student D Leontios and George Kolokotronis.

His lover, Efi Kallergi, wrote to his brother in law, Ion Dragoumis that Melas’ irritability was due to his father’s death and subsequent loss of income since Melas senior was no longer around to subsidise his son’s lifestyle.

“[They] are finding it difficult as they are used to spending without thinking.” It was around this time that Ion Dragoumis revealed to Melas his intention of inciting the army to stage a coup that would “rid us of the disgusting quagmire of parliament.”

According to Dragoumis, a necessary step was the infiltration of loyal soldiers into Macedonia, where, fighting against the Bulgarian komitajis,’ they would create the requisite political pressures that would cause the downfall of the government in Athens. It was in this context that Melas volunteered for Macedonia.

Melas’ activity in Macedonia was limited to two incursions.

In the first, in February 1904, he was the lowest ranking member of a band of four officers, lead by Anstasios Papoulas, later a general in the Asia Minor campaign. His tour was cut short when he was sent back to Athens as a security risk, since he was indiscreet, giving away information as to his band’s plans that were picked up by Ottoman intelligence.

On another occasion, he again had to be recalled, when he left behind his cloak, in which there was contained correspondence that incriminated the Greek consul at Monastiri in irredentist activities. During their incursion, the activity of Melas’ band was limited to touring various Slavophone villages of Prespa (disconcertingly for modern Greeks, Melas in his letters refers to the Slavonic idiom of the region as ‘Macedonic’), handing out money and making patriotic pro-Greek speeches.

The second, fatal mission saw Melas, through his family connections, appointed by the Theotokis government, as general leader of the Macedonomachs of the vilayet of Monastir. Upon assuming his duties, Melas wrote in his report to his superiors that he immediately wrote to the Ottoman kaymakam of Florina, assuring him that he: “respected the Ottoman authorities, would not engage with the Ottoman army and was only interested in punishing the murderous Bulgarians.”

Used to a more sedentary lifestyle, Melas found his mission extremely taxing. As he wrote to his wife: “Sadly my young servant has a terrible fever and I must carry my own backpack.” Blisters from being forced to wear tsarouchia, footwear he was completely unused to, also are a recurring theme, with him complaining to his wife over and over again: “These tsarouchia give me blisters.”

There were however, situations where his sartorial predelictions were given full opportunity to be put on display and it appears that he brought with him a whole wardrobe of costumes.

As he wrote to his wife: “The notables of the southern part of the vilayet became enthusiastic when they learned an officer would visit them and asked me to come in an officer’s uniform. From my Wilhelmine wardrobe, I chose the cinnamon-velvet uniform of a bear hunter of the Black Forest.”

Nonetheless, going from village to village, killing Bulgarian-aligned priests and teachers, compelling parents to remove their children from Vlach schools, forcing villagers to register themselves as Greeks with the Ottoman authorities with the prospect of being killed should they seek to resile from their declaration and threatening villages with arson in the event they were visited by Bulgarian guerrillas must have been depressing.

Melas confided in his wife of his despair that he could “not achieve much….. due to the justifiable unwillingness of the local inhabitants.”

Unable to relate to, or properly supply and protect the men in his band, one by one they began to desert him. This impacted greatly upon Melas’ mental state. It led him to the realisation, as he revealed to his wife: “that I am not capable of directing this type of mission. I began to tremble and shiver.”

Withdrawing to a church: “alone in the dark I cried in despair. I felt as if I was in Hell and completely alone…” Having occasioned the death of a Bulgarian priest and teacher while they were returning from a funeral, Melas laments to his wife of a long and arduous journey through a valley: “All the while I shuffled along as if drunk, crying almost continuously. I thought that my beautiful and noble mission would be achieved with beautiful and noble deeds, without considering the harsh demands of the task and its terrible details. Twenty-four hours have passed and I am still crying.”

Melas never engaged in battle with the Ottomans who kept Macedonia under their sway. He did not engage in any meaningful combat with the Bulgarian komitajis either, who as a rule, kept out of his way, allowing him to wander around aimlessly. His failure caused him a few hours before his death to declare to his men that he intended to return to Athens, asking them to remain in the villages as guards.

In Siatista, where he died what is considered by Greek historiography to have been a hero’s death, there are conflicting accounts as to what took place. The Greek consul of Monastiri wrote in a report that Melas was killed by accident when Ottoman soldiers mistook his band for Bulgarian guerrillas, something that the consul wrote, was deliberately being kept secret from the Greek public.

Petros Hatzitasis, who fought with Melas, wrote that his leader was killed, when the weapon of another member of the band, captain Lakis Pyrzas discharged itself accidentally.

Cretan Macedonomach Euthymios Kaoudis, who met the survivors of Melas’ band soon after the death of their leader, alleged that his own men killed him after he was wounded by Pyrzas, because he was groaning too loudly and they feared discovery by the Ottomans.

These accounts, though they appeared in memoirs and articles years later, did not make their way to the Athenian press.

Instead, aided by the literary efforts of extended Dragoumis clan and their selective publication of Melas’ letters, they set about weaving the myth of Melas the Macedonomach that persists to the present day, with Embros newspaper claiming: “Ancient Greece and Rome has never produced a hero so pure and noble of purpose.” The most vociferous in their adulation were the political clients of the Dragoumis clan.

However one assesses Melas’ character and contribution to the liberation of Macedonia, his death, which served to galvanise the Greek public to demand of the Greek government that it prioritise the liberation of the region, served his cause far more effectively, than his troubled and turbulent life.

Dean Kalimniou is a lawyer, author and heavily involved in the Greek-Australian community.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor