Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.25

Joseph B. Scholten, The Politics of Plunder: The Aitolians and Their Koinon in the Early Hellenistic Era, 279-217 BC.   Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London:  University of California Press, 2000.  Pp. 339.  ISBN 0-520-20187-6.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Craige Champion, History, Allegheny College
Word count: 1922 words

Aitolians did not enjoy the best of reputations. In the fifth century BC Thucydides remarked on the uncouth practices of this backward, mountain people who ate raw flesh, and Euripides referred to the Aitolians explicitly as 'semi-barbarians.' In the eyes of Greeks of the established polis communities, then, the Aitolians had always stood at the fringes of the Hellenic cultural commune.1 Yet some historico-cultural indicators counter this negative picture: Aitolians early on controlled Kalydon, a venerable site in the epic tradition; by the mid-seventh century they had constructed the architecturally-sophisticated temple of Apollo Thermios; and Homer mentions Aitolians in his Catalogue of Ships (Il. 2.638-44). And sometime in the fourth century BC the loose cantonal Aitolian ethnê reorganized themselves into a federal koinon, providing, along with the Akhaian Confederation of Peloponnesian states, one of the most strikingly distinctive and progressive features of the Hellenistic age: the Greek political experiment in federal representative democracy on a large territorial scale.2 Aitolia therefore presents an historical paradox of sorts -- its inhabitants reputed to be uncivilized and backward, yet an example of an enlightened and progressive political cooperative of discrete communities in response to the threat to local autonomy posed by the Makedonian monarchy.

Scholten's study covers the Aitolian koinon in its heyday, from the repulse of the Gallic incursion at Delphi in 279 to the Peace at Naupaktos in 217. It impressively synthesizes literary, archaeological, epigraphic, papyrological, and numismatic data. The Introduction provides an overview of the history of the confederation, emphasizing two key themes of the book, the persistent tendency for Aitolians to act as independent freebooters and the Aitolian ability to act communally as a collective, usually when there was a perceived or real threat to Aitolian interests by an external power or in instances of collective economic opportunism. Scholten also underscores the significance of the confederation in the history of federal democracy. Chapter One examines the origins of the greater koinon in the early third century, which revolves around the collapse of Makedonian power in the late 280s and the heroic Aitolian defense of Delphi in 279. Scholten carefully traces the first hesitant steps towards the creation of Greater Aitolia and the Aitolians' rather slow appreciation of the political opportunities afforded by their actions against the Gauls. Aitolia did move to incorporate Dolopia between 277 and 275 and the territory of the Ainianes somewhat later, controlling the vitally important middle valley of the Spercheios, perhaps a response to Antigonos Gonatas' seizure of Thessalia. Fortunately for the Aitolians, Gonatas around this time became absorbed in struggles against Pyrrhos of Epeiros. The Makedonian king proved to be reluctant to challenge Aitolian expansion in the decades that followed. In this early period we see the most important factor in Aitolia's rise already in place: the policy of inclusion. Aitolia granted full citizenship to Herakleia Trachis, and non-ethnic Aitolians began to find their way into the highest elected federal offices.

In Chapter Two Scholten studies the inclusion of more and more populations of Central Greece within Greater Aitolia in the period from 270-245, the difficulties created by this expansion, and the koinon's response to the challenges of consolidation. This period saw adjustments in the chief federal magistracies and the frequency of meetings of the primary assembly. The overall effect was to disperse power among regional aristocracies, rather than to concentrate it in the hands of the chief elected offical, the stratêgos. Aitolian power at Delphi and in the Amphiktionic council steadily grew, and Aitolians began to capitalize on the symbolic power of the venerable sanctuary of Apollo. On the international diplomatic scene, Aitolia struck a short-lived alliance with its old nemesis Akarnania; the koinon continued good relations with the Molossian monarchy in Epeiros; it came into rivalry with the Phokians and Boiotians; and Aitolia developed a lasting modus vivendi with Antigonos Gonatas. Perhaps the most surprising fact of this period is Aitolia's non-involvement in the Chremonidean War. The absorption of the eastern half of Akarnania and the defeat of the Boiotians at Chaironea established Aitolia as the most powerful state in Central Greece.

Chapter Three analyzes the activities of Aitolians abroad in the Aegean and Peloponnese in the 250s and 240s. Aitolians continued to emphasize their protectorate of the Delphic sanctuary in order to enhance their status in the Greek world. In the 240s they organized a penteteric festival of the Soteria in commemoration of their heroics of 279. The granting of an Amphiktionic vote to far-off Chios (FD III 3, 214) underscores the expansion of Aitolian activities on the international scene, and it is in this period that we see a proliferation of asphaleia, proxenia, asylia and isopoliteia decrees to remote polities (though these grants did not curtail individual Aitolian freebooting appreciably). The koinon enjoyed unprecedented prosperity in these years, as is evidenced by a series of gold issues and the League's first silver coinage on a reduced Aiginetan standard. The increasing prosperity placed new strains on the Aitolian elite with the soaring costs of Aitolian patronage. Despite new commercial opportunities for the League, traditional Aitolian privateering, the 'politics of plunder,' grew apace. In the Peloponnese the Aitolians took advantage of the power vacuum left by the weakened powers of Makedonia and Sparta, who had traditionally dominated the peninsula, in order to bolster their fictive kinsmen the Eleians against the inveterate Aitolian enemy, Akhaia.

Chapter Four treats of the Aitolian koinon at its apogee; its chronological termini are 238-229. This period saw unprecedented and surprising realignments of Hellenistic states. The Aitolian and Akhaian koina respected one another's Peloponnesian interests and entered a period of cooperation against Demetrios II in the 230s -- strange bed-fellows, indeed (incidentally, the numismatic arguments [143-4] dating Aitolian Attic-standard silver tetradrachms to the war with Demetrios II rather than the Social War, the date accepted by many scholars, are impressive and compelling); Aitolia's long-standing amicable relations with the Aiakid dynasty in Epeiros cooled, and the Aitolians put pressure on the subsequent Epeirote koinon; the period of Aitolian-Makedonian rapprochment came to an end, as the tolerance of Gonatas gave way to the overt hostilities of Demetrios II; and Aitolia made inroads into Thessalia in the aftermath of Demetrios' death.

Chapter Five takes up the decade of the 220s, in which Antigonos III Doson ultimately crushed Aitolia's bid for Thessalia. This was a period of Aitolian recovery and regrouping, which explains the Aitolians' apparent neutrality in the Kleomenic War, their acquiesecence in Kleomenes' seizure of its eastern Arkadian protectorate, and their refusal to aid Akhaia against Kleomenes. An important consequence of all this was the end of the Aitolian-Akhaian accord. Scholten argues that the rise of a Trichonian bloc in federal politics, interested in maintaining marauding opportunities in the Peloponnese, may have had a great deal to do with Aitolia's refusal of Aratos' request for aid against Sparta in 225. That was a momentous Aitolian decision on Scholten's reconstruction, as it forced an unwilling Aratos into the arms of Doson and allowed for Antigonid resurgence in the Peloponnese, underscored by the Makedonian occupation of Akrokorinth and the victory at Sellasia. The later years of the 220s saw Aitolia fostering ties with the Attalids, Ptolemaic Alexandria, and Krete, and the admission of Kephallenia to the koinon signals Aitolian recovery, though Scholten is reluctant to see all this activity as being directed against Doson.

The final chapter examines the Social War of 220-217 from an Aitolian perspective. Scholten convincingly argues that Polybios' account masks real Aitolian gains in Thessalia and Central Greece; but Philip's capture of Phthiotic Thebes was decisive. The Aitolian strategy was to concentrate forces against Makedonia north of the Gulf of Korinth and exert pressure in the Peloponnese through allies. The alliance with Sparta could not make up for the loss of the Akhaian alliance, however, even though Akhaian accomplishments in the Peloponnese during the war were unimpressive. Lack of enthusiasm for the war on the part of some of the koinon's members and Philip's devastating campaigns against western Aitolia and the Trichonis basin, punctuated by the sack of the federal sanctuary at Thermon in 218, made the Aitolians eager to come to terms at Naupaktos in 217, despite their successes in Thessalia. But the koinon retained control of Delphi, despite the Hellenic Alliance's goal of liberation of the sanctuary at the war's inception (Plb. 4.25.6-8).

An epilogue provides an overall summary. Important general conclusions are as follows: Aitolian communal action was motivated either by real or perceived external threats, or by individualistic economic opportunism; traditional socio-economic practices, the "politics of plunder," restricted the growth of a stable, territorially-extensive koinon, especially outside of Central Greece; these inherent weaknesses meant that the apogee of Aitolian federalism had been reached and passed long before the Romans arrived on the scene; constant internal divisions and fragmentation among the koinon's constituency to some degree vitiate collective historical generalizations concerning the League; and, finally, while Polybios' literary image of the Aitolians is borne out by other historical evidence, his anti-Aitolian biases often lead to historical distortions.3 There are two lengthy appendices dealing with difficult chronological problems presented by the literary and epigraphical records. Among other matters, App. A deals with the thorny problem of the wandering East Lokrian vote on the Amphiktionic council in the 270s and 260s (cf. Ch. 2, 68-70). In App. B Scholten convincingly defends the scholarly majority opinion on the date of the Aitolian-Akarnanian treaty (IG IX 1 2nd ed., 1, 3A) to the late 260s or early 250s, contra Grainger, who would place it about a decade earlier.

My criticisms are few, amounting to little more than quibbles. I do not find the argument for the Aitolian role in internal affairs at Kynaitha in the 240s (119) to be compelling. In my view, the silence of Polybios, who does not miss opportunities to relate Aitolian meddlesomeness, argues against it (cf. Scholten's caution in assigning the Aitolians a role in the Eleian takeover of Triphylia based on Polybios' silence at 121-2). I would like to see more on the mysterious third-century Akarnanian appeal to the Romans against Aitolian aggression at Just. Epit. 28.1.5-2.13 (cf. Strabo 10.2.25, C 462); it is relegated to a footnote (147 n. 63). Finally, although Scholten has an engaging and lucid prose style, with a touch of irony, he sometimes goes overboard in his characterizations of the Aitolians à la Polybios (cf. the Aitolians as "three-hundred pound guerillas" at 77).

Aitolian studies are prospering. In my view, Politics of Plunder is destined to prove the most important of this recent work on the Aitolian koinon.4 And Scholten has satisfied the rigorous methodological demands of Polybios himself, as he has travelled much of the difficult and mountainous terrain of Aitolia, still not enjoying the modern road networks of much of the rest of Greece, and bases his study on personal autopsy. A masterly synthesis of difficult and diverse source material, full of shrewd historical insights, it will be the authoritative study of the Aitolian confederation for many years to come. It is beautifully produced, with very few typographical errors.5 Word is that a study of the earliest Aitolian koinon will follow hard on the heels of Politics of Plunder.6 One can only hope that Scholten eventually will concentrate his formidable expertise in Aitolika on the koinon's later history, its tragic involvement with Rome and fall from Delphi -- a history that needs to be written from a Greek, and more particularly, from an Aitolian, perspective; and a topic that should be of great interest to Hellenists and Romanists alike.


1.   Thuc. 3.94.5; cf. 1.5.3-6.2; Eur. Phoen. 138. See also Duris, FGrH 76 F 13 = Ath. 6.63.253d-f; Agatharchides FGrH 86 F 6 = Ath. 12.33.527b-c. For the historical foundations of Duris' charges, see G. Reger, "The Political History of the Kyklades, 260-200 BC," Historia 43 (1994) 32-69, at pp. 66-8 and literature cited there. For a possible ethnic joke at the Aitolians' expense at Hom. Od. 14.462-506, see T. Corey Brennan, "An Ethnic Joke in Homer?," HSCP 91 (1987) 1-3.
2.   J.A.O. Larsen, Representative Government in Greek and Roman History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1955) and id., Greek Federal States: Their Institutions and History (Oxford, 1968) remain of fundamental importance. See most recently H. Beck, Polis und Koinon: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Struktur der griechischen Bundesstaaten im 4. Jahrhundert v. Chr. (Stuttgart, 1997).
3.   For Polybios' anti-Aitolian statements, see assembled references at K.S. Sacks, "Polybius' Other View of Aetolia," JHS 95 (1975) 92-106 at 92; F.W. Walbank, A Historical Commentary on Polybius, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1957) 12 n. 6 ad 2.43.9; and my article, "Polybius, Aetolia and the Gallic Attack on Delphi (279 BC)," Historia 45 (1996) 315-28 at 316 n. 5 and 323 n. 45.
4.   See the works of Bommeljé et al. in the bibliography (298-9); C. Antonetti, Les étoliens: image et religion (Paris, 1990); J.D. Grainger, Aitolian Prosopographical Studies (Leiden and Boston, 2000). Antonetti intends to publish a new corpus of inscriptions from Thermon dating from the fourth to second century BC. P. Funke has promised an updated work on Aitolian prosopography, superseding the work of G. Klaffenbach.
5.   Errata et corrigenda: 67 n. 27: dittography ("the"); 84: Koinon (small case elsewhere); 237 n. 8: read "Habicht" for "Habricht." The interruption of 247 n. 35 in App. A by Table A3 (continuation on 250) is an annoyance.
6.   In the meantime, see Beck (n. 2 above), 43-54.

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