Flag of Greece
Τhe flag of Greece (popularly referred to as the “sky-blue-white” or the “blue-white” and in Greek: “Γαλανόλευκη” or “Κυανόλευκη”), officially recognized by Greece as one of its national symbols, is based on nine equal horizontal stripes of blue alternating with white. There is a blue canton in the upper hoist-side corner bearing a white cross; the cross symbolizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the established religion of the Greek people of Greece and Cyprus. According to popular tradition, the nine stripes represent the nine syllables of the phrase “Ελευθερία ή Θάνατος” (“Freedom or Death”), the five blue stripes for the syllables “Έλευθερία” and the four white stripes “ή Θάνατος”. The nine stripes are also said to represent the letters of the word “freedom” (Greek: Ελευθερία). There is also a different theory, that the nine stripes symbolize the nine Muses, the goddesses of art and civilization (nine has traditionally been one of the numbers of reference for the Greeks). The official flag ratio is 2:3.
The blazon of the flag is Azure, four bars Argent; on a canton of the field a Greek cross throughout of the second. The shade of blue used in the flag has varied throughout its history, from light blue to dark blue, the latter being increasingly used since the late 1960’s.
The above patterns were officially adopted by the First National Assembly at Epidaurus on 13 January 1822. Blue and white have many interpretations, symbolizing the colors of the famed Greek sky and sea (combined with the white clouds and waves), traditional colors of Greek clothes in the islands and the mainland, etc.
The origins of today’s national flag with its cross-and-stripe pattern are a matter of debate. Every part of it, including the blue and white colors (see below), the cross, as well as the stripe arrangement can be connected to very old historical elements; however it is difficult to establish “continuity”, especially as there is no record of the exact reasoning behind its official adoption in early 1822.
It has been suggested by some Greek historians that the current flag derived from an older design, the virtually identical flag of the powerful Cretan Kallergis family. This flag was based on their coat of arms, whose pattern is supposed to be derived from the standards of their claimed ancestor, Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas (963–969 AD). This pattern (according to not easily verifiable descriptions) included nine stripes of alternating blue and white, as well as a cross, assumed to be placed on the upper left
The stripe-pattern of the Greek flag is visibly similar to that used in several other flags that have appeared over the centuries, most notably that of the British East India Company’s pre-1707 flag or the flag of the United States of America. However, in such cases of flags derived from much older designs, it is very difficult to prove or trace original influences.
Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire
Flags as they are known today did not exist in Antiquity. Instead, a variety of emblems and symbols (semeion, pl. semeia) were used to denote each state and were for example painted on the hoplite shields. The closest analogue to a modern flag were the vexillum-like banners used by ancient Greek armies, such as the so-called phoinikis, a cloth of deep red, suspended from the top of a staff or spear. It is not known to have carried any device or decoration though.
The Byzantines, like the Romans before them, used a variety of flags and banners, primarily to denote different military units. These were generally square or rectangular, with a number of streamers attached. Most prominent among the early Byzantine flags was the labarum. In the surviving pictorial sources of the middle and later Empire, primarily the illustrated Skylitzes Chronicle, the predominating colors are red and blue in horizontal stripes, with a cross often placed in the center of the flag. Other common symbols, prominently featuring on seals, were depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints, but these represent personal rather than family or state symbols. Western European-style heraldry was largely unknown until the last centuries of the Empire.
There is no mention of any “state” flag until the mid-14th century, when a Spanish atlas, the Conosçimiento de todos los reynos depicts the flag of “the Empire of Constantinople” combining the red-on-white Cross of St George with the “tetragrammic cross” of the ruling house of the Palaiologoi, featuring the four betas or pyrekvola (“fire-steels”) on the flag quarters representing the imperial motto Βασιλεύς Βασιλέων Βασιλεύων Βασιλευόντων (“King of Kings Reigning over those who Rule”). The tetragrammic cross flag, as it appears in quarters II and III in this design, is well documented. However, the exact “Westernised” (quartered) arrangement that includes the Cross of St. George, appearing in the Spanish atlas, is never depicted or described in any Greek source. In the same Spanish atlas the (well documented) “plain” tetragrammic cross flag is presented as (among other places in the Empire) “the Flag of Salonika” and “the real Greece and Empire of the Greeks (la vera Grecia e el imperio de los griegos)” (not being clear whether this implies usage of the quartered flag mainly in Constantinople). Pseudo-Kodinos records the use of the “tetragrammic cross” on the banner (phlamoulon) borne by imperial naval vessels, while the megas doux displayed an image of the emperor on horseback.
During the Ottoman rule several unofficial flags were used by Greeks, usually employing the Byzantine double-headed eagle (see below), the cross, depictions of saints and various mottoes. The Christian Greek sipahi cavalry employed by the Ottoman Sultan were allowed to use their own, clearly Christian flag, when within Epirus and the Peloponnese. It featured the classic blue cross on a white field with the picture of St. George slaying the dragon and was used from 1431 until 1639, when this privilege was greatly limited by the Sultan. Similar flags were used by other local leaders. The closest to a Greek “national” flag during Ottoman rule was the so-called “Graeco-Ottoman flag” (Γραικοθωμανική παντιέρα), a civil ensign Greek Orthodox merchants (better: merchants from the Greek-dominated Orthodox millet) were allowed to fly on their ships, combining stripes with red (for the Ottoman Empire) and blue (for Orthodoxy) colours. After the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, Greek-owned merchant ships could also fly the Russian flag.
During the uprising of 1769 the historic blue cross on white field was used again by key military leaders who used it all the way to the revolution of 1821. It became the most popular Revolution flag, and it was argued that it should become the national flag. The “reverse” arrangement, white cross on a blue field, also appeared as Greek flag during the uprisings. This design had been used earlier as well, as a local symbol (a similar 16th or 17th century flag has been found near Chania), while Greek volunteers in Napoleon’s army in Egypt in 1798 used a white cross on blue incorporated in the canton of the French flag.
A military leader, Yiannis Stathas, used a flag with white cross on blue on his ship since 1800. The first flag featuring the design eventually adopted was created and hoisted in the Evangelistria monastery in Skiathos in 1807. Several prominent military leaders (including Theodoros Kolokotronis and Andreas Miaoulis) had gathered there for consultation concerning an uprising, and they were sworn to this flag by the local bishop.
Because the European monarchies, allied in the so-called “Concert of Europe”, were suspicious towards national or social revolutionary movements such as the Etaireia, the First Greek National Assembly, convening in January 1822, took steps to disassociate itself from the Etaireia’s legacy and portray nascent Greece as a “conventional”, ordered nation-state. As such not only were the regional councils abolished in favor of a central administration, but it was decided to abolish all revolutionary flags and adopt a universal national flag. The reasons why the particular arrangement (white cross on blue) was selected, instead of the more popular blue cross on a white field, remain unknown.
On 15 March 1822, the Provisional Government, by Decree Nr. 540, laid down the exact pattern: white cross on blue (plain) for the land flag; nine alternate-colored stripes with the white cross on a blue field in the canton for the naval ensign; and blue with a blue cross on a white field in the canton for the civil ensign (merchant flag). On 30 June 1828, by decree of the Governor Ioannis Kapodistrias, the civil ensign was discontinued, and the cross-and-stripes naval ensign became the national ensign, worn by both naval and merchant ships. This design became immediately very popular with Greeks and in practice was often used simultaneously with the national (plain cross) flag.
State flag on land, 1822–1969 and 1975–78
National flag for use abroad and as the civil ensign. Since 1978 the sole national flag of Greece
Civil ensign used from 1822 to 1828
- Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra: Η καθιέρωση της ελληνικής σημαίας (“The adoption of the Greek flag”), Hellenic Army General Staff, 2003
- The Flag, from the site of the Presidency of the Hellenic Republic
- N. Zapheiriou, Η Ελληνική Σημαία από τους αρχαίους χρόνους μέχρι σήμερα (The Greek Flag from Antiquity to Present), Eleftheri Skepsis, Athens 1995 (reprint of original 1947 publication) ISBN 960-7199-60-X
- Emperor Maurice, Strategikon, II.14
- Kazhdan, Alexander, ed. (1991). Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press. pp. 472, 999. ISBN 978-0-19-504652-6.
- Byzantine Heraldry, from Heraldica.org
- Kazhdan, Alexander, ed. (1991). Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press. pp. 472–473. ISBN 978-0-19-504652-6.
- History of Greek Flags
- Government of Greece (3 June 1833). “Περί της Πολεμικής και Εμπορικής Σημαίας του Βασιλείου” [Regarding the Naval and Commercial Flag of the Kingdom]. Government Gazette. Retrieved 18 August 2012.
- V. Tzouras, Η Ελληνική Σημαία, Μελέτη Πρωτότυπος Ιστορική (The Greek Flag, Original Historic Study), A. Lantzas, Kerkyra 1909
- E. Kokkoni and G. Tsiveriotis, Ελληνικές Σημαίες, Σήματα-Εμβλήματα (Greek Flags, Signs and Emblems), Athens 1997 ISBN 960-7795-01-6
- Law 851/21-12-1978 On the national Flag, War Flags and the Distinguishing Flag of the President of the Republic, Gazette issue A-233/1978.