Exploring the rise and fall of Greek Leagues in the Hellenistic Era, or how the Romans beat us

Greek Leagues in the Hellenistic Era - an overview of the Chrysaorian, Aetolian, and Achaean Leagues and the ultimate victors, the Romans

A range of leagues existed during the Hellenistic Era after Alexander the Great as rival Greek monarchs – the one-time generals from Alexander’s military – sought to destroy each other.. It is worth deflating the myth that no prominent Greek city-states survived beyond the death of Alexander.

The smaller league was in Asia Minor, the Chrysaorian League, in the south east of Asia Minor. Its territory included the city of Caria which had existed for almost 1500 years in one shape or another.

This non-formal league that was established around 300 BC and its members essentially provided mutual defence and a trade union. A sort of nascent forerunner to the economic union of Europe. Around in the Third Century, you would have come upon the cities as I once did: Alabanda, Alinda, Amyzon, Ceramus, Mylasa, Peræa Rhodiorum, Stratonicea, Thera. This was known as the Chrysaorian zone. Each member would send representatives to the assembly at Zeus Chrysaorius, near Caria.

Whilst the league was in Asia Minor, the coast was in essence considered part of the heartland of the Greek world owing to a high number of Greek cities that had existed there for centuries, founded by colonists from the mainland. The island of Rhodes controlled some of the cities for a while as her own power gained strength in early Roman times.

The Aetolian League is a more famous grouping of city states in the Greek heartland between 370 BC to 189 BC. Each city state was not strong enough to deal with Theban, Athenian, Spartan or Macedonian power so they banded together to preserve their independence in the Fourth Century. They coalesced a year after Thebes defeated Sparta in 371, giving them bragging rights as the strongest power in the Greek world.

Being a more formal confederation, by comparison with the Chrysaorian League, they included the cities of Acarnania, Locris, Malis, Dolopes, part of Thessaly and Phocis. This region was located around the geographical heart of modern Greece. A full assembly of citizens was held. The bigger the city the higher number of representatives attended. They elected an inner council, and there was a semi-professional military.

The confederation could levy taxation and maintained foreign policy; and similar to the rest of the Greek heartland, there were notable philosophers, writers, scientists and musicians across the territory. I particularly enjoyed visiting the festival of Locris, a city which was possibly the strongest and advanced of all members.

Like a number of other Greek jurisdictions that turned to Rome for help, they supported Rome against Philip V of Makedonia in 197 BC. Their thinking was that they could then shake off the stronger Romans and turn to the more distant Seleucids.

A comprehensive defeat followed seven years later, shaking the independence of the confederation. The Seleucids returned to Asia and by the following year the Romans were ready to annihilate the Aetolians. An envoy was sent to the commanders of the Aetolians with the possibility of an honourable surrender. No response was forthcoming from stubborn Greeks ensconced inside their walled city.

The siege and the 24 days of fighting saw the outnumbered Greeks send out regular sorties. Brave maybe, the move exposed them to more losses or capture.

The Romans had a supply line of men ready to take the place of exhausted fighters, and this was their key strength, which Greeks refused to understand.

With superior forces, the Romans succeeded in breaching the walls. Hundreds of Aetolians retreated to the citadel to continue the fight in a losing fashion.

With money and supplies sent by the Seleucids, the war continued between the Romans and Aetolians and included Lamia, Naupactus, with a failed two-month siege, and Amphissa. A new batch of forces arrived from Rome, including the famous Scipio Africanus, the military genius behind the defeat of Hannibal in Carthage. Athens intervened and helped broker a peace deal. Aetolia subsequently became a client state of Rome—with very little power—and henceforth limped along until all of Greece became an official province of Rome in 146 BC.

The defeat was with honour, the confederation held its head high, though historian Polybius, who was pro Rome saw them as nothing more than pirates who robbed temples and raided islands.

The Achaean League was the strongest of all these groupings from 281 BC. It was the second time that Achaea was formed, the first time in the Fifth Century to stave off the threat of the Spartans. This time it was to hold off the power of Macedon.

The Achaeans were so successful that most of the Peloponnese, if not all, by 150 BC came under the jurisdiction of the confederation. They grew every few years with new members or conquests. This included Sparta as an unlikely and unwilling participant but who felt had mythical status lowered to just another city that could not defend itself.

Sparta had been left with few professional soldiers due to centuries of continuous warfare and continuous population decline. External areas were also added to the Peloponnese including Kyodonia in Crete, Aegina, Helike, Olenus and Megara near Athens where the Peloponnesian War had its foundation with the fateful Megaran Decree by Athens. Over forty cities including Achaea, Corinth, Argolis, Arcadia, made this a powerful entity. The capital of the republican confederacy was Aigio at the gulf of Corinth, whilst the common currency was the Drachma.

Two strategoi (generals) headed the organisation but this changed in 255 to just one general at the helm. The general was elected by annual ballot; he was the chief of the ten-member board of the confederacy who represented the assemblies across the Peloponnese. The Board was allowed to concern itself with foreign policy and federal taxation only and was not involved with domestic affairs of members. The general was not allowed re-election for consecutive terms, which proved daft, as it diminished continuity in the arena of war, or the threat of war, which came all too soon….

By 228 BC Achaea had driven the Macedonians out of the affairs of the Peloponnese only to have Sparta, under Cleomenes, become a threat from Laconia.

The confederation called in Antigonus from Macedon and the Achaea confederacy subdued the Spartans by 221 ensuring that Makedonia was again heavily involved with Peloponnesian affairs.

In 192 BC the Achaeans used the second Macedonian War as an opportunity to oust them by siding with Rome. The tables eventually turned in 146 when the Romans took the entire Peloponnese. The senators of Rome had finally understood that their longevity would be secure if they subdued the pesky Hellenes.

*Billy Cotsis is the author of The Aegean Seven Take Back The Stolen Marbles.