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Aetolian War

(191–189 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Map showing Aetolia
Map showing Aetolia. | Author: Brastite at the English language Wikipedia

After the defeat of Macedonia in the Second Macedonian War, the Ethols entered into a dispute with the Romans because they were not satisfied with the terms of the peace treaty that had been imposed on Macedonia. The Aetolians expected that the Kingdom of Macedonia would be completely liquidated, and they themselves, in return for the help provided, would take over the entirety of Thessaly and be able to build their own power in Hellas. The objections and protests of the Aetolians, however, did not make any impression on the Romans, as they had the support of other allies, such as Pergamon and Rhodes.

The embittered Aetolians hungered for vengeance and in 192 BCE sent envoys to several potential allies who were not too comfortable with the Romans and who would be ready to take armed action against the Republic. The first was the king of Sparta, Nabis, who willingly agreed to the plan of the Ethols, as a few years earlier he had been forced by the Romans to sign a humiliating treaty. Ultimately, however, none of these plans worked out. Nabis on his own took up the fight against Rome and the Achaean League, which, however, ended in defeat and death for him.

Another potential ally for the Aetolians was their recent adversary, King Philip V of Macedonia, who still had to pay Rome a contribution. Philip, however, rejected the offer to fight the Romans because he feared for the life of his son, who was held hostage in Rome. The third ally of the Ethols was the Seleukid emperor, Antiochus III the Great, who readily agreed to their proposal, seeing it as an opportunity to expand his influence in Europe, and also had disputes with the Romans, who demanded that he leave Greece and the Greek cities lying on the coast of Asia Minor.

Antiochus landed in Greece at the head of an army of ten thousand foot soldiers and five hundred horsemen. The emperor hoped that he would be joined by the Greeks, who did not like the Roman authority very much, but these expectations turned out to be in vain. The Romans, alerted by the arrival of Antiochus in Greece, sent an army against him, led by consul Manius Acylius Glabrion. The two troops met in the Thermopylae Gorge where a terrible battle took place in which Antiochus suffered a severe defeat. Of his entire army, only five hundred survived, and he had to withdraw back to Asia Minor, where he continued his fight against Rome, which went down in history as the Seleukid War against Atiochem III.

Map showing Hellas in 192 BCE, before the outbreak of war.

The Thessalian campaign

The defeat of Antiochus at Thermopylae left the Aetolians without allies, and they themselves could not resist the well-trained and organized legions. After the victory at Thermopylae, the Roman army marched through Thessaly without encountering any resistance, eventually reaching the Aetolian city of Herakleia. Acilius sent an envoy to the inhabitants, demanding that they capitulate and humble themselves before the Senate, begging him for mercy for their rebellion. The Aetolians did not respond, so the Romans began preparing for an assault.

The Romans tried to attack the city walls with battering rams, while the Ethols made frequent forays from the city to prevent this from happening. The protracted siege, however, was exhausting for the defenders, as they did not have enough men to replace the walls, while the Romans had large human reserves.

After twenty-four days of the siege, the consul knew from the reports of spies and deserters that the defenders were exhausted from the fight. So he made a decision to join the general assault. At midnight he ordered his soldiers to return to the camp and kept them idle until three in the morning when he gave the order to attack the city again. The defenders immediately took their position on the walls, and the Romans launched an attack this time from three different sides. In addition, Acylius gave the order to Tiberius Sempronius, with whom he had a third of the forces under his command, to remain ready and wait for a favourable moment to attack. When the Aetolians saw the Roman army coming to the storm, they immediately prepared for battle. However, the defenders could only man a small part of the walls. At the same time, Acilius ordered Tiberius to attack. Taking advantage of the cover of darkness, Tiberius’ soldiers approached the undefended section of the walls and crossed it with the help of ladders. The Aetolians, seeing that the Romans managed to break into the city, abandoned their positions and took refuge on the acropolis. After the victory, Acilius allowed his soldiers to plunder the city abandoned by the defenders.

After the legionaries finished plundering the city, Acylius split his forces into two groups. The first of them took up a position on a hill next to the acropolis, which was of similar height, then began firing at the enemy with catapults and ballistae. At that time, the second group was to attack the acropolis from the front. The Aetolians, seeing that the situation was hopeless, decided to capitulate to the Romans. The commander of the defence, Damocritus of Calidon, was captured.

When Acilius besieged Heraclea, Philip V, along with other Roman forces, laid siege to another Aetolian city, Lamia, which was seven miles away from Heraclea. The Romans and Macedonians showed great energy during the siege as if they were competing with each other. As the siege began to move forward, Philip met with prominent citizens of the city, for he feared that if the Romans managed to conquer Heraclea, the people of Lamia would surrender to them. Philip’s fears were confirmed when the Romans ordered him to withdraw from the siege.


Despite their defeats, the Aetolians continued to hope that Antiochus would return to Greece at the head of the new forces. So they sent envoys to him, asking him to send them money and meals in return if he was unable to return. Antiochus sent his recent allies money and promised reinforcements, but the fall of Herakleia broke the fighting spirit among the Aetolians, and as a result, they entered into negotiations with the Romans. Acilius gave the Ethols a ten-day truce and sent Lucius Valerius Flaccus to negotiate. The Romans demanded that Dicaarchus, Monestas of Epirus and Amynander of Athamania be handed over to them. The Aetolians agreed to the terms and were ready to hand over their leaders into Roman hands when Nikander, one of the envoys sent to Antiochus, arrived with the news that the emperor would send them reinforcements and money. This fact convinced the Ethols to continue fighting. Peace negotiations were interrupted and fighting flared up again.

When Acilius found out that the Ethols would not humble themselves to Roman authority, he set out with his army and laid siege to Naupactus. The siege lasted two months, when Titus Quinctius Flaminius, who was highly respected and adored by the Greeks, arrived in the besieging camp. As he walked around the city walls, many people recognized him and began to ask for help. Representatives of the inhabitants of Naupaktos met with Flaminius, who agreed to negotiate on their behalf. Shortly thereafter, the Roman army abandoned the siege and marched on Phocis.

When the Ethol envoys returned from Rome, they told their leaders that the chances of concluding a peace treaty with the Romans were slim. The Aetolians, therefore, occupied the pass at Mount Corax, blocking the possible further path of the Romans. At the same time, the Achaeans were invading the Aetolian coast. The Aetolians were certain that Acilius would march on Naupaktos, but instead, the consul launched a sudden attack on Lamia. The inhabitants of the city, although surprised, were able to repel the first Roman storm. Acilius then drove the soldiers out of the camp, saying that they should not return to it until they had captured the city. The motivation was effective, as Lamia fell after only a few hours of the assault, and the captured city was plundered.

The Romans, knowing that the road to Naupaktos was closed, decided to hit Amphissa. Thanks to their siege machines, they managed to tear down some of the walls. The defenders, however, held on bravely until the new consul, Lucius Scipio and his brother, Scipio Africanus arrived at the camp. Upon their arrival, the defenders abandoned the city walls and locked themselves in the acropolis. Shortly thereafter, Athenians arrived at the Roman camp and offered to mediate in negotiating peace terms between the Republic and the Aetolians.

End of the war

The Romans dictated a peace treaty that made Aetolian a Roman puppet state. The Aetolians pledged to fight in every war of Rome and to have the same enemies and allies. Moreover, they had to pay tribute in the amount of a thousand silver talents, exchange prisoners, and return to Rome hostages, whose life was to guarantee peace.

Author: Marcin Gwizdalski (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Peter Green, Alexandeer to Actium: The Historic Evolution of the Hellenistic Age
  • Livy, Ab urbe condita

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