Federalism in Ancient Greece: The Forgotten Side of Ancient Greek Politics

Overlooked, then and now, federalism bound together the fiercely independent city-states of ancient Greece into multi-state political, military, economic, and religious communities.

Oct 9, 2023By Neil Middleton, MA Ancient History, BA History & Archaeology
federalism ancient greece koina


The city-state (polis) continues to dominate our image of ancient Greece. Yet, as the famous cities of Sparta and Athens went into decline following their Classical Era glory, a new trend of multi-city states came to the fore. Like today’s federal experiments, such as the European Union, the United States of America, or Switzerland, the ancient examples bound communities along political, military, religious, and economic lines. By the Hellenistic Era, most mainland Greek cities were, willingly or not, part of a federal state.


Centuries of Development Led to the Ancient Greek Federal States

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A symbol of the early federal state in Boiotia, via The British Museum


Federal leagues, called Koina or Sympoliteiai in Greek and Leagues in English, were an ever-present trend throughout ancient Greek history. With the Archaic and early Classical periods being shaped by powerful city-states, such as Sparta and Athens, federal states developed on the margins. The pioneering region of Boiotia, central Greece, perhaps formed a federal state as early as the 6th century BCE. However, this uneasy alliance of communities struggled to hold itself together and survive successive waves of Persian, Athenian, and Spartan pressure.


The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) and the decades of conflict which followed brought federal states to the fore as the Boiotians, Chalkidians, Arkadians, and Euboians challenged the influence of the single, all-powerful polis. When the Macedonians under Philip II and Alexander the Great defeated Athens and destroyed Thebes in 335 BCE, it was clear that the era of the imperial polis was over.


But Greek freedom was not dead and federal states would let it flourish again as multi-state communities alternatively held off, pushed back, or allied with the Macedonians. Around the Gulf of Corinth, the two most extensive federal states, the Aitolians on the northern shore and the Achaians on the southern, controlled most of Greece during the 3rd – 2nd centuries BCE. Neither, however, could survive the approach of the Romans. The new arrivals, often in partnership with the Aitolians and Achaians, destroyed the Macedonian monarchy before turning on their former allies and, temporarily disbanding the federal states following the defeat of the Achaians in 146 BCE.


What Were the Federal States?

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Ancient Corinth and its mountain fortress, photo by Neil Middleton

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The 2nd century BCE historian Polybius stated that the only difference between the largest of the federal states, the Achaians, and a city-state was that the latter could be surrounded by a single wall while the other encompassed a whole region (Polybius 2.37). Polybius boasted that the Achaians had brought all the Peloponnese together under the same foreign policy, laws, weights and measures, currency, and political institutions. This remains the best, and given our scant sources one of the only, contemporary descriptions of a Greek federal state.


Like the polis there was a great variety of federal states. They could be centered on one, often dominating city, as with Thebes and the Boiotians. Others emerged in mountainous regions with few large urban centers like Aitolia. The Achaians developed on the edge of a landmass, the Peloponnese, that had been riven with conflict and division for centuries before forming a brief, uneasy unity. However, a number of common features united these disparate examples.


How Did the Federal States Work? 

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A federal sanctuary in Amarynthos, Euboia, Swiss School in Greece, via Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece


The federal states had a two-tier structure. The life of the polis continued but now with a new federal level of administration above it. The federal governments looked much like the polis. The sovereign body was a mass meeting composed of an assembly and council which gathered several times a year. Elected magistrates served short terms as secretaries, treasurers and, crucially, generals. The general, strategos, was frequently the leading figure in the state. While the generals’ principal task was to lead the army, they were also expected to be diplomats and politicians and were the closest the federal states got to a head of state.


Federal citizenship impacted daily life by overcoming some of the boundaries imposed by the polis which jealously guarded its citizenship and land. Federal citizens could move from city to city, marry between communities, own property and transfer local citizenship. Federal states were also religious communities. Most had a central sanctuary as a symbolic heart that hosted meetings and archives. Religious festivals were one of the few occasions in which large numbers of federal citizens would meet each other and the sense of community these created was key to their formation.


Were the Federal States Democracies?

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The Achaian and Aitolian Leagues c.200 BCE, via Wikimedia Commons


Democracy existed alongside oligarchy, tyranny and, in some regions, monarchy in Greece. Where the federal states fit into this mosaic of constitutions is debated.


Polybius, described the Achaians as a democracy. However, scholars have long believed that by the time he wrote, the 2nd century BCE, the meaning of the word democracy had shifted. Under the pressure of a world dominated by great powers that lorded it over the tiny city-state democracy came to mean simply a degree of independence and self-government rather than rule by the people. This combines with the view that a wealthy elite grew increasingly powerful, marginalizing the mass of citizens. It is easy to see how the federal states fit into this picture.


Election of leading magistrates and regular mass assemblies were democratic features but could be used by oligarchy. The records we have often show that a small elite dominated high office in the federal states. For example, Aratus of Sikyon was elected at every opportunity he was eligible for decades in Achaia. Once his career was over, Philopoimen of Megalopolis rose to prominence. Generals had significant power, but the ruling body was still the mass meeting of the assembly or council.


Who attended these meetings is disputed. They could have been open to all citizens with the citizen body being restricted to adult men. Barriers such as age or wealth qualifications could have restricted access. The need to travel considerable distances to attend a meeting surely limited participation. Federalism began a move away from direct democracy to representative bodies. A development which would have curtailed popular participation. If only a small part of a member state’s citizens could afford to travel, we can easily see how the federal meeting could be dominated by an elite.


The continuation of an elite and the difficulties ordinary citizens faced in taking time to participate in politics were factors recognized by some Greek democracies. They were addressed by practices such as sortition (election by lot) and pay for participation. These elements seem rare or non-existent in the federal states. Nevertheless, elements of democracy did carry over.


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Philopoemen, by D. D’Angers and P-J. France, 1837, via Musée du Louvre


For all the power of the elected generals the assembly and council were the sovereign body that they often had to defer to, especially for questions of war and peace. Thousands of people would have attended these meetings. The location of the assembly was obviously key. Assemblies in one fixed city could be expected to favor that city. The Achaian practice of rotating meetings between cities would have increased participation and maintained decentralization. Our, admittedly limited, contemporary accounts do show ordinary citizens being present and influencing federal meetings. Even the generals, the most powerful individuals in the state, had to persuade and control the crowds at these meetings which could be hostile and often held them to account.


The federal states helped protect some elements of Greek democracy by temporarily holding off the power of the Macedonians and Romans. However, it is likely the federal states developed democracy away from its roots in direct democracy.


Why Were the Federal States Formed?

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Theatre of Sikyon, via Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth


Federal states existed throughout Greek history but only came to prominence in the Hellenistic era, a world shaped by powerful kingdoms. In such a world there was an obvious advantage in small city-states banding together. Military advantages do seem to have been a major driving force behind the growth of federalism. For this reason, we see generals leading the federal states while most recorded business of the state related to foreign policy and matters of war and peace.


However, there was surely more to it than that. After all, military alliances (also referred to as leagues in English) were common. Classical Sparta’s Peloponnesian League covered much of the area later governed by the Achaian League. Scholars have raised a number of different factors that spurred the growth of federalism.


Over the course of the late Classical and Early Hellenistic era (4th-2nd centuries) interactions between city-states increased. Small as they were Greek city-states were not isolated. Religious and athletic festivals, most famously at Olympia, brought people together. Philosophers, teachers, artists, and athletes were frequent travelers. Religious ambassadors crisscrossed the Greek world, urging participation in different festivals. The practice of settling disputes between cities by inviting foreign judges grew. Scholars talk about a network of interactions that connected cities across the Greek world and increased in density and sophistication over time.


Federal states also had an economic role. Shared coinage was issued which like today’s euro bore symbols of the federal state and the local member state. Weights and measures were unified. Member states had the obligation to make payments to the federal budget. Allowing federal citizens to move between member states, own property and marry beyond their original community must also have had an economic impact. While far away from talking about a federal economic policy, clearly the new arrangement would have had an effect and likely brought benefits that made federalism attractive and increased interactions between regions.


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A federal coin of the Achaian League, via Harvard Art Museums


Federal states flourished in regions which already had a sense of group identity. The Achaians, Aitolians and Boiotians all had a shared identity expressed through religious practices and myths, a shared origin and history. A sense of identity no doubt facilitated a joint political project but it was also not enough. For instance, the Arkadians, a group of cities in the central Peloponnese, had all the elements of a group identity but their principal cities, Mantaneia and Tegea, were bitter rivals. When the Arkadians did form a federal state, it lasted barely a decade and the 3rd and 2nd centuries saw them participating in the Achaian League.


The most successful leagues such as the Achaians and Aitolians formed around a core identity but their success depended on expanding beyond those confines. Achaia was just a narrow strip of territory on the north of the Peloponnese. Once non-Achaian communities started joining the league it grew to cover all of the peninsula.


It was surely a combination of factors that made federalism attractive. Small states needed to group together for protection. Bringing down economic barriers brought benefits. A group identity incorporated the new political project into an established framework but did not limit growth. All of these factors encouraged communities to move beyond a simple alliance.


Were the Federal States Successful?

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


The federal states were a development of the polis that was ultimately cut short. These expanded communities overcame much of the parochial nature and narrow confines of the city-state to create something new. In its heyday federalism helped liberate areas of Greece from Macedonian domination. The Romans, however, were more successful. First the Macedonians and Aitolians were defeated before the Achaians were crushed with little difficulty. While stripped of any possibility for independent action federal states continued to exist in Greece and administered local affairs deep into the Roman Empire.


The growth of federal states across much of Greece testifies to their success. In the end their development was cut short by a rising imperial power which changed the entire Mediterranean 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.