Nascent Federalism and its Limits in Ancient Greece: Herodotus and Thucydides

Authored by: Ann Ward , Sara MacDonald

The Ashgate Research Companion to Federalism

Print publication date:  August  2009
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754671312
eBook ISBN: 9781315612966
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043454


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The writers of Greek antiquity are not typically regarded as shedding light on the possibilities and limits of federal structures. However, renewed consideration of the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides show that the ancients have much to teach us about the origins of federal polities and the centripetal forces that pull them apart and cause the collapse into empire. In the Histories, Herodotus, like Montesquieu, suggests that it may be necessary that federal polities be composed solely of republics rather than monarchies or some combination of the two (Montesquieu 1989, 132–33). It is to such republican or democratic institutions in Athens that we turn when considering the account of the war between Persia and Greece in Herodotus’ history. The federal alliance of Greek cities formed to save Greece from subjection to the Persian empire is cemented by an oath, pointing to a foundation in the gods to limit the alliance. However, Herodotus shows that within its leading city, Athens, there is a withdrawal of the divine and the emergence of the human as the source of politics. Herodotus suggests that the democracy’s transition from a divine to a naturalistic basis of politics gives the Athenian mind access to other universal truths, such as the universal nature of human beings. As a result, the Athenians, seeing the human being in its universality, can look on the other and see themselves. This allows the Athenians to lay aside their desire for honour and yield the formal command of the Greeks to the Spartans. The Greek federal alliance is thereby formed and endures long enough to triumph over the Persians.

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