By  Periklis Deligiannis



Aristonothos vase 700-650 BC

The renowned “Aristonothos vase” (about 700-650 BC) manufactured in Magna Graecia by Aristonothos and discovered in Caere of Etruria (Etruscan Caisra). Its vase-painting of a naval battle (image below) provides us with a very good representation of the ships used by the Greek and the Etruscan sea-fighters (almost identical), and of naval warfare during the acme of the Aeolidae Islands (Archaic period).

The Aeolidae (Aeolian) or Liparae (Liparian) Isles is a cluster of small islands in Sicily,  northwest of the Straits of Messina. In this article I will deal with an unknown aspect of their history which is related with a very interesting episode of the ancient Greek colonization.
In Sicily, around 580 BC, the Selinuntian Greek colonists finally resigned from claiming disputed lands from their Geloan brethren (in which lands, Acragas was founded) in exchange for aid by Dorian settlers coming from Rhodes and the Anatolian Greek colony Cnidos (Knidos), who arrived in western Sicily through Gela. Pentathlos, the leader of the Rhodian and Cnidian colonists, was a Cnidian like most of his men.
The Selinuntians used the Cnidian and Rhodian reinforcements in their ongoing war against the Elymians and the Phoenicians. They helped them to establish a new Greek colony at Cape Lilybaion (Latin Lilybaeum), just 10 kilometers south of Motya. They were trying to establish a new Doric power against Motya (the main Punic colony on the island) and Carthage, while they would deal with the subjugation of the Elymian Segesta which resisted stubbornly their expansion. The Selinuntians, Cnidians and Rhodians joined forces against the Elymi, Sicilian-Phoenicians and Carthaginians.
Diodorus Siculus states that the main battle between the two blocs took place near Lilybaeum, obviously in the hinterland between Selinus (Selinunte) and Segesta. Pentathlos was killed; the Greeks were defeated (580/576 BC) and immediately after, the Elymi and the Carthaginians attacked Lilybaion and drove off from there the Cnidians and Rhodians.

Etruscan warship
A contemporary representation in an Italian archaeological museum, of the prow and the ram of an Etruscan warship. Note its similarity to the corresponding Greek warships (used by the Liparaeans as well). Every shipbuilding novelty that was invented in mainland Greece or Magna Grecia was adopted almost immediately by the Etruscans.

The Cnidian and Rhodian refugees of Lilybaeum sailed along the northern coast of Sicily, ending to the Aeolian or Liparae Isles. They settled in the largest of them, Lipara (“the fertile” in Greek) or Meligounis, where they founded their city incorporating some native Sikels (Siculi) of the island, and used the lands of the other islands as cropland. The Greek colonization of the Aeolian Isles was a great threat to the Etruscans or Tyrrhenians (in Greek) whose powerful navies used to dominate the sea area of these islands. The Etruscans traded with the Italiote Greek colonies while simultaneously were conducting piracy on the merchant vessels of other Greek cities.

lipari Aeolian

Map of the Aeolian-Liparian  Islands (source/copyright:

The Liparaean Greeks did the same on Etruscan vessels, swooping from their islands. The blow to the commerce of the Etruscans was great because their ships could no longer even approach to the Straits of Messina, in order to trade directly with the rich countries of the eastern Mediterranean. The Etruscans sent their fleets against the Liparaeans who thereby were converted to a society of Spartan style in order to cope with this threat. The Liparaean combatants were devoted in the service on the navy which was strengthened further with new-built warships. These warriors-mariners were eating together in particular places (syssitia or fiditia) according to the model of Sparta and the Cretan city-states. Furthermore, the Liparaean city-state (polis) was Doric and most of its residents, namely the Cnidian colonists, had a distant ancestry from Laconia because Cnidus was a Spartan colony. Thereby, Lipara was a “2nd generation” Spartan colony. The Liparaean civilians were engaged heavily in production in order to maintain their strong navy. There was a communal ownership of the land. Later, the land was divided in allotments which were redistributed every 20 years. By doing all these, the Liparaeans created a robust, well-organized and predominantly military society, a real micrograph of Sparta far away from Greece (according to the ancient view) in the distant Tyrrhenian Sea. With this organization, the Liparaean Greeks had won several victories against the Etruscan fleets.


Map of ancient Sicily including  the Liparian or Aeolian islands.

However, the stuborn  but unfortunately few in numbers Liparaeans could not repel only by themselves the Etruscan, Phoenician and even Greek raiders and pirates that kept coming again and again. It is certain that they were not helped remarkably by the neighboring Greek city-states of Sicily or Italy, because they were not willing to become a part of their states, thereby sacrificing their independence. At the beginning of the 4th century BC, the Aeolian Islands appear to have a reduced population. This situation denotes that in the 5th century BC most Liparaeans, worried about the fate of their families, chose to emigrate to the Greek cities of Sicily and Italy, probably mainly to the nearby Medma, Hipponion, Rhegion (Reggio), Messina, Tyndaris and Mylae (Milazzo).
During the wars of the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius I against the Carthaginians, the latter managed to occupy Lipara (394 BC) but after their final defeat they had to withdraw. The remaining Liparaeans had no other choice but to conclude an alliance with Dionysios and be placed under the protection of the neighboring Greek city Tyndaris of Sicily, which was one of Dionysios’ main strongholds. It is also likely that many Tyndaraeans were originated from old Liparaeans who had taken refuge in that city. At the same time, the Etruscan threat had now been virtually eliminated due to the deep decay of the Etruscan cities. This threat was revived temporarily during the 3rd century BC. The Syracusan protection secured the peace and the new socio-economic bloom of the Aeolian Isles, whose population began to rise again. However, the old Spartan organization and training was now past.



Above: the main modern town of the Lipari (Aeolian) Islands. It is considered to lie in the site of the ancient Greek town (polis).
Below: Landscape of the Aeolian Islands.

The new bloom of the Aeolidae led to the removal of the Syracusan domination. However  their strategic location near the Straits of Messina forced Agathocles, the new tyrant of Syracuse (originating from nearby Rhegion), to occupy them again. This happened in 304 BC with treason, and judging by Agathocles’ methods, a rather large part of the nobility was exterminated or exiled. The squadron of Agathocles’ fleet that had attacked the islands, sailed away with considerable booty but a storm caused its loss together with all the loot. This ancient reference is rather confirmed by the numerous finds from ancient shipwrecks, which today are lying in the Archaeological Museum of Lipari.
Lipara’s occupation by the Agathocleian forces marked its final decay. At the beginning of the First Punic War (264-241 BC) the city appears to be a Carthaginian naval base. In 251 BC the Romans conquered it and in the future the Aeolian Isles were a part of the Roman province of Sicily. In Roman times they were known as a place of exile and involuntary isolation but also renowned for their thermal baths. They were still inhabited mainly by Greeks, who were eventually Latinized. It is likely that this occurred during the first Christian centuries, because of their proximity to mainland Italy.

Periklis Deligiannis


(1) Diodorus Siculus: HISTORICAL LIBRARY

(2) Herodotus: Histories