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New Institutionalism and Federal Structures in Ancient Greece: the Case of the Boeotian Territorial Network

Christel Müller

Université Paris Nanterre

The federal phenomenon, which sees a structure called a koinon grouping together several cities, was widespread in the Greek world during the Classical and Hellenistic periods. The Boeotian confederation, which plays an essential role at the regional and global level, is an excellent example of this through the three great moments of its existence: the Classical period (447-386), the Hellenistic period (338-171), and the revival of the Roman period (from the 50s BC onwards). The present paper will focus on this koinon and more particularly on its territorial structure, a fundamental spatial institution that will be revisited in the light of new institutionalist (NI) theories.

So far, the Boeotian koinon has been the subject of analyses concerning its ethnogenesis as well as its political institutions in the restricted, i.e. formal, sense of the term – assemblies, councils, magistrates – and their functioning (Roesch 1982; Beck and Ganter 2015). For the Hellenistic period, its territorial network and the existence of seven districts were also studied (Knoepfler 2001): in these studies, the territorial network appears first of all as a framework within which the political structures just mentioned are deployed. However, the districts, which are called merē in the Classical period and telē in the Hellenistic period, appear to be themselves a structuring institution that guides the action of agents, as the postulates of the Sociological NI (Lartigot-Hervier 2019) and the notion of path dependence suggest. At the same time, the nuances introduced by the Historical NI (Mahoney and Thelen 2010) allow, beyond the resilience of the institution, to theorize its plasticity and to show how the actors appropriate and manipulate it.

To illustrate the point, we will first rely, for the Classical period, on a papyrus of Oxyrhynchos (Hell. Ox. 19, 2-4, ed. Chambers 1993) bearing a long fragment relating to the constitution of Boeotia and its apparent division into eleven merē, which can be shown to be divided into seven real districts. Epigraphic sources for the Hellenistic and Roman periods will then be invoked. These inscriptions make it possible to observe the continuity of the spatial arrangement in seven territorial groups of cities that inform, in the primary sense of modelling, the political and cultural practices of the poleis (e.g. IG VII 2723, 2724, 2724a, 2724b). But they also show how this territorial structure is maintained in an underlying way after the dissolution of the Hellenistic koinon by the Romans in 171, thanks to what Müller (2014) has called the mobilization by the cities of a “federal memory”. This system is again updated by the actors for the organization of religious festivals in the 50s BC and lasts until the imperial period according to the testimony of Pausanias (Perieg. 9.3).

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New Institutionalism and Greek Communities

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