Aratus of Sicyon

Aratus (271 BC - 213 BC) was a statesman of the ancient Greek city-state of Sicyon in the 3rd century BC. He deposed the Sicyon tyrant Nicocles in 251 BC. Aratus was an advocate of Greek unity and brought Sicyon into the Achæan League, which he led to its maximum extent. He was elected strategos numerous times and led the Achæans against Macedonia, the Aetolians and the Spartans. After the Spartans defeated and nearly destroyed the cities of the Achaean League, he requested Antigonus Doson of Macedonia to help fight against the Aetolians and Spartans. After Antigonus died in 222 BC, Aratus did not get along with Philip V of Macedon, who wanted to make the Achæan League subject to Macedonia. Polybius and Plutarch record that Philip had Aratus poisoned. (Polybius 8.14; Plutarch Aratus 52)

Early Life

Aratus was born in 271 BC in Sicyon. His father, Clinias, was governing this city as magistrate. Clinias was pacifying the country after ending a long succession of tyrants.[1]

In 264 BC, Abantidas led a new revolt. Clinias was slain. Abantidas sought to kill the 7 years old Aratus. Aratus escaped after wandering into the home of Soso, Abantidas' sister, who had also been married to Prophantus (Clinias' brother). She was so emotionally moved by the child's circumstance that she hid him until nightfall, and then sent him off to Argos.[1]

In Argos, Aratus was educated with liberal notions by other exiles, many of whom had been friends of his family. Aratus grew to hate tyranny. Aratus also attended the Argos' palaestra regularly, developing an athletic body, noted in statues. He even won the pentathlon once.[1]

Soon, Aratus became a political leader in exile. He was admired because of both his aristocratic birth and his enthusiasm.[1]

Liberating Sicyon

At this time, Nicocles was the latest tyrant of Sicyon. He began his reign four months ago, fiercly suppressing all opposition. He feared Aratus so he commissioned spies to follow him in Argos.[1]

Aratus considered his future, and nothing in Macedonia, with King Antigonus II, nor in Egypt, with King Ptolemy II, looked promising. Consequently, Aratus decided to liberate Sicyon with the help of the other exiles. The revolt had to be swift, avoiding any protracted conflict, which they could not afford.[1]

In 251 BC, Aratus and his men slipped into Sicyon quietly at night, climbing the steep wall on the rocky side with ladders. Right before the dawn, Aratus captured the guards, and he sent orders to spread the news of the revolt to the local people so they might join. At dawn, all Sicyon surrounded the palace and, after a herald harangued them, the people thronged into the palace which was set afire. The flames could be seen from Corinth, 12 km away. Nicocles escaped through an underground passageway. Aratus divided the spoils from the palace between his soldiers and the people. Only one citizen was killed in his revolt.[1]

Pacifying Sicyon

Aratus had brought most of the exiles back, but after fifty years of tyranny, most exiles had become destitute. They claimed their former properties which had been given away. Fearing a civil war, Aratus decided that Sicyon would join the Achaean League. Sicyon lost its Dorian status because of this. Once inside the league, Aratus served in the cavalry. His commanders were surprised because he responded as dutifully as the lowest soldier.[1]

Aratus resorted to Ptolemy, King of Egypt, to help Sicyon. Ptolemy was a personal friend because Aratus often sent him Greek paintings, made by famous artists from Sicyon, which was an important center of art. Ptolemy had already sent 25 talents, but this wasn't enough. Aratus decided to visit him personally. After a hazardous trip, during which he was almost captured by the Macedonians, Aratus arrived in Egpyt. Ptolemy presented Sicyon with 150 talents. This calmed Sicyon definitively and the exiles erected a brass statue on Aratus' behalf.[1]

The Macedonian King Antigonus began a calumny campaign against Aratus, to destroy the friendship between Ptolemy and Aratus. Ptolemy sent diplomats to Sicyon to clear the issue.[1]

Soon, it was clear that Aratus lived only for Sicyon's prosperity, which was what determined who could be considered one of his friends.[1]

The Achaean Strategos

In 245 BC, Aratus was appointed Strategos of the Achaean League. At the time, the Achaean League's worst rivals were Macedonia, who had garrisons throughout the Peloponnesus, and the Aetolian League, which had formed a military alliance with Macedonia. His first military action was to aid the Boeotian army. Leading 10,000 soldiers, Aratus attacked both Locris and Calydon. [1]

Capturing Corinth

Corinth had been garrisoned years before by Philip II of Macedonia. Aratus discovered a way to liberate the city, with the help of four Syrian brothers. One of them, Erginus, had stolen the Corinthian royal treasury and he decided to store his fortune at Sicyon. There, he revealed to Aratus that his brother Diocles, who was a soldier in the Macedonian garrison, had discovered a part of the walls which was only 4.5 meter high. It was accessible through some rocks, by a hidden path. Aratus guaranteed a 60 talent reward to all four brothers, pawning his own wife's silver jewelry to cover the cost.[1]

Again as Strategos in 243 BC, Aratus led 400 men to Corinth, leading the finest 100 men personally right into the garrison, through the secret passage. The Macedonians were overwhelmed by the assaulters. The next morning, Corinth's garrison surrendered and the entire Achaean army arrived.[1]

Aratus gathered all the Corinthians at the theater. Aratus was wearing his armour and leaned on his spear, which he held in his right hand. Without his uttering a word, the multitude acclaimed him. Aratus spoke on behalf of the Achaean League, asking the Corinthians to join them. Then he returned the city's keys, which had been taken by the Macedonians. The Achaeans garrisoned Corinth with 400 men.[1]

Expanding the League

Consequently, Megara, Troezen, and Epidaurus revolted against Macedonia and joined the Achaean League. Also, the Achaean soldiers followed Aratus anywere, fighting the Macedonian King. Aratus invaded Attica and occupied Salamis. Aratus convinced his friend King Ptolemy to join the Achaean League; upon entry its king received special powers.[1]

A Recognized Leader

Soon, the Achaeans recognized that Aratus' lone interest was boosting the league's greatness. Thus, although it was prohibited by the law, Aratus was appointed Strategos in successive years, from 241 BC until 235 BC. Aratus repeated the maxim that, although a single city may not be strong enough, together inside the Achaean League, all cities could survive as a whole.[1]

Against the Peloponnesian Tyrants

Additionally, Aratus campaigned against any tyrannical Peloponnesian leader.[1]


Among such campaigns, Aratus' most difficult was at Argos. This city had fallen under a succession of tyrants, and --sentimentally-- Aratus desired to liberate the place where he had grown up. With the Achaeans, Aratus led a series of campaigns but the Argives never gave in, since they were already accustomed to live under tyranny. In one battle, a spear cut Aratus' thigh. At Cleonae, Aratus had the opportunity to win over Argos through Aristippus, but Macedonian soldiers helped Aristomachos to subject Argos again.[1]


Lydiadas had been Megalopolis' tyrant but he relented, restricting his power and joining the Achaean League. In return, Lydiadas was appointed Strategos. Alternately in successive years, both Aratus and Lydiadas were Strategos, from 234 BC until 230 BC. Soon Lydiadas wanted to outmatch Aratus inside the league. As a declared personal enemy, Lydiadas began ranting constantly against him. However, the Achaean council was suspicious of Lydiadas' tyrannical past, so he lost much of his political support.[1]

Allying with Aetolia

Despite recent severe confrontations, after Antigonus II died, in 239 BC, Aetolia, whose leader was Pantaleon, agreed to help the Achaeans against Macedonia. Although this was temporary, it meant that the powerful Achaean League achieved its widest territorial reach, about 229 BC, almost exclusively due to Aratus' policies.[1]

Aratus attempted to liberate Athens. In the Thriasian Plain, his leg was severely broken, but he stayed on using a litter. Eventually, he captured Athens' Academy and pardoned the local people. Later, Aratus convinced Diogenes, the local Macedonian commander, to sell Piraeus, Munychia, Salamis, and Sunium, which he had until then held for Macedonia, to the Athenians, for 150 talents (20 of which were paid by Aratus).[1]

On hearing news of this, Aegina, Hermione, and most Arcadian cities joined the Achaean League. Also, by Aratus' insistence, Aristomachos brought Argos into the league and he was appointed Strategos. Phliasia also joined at this time.[1]

The Worst Years

Against Sparta

When Cleomenes III became king of Sparta, he ravaged the Peloponnesian cities. The Achaean League confronted this menace, with Aratus as Strategos for twelfth time, in 227 BC. Aratus captured Mantineia, by surprise, but Cleomenes captured Megalopolis and garrisoned it. [1]

Furthermore, Cleomenes overthrew all Spartan political institutions so that he could raid with fewer restrictions. Consequently, Aratus began corresponding secretly with Antigonus. Soon the Macedonians were called "Confederate", garrisoning some Peloponnesian cities again and aiding other cities with troops. For instance, Corinth was reinforced by Macedonian troops although its garrison was still Achaean.[1]

Mantineia fell and, then, Cleomenes demanded being appointed Strategos. The Achaean council invited him to Argos for talks but Cleomenes brought his entire army to Lerna, which was a distance of 4 km from Argos. This alarmed Aratus and he suggested to Cleomenes that, as "good friends," just 300 Spartans may enter Argos. Cleomenes felt offended by the offer and, in the Achaean Council, both argued so bitterly that Cleomenes formally declared war on the league.[1]

Sparta captured most Achaean cities and Aratus witnessed his league crumble. Aratus was commanded to police the league. Thus, he executed people, both in Sicyon and in Corinth. The Corinthians attempted to abduct Aratus but they failed. Subsequently, Corinth surrendered voluntarily to Sparta. The city was garrisoned and further fotified.[1]

Both Aetolia and Athens denied further assistance to the League. Aratus, who was still being appointed Strategos yearly, became a weak Greek political figure, with neither power nor hope. [1]

Nonetheless, Cleomenes showed many courtesies towards Aratus, desiring to ingratiate himself with the league. Aratus' Corinthian estate wasn't touched, while Cleomenes offered him a 12 talent pension. Aratus declined to accept these gifts, excusing himself:

"Now, I don't govern affairs. Instead, they govern me."

Being angered by this response, Cleomenes launched a massive invasion of Sicyon territory.[1]

Against Aetolia

Also, Aetolia again invaded the Peloponnesus during this time Aratus was appointed Strategos, in 225 BC, to confront this menace. He was utterly defeated at Caphyae. Two thousand Achaean soldiers fled the field after, erroneously, Aratus had ordered an attack on the Aetolians, who were better positioned, over a hilly terrain. The Achaean Council crititicized Aratus so badly that he lost confidence. As a result, the Aetolians were able to leave the Peloponnesus without opposition, although Aratus could have defeated them easily.[2]

Friend of Macedonia

After three months of siege on Sicyon, in 224 BC Aratus deemed that Achaea should surrender Sicyon to Macedonia definitively, because this city was their condition for a complete alliance. In Aegium, the Achaean council approved this. Then, some angered Corinthians plundered all Aratus' possessions and gave his residence to Cleomenes.[1]

Aratus met Antigonus III at Pegae. The Macedonian King had brought 20,000 soldiers plus 1,300 cavalrymen. They swore reciprocal fidelity, although Aratus, understandably, was scared, after years of war, and especially since his own career had begun hating the previous Macedonian Kings. However, soon he discovered that Antigonus admired him.[1]

Immediately, the renewed Achaean League smashed the Spartan threat. Argos, Corinth, Mantineia, and all other cities were retaken. Cleomenes was defeated decisively at Sellasia, in 222 BC, after which he fled to Egypt.[1]

Loyalty to Macedonia

Henceforth, until his death, Aratus subjugated his policies to the Macedonian monarchy. He demonstrated that, as Antigonus' chief advisor, he was as capable as before (as a democratic functionary). Indeed, Aratus became Antigonus' favorite. Among other things, Mantineia was renamed "Antigonea," by Aratus.[1]

Some time before the alliance, Aratus had done a sacrifice where two conjoined gallbladders were found. The interpretation was that "two bitter enemies would join amicably." This was remembered when, watching an entertainment at Corinth, both Aratus and Antigonus ended protected from a very cold weather, under the same cloak.[1]

However, the Peloponnesians criticized Aratus harshly, for he allowed the Macedonians to torture, execute, pillage, and so forth indiscriminately. For instance, Aratus witnessed many statues erected which represented the former tyrants, while those which represented the leaders who had liberated Corinth were torn down. Among these, only Aratus' statue was left.[1]

Teaching the New King

Antigonus returned to Macedonia where he soon died fighting against Illyria. His son Philip moved to Peloponnesus, to live with Aratus and become acquainted with the local people. In 221 BC, Philip V assumed the throne and continued his father's favor towards Aratus.[1]

In 218 BC, Phillip's royal advisors tricked him into supporting Epiratos, who was Aratus' rival. Epiratos was elected Strategos. However, the Macedonian King discovered the calumnious maneuver and punished the deceitful advisors. The King returned his support to Aratus, so Aratus was Strategos again, in 217 BC.[2]

No longer under the threat of Macedonian invasion, the Achaean League dissipated. Aetolia took advantage of this situation to pillage the Peloponnesus again, this time with some Spartan assistance. Aratus convinced Philip personally to harass Aetolia with his army by surprise, in 217 BC. Aetolia was forced to sign a peace.[2]

With his experience, Aratus was the person who taught the young King the most about both royal policies and behavior. For this reason, Aratus was so hated by the other advisors that they insulted Aratus bitterly on any occasion. Their leaders were Apelles and Leontius. Eventually, they were executed by the King. [2]

His Death

However, forgetting all dignity and courtesy, Philip V became an intemperate monarch. For instance, being cordially lodged at Aratus' home, he had a lengthy secret affair with Aratus' daughter-in-law. [1]

Accordingly, by secret meetings, Philip V provoked a civil war capriciously in Messene, pitting magistrates against demagogues. Aratus could do nothing to reconcile the parties, and 200 magistrates were slain. Aratus reproached the King quite bitterly over this event. To settle things down, the King invited Aratus, to a religious sacrifice at Mt. Ithome. There, Aratus said:

"You have conquered almost all Greece but you don't control the people's emotions whereas a King's strongest fortresses are both popular confidence and affection."

Soon, Aratus, who continued as the Achaean Strategos year after year, didn't want to talk with the King. Then, he refused to join the Epirian expedition. [1]

After being defeated by the Romans, Philip V returned to the Peloponnesus. The King complicated the Messene's politics again and then the ravaged their country, without a reason. Once more, Aratus reacted openly against him. Furthermore, he was then informed about his daughter-in-law's affair, although Aratus didn't tell anything to his son. [1]

Philip V had become completely tyrannical, and he decided to end this bitter confrontation by killing Aratus. The King planned to do this discretely, during his absence. So the Macedonian general Taurion was assigned to this task After getting acquainted with him, Taurion administered a slow effect poison to Aratus. Aratus began suffering progressive heats and coughs while his body decayed slowly but steadily. [1]

Aratus understood the situation but he knew that nothing could be done politically. Thus, he kept silence. Only once, he commented to a friend:

"These are the consequences of the king's love."

Aratus died at Aegium, in 213 BC. [1]

Although the local people were ready to bury him with great pomp, Sicyon claimed the corpse. Since it was prohibited to bury him inside the city, the citizens consulted Delphi's oracle. They were so happy by the response that the burial became a festival. Aratus' corpse was buried at the most conspicuous spot, which was then named Arateium. [1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap Plutarch, The Lives, "Aratus"
  2. ^ a b c d Polybius: The Histories, The Histories

See also



Other Poison Deaths

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