The current Flag of Greece (popularly referred to as the “sky-blue-white” or the “blue-white” and in Greek: Γαλανόλευκη or Κυανόλευκη) was adopted by the First National Assembly at Epidaurus in January 1822 as the naval ensign. Between 1822-1978, this flag was used at sea and for foreign service. In 1978, it was established as the sole national flag and also as the war and civil Ensign.
History of Greek Flag
Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire
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, 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. Although the use of alternating blue and white – or silver – stripes on (several centuries-old) Kallergis’ coats of arms is well documented, no depiction of the above described pattern (with the nine stripes and the cross) survives.
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. However, in such cases of flags derived from much older designs, it is very difficult to prove or trace original influences.
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 colours are red and blue in horizontal stripes, with a cross often placed in the centre 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 “tetragrammatic 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 tetragrammatic cross flag, as it appears in quarters II and III in this design, is well documented. In the same Spanish atlas this “plain” tetragrammatic 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)”. The (quartered) arrangement that includes the Cross of St. George is documented only in the Spanish atlas, and most probably combines the arms of Genoa (which had occupied Galata) with those of the Byzantine Empire, and was most probably flown only in Constantinople. Pseudo-Kodinos records the use of the “tetragrammatic cross” on the banner (phlamoulon) borne by imperial naval vessels, while the megas doux displayed an image of the emperor on horseback.