The Politics of Ethnicity and the Crisis of the Peloponnesian League

  Funke, Peter, and Nino Luraghi, eds. 2009. The Politics of Ethnicity and the Crisis of the Peloponnesian League. Hellenic Studies Series 32. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

VIII. Ethnicity and Democracy in the Peloponnese, 401–362 BCE

Eric Robinson

In 370 BCE civil strife broke out in Tegea between a conservative party favoring Tegea’s traditional laws (patrious nomous) and a popular, nationalistic party in favor of all Arcadians coming together en tô koinô to make common decisions. The populists won, but only after they armed the dêmos and gained the aid of Mantineans who arrived in force at Tegea to help them (Xenophon Hellenica 6.5.5–9). The Mantineans had just reunified and (apparently) redemocratized their city in the teeth of Spartan opposition (Xenophon Hellenica 6.5.3–5), and together Mantinea and Tegea provided the motivating force for the foundation of a new, federal Arcadian state that would be governed according to democratic principles. Both Xenophon and Diodorus highlight the role of Lycomedes (a Tegean according to Diodorus 15.59, probably in error; he is a Mantinean in Xenophon Hellenica 7.1.23 and Diodorus 15.62) [1] who persuaded the Arcadians to govern themselves collectively (es mian sunteleian), appointing federal officials and convening “The 10,000” (hoi murioi) as the main decision-making body for the league. [2] Not all Arcadian cities joined the league at once: Heraia and Orchomenos initially resisted and fought alongside the Spartans. [3] Within a very few years, however, all seem to have joined. A federal proxeny decree dated to the mid-360s lists participating officials from the major cities of Arcadia, and other sources fill in the gaps for most other Arcadian communities. [4] During the decade of the 360s the Arcadian confederacy acted as one of the most powerful political and military forces in the Peloponnese, working actively to protect its cities’ territories and oppose the Spartans. In doing so it often promoted democracies or democratic factions, as, for example, in Sicyon and Achaea in 366 and Elis c. 365. [5]

So the rise of the Arcadian league provides a dramatic example of how democratic politics and a national ethnic sense could work together, in this case resulting in the forging of a powerful new political entity in the midst of the Peloponnese. The question this paper will address is the extent to which these two forces—ethnic identity and democratic politics—combined in an effective way to create political change in the fourth-century Peloponnese. Was the Arcadian case an exception, or did it lay out a paradigm for how democracy and ethnicity tended to interact?

Democracy makes for a more straightforward category, though it is not without its complications in our era. For example, scholars have on occasion sought to downplay the influence of dêmokratia in this period. G. E. M. de St. Croix sees it as a failing force which “barely held its own” in the fourth century, as a prelude to its coming destruction in Hellenistic and Roman times. [7] S. Perlman denies that the popular factions struggling against local oligarchic opponents in the era of the Corinthian War had anything to do with democracy, but rather simply pursued an anti-Spartan agenda. [8] But these contentions are hard to square with the general picture of new democratization, re-democratization, continuing democracies, and struggles for democracy attested for the period. [9] It is true, of course, that immediately after the fall of the Athenian empire many popular governments were replaced by oligarchies at Sparta’s behest, especially in cities formerly under Athenian rule. [10] But in the decades that followed, Sparta’s predominance was rattled and its preference for oligarchic government frequently flouted, not only among major rivals such as Argos, Athens, and Thebes, but also in smaller states closer to home. In this well-established context of vibrant democracy and populist agitation it would be foolhardy to dismiss dêmokratia as a political force or assume that when our sources indicate that a faction sought to promote it one must supply further “actual” motives.

Nevertheless, Perlman’s emphasis on the importance of Sparta for inspiring policies for and against it in cities of the Peloponnese points to a very real phenomenon. As the most dominant Greek power in the early fourth century, Sparta’s influence was vast and sometimes engendered strong opposition. It was indeed a major factor driving political events in the Peloponnese, and thus its role must be carefully considered in studying the relationship between ethnic identity and populist politics in those events. One must be on guard, however, for Xenophon’s biases here. It is not just that this key historian favored the Spartan cause, which leads him on occasion to treat unfairly opposing forces (e.g. the Corinthians at Hellenica 4.4.1–8, on which see below); but even more, his general perspective is so Spartan-centered that one might easily mistake the Hellenica’s narrative focus on Spartan interests and consequences with a reality that was surely more open-ended.

In surveying fourth-century Peloponnesian events for the confluence of ethnic and democratic movements, one quickly discovers that, aside from the case of the Arcadians, the two rarely complemented each other. Ethnicity might often become tied up with desires for autonomy and freedom in the sense of freeing one’s lands from foreign domination, but such ought not necessarily to be equated with dêmokratia. Consider the case of the Messenians and the new ethnic state they formed after the defeat of the Spartans at Leuctra. As Luraghi has shown in his contribution to this volume, hatred of others works well as a device to help to forge an ethnic identity, [11] and here the new Messenian citizens, whatever their actual origin and composition (exiles from abroad, helots and/or perioikoi from Messenia, helots and/or perioikoi from Laconia) used their well-established hostility toward the Spartans to unify the new community as they advanced their project of ethnogenesis, supposing that the new state founded by Epaminondas of Thebes was reviving an old Messenian nation. Xenophon in the Hellenica famously omits even to mention the founding of Messenia; our other sources dwell on the reclaiming of ancestral lands and the glorious revival of an old city. [12] But none indicate any specifically democratic or oligarchic political motivations among the Messenians, nor do they give a hint of the constitutional order of the new state. One might guess that, given the constitutional proclivities of Thebes, Argos, and the Arcadians, all of which helped make the newly independent Messenian state possible, a dêmokratia resulted. We know at least that Messenia had an ekklêsia in which sumbouleutic debate took place. [13] But such factors make for a frail argument, and in fact we have no direct evidence for an incoming Messenian democracy, and some suggestions in later sources that a more conservative government held power. [14] Unlike many other struggles against an over–bearing, oligarch-promoting Sparta in this era, references to a populist ideology among the Messenians, before or after the creation of their state, are notably missing.

During the war with Sparta c. 400, Elis encountered internal factional strife. Certain wealthy men, hoping to turn the city over to the Spartans, began a massacre, and made a point of trying to kill Thrasydaios, the popular leader (prostatês tou dêmou). The wrong man was slain, however, and when the dêmos learned that Thrasydaios still lived, they rallied around him and he led them into a victorious battle against the killers. [16] The next year Thrasydaios opened negotiations with the Spartans: after the Eleans made a number of concessions—including freeing the Triphylians and others, though keeping control over Olympia despite the claims of the Pisatans—the Spartans came to terms with Elis and the two sides agreed to peace and renewed alliance. Importantly, no change in the government of Elis is reported. This fact, plus the earlier triumph of the dêmos and their leader Thrasydaios, strongly implies that democracy continued at Elis all through this period. [17] What of the new Triphylian state—did it embrace oligarchy or democracy? The testimony is unclear. Literary sources say nothing, while the relatively new inscriptions upon which reconstructions of Triphylian state structure have been based do not indicate constitutional type. [18] Their concern for matters of citizenship, office holding, and taxation could apply just as well to oligarchies or democracies. The only hint we might glean is that the collective bodies invoked at the start of both documents are not the dêmos or the boulê-and-dêmos or a popular assembly like the aliaia at Argos—typical inscriptional formulae used by democratic states—but simply Triphulioi. If this signals an absence of democracy, [19] then the drive for ethnic independence from (democratic) Elis likely ended in oligarchy, a result that would certainly have suited the Spartans who created this opportunity for a new state in the first place. [20]

Corinth in the late 390s provides another interesting case that mixes issues of ethnic and polis identity with constitutional struggles. In c. 392 traditionally oligarchic Corinth underwent a violent political crisis that resulted in democracy and, ultimately, isopolity and union with Argos, lasting until 386. Xenophon provides the fullest account, a few paragraphs in the course of his narrative of the Corinthian War, at Hellenica 4.4.1–8. According to him, “the most and best” of the Corinthians were tiring of the war against Sparta, but were prevented from making peace by a combination of Corinth’s allies in the war (Argives, Athenians, Boeotians) with those Corinthians who had received Persian bribes (see 3.5.1) and those who had been most responsible for bringing on the war. Fearing that the would-be peacemakers might turn the city over to the Spartans, the others concocted and executed a murderous plan, killing many of them in the agora and driving others of the “best men” (beltistoi) into retreat and potential exile. Upon invitation, some of those driven away returned to the city, only to find it governed (as Xenophon conveys from their perspective at 4.4.6) “tyrannically” with metics holding greater influence than themselves and, even worse, with Corinthians having to share citizenship with Argos. Whether we are to understand these metics to have been Argive newcomers or previously disenfranchised Corinthians or something else is unclear. [23] Some of these beltistoi found the situation intolerable and determined to rescue their fatherland, to return Corinth to itself and make it free (peiromenous de tên patrida … Korinthon poiêsai kai eleutheran apodeixai); they would also bring back its eunomia. They thus attempted to betray Corinth to the Spartans.

The dramatic language Xenophon uses here invokes the ideal of polis freedom and autonomy, but in the service of traditional oligarchy rather than democracy. He writes tendentiously, of course, favoring the faction of the beltistoi over their scheming, murdering opponents; he apparently seeks to justify as good and noble the exiles’ decision to help Sparta against their own city. One wonders how far the anti-war party had gone before the plot to kill or drive them off hatched.

Both Xenophon and Diodorus make clear that at some point after the initial revolution, probably two years later in 390, Argos took firmer control of Corinth, marching in a large army and effectively uniting the two polities. This union lasted until the terms of the King’s Peace were enforced in 386, at which point the Argives departed, the exiles returned, and Corinth was restored (autê eph’ heautês hê ton Korinthion polis egeneto), ending its union to democratic Argos. [27] Clearly, the appeal to polis identity that Xenophon attributes to the exiles worked in the service of oligarchy rather than democracy. What of ethnic identity? No historical source mentions it as a factor employed for or against the merging of Corinth into Argos. Yet there was certainly room for a pro-unification argument based on common ethnicity. Both populations were Dorian, of course. But Homer’s Iliad implies an older and even stronger relationship, describing Corinth as a part of the Argolid: the Catalogue of Ships lists Corinth together with Mycenae and other area communities as under Agamemnon’s leadership (2.569–580); [28] and, more tellingly, at 6.152–159 Corinth (under the older name Ephyra) is described as being in a nook of Argos (μυχῷ ’Άργεος) and its Sisyphid dynasty subservient to Argive rulers. Pausanias picks up on these Homeric statements—he says at 2.1.1 that Corinthian territory formed a part of Argive land, and he makes explicit reference to the Homeric picture of a Corinth subservient to Argos in the era of the Trojan War (2.4.2)—but he also elaborates a great deal more about its founding dynasty, suggesting that traditions existed for telling an alternative tale of a more independent early Corinth. [29] It is possible to speculate that where Pausanias talks of a dependent city within Argive territory he is relating a version of events promoted by Argos in the early fourth century to help justify the absorption of Corinth, with the alternative line being attributable to contemporary attempts to oppose such a view.

What role, if any, did ethnic identity play in these events? Xenophon, our main source, says nothing about it. But we know that a strong Achaean consciousness of common ethnicity went back at least as far as the fifth century and probably farther, and that by the early fourth an Achaean federal league existed, suggesting that this consciousness had been politicized. [32] The aristocrats who negotiated with Epaminondas during his expedition likely were federal representatives, [33] and Diodorus 15.75.2 talks of “Achaean” garrisons that Epaminondas expelled from the cities of Dyme, Kalydon, and Naupaktos. Given the large number (ouk oligous) of supporters the aristocrats were able to muster for their campaign of restoration and the evident speed and ease with which they retook the democratic cities (Xenophon Hellenica 7.1.43), one can reasonably suppose that the aristocrats benefited from an appeal to collective Achaean opposition to foreign oppressors, represented by the newly arrived Theban governors in the cities. Democratic collaborators (who we know had a hand in driving out the oligarchs) will have been vilified as betrayers of their own people. Some sort of appeal of this kind must have been necessary, for the victories of democrats in the cities over the league oligarchy were popular in themselves. Indeed, Diodorus uses the word eleutherôsis to describe the effect on the cities of Theban removal of Achaean garrisons at 15.75.2. This does not surprise for the non-Achaean cities of Kalydon and Naupaktos, which might naturally see the end of Achaean control as liberation; [34] but it is striking that Dyme, an Achaean city itself, could be described in this way. The garrison might possibly have been there to protect the city from outsiders (the Eleans?), but in combination with the use of eleutherôsis and the existence of anti-oligarchic movements in Achaea, it seems more likely to have been there to secure Achaean oligarchic control. [35] In the Achaea of 366, therefore, the democratic aspirations of many—suddenly realized with Theban help—must have been countered in some way if we are to explain the swift success enjoyed by the Achaean elites against domestic foes joined with Theban garrisons; appeals based on ethnic unity against non-Achaean oppressors would have made a logical choice.

So what can we make of these episodes altogether? The most obvious conclusion is that the superficially plausible association of democratic ideals with ethnic autonomy is in fact very poorly attested in this period. That it did so in the case of Arcadia in 369 is beyond question; but one is hard pressed to find other explicit examples, despite the healthy number of Peloponnesian states in ethnic and constitutional turmoil in the fourth century. The defection of the Pisatans from Elis c. 364 may provide another occasion, though there (unlike with Arcadia) our sources give no hint of partisan political aims at any step in the process, and a democratic result is not certain. Other episodes are either indeterminate (Messenia) or actually show the reverse, as politicized appeals to ethnic identity probably worked against movements for democratic change or a democratic status quo (Elis/Triphylia, Achaea). The case of Corinth’s revolutionary union with Argos is somewhat ambivalent: appeals to polis identity and pride worked for the oligarchs, while legendary ethnic commonalities could have been exploited by democrats (though it is unclear they were).

The events in Arcadia of 370, consequently, should be seen as a remarkable convergence of otherwise unpredictable elements. Strongly democratic sentiment had long existed among some Arcadians (most clearly the Mantineans), but the wounding of the Spartan behemoth after Leuctra and the rise of populist sentiment in Tegea gave it new life. Taking advantage of hostility to the (now weakened) Spartans for past interventions—including the harsh dioikismos enforced against Mantinea in 385—popular leaders at Tegea and Mantinea were able to combine their causes under the vision of a new national Arcadian state. Sparta’s predictably hostile, intrusive response, defeated by the combined forces of the Arcadians and numerous allies, helped cement the new Arcadian league. Democracy, politicized ethnicity, and antipathy to the local hegemon proved to be a potent mixture, but one exploited less often than one might expect.


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[ back ] 1. Stylianou 1998:416.

[ back ] 2. Xenophon Hellenica 7.4.2–3; Diodorus 15.59. On the apparently democratic nature of the league, see Roy 2000. On the terms “league” vs. “confederacy” (which I use interchangeably here) and its foundation in Arcadia at this time, see Nielsen 2002:474–477.

[ back ] 3. Xenophon 6.5.11, 22.

[ back ] 4. IG V 2.1 (=Rhodes and Osborne 2003:nr. 32); Nielsen 2002:477–478.

[ back ] 5. Xenophon Hellenica 7.1.42–46; 7.4.15–17. Nielsen 2002:485–90.

[ back ] 6. See Roy, this volume, for a discussion of inter-community relations within Elis.

[ back ] 7. De Ste Croix 1981:295–300 for the fourth century (quotation at 295), 300–317 for the later eras.

[ back ] 8. Perlman 1964.

[ back ] 9. The list of Greek cities and regions that our sources suggest continued, attained or struggled to attain dêmokratia at some point in the fourth century includes: Achaea, Arcadia, Argos, Corcyra, Corinth, Kos, Kyme, Cyrene, Elis, Ephesos, Eretria, Erythrai, Helisson, Heraia, Heracleia Pontica, Hestiaia/Oreos, Iasos, Olbia, Lokroi, Mantinea, Megara, Miletos, Mytilene, Paros, Phigaleia, Phleious, Rhodes, Syracuse, Thebes. Many more possibilities could be added based on suggestive but inconclusive epigraphic evidence. See Hansen and Nielsen 2004; in greater detail, my forthcoming book Democracy Beyond Athens: Popular Government in the Greek Classical Age.

[ back ] 10. See e.g. Xenophon Hellenica 3.4.2–7, 3.5.13; Plutarch Lysander 13.3–4.

[ back ] 11. Also a major point in Pretzler’s contribution to this volume concerning the formation of the Arcadian state.

[ back ] 12. Diodorus 15.66; Plutarch Pelopidas 24; Pausanias 4.26–27; cf. Isocrates Archidamus 22–28.

[ back ] 13. Aristotle Rhetoric 1418b5–11.

[ back ] 14. Stylianou 1998:436 guesses dêmokratia resulted; Meyer 1978:150–151 argues on the basis of later texts that the constitution was oligarchic/timocratic. Shipley 2004:563 challenges Meyer’s conclusion, citing various inscriptions from the late fourth century and afterwards which use the word damos or otherwise suggest the possibility of democratic institutions, but the effort is not decisive. Grandjean 2003:72 notes the use of damos in the inscriptions, but considers the early constitution to be an unknown. Roebuck’s older political history of Messenia for the most part ignores the issue, only briefly positing timocracy, though his argument for Arcadian influence in the federal structure of the newly founded government might suggest more populist procedures (Roebuck 1941:109–117).

[ back ] 15. See also on these two the contributions in this volume by Giangiulio and Ruggeri.

[ back ] 16. Xenophon Hellenica 3.2.21–31; see also Diodorus 14.17.4–12, 14.34.1; Pausanias 3.8.4, 5.4.8, 7.10.2. Gehrke 1985:53–54; Roy 1997.

[ back ] 17. Compare Xenophon’s use of similar terms describing internal politics in Mantinea, a democracy at the time, at Hellenica 5.2.3–7. On Thrasydaios as a supporter of Athenian democrats in 404/3, see Plutarch Moralia 835F. Roy 1997 does not doubt this, considering that “democracy was solidly rooted among Elean citizens.” He further theorizes that Sparta may have hoped to lessen the democracy’s influence by taking control of Elis’ ports and navy. See also Roy 2004:497.

[ back ] 18. Nielsen 1997:144–151; Ruggeri 2004:133–140.

[ back ] 19. One cannot be certain about this basis for doubting democracy, as there were no set rules for oligarchic or democratic formulae among the varying practices in decrees from state to state. See Rhodes 1997 for the convenient arrangement of many different examples. Nevertheless, one might go so far as to say that oligarchies in states such as Delphi often invoked the polis as a whole in the opening of their decrees, where democracies like the Athenian highlighted the role of the dêmos in their formulae.

[ back ] 20. The motivation for the formation of a separate Triphylian state is usually alleged to be either Spartan desires for greater friendly military resources or the natural wishes of the Triphylians to be able to fend off Elean attempts at reabsorbing the freed cities. See the discussion in Nielsen 1997:151–5.

[ back ] 21. On joint Pisatan/Arcadian control of these Olympics, Xenophon Hellenica 7.4.28–9; Diodorus 15.78, 15.82.1; Pausanias 6.4.2; though other passages refer only to Arcadian sponsorship.

[ back ] 22. See Nielsen 2002:118–119; Roy 2004:501, and in this volume. The eponymous founder Pisos is said to have married Olympia, the daughter of Arkas (Etymologicum Magnum 623.16–17; see Nielsen 2002:118). Giangiulio in this volume stresses the strongly Olympian and Arcadian aspects of the Pisatan identity created in this period.

[ back ] 23. Griffith 1950:247; Whitby 1984:296n3.

[ back ] 24. His use of the words oi pleistoi kai oi beltistoi at 4.4.1 to describe those sick of the war with Sparta cannot be taken to indicate that the majority of Corinthians opposed the populist revolution to come: the pleistoi is dropped when it comes to describing who was targeted in the violence or forced to withdraw. Indeed, this expression should probably be taken as a hendiadys born of Xenophon’s bias—“the most and the best men” really means “most of the best men.”

[ back ] 25. This emendation—altering the nonsensical ’Εν δὲ τῇ Κορίνθῳ τινές τῶν ἐπιθυμία κρατούντων συστραφέντες κτλ. in the text to the more reasonable ᾽Εν δὲ τῇ Κορίνθῳ τινὲς τῶν ἐπιθυμούντων δημοκρατίας συστραφέντες—has been challenged by Ruzé 1997:307–309. While she does not doubt that internal politics are involved in this episode, she sees no reason to bring in the word dêmokratia here and considers Salmon’s alternative emendation (Ἐν δὲ τῇ Κορίνθῳ τινὲς τῶν κρατούντων ἐπὶ θυσίᾳ συστραφέντες) to be a better solution (Salmon 1984:355–357). Her objection is reasonable, and though it seems to me that the content of the Xenophon and Hellenica Oxyrhynchia passages are in fact suggestive of democratic motivation, it is perhaps a bit adventurous to insert the word here. Other emendations seem possible as well: for example, Ἐν δὲ τῇ Κορίνθῳ τινὲς τῶν κράτους ἐπιθυμούντων συστραφέντες κτλ.

[ back ] 26. Contra Perlman 1964. Perlman sees fear of Sparta as the only motivator for the Corinthian alliance with Argos. Cf. Ruzé 1997:288.

[ back ] 27. Quotation from Xenophon Hellenica 5.1.34. See also Xenophon Hellenica 4.8.34, 5.1.36; Diodorus 14.91–92.

[ back ] 28. Picked up on by Strabo 8.6.18–19.

[ back ] 29. 2.1–2.4.4. See Will 1955:237–258 for a discussion of the legends about earliest Corinth.

[ back ] 30. See for a discussion Freitag, this volume.

[ back ] 31. Xenophon Hellenica 7.1.41–3; Diodorus 15.75.2; FGH 70 F 84. Buckler 1980:185–93.

[ back ] 32. Morgan and Hall 2004:472–478; Stylianou 1998:380 (ad Diodorus 15.49.2).

[ back ] 33. Buckler 1980:189.

[ back ] 34. The garrison in Kalydon was initially aimed against the Acharnanians in 389 (Xenophon Hellenica 4.6.1); this may have changed over time. But see Freitag, this volume, on the close relationship between Achaeans and Kalydonians and on the league garrisons in 367/6.

[ back ] 35. Stylianou 1998:481 (ad Diodorus 15.75.2). The presumption of a preexisting oligarchic government stems primarily from Xenophon Hellenica 7.1.42, with Thucydides 5.82.1.

[ back ] 36. It is possible to see the beginnings of a pattern with Sparta, however. While it clearly supported an ethnic movement in the case of the Triphylian separation from Elis c. 400, this move backfired later when the Triphylians joined with the Arcadians. Meanwhile, in the cases of Messenia and Arcadia Sparta adamantly opposed new ethnic conglomerations, and it also did its best to thwart Argos’ union with Corinth, which could have had an ethnic dimension. It did back the oligarchic Achaean confederacy against the Thebans, of course, but this was an old ethnic association, and, according to Freitag in this volume, ethnic issues did not determine relations between Spartans and Achaeans. (Thanks to Nino Luraghi for this suggestion.)