In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Federal States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Federal Economies
  • Works on Ancient Federal Thought
  • Reception Studies
  • European Union Conference Volumes

Classics Greek Federal States
Hans Beck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0204


Ancient Greece witnessed some of the most elaborate experiments with federalism in the pre-modern era. From the late Archaic Age (6th century BCE) to the Hellenistic world, the integration of city-states (poleis) into various federal organizations impacted the history of the Aegean Greek states. At its peak, toward the end of the 5th century BCE, almost half of all city-states in mainland Greece and the Peloponnese were part of a federal league. A Greek federal state was called a koinon or sympoliteia, both terms that indicate the communal aspect of the league. In addition, the word ethnos was in use, designating a federal state as well as a tribe community. The overlap of both strands foregrounds how most federal states built on regional ethnic identities as they emerged in the Archaic Age. In many cases, the ethnic identity of the Hellenic tribes, for example, of the Boiotians, Arkadians, Aitolians, and others, provided the platform for political forms of integration. In its Greek variant, then, federalism was not only a constitutional design, but also a form of cooperation fueled by sentiments of common primordial descent and ethnic togetherness, and their expression in ritual and cult. All the while, the need to accumulate resources in war and other areas of state action additionally fostered the idea of interstate integration. Federal states consisted of a larger number of poleis, smaller towns (sometimes mere villages or loose agglomerations of farmsteads, so-called komai), or units that were in themselves smaller tribes or scattered subtribes. The integration of members into a league led to a political organization that was recognized by the Hellenes as a new state. This quality of a koinon marks its distinct difference from other forms of interstate cooperation, such as fighting alliances (symmachies) or religious associations (amphiktyonies). At the same time, the members of a koinon maintained certain political prerogatives and privileges that highlighted their character as genuine political communities. In this sense, federal states distinguished themselves from more unitary forms of regional integration as fostered, for instance, by Sparta in Lakonia and Athens in Attica.

General Overviews

The first thematic study of ancient Greek federalism is Freeman 1863. Originally planned as a two-volume set to cover the history of the phenomenon up to his own times, Freeman’s second volume never saw the light of day. When the first volume was reedited by J. B. Bury in 1883, this altered the outlook of the book, which was thereafter viewed as a stand-alone monograph. Freeman’s work constitutes a remarkable collection of evidence that had never been assembled before. In continental Europe, in particular in German-speaking academia, Busolt and Swoboda 1920–1926 offered a magisterial treatment of rubrics and themes supported by exhaustive regional studies. The work was inspired by constitutionalist approaches; hence, the authors strove for systematization and the establishment of juristic paradigms. Traces of this can be detected in Ehrenberg 1969, although Ehrenberg also reached beyond political features and state law in his attempt to conceptualize Greek federalism. The true breakthrough came with Larsen 1955 and Larsen 1968. The former is a publication of the Sather lectures that Larsen had delivered at Berkeley in the 1953–1954 academic year. Based on his earlier publications in the field, and owing much to the format of public academic lectures, Larsen provided a first synopsis of representative government in Greece and Rome. In 1968, this life-long engagement led to the publication of what became the most important and most cited monograph of Greek federal states. Greek Federal States: Their Institutions and History (Larsen 1968) examines the history and institutions of all koina of the Classical and Hellenistic periods, with a clear command of the evolution of federal paradigms over time and their impact on history, up until c. 146 BCE. Martin 1975 picks up there to survey the development in the Greek world under Roman rule. Daverio Rocchi 1993 chooses a conventional divide between periods; the author’s scope is to juxtapose the organization of city-state and federal state in the style of a handbook that is not unlike Busolt and Swoboda 1920–1926. An edited volume, Beck and Funke 2015 presents a new research synthesis, with a complete list of regional case studies in Aegean Greece and its peripheries. To deepen the analysis, the book also includes various thematic chapters and an introduction to the conceptualization of federalism in ancient Greece and the history of its scholarship.

  • Beck, Hans, and Peter Funke, eds. 2015. Federalism in Greek antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The most complete survey overview of Greek federalism. It includes chapters on all attested federal states in Aegean Greece and its peripheries plus many thematic articles, written by the leading authorities in the field. In the introduction, the editors offer a balanced conceptualization of federalism and also a short history of the scholarship and its associated paradigms.

  • Busolt, Georg, and Heinrich Swoboda. 1920–1926. Griechische Staatskunde. 2 vols. 3d ed. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    Published in the authoritative German Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaften series, this two-volume edition was a tremendous scholarly achievement at the time; it was so successful that within the particular vein of state-law studies it was never superseded. Volume 2 (edited by Swoboda) contains studies on all federal states under the rubric “Interstate Relations.”

  • Daverio Rocchi, Giovanna. 1993. Città-stato e stati federali della Grecia classica: Lineamenti di storia delle istituzioni politiche. Milan: LED Edizioni Universitarie.

    A handbook-type volume in which the author covers the institutions of Greek federal states both systematically (chapter 3) and through selected case studies (chapter 8). The approach is strictly political, with a main focus on the organization and constitutional design of federalism.

  • Ehrenberg, Viktor. 1969. The Greek state. 2d ed. London: Basil Blackwell.

    The book filled the gap in English-speaking scholarship that was left after Freeman 1863. Originally published in Germany in two volumes in 1957 and 1958, where Ehrenberg had lived until his forced exile in 1939, its approach to federalism is less overtly constitutional than the works in the German school (Busolt and Swoboda 1920–1926). Originally published in English in 1960.

  • Freeman, Edward. 1863. History of federal government from the foundation of the Achaian League to the disruption of the United States. London: Macmillan.

    The earliest study on the topic that in many ways established federalism as an object of investigation in Greek history. The breakdown of chapters is somewhat convoluted, with free-floating sections on the history of Greece in general and also on federalism in Italy and the Imperium Romanum.

  • Larsen, Jakob A. O. 1955. Representative government in Greek and Roman history. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    The book contains the reworked versions of the author’s Sather Lectures delivered at Berkeley, presented in eight chapters, from early Greece to Late Antiquity, with a long appendix on the meetings of the assemblies of the Achaian League.

  • Larsen, Jakob A. O. 1968. Greek federal states: Their institutions and history. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The leading monograph in the field, published as a synoptic account that builds on the research carried out by the author over four decades. The eminent strength of Larsen’s synthesis is the coherence of his analysis and narrative, which draws strongly on Polybius. The book became the most referenced study in the field, despite its unusual chapter breakdown of federalism before and after the King’s Peace of 386 BCE (which was based on the author’s belief that all federal states were dissolved as a consequence of the peace).

  • Martin, David George. 1975. Greek leagues in the later second and first centuries BC. PhD diss., Princeton University.

    In method and spirit the unpublished manuscript draws from the works by Jakob Larsen. The time span under investigation begins where Larsen’s Greek federal states had stopped, in 146 BCE. The thesis is particularly rich in exploration of leagues in central Greece for which the evidence is fragile and scattered (see also the section below under Individual Federal States: Minor Leagues in Central Greece), including the minor leagues of the Perrhaibians, Magnesians, Athamanians, Dorians, Oitaians, Ainians, and Dolopians.

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