How the Ancient Aetolians Resisted a Superpower | History Hit

How the Ancient Aetolians Resisted a Superpower

Detail from the Lion Hunt mosaic from Pella, the 4th century BC Macedonian capital.
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They’re one of the more ‘forgotten’ tribes in ancient history: the Aetolians. Occupying the rugged landscape northwest of the Corinthian Gulf, their fellow Greeks viewed them as semi-barbarous and warlike. They were derided for their ancestral past as pastoral, highland herdsmen – the bane of settled agrarian communities nearer the coast.

In 323 BC, the tribal communities that made up the Aetolian League joined the Athenian commander Leosthenes in the Lamian War, which was fought against Macedonian rule in Greece following the death of Alexander the Great. 7,000 hardened Aetolian soldiers, the majority fighting as lightly armed infantry, headed to Thermopylae to aid an Athenian-mercenary army to oppose the Macedonian force led by Antipater. They presumably played a vital role in Leosthenes’ subsequent victory on the Plains of Trachis, the first pitched battle of the post-Alexander period.

1876 depiction of Thermopylae’s coastline in the time of Herodotus compared with the contemporary coastline.

Image Credit: Public Domain

National business

Yet following this, the Aetolians left Leosthenes’ force to deal with ‘national business’ back home, at least according to the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. What ‘national business’ the Aetolians had to attend remains unclear. Two likely candidates are the holding of their bi-annual assembly of the Aetolian League or to counter an invasion by their hostile Acarnanian neighbours.

The Aetolian force never returned to the front lines. Leosthenes was killed soon after and the Athenian cause started to crumble. By September 322 BC, Athens had been subjugated and Antipater was the clear, dominant force in Europe. He had crushed Sparta; he had crushed Athens. Now, only the Aetolians presented a major threat to Macedonian rule.

Alexander the Great’s untimely death at Babylon in 323 BC triggered an unprecedented crisis across his continent-spanning empire. Within a couple of days, the very chamber in which he died witnessed a gore-soaked showdown between his previously united commanders and soldiers. Within a fortnight, Babylon saw the first siege of the post-Alexander age. In this episode, Tristan Hughes brings to life the imperial implosion that was the immediate aftermath of the Macedonian king's death.
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The Aetolian threat

The Aetolian League was formidable. Over 10,000 warriors could be summoned by its leaders at times of crisis. Their hostility to Macedonia also remained unflinching. Anti-Macedonian exiles found willing refuge within Aetolia. Antipater knew the Aetolians had to be dealt with.

In the summer of 321 BC he marched with a 30,000 strong army into Aetolia to subdue its people and dissolve the League. Permanently. Craterus, the ‘paragon of military virtue’ and veteran of Alexander the Great’s campaigns, led the expedition.

A syntagma, the basic tactical unit of the Macedonian phalanx.

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But what followed was a remarkable tale of resistance. Despite being greatly outnumbered by the world’s dominant fighting force, the Aetolians played to their strengths. They were expert guerrillas; they knew their country and they knew that avoiding pitched battle with the Macedonians was key.

Ambushes and hill-fort defences dominated the ensuing campaign. The Aetolians inflicted terrible losses on their foe. The Macedonians, who prided themselves as the best fighters in the world, became increasingly frustrated with the war. Only when Craterus finally decided to draw from his vast military expertise gained in the east, and to embark on a strategy that could counter the Aetolians’ unconventional warfare, did the Macedonian general start to see progress.

Craterus’ blockade

He blockaded them. Throughout the winter, he prevented his foe from descending down into the lowlands from their highland forts. Starvation and terrible cold soon took its toll, forcing the Aetolians to their knees. Still, they refused to give in — and the resistance paid off. Rumblings of civil war in the Macedonian empire caused Antipater to cut off his campaign and sue for peace.

The story of the Aetolian resistance is fascinating. One tribe confronted a global superpower, fighting for their constitution and way of life when other city-states had fallen. And their resistance ultimately proved successful. Where Athens and Sparta had failed, the Aetolians had succeeded. That on its own merits some applause.

Tristan Hughes