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The Ancient Greek Tribe of Aetolians That Defeated Alexander’s Army

The ancient Greek tribe of Aetolians
The ancient Greek tribe of Aetolians were great warriors. Bronze helmet of the Corinthian type. Late 6th century BC. Cycladic Art Museum, Athens, Greece. Credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

The Aetolians were an ancient Greek tribe of hardened hillmen that managed to defeat the mighty army of Alexander the Great.

Aetolia is an area at the southern part of Central Greece. As an administrative and political entity, it is mentioned for the first time by Homer, who wrote about its presence and activity prior to the Trojan War.

In the Iliad, the Aetolians appear for the first time as a tribal group and kingdom. They were a regional military force, as were the Mycenaeans. An Aetolian named Leda was the daughter of the mythological Aetolian King Thestius and the mother of Helen of Troy. Book 9 of the Iliad introduces Aetolia as the land that was terrorized by the Calydonian Boar.

Αetolia in pre-Hellenistic times

The lowland zone between the rivers of Evinos and Achelous, as Homer wrote, was the Mycenaean Aetolia. The two most important cities were Pleuron and Calydon. In the Iliad, Homer speaks of the fertile plain of Calydon.

The Calydonians and Pleuronians took part in the Trojan War as allies of the Mycenaeans, sending forty ships, led by Thoas, the son of the king of Pleuron, Andraimon. Several Mycenaean tombs have been found in numerous places.

The ancient Greek tribe of Aetolians
Ancient theater of Calydon in Aetolia. Aetolians defeated the army of Alexander the Great. Credit: Tony Esopi Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The Aetolian tribes were primitive and comprised mostly of animal breeders. Polybius doubted their Greek heritage, while Thucydides claimed Eurytanians spoke a language that was difficult to comprehend. It was also said that they ate their food completely raw.

Their society was almost barbaric, and they were warlike and predatory people. They worshipped Athena as a goddess of war and as Ares’ female counterpart rather than as the goddess of wisdom. The Aetolians also worshipped Apollo and Artemis as patrons of the spoils and loot of war, as well as Hercules, Bacchus, and the Achelous River.

The Aetolian League

The Aetolian League was an alliance formed by ancient Greek tribes that lived west of Athens and north of the Peloponnese. It was probably formed in the early fourth century BC after an invasion attempt by the Athenians, led by Demosthenes in 426 BC. This was repelled by joint forces of Aetolian tribes led by Aegitios. The Athenians were called by Naupactus to protect the city.

After the unsuccessful attack of the Athenians, the Aetolians sent envoys to Corinth and Sparta asking for alliances. An Aetolian – Spartan coalition attempted to capture the seaside city-state of Naupactus without success. During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the Aetolians joined the Peloponnesian League.

In 344 BC, Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, reorganized Thessaly and put his brother-in-law on the throne of Epirus. By 340 BC, Aetolia had become a military force to be reckoned with in the whole of ancient Greece. In 338 BC, Philip II helped the Aetolians take over Naupactus.

Aetolians against Macedonians

The death of Alexander the Great found the Macedonians dominating over Greece after they had subdued Athens, Sparta, and the allies of both. There was, however, a small part of Greece that remained independent. It was the area where the ancient Aetolians lived.

In the summer of 321 BC, an army of over thirty thousand Macedonians headed to Aetolia to subdue them. The campaign was led by Craterus, a veteran general who had stood by Alexander the Great on his campaign into Asia. But what followed was unexpected.

Despite the fact that the Aetolians were outnumbered, they managed to overcome this disadvantage by resorting to guerrilla warfare. Knowing the area quite well, they set up ambushes and defense posts at key points and trapped the Macedonians. The Aetolians were the cause of great losses to the Macedonian invaders, and they killing many of them.

The Craterus strategy that failed

Craterus was the great commander of not only the Battle of Issus but other battles as well under Alexander the Great and Philip II. To respond to the Aetolians’ war tactics, he implemented a plan he thought would prove victorious.

During the winter, he prevented the Aetolians from descending down to the plains to forage. He believed hunger and the terrible cold of the mountains would sufficiently weaken them.

Yet, the hardened Aetolians did not budge, and their resilience finally paid off. After several months of incessant fighting, the Macedonians decided to cut their losses and retreat. They stopped their campaign and made efforts to bring about peace.

The bravery of the Aetolians brought an army of professional soldiers that had conquered half of Asia—but failed to subdue an army of shepherds—to its knees. The invincible army of Alexander the Great that had defeated Athens and Sparta failed to subdue an army of mountainous tribesmen.

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