Federalism in the Hellenistic Period

In another post based on my undergrad dissertation, I discuss the role of Achaean identity and the rise of federalism in the Hellenistic period.

What does it mean to be a city in a world dominated by large kingdoms and how do you react to their domination? I have previously discussed how Achaea was able to form an identity that allowed them to survive. The Hellenistic period marks the establishment of a very different Achaean League, one that was able to control the entire Peloponnese. In this post I’m examining whether Achaean Identity made the Peloponnese a stronger and less divided place, and to do this I’m going to examine the benefits of becoming a federal state and how the federal identity is presented, both in the literary record and in institutions.

The Achaean League was only one of several federal experiments that occurred during the Hellenistic Period. Why was there a turn to federalism during this period? This is an important question to ask in order to understand the evolution of Achaean Identity, since collective identity was an important factor in bringing separate polis together into a koinon[1]. It has been said that the polis was an “evolutionary dead-end”[2] and this is why they grouped together in leagues, in order to compete with the much larger monarchies which thrived during the Hellenistic Period. The leagues were seen to be middle ground in this conflict between poleis and the monarchies,[3] a way of making them viable in a world dominated by strong centralised kingdoms and states. I think this interpretation gives too little credit to the system of the polis and the practical realities within the Achaean League, since the individual poleis in the league maintained a large amount of autonomy, especially in terms of coinage[4], border disputes and local magistrates.[5] This seems to clash with the image presented by Polybius of the league as a “community of allies and friends, but they also adopted the same laws, weights and measures, and coinage, and they share statesman, council, and law courts…public aspects of their [citizens] lives are more or less identical from city to city.”[6] But this is referencing the higher federal institutions, rather than the day to day running of the league; the Achaean League was a loose federal structure, where these overarching institutions did not have an effect on the day-to-day running of the member states. This meant that the individual states could maintain their own civic identity and autonomy whilst also being part of a collective Achaean identity.[7]

This was part of the trend in the Hellenistic Period for states to base diplomacy and collaboration on syngeneia, or mythological kinship.[8] We have established the power of cultural memory in the previous chapter and how the Achaeans choose to be associated by ancestry with the Achaeans of Homer, the same thing happened with the ethnically non-Achaean states joining the league to protect their own autonomy and freedom. This evolution from being an Ethnos of the Achaeans to expanding out to the rest of the Peloponnese was also a shift from a local to a collective identity, which meant that as well as sharing a common culture they were also sharing resources and contacts with other states.

The political environment that created the League reveals a lot about how the collective Achaean identity was formed. It was partly a response to the Macedonian dominance in the Peloponnese, as Achaea suffered badly under Alexander and in the wars of the Diadochoi.[9] The city of Pallene was stripped of its new democracy and forced into a Macedonian backed tyranny.[10] Later, in the 330s, Antigonos Monopthalmos’ general, Aristodemos, captured Achaea, and his soldiers got carried away after the capture of the city of Aegium and “many of the Aegiense were killed and very many of the their buildings destroyed.”[11] These events paint a picture of a region that was badly treated by an invading power, and also show that at this point  Achaea had no federal institutions and the cities were weak, meaning it was easier for Macedon to dominate the entire Peloponnese. It was only when Monopthalmos was defeated at Kouroupedion and a period of instability in Macedonia and Mainland Greece occurred in 280 that the Achaean cities took advantage of their enemies’ weakness to form the Hellenistic Achaean League.[12] The confederation was an attempt to end Macedonian Hegemony of the Peloponnese; it is interesting to note that it was the Westernmost cities of Achaea that first formed this league, the ones furthest away from Corinth – one of the so-called fetters of Greece.

The initial group of cities would have formed the league around their shared identity and shared sense of autonomy, this was the basis for the later members of the league to join, as they also wanted to protect their own laws and customs by joining an organisation that required few sacrifices of this nature. The League combined their strength under a collective identity, and it is safe to say that the concept of Achaean Identity changed when other states adopted it but the basic function of the earlier leagues as an alliance of people who shared a culture had not changed. Plutarch states that the League looked beyond its own boundaries and at the bigger picture, when describing the capture of Corinth by Aratus in 243 as “not in the interests of Sicyonians or Achaeans merely, but purposing to drive from that stronghold what held all Hellas in common subjection”.[13] Although Plutarch was a great believer in joint Hellenic values and this bias has to be taken into account when discussing this passage, it shows that existential threat to both the freedom and autonomy of the Peloponnesians brought them together, and helped to foster a collective identity that was used to ensure that there freedoms were protected.


The federalism of the Hellenistic period was an effort by the cities to present a united front against the larger monarchies. They were often bound together by ties of kinship (be it real or fictive) and this helped to hold the organisations together, since the structures were often lose, particularly in the Achaean League, where the individual cities had autonomy on local matters.



[1] A koinon is an organisation of Greek states, but as Tarn points out, the meaning of the word has become confused, some of its meaning, since in modern terms it could be applied to organisations as varied as a trade union, an Oxford college or the League of Nations. (1954) 68.

[2] Runciman (1990)

[3] Tarn & Griffith (1954) 68.

[4] Thonemann (2015) 74.

[5] Syll3.471; IG IV.1.7I = Austin (2006) no. 156.

[6] Polybius, 2.37.8-11.

[7] Rizakis (2015) 131; Thonemann (2015) 74.

[8] Erskine (2002)

[9] Shipley (2018) 49.

[10] Morgan and Hall (2004) 284; Pausanias, 7.27.7.

[11] Diodorus Siculus, 19.66.2-6.

[12] Shipley (2018) 57-57.

[13] Plutarch, Live of Aratus, 16.2. (Italics my own).

Primary Sources

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Volume X, trans. Geer, R.M. (Loeb: Cambridge MA 1954)

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

Plutarch, Lives, Volume XI, trans. Perrin, B. (Loeb: Cambridge MA 1926).

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


Austin (2006) The Hellenistic world from Alexander to the Roman conquest: a selection of ancient sources in translation (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).

Erskine (2002) ‘O brother where art thou? Tales of kinship and diplomacy’, in The Hellenistic World: New Perspectives, ed. D. Ogden. (Classical Press of Wales: Swansea) 97-117.

Morgan and Hall (2004) ‘Achaia’ in An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis, eds. Hansen, M.H and Nielsen, T.H. (Oxford University Press: Oxford) 489-504.

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

Runciman (1990) ‘Doomed to Extinction: the polis as an evolutionary dead-end’, in The Greek City from Homer to Alexander, ed. O. Murray and S. Price. (Clarendon Press: Oxford). 347-367.

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

Tarn and Griffith (1954, 3rd Edition) Hellenistic Civilisation (University Paperbacks: London).

Thonemann (2015) The Hellenistic World: Using coins as Sources (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).


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