The Disastrous Athenian Invasion Of Aetolia In The 5th-Century BCE


According to the great Greek historian, Thucydides, an Athenian coalition led by Demosthenes invaded the region of Aetolia (located north of the Peloponnesus and west of Athens) around 426 BCE. His forces, consisting of Athenians, Cephallenians, Zacynthians and Messenians, set up a base in their allied territory of Locris, which bordered on Aetolia, and they put up their camp by the city of Oeneon. The pro-Athenian locals in the region were also mustering their forces to join with Demosthenes’ coalition in the campaign against Aetolia. Yet, Demosthenes’ intelligence reports, largely supplied by the Messenians in his army, claimed that the Aetolian army was primarily made up of poorly equipped soldiers who had to resort to tactics of skirmishing and guerilla warfare. Inspired by this information, Demosthenes started his campaign early, leaving Oeneon before all of the local allied forces were ready. Unfortunately for the Athenian commander, he would soon get schooled in a lesson that the Spartans had frustratingly learned a few years prior, when they invaded Acarnania, which was a land known for its use of ranged weaponry—never underestimate armies that rely on skirmish weapons and guerrilla warfare.

Demosthenes’ campaign had a brilliant start. For three days, he took control of a large swath of territory in Aetolia, conquering at least one city per day. Thucydides mentioned that the settlements of Potidania, Crocylium and Tichium all fell to the Athenians, and did so with very little resistance. In fact, Demosthenes could scarcely find any sign of enemy forces in the first few days of the campaign. Despite the eerie absence of resistance, the Athenian leader kept pushing his men further into Aetolia, putting even more distance between himself and the allied locals who were still trying to form up into a war band in Oeneon.

Next, Demosthenes took the city of Aegitium, a settlement surrounded by wooded slopes in a very hilly region of Greece. When the Athenians arrived, the inhabitants of Aegitium curiously abandoned their city and ran for the hills, disappearing into the countryside. So, yet again, Demosthenes took another city with little effort. Unfortunately, he would soon realize that the Aetolians were not going to run any longer.

According to Thucydides, the Aetolian communities had much better spies than Demosthenes. While the Athenian commander was reading reports about Aetolia being an easy conquest, the Aetolian cities had already heard that an attack was imminent and they immediately coalesced their forces into a huge army. As Demosthenes meandered through their territory, the Aetolians organized and planned, positioning themselves for an optimum battle. The massive Aetolian force finally intercepted Demosthenes soon after he took the city of Aegitium. When the citizens fled from that town, they apparently ran right to the bulk of the Aetolian forces, which Thucydides claimed were hiding in the nearby hills.

Catching Demosthenes totally off guard, an untold amount of Aetolian skirmishers began lobbing endless streams of javelins at the Athenian forces. Whenever Demosthenes’ troops attempted to chase after the throwers, the Aetolians would just slip back into the cover of the hillside. When the Athenians gave up the chase, the javelins would begin to rain down, once more, on Demosthenes’ camp. According to Thucydides, the only salvation for the Athenians was their corps of archers, who could hold off some of the enemy skirmishers with volleys of their arrows. Yet, the captain in charge of these archers was killed by a well-aimed projectile, which caused the rest of the archer corps to panic and flee from the battlefield. With the archers lost, the remainder of Demosthenes’ army lost its will.

The broken soldiers scattered in different directions. The bulk of the coalition force, not including Demosthenes, fled into a nearby forest, hoping to be able to hide or escape in the foliage. Yet, this forest was said to have been set alight by the Aetolians, killing all of the unfortunate men who had taken shelter there. The remainder of the battered Athenian force, including Demosthenes, dodged javelins until they reached the friendly city of Oeneon. From there, Demosthenes transported his much-depleted army to the city of Naupactus. Finally, he sent his troops home to Athens, but he, himself, pointedly stayed in Naupactus, not yet willing to face his countrymen.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Illustration of an ancient peltast by Johnny Shumate, in front of Hoplites charging against projectiles, published in 1984, “Classical Warfare- The Age of the Greek Hoplite” in Ancient and Medieval Warfare…both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Book II) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

Leave a Reply