4 Ancient Greek Federal States You Should Know

Though overshadowed by the likes of Athens and Sparta, these ancient Greek federal states were important for hundreds of years.

Jul 10, 2024By Neil Middleton, MA Ancient History, BA History & Archaeology

ancient greek federal states


Ancient Greece was famously a world of city-states (polises), with hundreds of them dotting the Mediterranean coast. During the centuries in which the often fiercely independent polises flourished, most were part of multi-state communities, political alliances, religious organizations, and sophisticated ancient Greek federal states.


These federal states, known as koina (singular: koinon) or leagues in English, evolved alongside the polis in the Archaic and Classical Eras and grew to dominate Greece during the Hellenistic Era, creating a great variety of political experiments. Though each state was different, they shared some features, such as a common currency, a federal government, and a joint military and foreign policy. To offer a taste of the varieties of federalism in Greece, this article will introduce four of the most prominent communities.


1. The Boeotians

A map of ancient Boeotia, Attica, and Phocis from the Historischer Handatlas, by Gustav Droysen, 1886, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Immediately north of Athens lay Boeotia, a relatively flat and strategically significant region of central Greece. Packed into a small area were a large number of city-states, many of which shared a common identity as Boeotians. The region’s major city, Thebes, was alternately its greatest asset and its greatest liability. Rich, large, and with a history stretching back deep into mythology, Thebes frequently dominated Boeotia creating a federal state controlled by one city.


Over its four centuries of existence, the Boeotian Koinon went through many changes. The structure of the federal state often depended on the fortunes of Thebes. When Thebes was strong the Boeotian state was centralized and governed from the city. If Thebes was weak or temporarily non-existent the Boeotian system was more balanced. Boeotia was more powerful when Thebes was powerful but it has been said that the Boeotians functioned best when the Thebans were weakest (Schachter, 2016).

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A Boeotian Coin, 4th century BCE, Source: The British Museum


The state’s composition varied over time but was frequently based on a division of the territory. During its apogee in the early 4th century BCE, the territory was divided into eleven districts which were meant to separate the Boeotians into roughly equal groups. Each district sent 60 people to join a federal council in Thebes with one person serving as a leading magistrate, called a Boeotarch.


At both the local and the federal level, the Boeotians employed a system of four separate councils which were meant to agree with each decision they made. The army too was organized in a similar fashion with each district contributing a quota of infantry and cavalry to the Boeotian army. This sophisticated system spread political participation across Boeotia but it was not immune to the power of Thebes — which at times controlled several districts giving the city an inbuilt majority. In this system we see an early example of representative government.


Living on a plain through which any army moving north or south would have to pass often placed the Boeotians at the heart of events in Greece. As early as the 6th century BCE there was a Boeotian identity expressed by a common name, religious practices, and coinage. The political expression of this may at this point have been a military alliance rather than a fully developed federal state but the Boeotians were able to act in unison. A traumatic event in early Boeotian history was the Persian Wars which fractured this fledgling unity when the plains became a battlefield. Before the Boeotian recovered the area fell under Athenian influence till the Boeotians expelled their overly-powerful neighbour in the mid-5th century BCE.


The victory monument at Leuktra, 4th century BCE, Source: The Pausanius Project


Internal Boeotian tensions provided one of the causes of the Peloponnesian War (431-404) in which the Boeotians fought alongside the Spartans, and the end of that conflict triggered a war with their former ally and the Spartans occupied much of Boeotia in the 4th century. A Theban-led resurgence, however, saw Boeotia reach its high point as the Spartans were crushed at the Battle of Leuktra in 371 BCE by the famous Theban generals Epaminondas and Pelopidas. This Theban, or Boeotian, hegemony did not survive the rise of Macedonia. Thebes itself was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 335 BCE and while the Boeotian Koinon, and Thebes, were revived and lived on into the Hellenistic era the region never regained its former prominence.


2. The Achaians  

A federal coin of the Achaian League, 87-85 BCE, Source: Harvard Art Museums


Being in the center of Greece put the Boeotians at the heart of events but our next federal state developed on the periphery. Achaia was a small coastal strip in the north of the Peloponnesian peninsula. Even proud Achaians admitted their name and country were not famous and the region played little role in the great events of early Greek history (Polybius, 2.38). That changed, however, in the 3rd century, when the Achaians forged the most successful and prominent Greek federal state.


As with most of the federal states, a sense of collective identity preceded the creation of joint political structures among the cities of Achaia. Early phases of collective action were possible in the 4th century but little can be established for certain. The federal state that emerged in the 3rd century and flourished until the middle of the 2nd century, is perhaps the best recorded in our surviving sources, featuring heavily in our narrative for the period. In the form of Polybius, they also provided the greatest Hellenistic historian. Still, there is much that remains obscure about the workings of the Achaian state.


Unlike Boeotia, there was no overly powerful polis to dominate the koinon. Nor was there a bias towards the original Achaian core states as newer members quickly shared in the affairs of the state. The member states seem to have retained considerable autonomy and often publicly broke with the policies of the majority. The main state institution was the regularly scheduled public assembly which from the 2nd century rotated between cities, rather than staying at a fixed capital.


Debate continues about the makeup of those meetings with some scholars seeing a limited body dominated by a small council and others believing that the meetings were open to a wide array of Achaian citizens. Polybius certainly described Achaia as a democracy though he also criticized the presence of lower-class citizens at Achaian meetings (Polybius 2.41).


Philopoemen, by D. D’Angers and P-J. France, 1837, Source: The Louvre


In its early days Achaia was headed by two generals (strategoi) which changed in 255 BCE to a single annually elected strategos. The strategos enjoyed considerable power and the likes of Aratus of Sikyon and Philopoimen of Megalopolis were among the last great statesmen of ancient Greece.


A sign of the Achaians’ ability to quickly integrate new members, it was not unusual for leading men in newly joined states to be elected as the strategos. Powerful as they were, the Strategoi operated within a system capable of restraining them. The annual elections and oversight by the assembly were a constant check on the power of any individual.


The Achaians did not begin to play a major role in Greek history until they stepped beyond the narrow confines of their ancient Achaian territory into the northern Peloponnese. The key initiative came from outside the state. When a young Aratus of Sikyon liberated his native city from a tyrant, he joined it with the Achaians and was quickly elected strategos.


The Achaians soon turned into a power capable of rolling back Macedonian control of Greece as city after city expelled the Macedonians and joined the koinon. By the second half of the 3rd century, the Achaians controlled much of the Peloponnese. The great crisis of Achaian history emerged when this position was contested by a Spartan revival. In one of Greek history’s most dramatic reversals, Aratus was only able to defeat this threat by calling upon the Macedonians. The Achaians remained Macedonian allies until the arrival of the Romans forced another reversal.


The Last Days of Corinth, by Tony Robert Flery, 1870, author’s photo taken at the Musée d’Orsay


The Achaians defected to Rome during the Macedonian Wars and became Rome’s principal Greek ally. This allowed the Achaians to complete their absorption of the Peloponnese but it was a short-lived triumph. Generally, communities seem to have joined federal states willingly. This was not the case with the Spartans. The Achaians spent considerable energy in the 2nd century trying to force the Spartans to join or prevent secession. One such incident triggered the final crisis of the Achaian Koinon, as another attempt to conquer Sparta provoked a Roman reaction. The subsequent Achaian War was a disaster. In 146 BCE a Roman army sacked and destroyed the city of Corinth ending the state’s independent history.


3. The Aitolians 

The ruins of Thermos, by Κώστας Κουκούλης, Source:Wikimedia Commons


If the Boeotians were the community with a dominant city, and the Achaians formed a state shared between multiple cities, then the Aitolians were almost a state without cities. This mountainous region of Aitolia in central Greece sat just across the Corinthian Gulf from Achaia but seems to have been viewed by the Greeks as a backward, primitive land and the Aitolians never lost their reputation for being raiders and pirates. Despite these negative stereotypes the Aitolians should be considered one of the major states of Hellenistic Greece alongside the Achaians.


Cities seem to have developed relatively late in Aitolia leaving regional or family groups, generally described as tribes, as the main building block of the Aitolian community. An Aitolian Koinon existed by at least 367 BCE, when its name appears on Athenian documents but cooperation between the different Aitolian tribes preceded it. The Athenians may have looked down on these supposedly backwards mountain peoples but they were shocked at the effectiveness of their military coordination when the Aitolians defeated an Athenian force during the Peloponnesian War.


The Acropolis of Kalydon in Aitolia, photo by Vasarchit, Source: Wikimedia Commons


At some point perhaps around the turn of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, the Aitolians shifted from a loose tribal structure to a sophisticated federal state. Although we cannot reconstruct the full workings of this state its basic institutions are known to us.


Following the general rule in federal states, there was a level of regional subdivision and dual citizenship, with each Aitolian having both local and federal citizenship. Democratic elements were retained at the federal level and an assembly open to all Aitolian citizens met as the main deliberative body twice a year, alongside a council composed of selected members from each member state.


An annually elected Strategos was one of a number of magistrates that made up the leadership of the Koinon. The Aitolian strategos may have been a less independent figure than their Achaian counterpart, as they seem to have been closely tied to a board of magistrates known as the Apokletai.


Mainland Greece during the time of the Cleomenean War, ca. 228 BCE, by MapMaster, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Aitolians emerged as a significant power around the time of the Celtic invasion in 280-79 BCE. They had gained effective control over the major religious center of Delphi and claimed credit for leading the Greek defense of the sanctuary against the invaders. Playing a leading role in seeing off this “barbarian” invasion and a steady expansion of Aitolian power across central Greece turned the Aitolian Koinon into a major player.


The Aitolians had the ability to prevent or hinder Macedonian involvement in Greece and they were even able to contest Macedonian control of some regions. From the middle of the 3rd century onward, the Aitolians were frequently at war with the kings of Macedonia. Unable to form a lasting alliance with the Achaians, despite a brief experiment, the Aitolians ultimately ended up bringing the Romans into their wars with Macedonia.


They sided with the Romans in the First and Second Macedonian Wars but grew dissatisfied with the benefits of this alliance. Too late, the Aitolians broke with Rome but were defeated by the new power they had invited in and played only a little role after 189 BCE.


4. The Lykians  

Assembly area in Patara, Source: Wikiloc


In contrast to each of the federal states we have looked at so far, our final community never played a major role in the events of their time. However, the Lykians became surprisingly influential centuries after their obscure life and death.


The Lykians inhabited a rough and hilly land along the southern coast of Anatolia (modern Türkiye). They were an Anatolian population but as Greek influence grew, particularly after the conquests of Alexander the Great, they adopted elements of Greek culture and language. Among these influences in the 2nd century BCE was federalism.


Sometime around 180-160 BCE, a number of Lykian cities, perhaps inspired in part by the Achaians, formed one of the last great koina. By the time the Lykian Koinon was created the Romans were the major power in the region and the independent life of this state was limited. The Lykians no doubt were unable to avoid the upheavals of the Mithridatic Wars and the Roman civil wars of the second/first centuries BCE but they rarely feature in the sources we have. The koinon continued as a nominally independent part of the Roman world until it became a province in 43 CE.


Lykian tombs in Fethiye, Türkiye, author’s photo


What made the Lykians famous in the centuries to come was their system of government which was based on the principles of proportional representation. The 23 cities of Lykia sent representatives to the federal government based on their size. The largest cities sent three representatives, the medium-sized cities two, and the smallest cities one (Strabo, 14.3.3).


This council then chose the magistrates, including the leading official the Lykiarch, and judges for the koinon. Funding of the koinon was also decided in the same way. Proportional systems were not entirely new and elements of them can be seen in other federal states but most other states retained large primary assemblies which were open to either a select proportion of citizens or all citizens. Over time this council settled in the city of Patara, turning it into something like a modern capital.


With proportional representation, a capital city and an assembly hall (which has been found and excavated in Patara) the Lykians look almost familiar to the modern eye. There is good reason for this familiarity. The Lykians have been picked as an example of how to organize a republic a number of times in recent centuries. Montesquieu pointed to Lykia in the 18th century, and they famously featured in the debate over the creation of the American constitution. Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison cited the Lykian Koinon. In this unexpected way the Lykians transmitted elements of the experience of federalism in ancient Greece to the modern world.

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By Neil MiddletonMA Ancient History, BA History & ArchaeologyNeil Middleton has studied ancient history and archaeology up to Masters level (MA in Ancient History from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David) with a focus on ancient Greece. His particular areas of interest are the politics of the Greek world in the Classical and Hellenistic era. After his studies he has spent time living in Greece and France.