Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.01.19

Gustav Adolf Lehmann, Ansätze zu einer Theorie des griechischen Bundesstaates bei Aristoteles und Polybios.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2001.  Pp. 117.  ISBN 3-525-82514-5.  

Reviewed by Thomas Corsten, University of Oxford (
Word count: 2654 words

The subject of L.'s book is the lack of a theory of federalism in antiquity--at first sight astonishing, given the fact that a good number of federal states existed in ancient Greece. What comes closest to it is the description of the government of the Boeotian League in the fragmentary Hellenica of Oxyrhynchus, which is preserved only on papyrus; but this consists rather of a quite short and technical enumeration of institutions within the federal constitution and an outline of the proportional principle on the basis of which these functioned (see also below on ch. 3). However, a theoretical approach to federalism could have been expected from at least two writers: Aristotle, who with his school collected a great number of constitutions of states that were quite different as far as institutions and government in general are concerned; and Polybius, who came himself from a family heavily involved in the politics of the Achaean League and who was interested in constitutional matters. However, we have nothing of this kind, and, at least at first sight, it seems as if nothing ever existed.

Starting from this point, L. tries to find at least some evidence for the idea of federalism in the extant works of Aristotle and Polybius, which could prove that federal states were indeed considered to be different from other forms of states and that people were aware of this difference. To achieve this, L. has divided his book into six chapters in a roughly chronological order (plus introduction, summary and appendix). Each of these deals with a specific question, all of which, however, focus mostly on the Boeotian and the Achaean Leagues since those provide the most abundant evidence. The introduction (pp. 9-14) gives a short history of the interest in ancient federalism in modern times, starting with the Dutch scholar Ubbo Emmius in the early 17th century and finding its first apogee in the influence it exerted on the American constitution. Although the authors of the Federalist essays regretted the lack of an ancient comprehensive study of federalism or a description of a federal state (the Hellenica of Oxyrhynchus was not yet discovered), they were nevertheless able to derive considerable inspiration for the establishment of the American federal constitution from the description of the Achaean League by Polybius (and/or indirectly via Livy from Polybius) and of the Lycian League as reported by Strabo. This makes rather unlikely the widespread assertion that the Greeks were unaware of the existence of federalism, whereas the Americans, 2000 years later, clearly saw it. The Americans even distinguished between two main models of what they considered to be federal states, namely that of a confederation with equal representation of each member state in the central institution, as e.g. the Delphic Amphictyony; and that of a League like the Achaean and Lycian Leagues, where the member states were represented according to a proportional principle based on their respective populations.

After this outline of the potential of the ancient sources, L. proceeds to give, in his second chapter (pp. 15-24), a brief account of the accomplishment and the failure of the two most important federal states in the hellenistic period, the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues. The potential which these states had of uniting the Greek world were visible to contemporary writers like Polybius, and they knew that a unification of Greece would have been possible only with a constitution equal or similar to that of one of the existing federal states. L. does, however, not yet turn to a scrutiny of hellenistic sources, but goes back to pre-hellenistic times, where he already finds federal states (even if he feels obliged to add "understood in a wider sense"). In this way, he makes the bridge to Plato and Xenophon, who both wrote in the fourth century and should thus have been able to offer us some insight into the working of federalism in their times. This could have been expected especially from Plato, who published considerably in the field of philosophy of government, but he mentions neither the tribal nor the federal states of his time. On the other hand, L. finds valuable remarks about federalism in Xenophon, and he quotes (p. 22 with n. 22) his Hellenica VI 1, 4-19 about Thessaly and VII 4-5 about Arcadia. However, L. himself admits that Xenophon in the first passage does not deal with basic questions of federalism--indeed, I cannot see anything that could be connected to federalism, let alone to a theory of federalism. In VI 1, 19 Xenophon writes only that each city was obliged to provide hoplites and cavalry, but that does not hint at federalism as the same obligation existed also in e.g. symmachies and for subjected cities in monarchies. The same is true for the other quotations: VI 4, 28-29 about Thessaly; V 2, 11(-19) about the Chalcidian League; VII 1, 23(-32) again about the Arcadian League. Thus, what Xenophon writes is very general and matches all kinds of states, rather than being restricted to the organization of federal states. Nor is the so-called double citizenship, mentioned by L. on pp. 23-4, more revealing: it is known to have been a feature in other states which consisted of several cities whose citizens naturally held both the citizenship of their mother city and of the entire state--be this a tribal state, a monarchy or a federal state.1

Ch. 3 (pp. 25-33) is entirely devoted to a discussion of the Hellenica of Oxyrhynchus--rightly so, since it is the only ancient source which provides a--in a way--thorough insight into the construction of a federal state. The historian discusses briefly the officials and institutions of the Boeotian League and stresses the proportional system as a basis for the sharing in rights and duties of the member cities. However, here again, L. admits (p. 33) that the unknown author (who L. thinks was Theopompus: cf. n. 27) does not have a theoretical approach to his subject but just shows a preference for an oligarchic system. In this, L. is certainly right, and the result is simply that there is nothing like a theory of federalism in or behind the Hellenica of Oxyrhynchus either.

The next chapter (pp. 34-45) is concerned with Aristotle: L. examines his Politics and what is left of the πόλεων πολιτεῖαι. It is known that Aristotle and his pupils collected the constitutions of some tribal and federal states as well; but, from what is preserved, it is obvious that they were not interested in discriminating between tribes and federal states, as L. rightly states. Aristotle only compared the polis to all other forms of states. For him, the tribal structure of most of these states is an out-dated concept, and they are no match for a developed polis. The reason for this lies, according to the philosopher, firstly in their sheer size, but secondly also in the different character of their components; whereas the polis consists of parts each of a different kind, the other states combine as many parts of the same kind as possible in order to support each other. It is interesting to see that Aristotle makes his point clear by first taking a symmachy as an example but then goes on to say that the same difference as between polis and symmachy exists between polis and ethnos (Politica 2, 2, 1261 a 22-29, quoted pp. 35-36). And, in this context, he adduces the Arcadian League, but without mentioning the federal character of its constitution since this was of no importance to him. The only hint L. finds in the extant writings of Aristotle that he (and/or his pupils) was aware of the existence of federal states is his mention of a κοινὴ πολιτεία in connection with the Arcadians and the Thessalians (p. 35). However, it seems to me that this is only the case because L. translates it as Verfassung der Foederation (constitution of the federation), which is, I think, not the only possible meaning. Κοινός rather means all sorts of things that consist of more than one element of the same kind, and it is not at all restricted to federalism, as has been seen already long ago and as L. himself states rightly (p. 19 n. 17). Thus κοινὴ πολιτεία does not necessarily point to federalism.

We are now about half-way through the book and have not yet found any undisputed traces of a theory of federalism up to the end of the Classical period. L. now proceeds to the writings of Polybius (ch. 5, pp. 46-61: Polybius and the Achaean League). This historian, as a member of the ruling elite of the Achaean League in the 2nd century BC, should have been the right person to tell us everything, and in great detail, about the inner organization of his home state. Unfortunately, nothing of this kind is preserved, but L. tries to show in this chapter (which I find the most important one in his book) that it must have existed. He finds the first piece of evidence for the now lacking description of the Achaean constitution in Polybius 3, 3, 7, where an overview about the contents of his Histories is given; this description must have occurred in book 24, the largest part of which is now lost. Reminiscences, however, can be found in passages of book 2 (pp. 49-53; quotations with translation are printed on pp. 98-100). Especially important is Polybius' characterization of Achaea as a democracy, because it here signifies a system of equal rights between the member states of the league. This is for Polybius the principal positive characteristic of the Achaean federal constitution, since it is based rather on an agreement between the cities than on force from a dominant power. This agreement was partly based on a reform in the early 2nd century, as a result of which minor cities were freed from the dominance of powerful neighbors and given an appropriate weight in government and administration.

The most important discovery of this chapter, however, seems to me the proof (pp. 58-61) that Polybius clearly refers to Aristotle's statement mentioned above, in which the philosopher claimed that the tribal states in Greece had the structure of mere symmachies. Polybius objects strongly to this notion and compares the government of Achaea rather to the organization of a polis--a far stabler and more cohesive form of state. He even takes up Aristotle's ironic remark about a wall around the Peloponnese which Aristotle thought completely impossible but which for Polybius virtually exists--if not in reality, then at least in form of the all-encompassing Achaean constitution.

The next chapter is devoted to a comparison between the Achaean League and some other federations of the 3rd and 2nd centuries (ch. 6, pp. 61-81). This is the longest chapter, but it has the least to do with theoretical approaches. L. seems to aim at a theoretical basis for some obvious similarities between these states, and he compares at some length Achaea and Boeotia (pp. 64-67), Achaea and Aetolia (pp. 67-70) and Achaea and Lycia (pp. 77-79), whereas the minor federal states of Acarnania and Phocis are mentioned very briefly because only little is known of them in this regard (pp. 76 and 80 respectively). There are, however, some obstacles, one of which is that Polybius very often avoids technical terms (pp. 70-71); another is that Polybius, in his brief outline of the history of the Boeotian League never mentions constitutional matters (pp. 64-65). Therefore, L. has to turn to epigraphical evidence, and in this way two principle features which are common to the states mentioned above are discernible: first, the fact that they all change from having several magistrates to only one chief magistrate during the course of the 3rd century; and, secondly, that from about the same time onwards representation in governing bodies, such as council and assembly, is based on a proportional principle, following which the member cities were divided into classes according to the size of their population. There seems to be a theoretical background to these principles, but it does not become quite clear (at least not to me) where the connection to Polybius (and to the title and aim of the book) is.

The same is true for the next chapter (ch. 7, pp. 82-89), where L. examines the Achaean body of the νομογράφοι, mentioned with its 24 members in an inscription from Epidauros (IG IV[2] 1 no. 73). He rightly sees here the same proportional principle at work and argues strongly against the ideas of A. Aymard, for whom the distribution of the 24 νομογράφοι was based on mere chance.2 But, on the other hand, for L. the proportional system was intentionally not applied in its purest form, as it gave the small cities a relatively larger share beside the big cities. This was, according to L., the meaning of the reforms as they were undertaken in the early 2nd century; and on these reforms and their result Polybius based his claim of "democracy" in the Achaean League.

The eighth and last chapter (pp. 90-94) sums up. The most characteristic feature of a Greek federal state was a constitution based on a rational distribution of influence among the member cities, carried out on a high level of abstraction by means of the proportional principle (p. 91). L. finds this already in the Thessalian state of the 6th century and obviously in the Boeotian League from the middle of the 5th century onwards, but it is most clearly manifested in the Achaean League of the 2nd century. Between these two phases, it is the deplorable lack of historical sources in the first half of the 3rd century which prevents us from knowing wether people were aware of these special and promising characteristics of the existing federations as opposed to the inner organization of tribal states; Aristotle apparently was not. Thus, Polybius seems to have been first to notice the special role of the proportional principle as practised in his home state.

The book ends with a very helpful appendix, a list of literature, and an index. The appendix gives the Greek text and a (German) translation of the passages L. relies upon in his discussions; it seems to me, however, that the text from Xenophon which L. uses heavily in ch. 2 also could have been included. My only (and perhaps rather personal) point of disagreement concerns L.'s perception that the proportional principle was solely applied in the Thessalian and Boeotian federations of the Classical period before it finally came to prominence again in the Achaean League in the 3rd or 2nd century. This view could also be the reason for the difficulties L. seems to encounter regarding the composition of a "district" in the Arcadian League which consisted of two "cantons" without a common border (Maenalus and Lepreon, p. 42). Although he compares this with an exactly parallel case in the Boeotian Federation (Chaeronea, Acraephia, Copai), he cannot bring himself to admitting the possibility of "districts" (or whatever they are to be called) as at least numerical units upon which to calculate the rights and duties of the member cities.3

Apart from this and from two cases of L. misunderstanding or wrongly quoting modern literature,4 it is to be regretted that L. writes in an extremely difficult manner by using Latin-style phrase constructions with numerous parentheses and inserted thoughts which detract from the main clause and disturb the flow--and with it the comprehension--of the sentence; and this is inconvenient not only for non-German readers. Nevertheless, this little book is a very welcome discussion of the theoretical background of Greek federalism and the way it was reflected in the writings of several ancient authors. Therefore, it is highly recommended not only to ancient historians, but also to all historians of federalism and to those who work on the philosophy of states and governments, as well as those concerned with concepts of states and statehood in general.


1.   Cf. M. Sordi, "Le origini del koinon etolico", Acme 6, 1953, 419-445; A. Giovannini, Untersuchungen über die Natur und die Anfänge der bundesstaatlichen Sympolitie in Griechenland, Göttingen 1971.
2.   A. Aymard, Les assemblées de la confédération achaienne, Bordeaux-Paris 1938, 383-385.
3.   It might be allowed to mention my attempt to show the existence of "districts" in many more federals states in earlier periods: Vom Stamm zum Bund. Gründung und territoriale Organisation griechischer Bundesstaaten, Munich 1999.
4.   On pp. 40-1 n. 45 he claims that J. A. O. Larsen in his still fundamental book Greek Federal States, Oxford 1968 p. 187 identified the Achaean Damiorgoi with the council which he, in fact, does not. And on p. 28 n. 27, L. believes that in my book (here n. 3) I regarded the "districts" as being on an intermediary level between league and member cities, and he quotes pp. 29ff. and 186ff. (where I might be--I must admit--not clear enough); an unmistakable statement to the opposite, however, can be found on pp. 193-4.

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