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The Age of Menedemos

Just as the apogee of Athens in the 5th century can be called "the Age of Perikles," so the period of relative independence that Eretria enjoyed for more than fifty years, from 322 (the Lamian War) to 267 BC (the Chremonidean War), can be called with as much justice "the Age of Menedemos." During this period, the philosopher Menedemos was the most prominent person in the city, where he several times occupied important political offices.

In addition, this is the period for which we have the largest number of public inscriptions, especially honorific decrees and catalogues of citizens. From all this documentation, combined with the contribution of archaeology, emerges the image of a very lively and even prosperous city. Its cultural activity is strikingly reflected by the construction of a new theater; moreover, this theatrical activity was connected with a law passed by the Euboean cities ca. 300 BC that regulated the Dionysian technitai, that is, the tragic and comic actors employed for the festivals in honor of Dionysos and Demeter.

On the social and economic level, we should mention a great civil engineering project undertaken by the Eretrians: ca. 315, they hired a foreign engineer, Chairephanes, in an attempt to drain a marshy area (which the contract calls the "lake of Ptechai") situated rather far from the city, at the heart of their territory.

Macedonian ambitions

However, at that time the main concern of Eretrian politicians was to defend the city's vital interests against the appetites of Alexander's turbulent successors. The decrees, in particular those of the period 322-301, are revealing in this regard: most of them honor Macedonians who were in the service of these diadochoi, kings or future kings. In this way Eretria succeeded in thwarting the Euboean projects of the ambitious Kassandros, first by siding with the regent Polyperchon -who made it possible to reestablish democracy in the city in 318, after an oligarchic interlude lasting several years- and then, in 312, with Polemaios, the lieutenant of the powerful Antigonos the One-Eyed.

But in 304, willingly or unwillingly, it had to submit to the latter's son, the famous Demetrios Poliorketos ("Besieger of Cities"), and erected a statue to his chief agent in Greece, the politician Adeimantos of Lampsakos (on the Hellespont), also known through inscriptions in Athens and Delphi. More than once, Menedemos himself probably dealt with Demetrios, who became even more burdensome in 294, when he became king of Macedonia.

When in 287 Demetrios embarked on his last expedition in Asia, our philosopher was naturally designated to lead distant embassies to the two most sumptuous sovereigns of that time: King Lysimachos of Thrace in his capital of Lysimacheia, and King Ptolemy of Egypt in Alexandria. Later on, Menedemos developed very close contacts with the son of the late Demetrios, the skilled Antigonos Gonatas (who went so far as to call himself Menedemos's pupil!): in 278, after the young king repelled a Celtic invasion in northern Greece, Menedemos rushed to have the Eretrians vote a commemorative decree in honor of the victor.

The Chremonidean War

During all these years, however, the position of the city remained very precarious. Nothing shows this more clearly than the following episode, as an inscription, discovered more than half a millennium ago but now lost, demonstrates. Soon after their liberation in 286 or 285, Eretria and its neighbor, Chalkis, in order to escape their dangerous isolation, had decided to join the Boeotian Confederation that was then flourishing. But this union was of short duration.

Starting at the end of the decade 280-270, they had to reckon with the ambitions of Gonatas himself, who was posing a threat to the independence that had been recovered by the Greek states, including Athens. These states found a natural support in the Ptolemies of Alexandria, and it is no accident that several documents have been found, in the form of inscriptions and coins, that testify to indisputable links with Egypt. However, once Antigonos Gonatas was rid of the hotheaded King Pyrrhos of Epiros in 272, he wanted to reestablish a dominant position in Greece. So began the "Chremonidean War", a conflict between the Athenians, supported by various allie s-including precisely the sovereigns of Egypt- and the King of Macedonia, then at the zenith of his power. It seems that at the outset of the war-or even before it was openly declared in the fall of 268- Antigonos Gonatas came to lay siege to Eretria.

Suspected of having tried to betray the city to the King, with whom, as we have seen, he was tied by friendship, the philosopher Menedemos was forced into exile. From the other side of the strait, in the nearby Amphiaraion of Oropos, he witnessed -powerless and desperate- the Macedonian conquest of the city (spring 267?), an event that has left numerous archaeological traces on the site. Despite his efforts to sway the king, Menedemos did not succeed in obtaining the reestablishment of democracy-and therefore political autonomy-for his homeland. He finally committed suicide, at the age of 83 (ca. 263 BC). Very shortly afterward, Athens capitulated to Gonatas, at the same time that some of the greatest figures of the age were passing away.

A page in the history of Greece had been turned.

The Macedonian occupation

Undoubtedly, during the years immediately following the defeat of the Greek patriots, the situation of Eretria -like that of Athens- was not very enviable. But by ca. 255 BC, the city had already been granted a number of concessions. Thus a decree honoring the exile Proteas shows that the Eretrians, who up to that point had been under the strict control of Macedonia, and seriously indebted to boot, were able to obtain a broader political autonomy. But they were soon drawn into an adventure that was to compromise their position.

Probably ca. 251, King Antigonos' governor for Euboea and the region of the Isthmus (Corinth) -Antigonos's own nephew Alexander, son of Krateros- seceded and claimed the title of king, as another decree discovered in Eretria attests. This independent kingdom appears to have lasted until about 245. It now seems possible to connect a large hoard of coins (called "Eretria 1937" after the date when it was accidentally discovered) with the reconquest of the city by Antigonos Gonatas. The Eretrians were thus once again put under the direct control of the King of Macedonia, and the clearest indication of their subjection was the presence on the acropolis of a garrison composed of mercenaries of various origins.

Many epitaphs for foreigners from nearby as well as distant lands -something never found in the cities of neighboring Boeotia, but only in other garrison cities- bear witness to this cosmopolitan population. However, we should not imagine that the city now lacked opportunities to play a role within the wider Hellenic community. Not only did it continue to honor foreign benefactors, but, subject to royal approval, it could accept other cities' invitations to participate in the great Panhellenic festivals. Thus we have for the year 208 the decree of acceptance by Eretria of the new sacred competition known as the Leukophryenia, organized by the people of Magnesia on the Meander in Asia Minor.

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The western walls of the city

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