The Early Achaean League 900 – 371 BC

Achaean League triobol, 175-168 BC, McClean 6431-6432. Obverse depicts the god of the League Zeus Homarius, Reverse depicts AX monogram, meaning of the Achaeans.

“The Achaean League seems to have been, on the whole, a rather admirable institution. Its early history and development is, however, somewhat more complicated than I realised…”[1]

The lack of certainty regarding the origins of how the Achaean League formed means most histories of Achaea mention Homer, the lack of poleis in the region until around 500 BC,[2] the federal experiments of the fifth and fourth centuries and then move on to the reformation of the Hellenistic League.[3] I want to examine the earliest period, for it is key to understanding how the Hellenistic Achaean League was able to expand into the whole of the Peloponnese because of the use of a collective Achaean identity as a unifying factor. I am going to argue that there is no continuity between the various federal experiments the Achaeans undertook, but that the continuity lies in the idea of shared community or the Achaean ethnos. This chapter will examine multiple types of evidence from a large period – the 10th to the early 4th centuries BC – to build a picture of how the Achaean identity was created to link them back to the Homeric Age and the genesis of the Hellenes themselves. It was a combination of this unique use of their heritage and the late blooming of the polis in Achaea that led to the stability and strengths of the Hellenistic Achaean League.

Early Achaea has been categorised as backward, and this is reflected in the archaeological record. Achaea was slow to adopt new forms of pottery and metal working in the period following the collapse of the Mycenaean Palaces (1100-800 BC), and these items appear to be survivals from this period.[4] This could be down to the geography of the region since mountains, deep river valleys and estuaries, could have meant it was difficult for new ideas to come in from elsewhere in Greece. But evidence from tombs in from Achaea suggests rather than being isolated, the Achaeans were actively isolationist, an isolation that is linked to independence rather than geography.[5] This is indicative of the people of Achaea developing a separate cultural group. The greatest indicator of this is the lack of cremation burials from any period, whereas across the rest of Greece there is a fluctuation in the use of cremation, Achaea remains committed to cists, tholoi and other forms of inhumation.[6] The fact that these patterns of material culture and burial are confined to one region, shows a community with shared kinship, customs and most importantly territory, this shows the development of a separate ethnic group that has nothing to do with biology but rather due to its association with an ancient homeland.[7] In addition to the funerary culture of the Achaeans, the metal objects found from Dark Age Contexts, adhere to forms more common in the bronze age.[8] This varied evidence reinforces the idea that the Achaeans were attempting to forge a separate identity which they mapped onto the region known as Achaea. The choice of them wanting to be called Achaean needs to be examined further, since it helps to place the unique archaeological finds into a historic framework and the conscious decisions by the Achaeans to choose to be different.

Achaea, as a place and an identity has roots that go back to Homer.[9] Agamemnon is “the greatest of the Achaeans”[10] and lord of several Achaean cities; Pellene, Hyperesia, Aigion and Helike.[11] There is debate about whether Homer’s Achaeans are the people who inhabit the region of Achaea, and the Dorian Invasion is used to explain the disappearance of the Achaean dynasties present in Homer and their migration to the region now known as Achaea.[12] However, I think this is stretching what little evidence there is, the poetry of Homer is much more likely an example of cultural memory, a remaking of the past to support the image a group present;[13] ideas such as the Dorian invasion (which has a history of troublesome and prejudiced connotations[14]) should be treated as little more than fable, but fable with a certain ideological slant.[15] If the Achaeans wanted to be the Achaeans of Homer, that is how they remembered it, and they chose to be associated with this group. What is interesting for the future of the Achaeans is that the peoples that entered the Achaean League were wide and varying, and although the Pan-Hellenic element of Homer is often overstressed by modern scholars who want to answer questions about Greek identity,[16] it is interesting that it was the Achaean League who made the greatest and most long-lived attempt at unifying the Hellenic peoples.

The Achaean attempts to link themselves with Homeric Heroes were also present in the early fifth century, when they dedicated a statue group to the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia in around 480, which represents “those who, when Hector challenged any Greek to him in single combat, dared to cast lots to choose a champion.”[17] Olympia is an interesting location for this dedication since the sanctuary was a meeting place for all Greeks and all dedications were heavily controlled by Elis, the polis who had control of Olympia in this Period.[18] This suggests that the message that was conveyed by the group was excepted by the Eleans, but the statues could have multiple meanings to different viewers.[19] Scott suggests that the positioning of the group in front of the temple of Zeus suggests that is intrinsically linked with the idea of competition.[20] Later on, in reference to other monuments, he suggests that after the Persian wars monuments reflecting Greek unity were dedicated in the sanctuaries of Delphi and Olympia.[21] I think the Achaean dedication is one such monument, the ambiguity of themes helped to ensure that the Eleans placed it in Olympia, the subject matter speaks of the unity of one group of Greeks, Homer’s Achaeans, against an Eastern enemy, perhaps as way of apologising for doing so little during the Persian Invasion.[22] This is an attempt to show the continuity from Homer’s Achaeans to them, with the aim of showing both the unity of the Achaean ethne but also as a message that Achaea is opening up to the rest of the world, suggesting that a transition has occurred. Achaea was no longer a collection of towns that had a shared culture, it was somewhere that could collectively decide to dedicate a statue group. This suggests that an Achaean ethnos had formed in the early 5th century, giving Achaea internal strength that allowed it to shed its isolated existence. It was perhaps this strength that allowed the foundation of poleis and consolidated what it meant to be Achaean.

The period of this dedication is around the time that the polis in Achaea started to develop.[23] The issue of trying to work out when the Achaean polis developed is that it was a gradual process that happened at different rates all over the Greek world.[24] This fact is often lumped in together with the other evidence for the backwardness of the Achaeans, but Hansen has shown that the different development speeds aren’t unusual in itself. What is unusual is the order in which the development occurred, since it seems that the development of the poleis of Achaea and the creation of a regional alliance are almost contemporaneous. The fact that one of the earliest acts of this group of poleis was to dedicate a statue group in the name of the ethnos rather than any individual city shows that the development did not override the regional bond that they shared. However, the extent of centralisation during fifth century is unknown, since the Achaeans managed to avoid many of the conflicts that plagued Greece in this period.

It is assumed that there was a League during the early Classical Period, but the earliest reference to it is in Xenophon, describing events after the battle of Leuctra (371 BC), were he uses the collective “Ἀχαιοὶ”[25] in a context where he was referring to the governing bodies of various Peloponnesian poleis. But the issue is how far the Achaeans in this period were becoming federal, or whether they were a very close alliance that is bound by ties of kinship. The ambiguity of the Greek terms becomes an issue here, since ethnos can simply mean that a class that share a common characteristic.[26] The best way to think about this period is as a period of experimentation and development, were the Achaeans were experimenting with the polis system to fit in with the poor quality of their land and scarcity of the population.[27] There are three clear points where elements of the Achaean constitution are on show, the joint dedication from around 480, Achaean military activities in 371 and an inscription from the mid fourth century was suggests there was a boule of members of an Achaean federation, though again we have the problems of ambiguity, the title of this inscription on the BrillOnline database is “Fragmentum Foederis (?)”[28] alluding to the fragmentary and unclear nature of the evidence. What these pieces of evidence suggest is that is that by this late stage of the Classical Period there was a form of federalism, taking the form of boule of constituent members. The inscription was found at Aigion, which was one of main cities of Achaea and later become the focal point for all League Activity in the Early Hellenistic Period. What this boule did and what it’s functions in the Achaean state where were unknown, and it is entirely possible that its function was military, like the Peloponnesian League headed by Sparta. But unlike the Peloponnesian League, whose name is a modern creation, the “βουλ̣[ὰ] ̣ῶν Ἀχα[ιῶν]”[29] (Council of the Achaeans) are building upon the heritage and identity that they have been cultivating since the Greek Iron Age, and regardless of function the focal point of membership is to be part of this community that are linked to the homeland and are part of the narrative they have been creating.

As I have previously mentioned the sources for this period as varied, and there is no main source of information regarding the origins of the Achaean state or Achaean identity. Polybius, the second century Achaean League statesman, does discuss the origins of Achaean League, but he uses the period as a tool to discuss the league of his own times and how it was down to “freedom”[30] and “true democracy”[31] that the league has survived from the beginning; these are features of the contemporary league and an attempt to show that they are ancestral, which helps to enhance the prestige of the league and to monopolise what are seen as inherently Greek traits, making the distinction between Greek and Achaean blurred. However, this is not a satisfactory account of the early league.[32] The previous incarnations of the League were more concerned with military matters and where limited to their ancestral region of Achaea, the archaeological evidence and titbits from other sources create a picture which shows the Early Achaean League as an organisation whose focus was making an exclusive collective identity for themselves that was based on the a shared history and mythology. The later League of Polybius was completely different, since the identity of its members was mutable, the shared identity of ‘Achaean’ was meant to safeguard the liberty of its members against the threat of invasion from the powerful Hellenistic Kingdoms. Polybius simply wanted to create a historical precedent for what he viewed as the Leagues success,[33] rather than through any historical accuracy.

What the evidence presented in this chapter shows, is that there was a policy of isolationism in Achaea during the period discussed, from the Greek Dark Ages to the late Classical, a policy that was about maintaining the integrity of the state. By this I mean maintaining what it meant to be Achaean. The material culture of the region is suggestive of this, and the public statement of the Olympia Dedication was as a statement of the Achaeans as the decedents of the Homeric Greeks. The large time period and lack of concrete evidence make it hard to find a pattern with regards to the development of Achaea, what evidence survives suggests a process of experimentation with bringing together the cities, be it culturally, militarily or politically. The focus of the Achaean people was developing a shared identity based around mythology and the land around them. This is likely to be because of the small population, any boost to that, rather than leading rapid structural change regarding politics and society,[34] it led to a strengthening of the bonds between the cities and a solidifying of the Achaean identity. Achaea breaks all Runciman’s rules regarding the creation of a state.: specialisation of government roles, centralisation of authority, permanence of structures and emancipation from the real or fictive kinships used as the basis of relations.[35] However, this fictive kinship was how the Achaeans entreated with other powers up until the Roman conquest of 146 BC. The leagues of this period had one problem, they were inflexible, and this meant it was hard for them to adapt to new situations and new threats to their independence. These regional groupings occurred throughout the period, and continued to evolve into the Hellenistic as a way of ensuring regional dominance of the Peloponnese,[36] which is where my next chapter takes us. I end this chapter where I began, with Walbank, and I agree that disjointed and confusing nature of the evidence makes it difficult to reconstruct the history of Achaea, but it is worth it to show that the basis of Achaea’s strength was its use of a common identity that was rooted in the common myths and histories of the Greeks.

[1] Walbank (2002) 140.

[2] Walbank (2002) 141; Morgan and Hall (1996) 196.

[3] Rizakis (2015) 118-131; Walbank (2002) 137-152.

[4] Snodgrass (1971) 247.

[5] Ibid. 171.

[6] Ibid. 190.

[7] Hall (1997) 2.

[8] Snodgrass (1971) 243-244.

[9] Walbank (2002) 139; Hall (1997) 46.

[10] Homer, Iliad, 1.90-91.

[11] Ibid. 2.569-576.

[12] Hall (1997) 4.

[13] Assmann (2011) 250.

[14] Hall (1997)

[15] Hall (2015) 33.

[16] Hall (1997) 3.

[17] Pausanias, 5.25.8. We can be sure of the date as the artist, Onatas, was active around the time of the Persian War. The statue group is no longer extant.

[18] Scott (2010) 34.

[19] Ibid 194.

[20] Ibid. 195.

[21] Ibid. 265.

[22] Morgan and Hall (1996) 164.

[23] Ibid. 193.

[24] Hansen (2006) 51.

[25] Xenophon, Hellenica, 6.4.18.

[26] Hall (1997) 35.

[27] Polybius, 2. 38; Morgan and Hall (1996) 166.

[28] BrillOnline – SEG 14 375 (accessed 12/12/2018).

[29] SEG 14 375.3.

[30] Polybius, Histories, 2.37.

[31] Ibid. 2.38.

[32] See Morgan and Hall (1996).

[33] Morgan and Hall (1996) 195.

[34] Ibid. 200.

[35] Runciman (1982) 351.

[36] Shipley (2018) 33.


Primary Sources

Homer, The Iliad, trans. Lattimore, R. (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago 2011 Edition).

Polybius, The Histories, trans. Waterfield, R. (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2010).

Pausanias, Description of Greece, trans. Jones, W.H.S. (Loeb: Cambridge MA 1918).

Xenophon, Hellenica, trans. Brownson, C.L. (Loeb: Cambridge MA 1918 and 1920).

Secondary Sources

Assmann, J. (2011, first published in German in 1992) Cultural Memory and Early Civilisation: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).

Hall, J. M. (1997). Ethnic identity in Greek antiquity. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).

Hall, J.M. (2015) ‘Federalism and ethnicity’. In H. Beck & P. Funke (Eds.), Federalism in Greek Antiquity. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 30-48.

Hansen, M.H. (2006) Polis: An introduction to the Ancient Greek City State. (Oxford University Press: Oxford).

Morgan, C. and Hall, J. M. (1996) ‘The Achaian Poleis and Achaian Colonisation’ in Introduction to an Inventory of ‘Poleis’: Symposium August, 23-26 1995, Volume 74, eds M.H. Hansen. (The Royal Danish Society of Sciences and Letters: Copenhagen).

Rizakis, A. (2015) ‘The Achaian League’ in Federalism in Greek Antiquity, eds H. Beck and P. Funke. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).

Runciman, W. G. (1982). ‘Origins of States: The Case of Archaic Greece’. Comparative Studies in Society and History24(3), 351-377.

Shipley, G. (2018) The Early Hellenistic Peloponnese: Politics, Economics, and Networks 338-197 BC (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Snodgrass, A.M. (1971) The Dark Age of Greece: An Archaeological Survey of the Eleventh to the Eighth Centuries BC. (Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh).

Walbank, F. (2002) ‘Hellenes and Achaeans: ‘Greek nationality’ revisited’ in Polybius, Rome and The Hellenistic World, eds. F. Walbank. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).

Internet Sources

Woodhead, A.G., “SEG 14-375. Aigion. Fragmentum foederis (?), ex. s. IVa.”, in: Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, Current editors: A. T. N. R.A. Chaniotis Corsten Papazarkadas Tybout. Consulted online on 13 December 2018


Figure 1: Achaean League Triobol by Ancientcoincollector (accessed 08/02/2019) (wikimedia commonsCC BY-SA 4.0)

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