Aegina (Greek: Αίγινα) is one of the Saronic Islands of Greece in the Saronic Gulf, 17 miles (27 km) from Athens. Tradition derives the name from Aegina the mother of the hero Aeacus, who was born on the island and became the king of it. During ancient times Aegina was a rival of Athens, the great sea power of the era.
Archaeological findings of prehistoric settlements with obsidian tools indicate early habitation of the island.
Earliest history (20th–7th centuries BC)
Aegina, according to Herodotus, was a colony of Epidaurus, to which state it was originally subject. Its placement between Attica and the Peloponnesus made it a site of trade even earlier, and its earliest inhabitants allegedly came from Asia Minor. Minoan ceramics have been found in contexts of ca. 2000 BC. The famous Aegina Treasure, now in the British Museum is estimated to date between 1700 and 1500 BC. The discovery on the island of a number of gold ornaments belonging to the last period of Mycenaean art suggests that Mycenaean culture existed in Aegina for some generations after the Dorian conquest of Argos and Lacedaemon. It is probable that the island was not doricized before the 9th century BC.
One of the earliest historical facts is its membership in the League of Calauria (Calaurian Amphictyony, ca. 8th century BC), which included, besides Aegina, Athens, the Minyan (Boeotian) Orchomenos, Troezen, Hermione, Nauplia and Prasiae, and was probably an organization of city-states that were still Mycenaean, for the purpose of suppressing piracy in the Aegean that began as a result of the decay of the naval supremacy of the Mycenaean princes.
Aegina seems to have belonged to the Eretrian league during the Lelantine War; this, perhaps, may explain the war with Samos, a major member of the rival Chalcidian league during the reign of King Amphicrates (Herod. iii. 59), i.e. not later than the earlier half of the 7th century BC.
Coinage and sea power (7th–5th centuries BC)
Its early history reveals that the maritime importance of the island dates back to pre-Dorian times. It is usually stated on the authority of Ephorus, that Pheidon of Argos established a mint in Aegina, the first city-state to issue coins in Europe, the Aeginetic stater. One stamped stater (having the mark of some authority in the form of a picture or words) can be seen in the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris. It is an electrum stater of a turtle, an animal sacred to Aphrodite, struck at Aegina that dates from 700 BC. Therefore it is thought that the Aeginetans, within 30 or 40 years of the invention of coinage in Asia Minor by the Ionian Greeks or the Lydians (c. 630 BC), may have been the ones to introduce coinage to the Western world. The fact that the Aeginetic standard of weights and measures (developed during the mid-7th century) was one of the two standards in general use in the Greek world (the other being the Euboic-Attic) is sufficient evidence of the early commercial importance of the island. The Aeginetic weight standard of about 12.3 grams was widely adopted in the Greek world during the 7th century BC. The Aeginetic stater was divided into three drachmae of 4.1 grams of silver. Staters depicting a sea-turtle were struck up to the end of the 4th-century BC. Following the end of the Peloponnesian War, 404 BC, it was replaced by the land tortoise.
During the naval expansion of Aegina during the Archaic Period, Kydonia was an ideal maritime stop for Aegina’s fleet on its way to other Mediterranean ports controlled by the emerging sea-power Aegina. During the next century Aegina was one of the three principal states trading at the emporium of Naucratis in Egypt, and it was the only Greek state near Europe that had a share in this factory. At the beginning of the 5th century BC it seems to have been an entrepôt of the Pontic grain trade, which, at a later date, became an Athenian monopoly.
Unlike the other commercial states of the 7th and 6th centuries BC, such as Corinth, Chalcis, Eretria and Miletus, Aegina did not found any colonies. The settlements to which Strabo refers (viii. 376) cannot be regarded as any real exceptions to this statement.
Rivalry with Athens (5th century BC)
The known history of Aegina is almost exclusively a history of its relations with the neighbouring state of Athens, which began to compete with the thalassocracy of Aegina about the beginning of the sixth century BC. Solon passed laws limiting Aeginetan commerce in Attica. The legendary history of these relations, as recorded by Herodotus (v. 79-89; vi. 49-51, 73, 85-94), involves critical problems of some difficulty and interest. He traces the hostility of the two states back to a dispute about the images of the goddesses Damia and Auxesia, which the Aeginetes had carried off from Epidauros, their parent state.
The Epidaurians had been accustomed to make annual offerings to the Athenian deities Athena and Erechtheus in payment for the Athenian olive-wood of which the statues were made. Upon the refusal of the Aeginetes to continue these offerings, the Athenians endeavoured to carry away the images. Their design was frustrated miraculously – according to the Aeginetan version, the statues fell upon their knees – and only a single survivor returned to Athens. There he became victim to the fury of his comrades’ widows who pierced him with their brooch-pins. No date is assigned by Herodotus for this “old feud”; recent writers, e.g. J. B. Bury and R. W. Macan, suggest the period between Solon and Peisistratus, circa 570 BC. It is possible that the whole episode is mythical. A critical analysis of the narrative seems to reveal little else than a series of aetiological traditions (explanatory of cults and customs), e.g. of the kneeling posture of the images of Damia and Auxesia, of the use of native ware instead of Athenian in their worship, and of the change in women’s dress at Athens from the Dorian to the Ionian style.
The account which Herodotus gives of the hostilities between the two states during the early years of the 5th century BC is to the following effect. The Thebans, after the defeat by Athens about 507 BC, appealed to Aegina for assistance. The Aeginetans at first contented themselves with sending the images of the Aeacidae, the tutelary heroes of their island. Subsequently, however, they contracted an alliance, and ravaged the seaboard of Attica. The Athenians were preparing to make reprisals, in spite of the advice of the Delphic oracle that they should desist from attacking Aegina for thirty years, and content themselves meanwhile with dedicating a precinct to Aeacus, when their projects were interrupted by the Spartan intrigues for the restoration of Hippias.
In 491 BC Aegina was one of the states which gave the symbols of submission (“earth and water”) to Achaemenid Persia. Athens at once appealed to Sparta to punish this act of medism[disambiguation needed], and Cleomenes I, one of the Spartan kings, crossed over to the island, to arrest those who were responsible for it. His attempt was at first unsuccessful; but, after the deposition of Demaratus, he visited the island a second time, accompanied by his new colleague Leotychides, seized ten of the leading citizens and deposited them at Athens as hostages.
After the death of Cleomenes and the refusal of the Athenians to restore the hostages to Leotychides, the Aeginetans retaliated by seizing a number of Athenians at a festival at Sunium. Thereupon the Athenians concerted a plot with Nicodromus, the leader of the democratic party in the island, for the betrayal of Aegina. He was to seize the old city, and they were to come to his aid on the same day with seventy vessels. The plot failed owing to the late arrival of the Athenian force, when Nicodromus had already fled the island. An engagement followed in which the Aeginetans were defeated. Subsequently, however, they succeeded in winning a victory over the Athenian fleet.
All the incidents subsequent to the appeal of Athens to Sparta are referred expressly by Herodotus to the interval between the sending of the heralds in 491 BC and the invasion of Datis and Artaphernes in 490 BC (cf. Herod. vi. 49 with 94).
There are difficulties with this story, of which the following are the principal elements:
1. Herodotus nowhere states or implies that peace was concluded between the two states before 481 BC, nor does he distinguish between different wars during this period. Hence it would follow that the war lasted from soon after 507 BC until the congress at the Isthmus of Corinth in 481 BC
2. It is only for two years (BC 490 and 491) out of the twenty-five that any details are given. It is the more remarkable that no incidents are recorded in the period between the battles of Marathon and Salamis, since at the time of the Isthmian Congress the war was described as the most important one then being waged in Greece.
3. It is improbable that Athens would have sent twenty vessels to the aid of the Ionians in 499 BC if at the time it was at war with Aegina.
4. There is an incidental indication of time, which indicates the period after Marathon as the true date for the events which are referred by Herodotus to the year before Marathon, viz. the thirty years that were to elapse between the dedication of the precinct to Aeacus and the final victory of Athens.
As the final victory of Athens over Aegina was in 458 B.C., the thirty years of the oracle would carry us back to the year 488 BC as the date of the dedication of the precinct and the beginning of hostilities. This inference is supported by the date of the building of the 200 triremes “for the war against Aegina” on the advice of Themistocles, which is given in the Constitution of Athens as 483-482 BC. It is probable, therefore, that Herodotus is in error both in tracing back the beginning of hostilities to an alliance between Thebes and Aegina (c. 507 BC) and in claiming the episode of Nicodromus occurred prior to the battle of Marathon.
Overtures were unquestionably made by Thebes for an alliance with Aegina c. 507 BC, but they came to nothing. The refusal of Aegina was in the diplomatic guise of “sending the Aeacidae.” The real occasion of the beginning of the war was the refusal of Athens to restore the hostages some twenty years later. There was but one war, and it lasted from 488 to 481 BC. That Athens had the worst of it in this war is certain.
Herodotus had no Athenian victories to record after the initial success, and the fact that Themistocles was able to carry his proposal to devote the surplus funds of the state to the building of so large a fleet seems to imply that the Athenians were themselves convinced that a supreme effort was necessary.
It may be noted, in confirmation of this opinion, that the naval supremacy of Aegina is assigned by the ancient writers on chronology to precisely this period, i.e. the years 490-480.
In the repulse of Xerxes I it is possible that the Aeginetans played a larger part than is conceded to them by Herodotus. The Athenian tradition, which he follows in the main, would naturally seek to obscure their services. It was to Aegina rather than Athens that the prize of valour at Salamis was awarded, and the destruction of the Persian fleet appears to have been as much the work of the Aeginetan contingent as of the Athenian (Herod. viii. 91). There are other indications, too, of the importance of the Aeginetan fleet in the Greek scheme of defence. In view of these considerations it becomes difficult to credit the number of the vessels that is assigned to them by Herodotus (30 as against 180 Athenian vessels, cf. Greek History, sect. Authorities). During the next twenty years the Philo-Laconian policy of Cimon secured Aegina, as a member of the Spartan league, from attack. The change in Athenian foreign policy, which was consequent upon the ostracism of Cimon in 461 BC, resulted in what is sometimes called the First Peloponnesian War, during which most of the fighting was experienced by Corinth and Aegina. The latter state was forced to surrender to Athens after a siege, and to accept the position of a subject-ally (c. 456 BC). The tribute was fixed at 30 talents.
By the terms of the Thirty Years’ Peace (445 BC) Athens covenanted to restore to Aegina her autonomy, but the clause remained ineffective. During the first winter of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC) Athens expelled the Aeginetans and established a cleruchy in their island. The exiles were settled by Sparta in Thyreatis, on the frontiers of Laconia and Argolis. Even in their new home they were not safe from Athenian rancour. A force commanded by Nicias landed in 424 BC, and killed most of them. At the end of the Peloponnesian War Lysander restored the scattered remnants of the old inhabitants to the island, which was used by the Spartans as a base for operations against Athens during the Corinthian War. Its greatness, however, was at an end. The part which it plays henceforward is insignificant.
It would be a mistake to attribute the demise of Aegina solely to the development of the Athenian navy. It is probable that the power of Aegina had steadily declined during the twenty years after Salamis, and that it had declined absolutely, as well as relatively, to that of Athens. Commerce was the source of Aegina’s greatness, and her trade, which seems to have been principally with the Levant, must have suffered seriously from the war with Persia. Aegina’s medism in 491 is to be explained by its commercial relations with the Persian Empire. It was forced into patriotism in spite of itself, and the glory won by the battle of Salamis was paid for by the loss of its trade and the decay of its marine. The completeness of the ruin of so powerful a state is explained by the economic conditions of the island, the prosperity of which was based on slave-labour. It is impossible, indeed, to accept Aristotle’s (cf. Athenaeus vi. 272) estimate of 470,000 as the number of the slave-population; it is clear, however, that the number must have been much greater than that of the free inhabitants. In this respect the history of Aegina does but anticipate the history of Greece as a whole.
The constitutional history of Aegina is unusually simple. So long as the island retained its independence the government was an oligarchy. There is no trace of heroic monarchy and no tradition of a tyrannis. The story of Nicodromus, while it proves the existence of a democratic party, suggests, at the same time, that it could ocunt upon little support.
Hellenistic period and Roman rule
Aegina with the rest of Greece became dominated successively by the Macedonians, the Aetolians, Attalus of Pergamum and the Romans. A Jewish community is believed to have been established in Aegina “at the end of the second and during the third century AD” by Jews fleeing the barbarian invasions of the time in Greece.
Aegina belonged to the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire after the division of the Roman Empire in 395. It remained Eastern Roman during the period of crisis of the 7th–8th centuries, when most of the Balkans and the Greek mainland were overrun by Slavic invasions. Indeed, according to the Chronicle of Monemvasia, the island served as a refuge for the Corinthians fleeing these incursions. The island flourished during the early 9th century, as evidenced by church construction activity, but suffered greatly from Arab raids originating from Crete. Various hagiographies record a large-scale raid ca. 830, that resulted in the flight of much of the population to the Greek mainland. During that time, some of the population sought refuge in the island’s interior, establishing the settlement of Palaia Chora.
According to the 12th-century bishop of Athens, Michael Choniates, by his time the island had become a base for pirates. This is corroborated by Benedict of Peterborough’s graphic account of Greece, as it was in 1191; he states that many of the islands were uninhabited from fear of pirates and that Aegina, along with Salamis and Makronesos, were their strongholds.