When individual Greek city-states* agreed to join together for greater strength in foreign policy, they formed a federation*. In such a group, each city-state retained its identity and its autonomy* in all local matters, and the citizens of each city-state kept their original citizenship. However, as members of a federation, each city-state acquired greater bargaining power and greater military, economic, and political security than it would have alone.
Federalism, or the distribution of power between a central organization and its members, took a variety of forms as it developed, and some federations were more unified than others. Common religious beliefs held many of the early federations together. For example, Greeks who lived around Delphi joined together in a religious group, and before 700 B.C., the cities of Ionia formed the Panionion, a union whose members worshiped Poseidon.
One of the greatest problems of a federation was the dominance of one city-state over the others. If a powerful city such as Athens, Sparta, or Thebes participated in a federation, matters of civic pride, jealousy, and economic competition often led to conflicts within the federation and eventually to its breakdown. However, in the more rural parts of Greece, away from the great urban centers, successful federations were established by smaller tribal communities that cooperated as equals.
Some of the most important Greek federations were the Thessalian League, the Boeotian League, the Peloponnesian League, the Delian League, the Arcadian League, the Aetolian Confederacy, and the Achaean Confederacy.
In Thessaly, representatives of individual tribes elected a military leader and met for regular religious ceremonies to honor Athena. Even though its centralized authority was not strong, the Thessalian League became the dominant power of northern Greece during the 500s B.C.
The Boeotian League was formed when the Boeotians realized that they needed to strengthen themselves against the Thessalians on one side and the Athenians on the other. The Boeotians feared and hated Athens, and they sided against the Athenians in the Persian Wars. Disbanded after the wars, the Boeotian League was reestablished and enjoyed its greatest successes under the leadership of Thebes during the 300s B.C.
The Peloponnesian League was not a true federation because it was largely led by Sparta. Similarly, the Delian League was driven by Athens.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* federation political union of separate states with a central government
* autonomy independence; self-government
Because of this domination, these federations were often known as “Sparta and her allies” or “Athens and her allies.”
The Arcadian League was more of an association of equals. It issued federal coins and set up its capital at Megalopolis—a new city created by the joining of several smaller communities. The federation was ruled by a board of 50 officials who were elected by the member states in proportion to their size and by a federal body called the Assembly of the Ten Thousand.
Only in the Aetolian and the Achaean federations, however, did individual Greek communities agree to give up some of their political independence in order to become genuinely federated equals. By 367 B.C., the Aetolians had joined a federation with a remarkably well-constructed constitution. The Aetolian Confederacy, as it was called, included an annually elected president and an assembly that met twice a year. Its greatest success was the defense of Delphi against the Gauls in 279 B.C. The Achaean union enacted a similar constitution with additional features to give the federation even greater strength than the individual members had when they were independent states. (See also Achaea; Aetolia; Government, Greek; Ionians.)