Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek Federalism: A Minor Point in Ancient Greek Politics

Federalism, often overlooked, united ancient Greece's independent city-states into multi-state political, military, economic, and religious communities.

Ancient Greek Federalism in corinth

Ancient Greece is often remembered for its iconic city-states, especially Sparta and Athens. However, after their peak in the Classical Era, a shift occurred towards larger, multi-city states. This change mirrors modern federal systems like the European Union, the USA, or Switzerland, where diverse communities unite politically, militarily, religiously, and economically. By the Hellenistic Era, many Greek cities on the mainland had joined these federal states, some by choice and others not.

Centuries of Development to the Ancient Greek Federal States

Ancient Greek history saw the evolution from dominant city-states to federal leagues, known as Koina or Sympoliteiai in Greek and simply as Leagues in English. Initially overshadowed by powerhouses like Sparta and Athens during the Archaic Greece and early Classical periods, these federal states started gaining prominence on the fringes. A notable early example was in Boiotia, central Greece, which may have formed a federation as early as the 6th century BCE. Yet, this alliance faced numerous challenges, struggling against pressures from Persians, Athenians, and Spartans.

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) and the ensuing conflicts marked a turning point, elevating federal states as key players. Regions like Boiotia, Chalkidiki, Arkadia, and Euboea rose in prominence, challenging the supremacy of the singular, dominant polis. The defeat of Athens and the destruction of Thebes by Philip II and Alexander the Great in 335 BCE signaled the end of the city-state era.

Despite this, Greek autonomy persisted, with federal states playing a crucial role. These multi-state communities managed to resist, retaliate, or align with the Macedonians. In the 3rd – 2nd centuries BCE, the Aitolians and Achaians, around the Gulf of Corinth, dominated most of Greece with their expansive federal states. However, their existence was threatened by the Romans. Initially collaborating with the Aitolians and Achaians, the Romans eventually overthrew the Macedonian monarchy and turned against their Greek allies. After defeating the Achaians in 146 BCE, the Romans temporarily disbanded these federal states.

Defining Federal States

Polybius, a 2nd century BCE historian, provided a unique insight into the nature of Greek federal states, particularly the Achaians. He noted that the main difference between a city-state and a federal state like the Achaians was size: a city-state could be enclosed by a single wall, while a federal state spanned an entire region. Polybius highlighted the Achaians’ achievements in unifying the Peloponnese, standardizing foreign policy, laws, weights and measures, currency, and political institutions. Given the limited sources available, his account stands as one of the best contemporary descriptions of a Greek federal state.

Federal states in ancient Greece were diverse in their structure. Some, like the Boiotians with Thebes at their center, were dominated by a single city. Others, like Aitolia, developed in mountainous areas with few large cities. The Achaians, in contrast, arose on the edge of the conflict-ridden Peloponnese, eventually achieving a short-lived unity. Despite their differences, these federal states shared certain commonalities, such as a collective approach to governance and the integration of multiple communities under a unified system.

Federal States’ Functioning

The federal states in ancient Greece had a unique two-tier structure. The traditional city-state (polis) operations continued, but they were now overseen by a new, overarching federal level of governance. This federal system resembled the polis in many ways. It had a sovereign body comprising an assembly and council, meeting several times a year. Elected officials, including secretaries, treasurers, and importantly, generals (strategoi), served short terms. The general, often the most prominent figure in the state, was not just a military leader but also a diplomat and politician, essentially acting as the closest equivalent to a head of state.

Federal citizenship significantly changed everyday life. It broke down barriers that individual city-states, which tightly controlled their citizenship and land, had imposed. Federal citizens enjoyed freedoms like moving between cities, inter-community marriage, property ownership, and the ability to transfer local citizenship.

Moreover, federal states were also religious entities. Most had a central sanctuary, serving as a symbolic heart for meetings and archives. Religious festivals provided rare opportunities for large gatherings of federal citizens, fostering a strong sense of community crucial to the federal states’ cohesion and identity.

Federal States: Democratic?

The role of federal states in the diverse political landscape of ancient Greece, which included democracies, oligarchies, tyrannies, and monarchies, is a subject of debate.

Polybius labeled the Achaians as a democracy, but scholars believe that by the 2nd century BCE, ‘democracy’ had evolved to mean a certain level of independence and self-governance, rather than direct rule by the people. This interpretation aligns with the notion that a wealthy elite was gaining more power, overshadowing the general citizenry. Federal states seem to fit this revised concept of democracy.

Federal states did exhibit democratic elements, like electing leading magistrates and holding regular mass assemblies. However, these features could coexist with oligarchic tendencies. Records often show a small elite dominating high office in these states. For instance, figures like Aratus of Sikyon and Philopoimen of Megalopolis in Achaia held significant influence for extended periods. Although generals wielded substantial power, the sovereign authority still rested with the mass assembly or council.

The composition of these assemblies is a matter of dispute. They might have been open to all citizens, typically adult men, but participation could have been limited by factors like age, wealth, or the practical difficulty of traveling to meetings. This situation suggests a shift from direct democracy to a more representative approach, potentially diminishing widespread participation.

Some Greek democracies tried to counter the dominance of elites by using sortition (random selection) and compensating citizens for their political participation, practices that seem rare or absent in federal states. Despite this, democratic elements did persist. The elected generals, while powerful, often had to defer to the assembly and council, especially on matters of war and peace. These meetings, attended by thousands, were sovereign bodies that could challenge and hold generals accountable.

The location of assemblies was crucial. Fixed locations could favor one city, so the Achaian practice of rotating meetings helped increase participation and maintain decentralization. Contemporary accounts, though limited, indicate that ordinary citizens did attend and influence these federal meetings. Even powerful generals had to engage with, persuade, and sometimes face hostility from these assemblies.

In summary, federal states in ancient Greece played a role in preserving some aspects of Greek democracy by stalling the advances of Macedonians and Romans. However, they also likely steered democracy away from its direct roots, adapting to the changing political and social environment of the time.

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Formation of Federal States

Federal states, though present throughout Greek history, gained prominence in the Hellenistic era, a period dominated by powerful kingdoms. This era highlighted the advantages for small city-states to unite, particularly for military purposes. Generals often led these federal states, with a significant focus on foreign policy and matters related to war and peace.

Yet, the rise of federalism wasn’t solely driven by military needs. After all, military alliances were already common, like Sparta’s Peloponnesian League. Scholars point to several factors that fueled the growth of federalism.

During the late Classical and Early Hellenistic periods (4th-2nd centuries BCE), interactions between city-states intensified. Greek city-states, though small, were not isolated. Religious and athletic festivals, like those at Olympia, and the movement of philosophers, teachers, artists, and religious ambassadors created a network of interactions, connecting cities and increasing their density and sophistication over time.

Economically, federal states played a significant role. They issued shared coinage, unified weights and measures, and required member states to contribute to a federal budget. The freedom for federal citizens to move, own property, and marry across member states also had economic implications. While it wasn’t a comprehensive federal economic policy, these changes likely brought benefits that made federalism appealing and enhanced regional interactions.

A sense of shared identity also contributed to the success of federal states. Groups like the Achaians, Aitolians, and Boiotians had common religious practices, myths, and histories. This shared identity facilitated joint political ventures, but it wasn’t always sufficient. For example, the Arkadians, despite a strong group identity, saw their federal state last only about a decade due to rivalries between key cities like Mantinea and Tegea, eventually joining the Achaian League.

Successful leagues like the Achaians and Aitolians expanded beyond their core identities. Achaia, initially just a small territory in northern Peloponnese, grew significantly as non-Achaian communities joined.

In summary, the attractiveness of federalism was due to a blend of factors: the need for small states to unite for protection, economic benefits from lowering barriers, and a group identity that provided a foundation yet didn’t restrict growth. These elements encouraged communities to evolve beyond simple alliances into more complex federal structures.

Success of Federal States

The emergence of federal states represented a significant evolution of the traditional Greek polis, transcending its limitations and parochial nature to form broader communities. During their peak, these federal states played a pivotal role in liberating parts of Greece from Macedonian rule. However, their progression was abruptly halted by the rise of the Romans.

Initially, the Macedonians and Aitolians fell to Roman power, followed by a relatively easy defeat of the Achaians. Although the federal states lost their independence and ability to act autonomously, they continued to exist under Roman rule, managing local affairs well into the Roman Empire era.

The widespread growth of federal states across Greece is a testament to their success and potential. Unfortunately, their development was prematurely curtailed by the emergence of Rome as a dominant imperial force, fundamentally altering the dynamics of the entire Mediterranean region. The federal states, with their unique blend of local and collective governance, could not withstand the changing political landscape brought about by this new, expansive power.

Lucas Bennett writer on ancient greece
Lucas Bennett
Lucas Bennett focuses on Modern American History. He earned his MA in History from Harvard University. Formerly a public school educator, James now engages in writing historical analyses for various publications.

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