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The Hellenic-Ionian Leagues:
The First European Confederations

A Research Note

Daniel J. Elazar

While the idea of covenant was a minor theme at best in Greek and Roman political thought, the application of federal devices in their real world was more widespread. In the fourth century BCE, the growing power of the Macedonian kingdom put an end to the independence of these Greek city-states, bringing them under Macedonian imperial rule. But as John Ferguson states in The Heritage of Hellenism: "Cosmopolis did not destroy the polis." The Macedonians were, after all, Greeks and had certain Greek sensibilities. Thus they developed an imperial style which the Romans were shortly to copy that strongly resembled imperial federalism, albeit without its democratic elements, at least on the imperial plane.

Indeed, in theory, Alexander the Great established his world empire as president of a league of Greek states: the Corinthian League. In 311, Antigonus, his successor, negotiated a treaty with his rivals recorded on a marble column which stated: "We have declared in our treaty that all Greeks shall bind themselves by oath to the mutual defense of their freedom and autonomy." This treaty became the basis for the post-Alexandrian empire in Ionia and Asia Minor, whereby the empire formally continued to be a league of cities, now with one imperial ruler, while the cities kept their local autonomy and their right to create regional confederations within the imperial domain. This and other treaties essentially relied upon the traditional communal liberties of each city to determine its precise status within the overall imperium. In a sense, this represented a merger of the Canaanite-Phoenician city-state culture with the Hellenic polis culture to form the local basis of the Hellenistic polity.

New cities were founded on this Alexandrian quasi-federal model. Wherever Alexander and his successors went to conquer, they consolidated their control by establishing new politea with the same system of government, cities where Hellenistic ideas and behavior could flourish which would be autonomous within the imperial structures and at the same time help consolidate and preserve those structures.

This pattern of imperial quasi-federalism persisted through the Hellenistic period and well into the Roman Empire. The Seleucid rulers were particularly notable for the freedom they allowed the cities within their empire, albeit requiring each of them to have a Greek constitution. For example, the Hasmonean revolt began when the Seleucids intervened to force the small province of Judea to reconstitute itself as a Greek polis.

When possible, the anchor of these local liberties was to be found in the principle of respect for the ancestral laws of each city, but it was extended beyond this because the age was one of the foundation of new cities for which constitutions were written and which were given the same autonomy as the old, established ones, much in the way that those American states admitted to the union after the adoption of the federal Constitution were deemed the equals of those which had established the federal republic in the first place. To the extent that cities were founded and refounded, they acquired constitutions and had contractual elements in them, but no theory of political compact developed as a result. The form of government was some combination of democracy and oligarchy, whereby all adult male citizens had full political rights, including the eligibility for office, but in fact the offices tended to be in the hands of the wealthy more often than not.

Within the context of these empires, cities were encouraged to form confederacies. As indicated above, the original empire itself grew out of the League of Corinth, of which Philip of Macedonia served as hegemon, or president, and which comprised all the states of Greece except Sparta. Alexander followed this form and the league was reorganized in 302 and continued formally as the linking vehicle for the empire. Foreign and military policy was concentrated in the hands of the hegemon, although there was no common citizenship. On the other hand, in the League of the Islanders, built around a religious center on Delos, common citizenship was introduced.

The third century BCE became a century of confederacies, including the Ionian League; the Boetian League, dominated by Thebes; the Aetolian League, which had a strong primary assembly for the entire confederacy and involved three arenas: cities, tribal districts, and the confederacy as a whole; in effect, a federal constitution. Such, too, was the Achean League. When not fighting one another the two confederacies established a common superleague.

Perhaps the most federal of all was the Lycian League. Located in the mountains of Asia Minor, the Lycians were not Greeks. Under Greek influence they developed a federal constitution which developed to the point where the federal assembly was a representative body whose seats were distributed approximately in proportion to the population of each member city. On a circumscribed basis it survived well into the period of Roman rule.

The closest to a prefiguring of the federal principle as vital for freedom came in the history of the second Achaean League. The first Achaean League had been established in the fourth century BCE, but collapsed shortly after 300 BCE. It was revived in 281-280 BCE and rapidly consolidated its power vis-a-vis Macedonia and the city-states surrounding it.

A generation later, in 251, Aratus led the citizens of Sicyon, his native city, in their successful effort to overthrow its dictator, and brought the city into the Achaean League. Perhaps because Sicyon was not an Achean city, Aratus had wider ambitions than the older members of the confederacy. Loathing dictators and Macedonian rule, he saw the league's task as that of liberating Hellas from both by instituting federal democracy. In 245 BCE he was elected the general of the league's armies and became its dominant figure. His first great victory was in 243, when he liberated Corinth. The league then expanded for a while, but by the end of the decade Aratus had reached the limits of his powers and the league had failed to absorb either Athens or Sparta. Clemonomes of Sparta took the lead in opposing Aratus and became his bete-noire.

Aratus, who has been described by Ferguson as being "incorruptible, adventurous, persuasive, skilled in diplomacy, passionately attached to freedom, and implacably ambitious," was the partisan of federalism, but opposed social revolution. Clemonomes was not only a Spartan nationalist, but a social revolutionary. In a sense, their struggle was a prefiguring of the struggle between the federalists and the Jacobins in determining the course of the democratic world two millennia later.

In the end, in order to preserve the federation, Aratus had to invite the hated Macedonians to intervene and Clemonomes was defeated in 222 BCE. While the Achaean League was allowed to retain limited local liberty, it was restored firmly to Macedonian suzerainty. It survived until 146 BCE.

The Achaean League was governed by a primary assembly of all male citizens over the age of thirty, which met to deal with major constitutional issues, and an elected council of several hundred, which met regularly and elected the magistrates. The league adopted common gods and at its greatest extent controlled the whole of the Peloponnesus.

Roman Foederatii

In the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE, the Romans triumphed over the allied Greek cities. In its wake the walls of the conquered cities were razed and the Greek confederacies were dissolved. Thus the history of classical Greece came to an end just as the Jews of Judea launched their successful revolt against the Seleucid extension of Aexandrian Greece in western Asia.

Nevertheless, the rise of Rome did not alter the Greek emphasis on the polis and confederations of like politea. The Romans, like their Greek predecessors, were colonizers, planting cities wherever their armies trod. Under them the polis became the municipium. Citizens of the municipium had a double loyalty, to their city and to Rome. It has been stated that: "Rome conquered by force, but ruled by consent." Indeed, the Roman Empire was originally constructed out of a network of treaties, presumably among equals, between Rome and her allies, the foederatii, which further encouraged this duality.

The Roman municipium became part of a political-juridical constitutional order based upon a public social contract. As Walter Lippman put it: "In this way, freedom emanating from a constitutional order has been advocated, explained, and made real to the imagination and the conscience of Western men; by establishing the presumption that civilized society is founded on a public social contract." Lippman's rather optimistic analysis of the Roman public philosophy of contract reflects what has earlier been stated in this book, namely, that "a contract is an agreement reached voluntarily, quid pro quo," namely, it has that narrowness which distinguishes it from covenant in its practical rather than moral foundations and its quid pro quo character. Still, as Lippman suggests, it helped to advance the idea that "the first principle of the civilized state is that power is legitimate only when it is under contract."

The reality of municipal liberty, federal treaties, and the contractual public philosophy disappeared in the Roman Empire to be replaced by a European version of Oriental despotism. At most, echoes of the theory lived on, reflected in the continuing use of the terms foedus, foedere, and foederatii in medieval Latin to describe covenantal and oath-based linkages among individuals and groups. As we have seen, while the Church may have tried to absorb a version of covenantal thinking into its theology, when it came to matters of governance it followed the Roman imperial model and built a hierarchy. The idea of Christian republicanism was preserved by a chain of Christian political theorists throughout the Middle Ages. While their theories had some covenantal overtones, it would be hard to describe them as covenantal per se. Nevertheless, with the demise of the Roman Empire, the way was open to new arrangements which combined the Roman experience with hierarchy with others derived from covenant and contract.

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