Aitolians: Ephoros on their origins and invincibility (mid-fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Aitolians: Ephoros on their origins and invincibility (mid-fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 11, 2024,

Ancient authors: Ephoros of Kyme = FGrHist70 F122a (link to FGrHist), as cited by Strabo, Geography 10.3.2-4 (link)

Comments: Ephoros (or: Ephorus) of Kyme (writing ca. 340 BCE), whose works survive only in brief citations by others (in this case Strabo), evidently had some significant ethnographic and geographic observations and theories about various peoples, including some Greek peoples that other Greeks considered uncivilized or semi-barbaric. Aitolians (or: Aetolians) were often stereotyped as uncivilized by Greek authors of Athens and elsewhere, in part because of the mountainous terrain where they lived. So, for example, Thucydides (link) describes Aitolians as particularly backward: they live in unwalled villages with inferior weapons, their language is very difficult to understand (even though it’s a form of Greek), they eat raw meat (the epitome of a animalistic lifestyle), and, generally speaking, they are uncivilized “bandits” (Peloponnesian War 3.94.4-5; cf. Polybios, Histories 30.11). In contrast, Ephoros’ views here seem to lack that sort of negativity. While Ephoros shares Thucydides’ focus on the rugged landscape, he tends towards less negative statements about this people overall and emphasizes that this people was unconquerable. Strabo objects at some length to this apparently positive evaluation of the Aitolians. Ephoros apparently focussed on the origins of this people and used inscriptions he saw there as part of this aim.

For further passages from Ephoros regarding the four-fold division of the world in terms of Celts (west), Indians (east), Scythians (north) and Ethiopians (south), go to this link. For Ephoros’ notion of barbarians as inventors, go to this link.

To read more on Ephoros, see Harland’s article: “Revisiting Wise ‘Barbarians’ in the Hellenistic Era” (link forthcoming).


Book 10

[Origins of the Aitolians / Aetolians]

3 (2) Ephoros says that the Aitolians were a people (ethnos) who had never become subject to any one else. Rather, throughout all time on record, they had remained unconquered, both because of the ruggedness of their land and because of their training in warfare. At the outset he says that the Kouretes held possession of the whole land. But when Aitolos the son of Endymion arrived from Elis and overpowered them in war, the Kouretes withdrew to what is now called Akarnania. On the other hand, the Aitolians came back with Epeians and founded the earliest of the cities of Aitolia, and in the tenth generation after that Elis was settled by Oxylos the son of Haimon, who had crossed over from Aitolia. Ephoros cites two inscriptions as evidence for all of this. The one inscription, which was engraved on the base of a statue of Aitolos at Therma in Aitolia (where it is the ancestral custom to hold their elections of magistrates), reads: “Founder of the country, once reared beside the whirlpools of the Alpheios, neighbour of the race-courses of Olympia, son of Endymion, this Aitolos has been set up by the Aitolians as a memorial of his courage to witness.” The other inscription in the market-place of the Eleians on the statue of Oxylos reads: “Aitolos once left this indigenous people, and through many a toil with the spear took possession of the land of Kouretis. But the tenth offspring of the same descent, Oxylos, the son of Haimon, founded this city in early times.”

[Kinship of Eleians and Aitolians]

(3) Now through these inscriptions Ephoros correctly signifies the kinship of the Eleians and Aitolians with one another, since both inscriptions agree, not merely as to the kinship of the two peoples, but also that each people was the founder of the other. By this means, he successfully proves wrong those who assert that, while the Eleians were indeed colonists of the Aitolians, the Aitolians were not colonists of the Eleians.

[Strabo’s objections and evaluation]

But here, too, Ephoros manifestly displays the same inconsistency in his writing and his pronouncements as in the case of the oracle at Delphi, which I have already presented. For, after saying that Aitolia has been unconquered throughout all times on record, and after saying also that in the beginning the Kouretes held possession of this country, he should have added as a corollary to what he had already said that the Kouretes continued to hold possession of the Aitolian land down to his own time. Only in this way could it have been rightly said that the land had been unconquered and that it had never come under the power of others. Instead, utterly forgetting his promise, he does not add this but the contrary: that when Aitolos arrived from Elis and overpowered the Kouretes in war, they withdrew into Akarnania. What else, I ask, is specifically characteristic of conquest than being overpowered in war and abandoning the country? And this is evidenced also by the inscription among the Eleians, for Aitolos, there it says, “through many a toil with the spear took possession of the land of Kouretis.”

(4) Perhaps, however, one might say that Ephoros means that Aitolia was unconquered from the time when it got this name, that is, after Aitolos arrived there. But Ephoros has deprived himself of the argument in support of this idea by saying in his next words that this, meaning the tribe of the Epeians, constituted the greatest part of the people who stayed on among the Aitolians. But that later, when Aitolians, who at the same time with Boiotians had been compelled to migrate from Thessaly, were intermingled with them, they in common with these held possession of the country. Is it credible, I ask, that without war they invaded the country of a different people and divided it up with its possessors, when the latter had no need of such a partnership? Or, since this is not credible, is it credible that those who were overpowered by arms came out on an equality with the victors? What else, pray, is devastation than being overpowered by arms? Apollodoros, also, says that, according to history, the Hyantes left Boiotia and settled among the Aitolians. But Ephoros, as though he had achieved success in his argument, adds: “It is my custom to examine such matters as these with precision, whenever any matter is either altogether doubtful or falsely interpreted.”


Source of the translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.

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