The League of the Aitolians

The League of the Aitolians

The League of the Aitolians

The League of the Aitolians


The Aitolians have had a bad press, regarded as pirates and brigands, and their state as a pirate state built on terrorist tactics. This book treats them as what they really were, a normal Hellenistic state. They constructed an original and successful polity which provided peace and prosperity for its inhabitants, and played a major part in Greek history for a century and a half. The approach is chronological, beginning with the origin and formation of the league and its early expansion, and then dealing with its long duel with Macedon, and concluding with its destruction by Rome. This is the first full account of the history of the league which approaches it as an independent state rather than as the enemy of other states and peoples. It complements the standard histories of the other Hellenistic states.


The Aitolians were one of those peoples in the ancient world who are everlastingly marginal. When Greece was dominated by city-states, they were weak and divided and, as a group of tribes living in a mountain area, of little account: their emergence as a united people coincided with the establishment of the great Hellenistic kingdoms, Macedon, the Ptolemies, the Seleukids, which limited their scope for action: their disappearance was accomplished fairly early by the ruthlessness of the Roman military power, but only with some difficulty, be it said. This was in the course of the huge military confrontations between the great powers who divided the world from the Atlantic to India, particularly that between Rome and Macedon, in which clash the Aitolians were one of the main victims.

Add to this marginality and victimhood the reputation which they had for treachery and piracy, for banditry and unruliness, and compare that with the opposite reputation of their contemporaries, the Achaians, the ‘last of the Greeks’, the supposed last defenders of Greek freedom, and it is no surprise that the Aitolians have sunk to the bottom of the historical swamp. Neither reputation is deserved, but the absence of a native Aitolian historian, or even of an account of any particular individual Aitolian from the ancient world, makes it seem as though everybody's ignorance is fully justified. After all, had they been important, someone would have written about them, seems to be the general assumption.

I exaggerate, of course, but only to make the point. Aitolia was a second-rank power for well over a century, less important than Macedon or the other great powers, but of more account than almost any other state, and it went down fighting, in what in any other people would be described as a gallant fashion. They are thus worth studying in themselves, just as other second-rank powers — Sicily, Achaia, the Attalids, the Maccabean state — are worth studying.

There are, in fact, no recent accounts of Aitolian history; those studies which purport to deal with them actually approach from sideways, so to say: Flacelière by way of their control of Delphi, Benecke by way of their supposed naval policy, Freeman and Larsen and Dubois by way of their supposed federal system of government. Only one of these, Larsen's, was produced after 1945, and none of them . . .

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