Aitolians: Thucydides on barbarous Greeks (late fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Aitolians: Thucydides on barbarous Greeks (late fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 5, 2024,

Ancient author: Thucydides, History of the Peloponessian War 3.94, 97-98 (link).

Comments: In his opening discussion of the old days (link), Thucydides of Athens (writing just after 411 BCE) comments briefly on the fact that the Aitolians (or: Aetolians) were among those Greeks who continued to live life like barbarians, including a lifestyle of “banditry” and carrying weapons in daily life to protect themselves from “bandits.” In the passages below, Thucydides fills out his characterization of this people, arguing that they were extremely effective (if old-fashioned) in battle situations but that this also went along with other signs of uncivilized life, worst of all eating raw meat. So this provides an example of what we could call a barbarized image of a Greek people in order to assert their inferiority to another Greek people, in this case the hegemonic Athenians. (Cretans were also subjected to such treatment as well, on which go to this link).

Thucydides is by no means alone in this negative stereotyping of Aitolians. Polybios of Megalopolis, for instance, has this to say a few centuries later (ca. 146 BCE):

“The Aitolians were accustomed to get their living by banditry (lēsteia) and similar lawless conduct (paranomia). And as long as it was in their power to raid and plunder the Greeks they sustained themselves on these activities, regarding every country as an enemy. But afterwards under Roman administration they were prevented from supplying their wants from outside, and had to turn upon each other” (Histories 30.11; cf. Livy, History of Rome 34.24.1-5; Cicero, On the Republic 3.9.15).

This barbarized image contrasts to Ephoros of Kyme’s less stereotypical comments on Aitolians (link).

Works consulted: John D. Grainger, The League of the Aitolians (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

Source of the translation: C.F. Smith, Thucydides, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919-1923), public domain, adapted by Harland.


Book 3

[Warlike and uncivilized character of the Aitolians]

94 . . . But just at this time Demosthenes was persuaded by the Messenians that, seeing that so large an army was collected, it was a fine opportunity for him to attack the Aitolians (or: Aetolians), because they were hostile to Naupaktos and also because, if he defeated them, he would find it easy to bring the rest of the mainland in that region into subjection to the Athenians. The Messenians explained that the Aitolians were in fact a great and warlike people. Yet since they lived in unwalled villages which were in general widely separated and since they used only light armour, they could be subdued without difficulty before they could unite for mutual defence. They also advised him to attack the Apodotians first, then the Ophioneans, and after them the Eurytanians. These last constitute the largest division of the Aitolians. The Eurytanians’ speech is more unintelligible than that of the other Aitolians, and, according to report, they are eaters of raw flesh. If these peoples were subdued, they said, the rest would readily yield. . . [omitted material].

[Example of the fighting style and effectiveness of the Aitolians]

97 The Messenians, however, gave Demosthenes about the same advice as at first. Informing him that the conquest of the Aitolians was easy, they urged him to proceed as quickly as possible against the villages, not waiting until they all united and arrayed themselves against him, but trying to take the first village in his way. Demosthenes accepted their advice and was hopeful because of his good fortune, since he was meeting with no opposition. Demosthenes did not wait for the Lokrians, who were to have brought him reinforcements, because he was greatly in need of light-armed men that were javelin-throwers. Instead he advanced against Aigition [an Aitolian city] and took it by storm at the first onset. For the inhabitants secretly fled and took post on the hills above the city, which stood on high ground about eighty stadium-lengths from the sea. But the Aitolians, who by this time had come to the rescue of Aegition, attacked the Athenians and their allies, running down from the hills on every side and showering javelins upon them. Then they retreated whenever the Athenian army advanced and advanced whenever they retreated. Indeed, the battle continued for a long time in this fashion, alternate pursuits and retreats, and in both the Athenians suffered the most.

98 Now so long as their bowmen had arrows and were able to use them, the Athenians held out because the Aitolian troops were light-armed and so, while they were exposed to the arrows, they were constantly driven back. But when the captain of the archers had been killed and his men scattered, and the hoplites were worn out, since they had been engaged for a long time in the unremitting struggle and the Aitolians were pressing them hard and hurling javelins upon them, they at last turned and fled. Falling into ravines from which there was no way out and into places with which they were unacquainted, they died. Chromon, the Messenian, who had been their guide on the way, had unfortunately been killed. The Aitolians kept plying their javelins, and being swift of foot and lightly equipped, following at their heels they caught many there in their retreat and killed them. But the greater number missed the roads and got into the forest, from which there were no paths out, and the Aitolians brought fire and set the woods on fire around them. Then every manner of flight was attempted and every manner of destruction happened to the army of the Athenians. It was only with difficulty that the survivors escaped to the sea at Oineon in Lokris from which they had set out.

Many of the allies were killed and of the Athenians themselves about one hundred and twenty hoplites were killed. So great a number of men, and all of the same age, perished here. Certainly these were the best men whom the city of Athens lost in this war. Prokles, one of the two generals, also died. When they had received back their dead from the Aitolians under a truce and had retreated to Naupaktos, they were afterwards taken back by the fleet to Athens. Demosthenes, however, remained behind in Naupaktos and the region round about, for he was afraid of the Athenians because of what had happened. . .

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