What is the Achaean League and Why should we study it?

This summer I am working on another project for the International Conference for Undergraduate Research (ICUR), and this will be the first post dedicated to it. I have already written two articles over the past year about the Achaean League, but this is the first article that will set out the aims of the project and answer some questions for those who aren’t familiar with the Achaean League.

My undergraduate dissertation, from which this project has developed, is based on examining the relationship between the identity of the Achaeans and how the organisations that identified with that name used it as a unifying factor. There were multiple phases of the Achaean, each responding to different issues and problems, but each using the Achaean identity as a collective to unite around. In this post I want to go through a brief history of the league, explaining how the body evolved, aswell as how it could be a useful case study when observing modern federal institution, whilst considering its flaws and the context from which it came into being.

A Quick History

The Achaean League is a political organisation that existed in one form or another from the Greek Dark Ages until its destruction by Rome in 146 BC. T Achaea, as a place and an identity, has roots that go back to Homer (Walbank (2002) 139; Hall (1997) 46). Agamemnon was “the greatest of the Achaeans” (Homer, The Iliad, 1.90-91) and lord of several Achaean cities; Pellene, Hyperesia, Aigion and Helike (Ibid. 2.569-576).

The region of Achaea, in the Northern Peloponnese, developed a very distinct archaeological culture to other places in Greece during the Dark Ages, being 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 (Snodgrass (1971) 247), by this I mean they continued to use and make the much earlier Bronze Age forms. In addition to this the burial culture of this region is very distinct, in that they remain committed to inhumation burials as opposed to cremation, and this is right across the region known as Achaea. The combined evidence of continued Bronze Age forms and the same form of burial point to the Achaeans wanted to separate themselves off from Greece, at least culturally, forging a separate regional identity.

At a time when other Greek states where forming in poleis, the Achaeans maintained a much looser structure, connected by their shared Achaean Identity and inhabitation of the land. This looser structure would eventually lead to the federal structures that we have come to expect of the Achaeans. The earliest evidence for a federal system of government comes from the writer Xenophon, when he is describing the events after the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC (he was writing after 362 BC), where he uses the collective “Ἀχαιοὶ” (Xenophon, Hellenica, 6.4.18) in a context where he was referring to the governing bodies of various Peloponnesian poleis. A federal structure is again hinted at in an inscription (SEG 14 375) which suggests that there was a council of the various Achaean towns.

After the mid-fourth century, evidence for Achaea and the Achaeans disappears. It is after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the division of his empire after his death, that the Achaeans make a comeback, along with several other federal experiments. It has been said that the polis was an “evolutionary dead-end” (Runciman (1990) 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 (Tarn & Griffith (1954) 68), a way of making themselves 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 (Thoneman (2015) 74), border disputes and local magistrates (Syll3.471; IG IV.1.7I = Austin (2006) no. 156).

We have established the power of cultural memory 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 a loose political structure of Achaeans, to expanding outwards throughout Peloponnese was 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. Sicyon was the first city to do this, and it fully integrated with the League, with the Sicyonian Aratus integrating several cities into the Achaean League (including his native Sicyon) and him becoming Strategos (a position similar to President or commander-in-chief) of the League sixteen times!

The later Achaean League’s policy was dominated with clashes between reluctant members and dealing with Rome. States such as Messene and Sparta didn’t want to be a part of the League, since they were forced into it through warfare, and the League often responded to this dissent violently.

As Rome’s power expanded, the various states of the Achaean League petitioned to it in order to mediate these disputes. These diplomatic missions meant two different things to the two parties, the Achaeans saw Rome as a great power whose authority could resolve the issues that were brought to them, but they were still equal powers (Grainger (2013) 102). Whilst Rome saw the Achaean League as an ally, but a subordinate one, who must listen to Rome’s counsel.

This difference in how the states acted meant that, after too many attempts to resist Rome’s demands the Achaean League was destroyed in 143BC, the sack of its largest city Corinth symbolised the end of Greek Freedom and dominance of Rome in the east Mediterranean.

Why study the Achaean League?

When studying the ancient world, the historian/archaeologist/classicist is often asked (or it is implied), ‘This is all very interesting, but why is it relevant?’ I think the study of history is always relevant, as it helps us to understand the human condition, and how to overcome modern challenges, aswell as to inspire us when ideas are lacking. However, the key thing to remember is to not remove the past from its context. For example, the Achaeans saw the League as a democracy and that it was this that led to their experiments in federalism (Polybius, 2.38). However, as I’ve already mentioned there was a long precedent for federalism amongst the Achaeans, and that although the League was nominally democratic (with local assemblies and larger federal bodies), women were excluded from voting and from office and those offices were dominated by an aristocratic elite. This doesn’t hinder our study of the league, it just means we have to carefully comb through our sources in order to gain the most accurate picture of the league, both in our understanding of the League within its own context, and how we interact with it when we use it as a resource.

For example, there was a study in 2013 entitled, ‘A Comparative analysis of federations: The Achaean federation and the European Union’ which attempts to use the Achaean League as a foundation to increase the democratisation of the European union, as well as increasing solidarity, trust and the community of interest amongst member states. It points out that issues facing the EU, such as lack of trust and solidarity were due to the imposition of austerity measures by the unelected components of the administration led to a rise in Euroscepticism (Kyriaszis and Economou (2013) 16; 20). They argue that the Achaean League offers a way of reducing the democratic deficit, by increasing federalism within the organisation (Ibid. 19), this is because the citizenship of Achaeans meant that it crossed internal borders, meaning a man from Corinth could vote in the city of Epidaurus, and fight the local militia of Megalopolis. Of course, solidarity between the Achaean States wasn’t always there, especially considering the wars they had with reluctant members. However, the authors of the study don’t fall into the trap of wanting to follow the past exactly, but clearly understand that the past can offer inspiration whilst taking into account its flaws.

Final Thoughts

The Achaean League was an organisation that challenged the contemporary schools of thought, and offered a federal alternative to first the polis, and then to the autocratic kingship of the second and first century BC, which centred on co-operation and shared freedoms. As an area of study, the Achaean League allows us to examine how humanity may deal with crises that threaten the status quo, and how creating a collective identity allowed greater bargaining power and increased the strength of the peoples of the Peloponnese meaning that there were many layers to people’s identity (Meskell (2002) 36). People were both citizens of their city and of the League (SEG 47 344, an inscription from Epidaurus that shows people from multiple cities fighting as Achaean citizens); allowing a greater transfer of ideas within the confines of the League. It created a more open society but highlighted the issues that Greek politics had been struggling with for centuries: creating a united front and how to deal with a rapidly changing world.


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

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

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


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

Grainger, J.D. 2013 Rome, Parthia and India: The Violent Emergence of a New World Order 150-140 BC. Pen and Sword Books Ltd: Barnsley.

Kyriaszis, N. and Economou, E. 2013. ‘A Comparative analysis of federations: The Achaean federation and the European Union.’ MPRA Paper No. 57287 https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/57287/

Meskell, L. 1999. Archaeologies of social life. Blackwell Publishing Ltd: Oxford.

Runciman, W.G. 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

Thonemann, P. 2015. The Hellenistic World: Using coins as Sources. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

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


Chaniotis, A., Pleket, H.W., Stroud, R.S. and Strubbe, J.H.M., “SEG 47-344. Epidauros (Asklepieion). Casualty list of the campaign at the Isthmos of Corinth, 146 B.C.”, in:Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, Current editors: A. T. N. R.A. Chaniotis Corsten Papazarkadas Tybout. Consulted online on 13 March 2019 http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1874-6772_seg_a47_344

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 http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1874-6772_seg_a14_375


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s