What is Collective Identity?

I have previously written about identity in the ancient world, particularly at how individuals expressed their identity; identity being the qualities that make up a person, i.e. religion, citizenship, gender. With this project I looked at how communities developed their own identities with different groups, attempting to find common ground in order to thrive in a world of superpowers and the clashes between them (Shipley (2018) 57).

It was during the Hellenistic Achaean League that the benefits of collective identity were applied to a federal principal. Collective identity is intrinsically linked to the concept of federalism, as smaller states are combined and connected, whilst also celebrating the differences and independence of those states. 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.” (Polybius, Histories, 2.37.8-11). 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, in which 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 (Rizakis (2015) 131; Thonemann (2015) 74).

Thonemann has compared the collective identity and associated federalism of the Achaean League with the European Union (2015, 74). Just as the EU has one currency which is used across the federation, but whose member states display observable differences in their individual cultural identities, the coinage of the Achaean League is of the same value but emphasises the various polis of the region:

“The poleis of the Achaean League were not simply subsumed into the greater whole, but retained their own civic identity under a federal banner.”
Thonemann (2015) 74.

What this means is that the individual cities of the league had a lot of independence in local affairs, but still enjoyed the benefits of membership of a larger organisation.

Conclusions

If identity is the qualities and attributes that make up a person, collective identity is a cumulative effort of identities to create a whole, shared qualities and attributes that unite them, whilst taking into their status as individuals. It is a useful tool for discussing the Achaean League, as it puts into perspective how its members of it saw themselves in relation to others, and how they wanted to present themselves on the international stage.

Bibliography

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

*

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

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

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

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