Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.09.58 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.09.58

Emily Mackil, Creating a Common Polity: Religion, Economy, and Politics in the Making of the Greek Koinon. Hellenistic culture and society, 55.   Berkeley; Los Angeles; London:  University of California Press, 2013.  Pp. xvii, 593.  ISBN 9780520272507.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Jacek Rzepka, Warsaw University (


The present book is testimony to a rising interest in Greek federal states and adds measurably to the study of it. 1 Although the title suggests a general treatment of factors leading to the making of Greek federal states, the author restricts her research to the three best-known federations: the Boeotian, Achaean and Aetolian Leagues, which are studied in great detail. 2

The book itself is clearly structured, one part providing a traditional political history of the three areas under research, and the other part aiming at explanation of religious, economic and political patterns facilitating the rise of Greek federations. A valuable addition is an appendix containing the most important epigraphic texts cited in the main text, both in the original and in commented translation.

The first, narrative part is not a systematic and full-scale treatment of the fates of Achaea, Aetolia, and Boeotia but rather an introductory overview, and as such it is not free of omissions and oversimplifications. For example, One may wonder why the author in studying patterns behind the making of Greek federal states ignores the process of disintegration of the Aetolian League, referred to by Thucydides. 3 On the other hand, one cannot disagree with the author when she interprets the rise of federal institutions in Aetolia in the early fourth century B.C. as a countermeasure against territorial losses and external aggression (p. 345).

The analytic part offers a study of cultic, economic and political factors behind Greek federalism. The cultic section is very technical, and tends to understand Greek religion as purely ritual. The book offers and analyses a lot of data about sacred precincts, temples, cultic artworks as well as about festivals, sacred delegates and officials, but is less detailed about local myths and tales that built ethnic unity, such as the official charter myths of the Arcadian and Achaean Leagues described in detail by ancient authors. With information dispersed in scholia, lexicographers as well as in other seemingly unrelated genres we may even trace the myths of Aetolia, and I think that an analysis of known regional myths would be a valuable addition to Mackil’s conclusions on federal cultic networks. 4 Yet, even with the evidence she studied, Mackil’s insights are innovative, and she shows important differences between the leagues. She stresses that religious interactions helped to build “a sense of community beyond boundaries of the individual polis” in Boeotia and to a degree in Achaea, whereas in Aetolia religious community preceded the growth of polis. In each of her test-cases Mackil was also able to indicate examples of the opposite: political events determining or accelerating religious processes (like the growth of the sanctuary of Apollo at Thermos in replacement of Artemis Laphria in Calydon after the Aetolians lost control over their coastal cities in the fifth century).

Mackil’s contribution to understanding Greek federal states as common markets is of great value, too. She skilfully combines data and opinions from literary texts with documentary sources and with information concerning rural economy and local market-places in early modern Greece. She understands leagues as interest groups competing with other political entities for resources. One important factor in Greek leagues’ policies was a tendency on the one hand to widen access to the sea, and on the other to make the own internal market fuller. In the latter regard Mackil makes an interesting observation that the landed Boeotians fought for greater access to the sea, whereas the peninsular Chalkidians were more “interested in landward expansion”. She studies coinage, federal taxes, duties, state intervention in landed property, and pays attention to federal arbitration among the constituent poleis. In regard to diversity and scope of material consulted, the work is indeed pioneering. Still the author is aware of inevitable oversights. I would hint here at two such omissions. First, an important category of documents related both to local economies and sacral geography of North-Western Greece are manumissions made in local, regional and supra-regional sanctuaries, evidently related to local, regional and supra-regional market centers. 5 I believe, too, that one could collect data on homoethnoi being residents in member cities of their league in order to assess to what degree one or another league was truly a common market. Much could be said about mobility within Hellenistic Boeotia, Aetolia (with Delphi) and Thessaly (again one may regret this research does not include Thessaly).

It should be clearly stated that this book, in spite of minor problems, deserves high praise. It offers a wealth of useful, hardly accessible information and interesting insights into the workings of Greek federal states, and may be recommended not only to classicists and ancient historians, but also to students of politics.


1.   The year 2013 alone saw publication of two other important books in the field: P. Funke and M. Haake (eds.) Greek Federal States and Their Sanctuaries: Identity and Integration, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013; and E. Meyer, The Inscriptions of Dodona and a New History of Molossia, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013. The former is also a forerunner to a collected volume to be published by Cambridge University Press under the supervision of P. Funke and H. Beck and intended to replace the 1968 Greek Federal States by J.A.O. Larsen.
2.   I wonder if a true “Big Picture” of Greek federal states is possible without a systematic study of Thessalian, Acarnanian and Arcadian conditions. The restriction of Mackil’s research to only the three leagues mentioned above suggests that the relation between the original 2003 Princeton dissertation and the present book is closer than the author admits. Some relevant publications of the last ten years are absent from the list, e.g. C. Lasagni, Il concetto di realtà locale nel mondo greco. Uno studio introduttivo nel confronto tra poleis e stati federali, Roma 2011.
3.   Mackil focuses on Achaean aggression against native Aetolian Calydon and Pleuron but does not notice that a period of independence prior to an annexation by the Achaeans would explain the ease of Achaean conquests on the northern shore of the Corinthian Gulf much better. Thucydides (iii.102) states that the cities of coastal Aetolia formed a region called Aeolis in his time. See: S. Bommelje, "Aeolis in Aetolia. Thuc. Ill 102, 5 and the origins of the Aetolian ethnos", Historia 37 (1988), 297-316. Mackil has this article in her bibliography, but neither follows it nor offers her interpretation of Thucydides’ passage.
4.   While major historians and prose writers were certainly consulted, as well as fragmentary authors available in specialised collections of “fragments”, I would say that valuable information, especially on local traditions, could be inferred from less obvious texts: anecdotic collections, geographers, paroemiographers and paradoxographers.
5.   The West Locrian and Phocian manumissions are especially relevant to the Aetolian economy, see: E. Nachmanson, „Freilassungurkunden aus Lokris“, MDAI(A) 32, 1907, pp. 1-70; K.D. Albrecht, Rechtsprobleme in den Freilassungen der Böotier, Phoker, Dorier, Ost- und Westlokrer : untersucht mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der gemeinschaftlich vorgenommenen Freilassungsakte. Paderborn 1978.

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