Andy Blunden May 2005

Hegemony and Amphictony

At the most general level, the problems of modernity can be reduced to a number of questions about the relations between independent, autonomous subjects: how can a multiplicity of social movements combine forces without sacrificing their independence? can individuals ever become the sovereign subjects liberalism claims them to be? is there any alternative to capitalist hegemony? what would a counter-hegemony look like? is an “historic bloc” possible without the dominance of one subject over all the others?

Ancient Greece provides us with an ‘experiment’ carried out over many centuries in how independent, autonomous subjects can deal with one another. The subjects involved were not modern individuals or social classes, but city-states, but the principle is the same. Each city-state was a legally free, economically independent and politically autonomous corporate subject, free to make treaties or wage war against as it saw fit. The ancient “law of nations” to which they adhered and contributed is a rich resource for political ethics today.

We will begin with “hegemony,” a concept frequently used to describe how the owners of the great transnational corporations, a small minority of the world’s population, manage to rule the entire world today.

(1) Hegemony

The term “hegemony” is still used more or less in the sense in which it entered common usage in the English language in the 1840s, in the context of Great Power diplomacy, meaning the dominance of one state over a chain of states within their sphere of influence.

The term was first introduced to analysis of class relations in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party around 1905, in their discussions about how the working class, a small minority in Russia, could achieve political power and resolve the problems of Russia’s development. For Lenin in fact, hegemony was integral to the very formation of a class: “From the standpoint of Marxism, the class, so long as it renounces the idea of hegemony or fails to appreciate it, is not a class, or not yet a class, but a guild, or the sum total of various guilds.” (Marxism and Nasha Zarya, 1911).

By the 1920s it had become clear that, not only or even especially in backward countries, but in the advanced capitalist countries, where Taylorism and Fordism were generating a multiplicity of distinct class fractions, social revolution was possible only by means of a class alliance led by the proletariat. Antonio Gramsci, looked at the “southern question” and the Vatican and the relation of the “intelligentsia” to the peasantry and working class in Italy, to make the concept of hegemony central to understanding how one class (either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat), itself a small minority in any society, is able to rule.

Gramsci and Lenin both insisted that the organised working class had to make the problems of the peasants, the students, and of all the different social strata exploited by capital, their own problems, and indeed, to make themselves into the moral and intellectual leader of the nation, representing all sections of society, playing in just that sense, the role of a “universal class.”

The capacity of the bourgeois to maintain its ruling position came to be seen more and more in ideological terms as the twentieth century unfolded. Hegemony is a term now widely understood in the semiological meaning, as an ideological construction, a more or less closed system of concepts, comprehending the existing social arrangements, excluding the possibility of imagining an “outside,” whilst acknowledging the value of different social functions “included” in the hegemony.

Often the two meanings are merged together, so as to comprehend how a power, be it a nation, class or other grouping such as a race or gender, whether self-consciously or not, can subordinate others to itself by closing off conceptual “openings” and making their dominant position appear simply in accord with Nature, and that things could not be otherwise.

Although he didn’t use the word “hegemony,” Pierre Bourdieu showed very concretely how hegemony operates within bourgeois society. It is the intersection of competing status orders which constitutes the hegemonic character of bourgeois society, with the “rate of exchange” operating between different resources being constantly renegotiated at the boundaries of every habitus. A society in which “cultural capital” (to use Bourdieu’s term) could not be deployed in lieu of economic capital, would not be a hegemony, but simply a form of “imperial” domination.

According to Bourdieu, the entire intellectual and aesthetic structure of a class-divided society is structured by:

“the invariant oppositions in which the relationship of domination is expressed, simply a necessary outcome of the intersection of the two principles of division which are at work in all class-divided societies — the division between the dominant and the dominated, and the division between the different fractions competing for dominance in the name of different principles.”

A hegemony is characterised by the particular principles at work here, specifically the subjectivities which are included or excluded, and by the subjectivity which is dominant or subordinate, through the pro- and contra- attitudes specified. Every judgment is refracted through this lens.

One of the challenges facing us in this investigation will be to work out how to trace the reproduction of the various intersubject relationships (class alliance, etc.) in ideological formations, that is to say in linguistic or semiological terms.

The Ancient “Law of Nations”

Hegemony” has a far older genealogy than debates in the RSDLP or 19th century European diplomacy however; in ancient Greece, between about 500 BCE and 300 BCE, hegemony was a special kind of alliance between city-states. During this period literally hundreds of independent city-states co-existed in the Eastern Mediterranean, each with their own political culture and economic system, religion, territory and property. They were independent, sovereign, legal entities, recognising no superior authority, but in constant social, commercial and cultural interchange and not infrequently warfare, with one another. They were fiercely independent and competitive; their relations were governed by international law with balance-of-power being a dominant consideration. In this context, a number of distinct forms of alliance or other interstate relations and treaties were developed, one of which was hegemonika symmachia [hgemonika summacia “ruler-alliance”] or hegemony; but there were others.

Apart from a few powerful states, and though far from pacifistic, most aspired to co-exist and collaborate with one another without hegemony or empire, and unequal relationships were the exception, not the rule.

How did hegemony as it was practiced in ancient Greece accords with modern notions of hegemony? At different times, Athens, Sparta, Thebes and later Macedonia, were the dominant hegemon [or ruler] in a league of city-states. The other states were militarily subordinated to the hegemon in written treaties. Similar unequal treaties of alliance also existed in earlier times, among the Egyptians and Babylonians.

The basic principle underlying participation in the hegemony was: “the hegemon’s friends are my friends, the hegemon’s enemies are my enemies.” This could be supplemented by a network of bilateral alliances between members, but final say always lay with the hegemon.

Hegemony was frequently the outcome of a military victory, with the defeated polis keeping its own laws and customs and economic independence, but absorbed into the victor’s network of alliances. Hegemony was not a “protection racket” because, unlike in an empire, no tribute or tax was paid. Hegemony differed from conquest as practised by Rome or Persia or the later Macedonia, because Greek polois did not colonise each other and impose their culture, economy or religion onto conquered peoples, though they were not averse to conquering and settling foreign territories. In that sense, subordinate members of the hegemony were moral equals even though they were military subordinates. Of the Macedonian hegemonies, the Corinthian League, had a council with the subordinate city-states represented equally, and the Hellenic League had a council of five officers representing the member states. These bodies had very little real power however, just occasional dispute-resolution amongst member states, and were largely ceremonial in function.

The continuity of the meaning of hegemony from here to the hegemonic class alliances considered by Lenin and Gramsci is clear enough, and the sociological conception of a closed system of concepts flows clearly enough from the idea of a closed system of activity.

By “closed system of activity” in connection with the Greek polois we do not mean that there was no commerce outside of that between members of the alliance; there was. The point is that the only relation of subject polois to outside subjects as legally independent subjects was as determined by the hegemon. Sensuous contact and interchange between polois could indeed form the basis for an intersubjective relationship, but there is nothing of this in the concept and practice of hegemony.

So we see that the meaning of the term has been retained from ancient Greece to modern times, only the subjects have changed, from corporate subjects, city-states, to social classes and strata within one and the same polity. In the same way that Bourdieu has shown that the hegemonic power (capital) structures the good/bad dichotomies in relation to every other subjective relation, the hegemon determined the friend/foe dichotomy in relation to every other subject. This is the essential nature of hegemony. It is only by means of the “my friend is your friend, my foe is your foe” rule of the hegemon that it is possible to exercise and maintain hegemony over the subordinated subjects.

In fact, hegemonies were not the most common form of alliance in ancient Greece, and those that were exercised by Sparta, Athens and Thebes, in general did not last long. There were other forms of treaty that played important roles and were egalitarian rather than unequal treaties. Let us turn to these and see what they could tell us about alternatives to hegemony in the modern world.

Alternatives to Hegemony

According to David Bederman:

Hegemonic symmachiai [alliance] represented the epitome of Greek power alliances, while sympolitiai [union] effectuated the unifying (almost republican) spirit of Greek inter-city politics. Neither was very successful. The great hegemonic powers — Athens, Sparta and Thebes — were never able for long to exert commanding influence over their erstwhile allies. Balance-of-power dynamics and localised tensions all but prevents this. Likewise, unifying and federalist tendencies in parts of Greece, as well as pan-Hellenic aspirations, were met with opposition by the constituent cities, jealous of their ancestral customs and prerogatives. Symmachiai and sympoliteiai were the unfulfilled dreams of two different conceptions of Greek unity. p. 168.

There were other kinds of alliance apart from (1) hegemonic alliances, so before moving on we need to look at (2) symmachiai — [lit.: “fight together”] military alliances which generally went beyond alliance in war, but still left the legal capacity of both intact, and (3) epimachiai — [lit.: “outer fight”] defensive alliances, that did not commit the partners to supporting each other in aggressive war, only to coming to each other’s aid in the event of attack.

Then we will look at (4) philiai — [lit.: “friends”] treaties of friendship between states of different religion or culture and of unequal strength, treating with each other as peers, and (5) amphictyonic league — [named after Amphicton, supposed founder of the first Amphictionic League] religious leagues, based on maintenance of a common religious site, and (6) isopoliteiai — [lit.: “equal cities”] treaties giving protection to citizens of foreign power within a state, including recognition of proxenois — [lit.: “forward foreigner”] a prominent citizen to whom a foreign state officially entrusted the protection of its citizens and various diplomatic functions within his own state, xenos [“outsider”] and philia [“friend”].

Then finally (7) sympoliteiai — [lit.: “together cities”] in which each city granted the full rights of citizenship to the residents of every other participating city, practically a federal union of States with interchange of full civic and political rights, which would ultimately lead to federal unions.

The above will provide us with 6 alternative models of intersubject relationship which are alternatives to both hegemony and mutual hostility.

Before moving to these different kinds of treaty, there were two main preconditions to the making of any kind of treaty, namely, communication between the two subjects and the problem of ensuring that the other could be made to keep their promises.

Promise Keeping

The promise-keeping issue (or good faith) is actually the oldest and most basic question of relations between independent subjects. There were two inter-related aspects to the solution of this problem: (1) the calling of each party upon their own gods to act as witnesses and enforcers of their promise, as there were no shared deities on which to call, and the one’s own gods were of no efficacy making the foreigner keep their promise, and (2) the use of magic (curses) to create sanctions for both parties should they break their promise.

The most frequently used technique persists to this day, where witnesses in a court swear on the holy book, not of the state religion, but of their own. Such oaths could be supplemented basically by ritualised magic, utilising fetishistic or “metaphorical” sacrifice of animals, for example; as the head of state swore that he would suffer the same fate of the sacrificial animal if he were to break his promise. All societies had some means of maintaining an ethical life other than criminal sanctions, and alien subjects had to utilise these means. So long as your alliance partner was prepared to swear an oath under such conditions that they believed that disaster would befall them should they break the promise, then they could be counted upon. Alternatively, hostages could be exchanged.

The centrality of this problem has not diminished over the centuries. Independent subjects are very reluctant to compromise their own autonomy by making promises to which they feel any real sense bound. It is a fact however, that there is no possibility for the building of a counter-hegemonic bloc other than on the basis of binding promises. How can promises be made binding today? That is a problem which needs to be tackled in terms of the ethos of each participating subject, but it needs to be tackled or no progress can be made.

If there is a “third party” or “higher authority” then this problem does not arise, but our whole problem here is the collaboration of autonomous subjects for whom there are no “higher authorities.” The ideological point is that in order to be able to genuinely commit itself to an obligation to another, a subject has to find within itself the capacity to entail irrevocable sanctions on itself for breach of promise, in a sense a subject has to be able to make itself hostage to another. (Note: hostage comes from the same root as hospitality)

Ambassadors and Heralds

The other fundamental question of relations between subjects was the question of immunity granted to ambassadors and other diplomats. Interestingly, although there is a very ancient tradition of such immunity, it was not unqualified. Ambassadors could be used as high-value hostages in fact, without this being deemed to be a breach of the law of nations by some peoples.

Heralds (kerykes, from Keryx, the son of Hermes), however, belonged to a hereditary class which created around itself a quasi-divine aura; a herald personified the subject they represented and their gods, and heralds were universally granted immunity.

However, heralds did not engage in negotiations; their role was more or less one of facilitating communication with foreigners, this could include the pouring of wine at important ceremonies, convening political meetings, pronouncing prayers and curses or declaring war as well as escorting diplomatic missions.

Ambassadors on the other hand were ordinary human beings, even if of noble lineage. A herald was to an ambassador as a constitutional monarch is to a Prime Minister. That this distinction still exists, for example in the various honorary figures who play semi-ceremonial roles in voluntary organisations, in contrast to CEOs and General Secretaries, is a pointer to the fact this distinction is not something belonging only to times gone past. We need people who are respected by everyone, but are not expected to represent or negotiate.

Linguistically, we are talking about the syntax and vocabulary of politeness.

Having established that being able to swear an oath and speak politely to another subject, let us now move the various forms of treaty known to ancient Greece.

(2) Symmachy

A symmachy was a military alliance; the parties agreed that “your enemy is my enemy and your friend is my friend,” and would not only come to each other’s defence in the event of attack, but each were obliged to join the other on any aggressive campaign. In ancient Greece, such treaties were agreed to for a specific period — 50 or 100 years maybe, at the expiry of which “all bets were off.” This limitation shows remarkable good sense, as an alliance forever almost presupposed that at some time one or other party will break the treaty, and consequently would have to be founded on deceit. (According to the Islamic Law of Nations, peace treaties were negotiated for a maximum of 10 years, until the 16th century AD when treaties with European powers began to follow the European practice of making peace for indefinite periods.)

A symmachy could contribute towards the union of two city-states, but it had problems. How could one state be sure that the other would keep its promise? While the ancients had means of dealing with this, it never ceased to be a problem because the symmachy in itself did nothing to bring the two subjects closer together.

Symmachies could be equal or unequal, according to the conditions under which they were made. Unequal military alliances, very often simply the terms of capitulation of one state to another, have a history which dates back to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt; a collection of such unequal symmachies would made up a hegemony. Equal symmachies would arise either in response to a common threat or as peace treaties arising from the failure of each to conquer the other.

The main problem with entering into a symmachy was that your alliance partner could launch an aggressive war and drag you into a costly and unwarranted campaign, and this eventuality was the most frequent cause of the failure of symmachies. Unless the two subjects already have the same friends and enemies, the same objectives, then forming an alliance will do nothing to avoid the situation where one can drag the other into an unwanted conflict. It was for this reason that in many cases, an epimachy, or defensive alliance was preferable.

(3) Epimachy,

When a city-state was not planning to embark on an aggressive war, an epimachy, or defensive alliance, was preferred. Here the parties to the alliance strengthened their defences against a possible foreign threat without taking on the risk of being drawn into unwanted military adventures.

The problem with all alliances, hegemonika symmachiai included, was the unity was demonstrated only on the battlefield and in relation to external enemies. The possibility that the parties and the relationship between them would be changed by the symmachy was therefore limited. At the end of the period of the alliance, each polis still had it own customs, religion, property and so forth, just as before.

(4) Philia

The philia, or treaty of friendship, was the most elementary form of treaty used by the Greeks and the earliest philia text still in existence dates from about 550 BCE. Philiai could be made for an indefinite period and were quite distinct from symmachiai; partners to a philia were not necessarily military allies. Philiai partners could be quite different in size and power and in customs and religion. Philiai could be negotiated as the first stage in developing a new relationship, or serve to extend an expiring peace treaty. Neutrality was not a well-understood sentiment in the ancient world, so city-states not wishing to participate in an impending conflict might negotiate philia with each of the warring parties. Friendship treaties negotiated for the purpose of establishing neutrality were, however, like alliances, somewhat unstable and short-lived relationships.

Equal symmachy, epimachy and philia were all relationships which established the recognition of each party as moral equals, or to put it another way, they were relationships of mutual respect. Essentially, they did not entail participation in any common project, (armies would fight under their own commanders in the event of make common cause against an enemy) nor any degree of recognition for each other’s laws or religious practices. They were thoroughly external relations, negotiated solely between heads of state.

In order to achieve the ideals of friendship and unity, other forms of inter-state treaty were indispensable, relationships which opened the way to relationships which would actually change the participants in a way beneficial to their unity and mutual understanding.

(5) Amphictyony

An Amphictyony was an association of city-states responsible for the maintenance and protection of a specific temple or sacred place. Members met at set dates at the site to keep religious festivals and conduct other matters. The most famous was the Great Amphictyonic League responsible for support of the Oracle at Delphi and the temples of Apollo and Demeter, founded c. 1100 BCE, supposedly by Amphictyon, brother of Hellen, the common ancestor of all the Greeks, who was supposed to have been born of the sacred soil itself. Representatives of twelve member states met in Thermopylae in the spring and in Delphi in the autumn. In 191 BCE, the Great Amphictyonic League had 17 members, although one member had two votes, and the League eventually vanished only in the 2nd century AD, long after Greek power had waned. Compared to all other forms of association among the Greek city-states or in any other part of the world, amphictyoniai were thus remarkably enduring, even if it did not prevent disputes or even war between member states — the more than 1200-year span of the Great Amphictyonic League is astounding.

The Amphictyonic League Council had the authority and power to punish offending states, sanctions ranging from a fine to punitive war. Each member had one vote irrespective of their size and power; delegates were mandated by their home state, and the rules of the amphictony held that although members might go to war against one another, no member state could be entirely wiped out in war, and the water supply of any member could never be cut even in wartime. The cessation of military hostilities during the holding of the Olympic Games is one of the rather remarkable products of this kind of alliance; — and make no mistake, when Greek city-states went to war, it was not a half-hearted affair, but could lead to the killing of every male, enslavement of the females and the absolute eradication of the state. Also, meetings of the Council could lead to a punitive military expedition against an outsider who had committed a sacrilege, such as the laying waste of Cirrha for charging tolls to visitors to Delphi. The Amphictyony could also serve as a consultative body to assist in resolving disputes. Amphictyonic leagues were more like ritualized and institutionalized philia than any kind of international institution or treaty of cooperation, but in some instances they did evolve into more far-reaching forms of union or cooperation, and they certainly contributed to the moderation and regulation of conflicts.

The remarkable success of the amphictonies must cause us to reflect on their significance for our own times. The establishment of an amphictony recognises that the relevant subjects do not intend to make an alliance or union, but are prepared to deal with each other as moral equals and make common sacrifices in order to protect and maintain something of common value to them all, and are prepared to continue doing that even when at war with one another. Participation in an amphictony in no way sacrificed the sovereignty of the participating states, since maintenance and protection of the sacred site was the only responsibility of the amphictony, even though that duty could have profound repercussions for any state.

The inclusion in the scope of an amphictony of the inviolability of water sources gives us a clue as to what a modern amphictony would mean. It is the institutionalisation of the recognition by subjects, that there is something which transcends them and whatever may separate them. The nearest thing to a modern amphictony would be a league of independent sovereign subjects which accepted the responsibility to protect the environment or a particular feature of the environment relevant to them.

Amphictony provides for bonds with other subjects with whom we would not form an alliance or even make a peace, but which is in many senses stronger and more long-lasting than an alliance. An amphictony can be exceptionally long-lasting because the object to be protected defines its continuity, rather than the parties.

An amphictony differs from a hegemony because the controlling entity (on one hand the hegemon, on the other the sacred site) is outside, and it is not a subject. Amphicton, the mythical founder of the Great Amphictonic League was born of the soil of the sacred site. The maintenance of shared festivals (like May Day) and institutions (the unions) are possible examples, but above all of course, protection of the environment, create opportunities for the establishment of amphictonies.

At a deeper level, what the amphictony represents is the collaboration of mutually sovereign and independent subjects in a common project, itself a sovereign and independent project outside or above the life of each participating subject. The shared religious rituals and beliefs of the Greek people provided this opportunity, just as do shared religious beliefs and institutions today, though it is stewardship of the environment which is more paradigmatically modern.

Linguistically, amphictony means is the existence of signifiers in different languages which all indicate what is known to be the same signified, that differing ideologies share at least one common conception, maintenance of which makes common cause between them.

What we move to now is treaties which bore on the laws and citizens of city-states, as opposed to relationships which were confined to heads of state, i.e., external relations.

(6) Isopoliteia

Isopoliteiai literally “equal cities,” were treaties giving a guarantee to citizens of the remote state, that their citizens resident within the local state will be given justice according to their own ancestral laws, i.e., the laws that would have applied to them in their own home state, rather than in the state where they are resident.


The document giving the assurance to an alien that they were entitled to justice according to their own law were called symbola. In some cases however, the symbolon meant that the “visitor” would be granted justice according to the same laws as a citizen or even nominated an arbitrator to be referred to in the event of a dispute.

By the 15th century, in English, “symbol” had come to mean “a formal statement of belief, a summary of a religious belief of a church or sect, a confession of faith,” and by about 1600 had come to mean a formula, motto, maxim, summary or synopsis, as well as something like its modern meaning, or “something that stands for something else by vague suggestion or convention” rather than likeness. It would seem then that there is a continuity from the symbolon of ancient Greece to the symbol of today — it was a text which specified the laws applying to a certain person.

The symbola were the most developed in a series of statuses given to foreigners, as a direct outgrowth of the institution of hospitality and ritualised friendship between states. The status of xenos (foreigner) or philia (friend) was awarded to the military leaders and dignitaries of allied states, and this practice was to be found in ancient India, Egypt and Carthage, and elsewhere, somewhat like the “keys to the city” still given to honoured guests today. Asylia was a status granted frequently to a citizen of a foreign state specifically to protect them from androlepsia. Androlepsia was the practice of exacting revenge for a wrong committed by a foreigner from one of the wrongdoer’s fellow-citizens living locally. This practice was quite normal, and not all simply acts of “lawlessness” so people living in a foreign state had good reason to value protection from androlepsia! A symbolon was also aimed at protecting a person from androlepsia. Asylia was often extended to foreigners engaged in important work, such as specialist artisans engaged in public works, or to athletes and artists. Such asylia proclamations usually did not make the recipient “above the law,” and foreigners protected by asylia may be subject to normal criminal and civil proceedings.

The presence of foreigners within a state could thus lead to all kinds of moral and political dilemmas: on the one hand, the desire to extend hospitality and protection to visitors on the other hand, to ensure that justice was upheld within the state, complicated by contradictory legal codes relevant to one and the same dispute. Dilemmas were also posed by foreigners coming from a friendly state seeking not only hospitality, but asylum from their own state. The negotiation of isopoliteia, mutually relieved each other’s citizens of androlepsia. Isopoliteiai could also include waivers for the need to seek permission to settle in the host state, right to intermarry, right to own property or trade without restriction, standing invitations to participate in Games or religious ceremonies, right up to the granting of full political and civil rights in a state to citizens of the other state.


A proxenos [lit., “for-foreigner”] was a prominent and respected local citizen who was officially appointed to act on behalf of a foreign state, a kind of part-time ambassador or “proxy,” to whom a foreign state officially entrusted the protection of its citizens and various diplomatic functions within his own state. He functioned often as a facilitator between merchants of the two cities and had the special duty to entertain emissaries from his “adopted city” and to formally introduce them to the authorities of his resident town, and would frequently be called upon to assist with exchange of prisoners, mediation, arbitrators in the event of hostilities and was obliged to offer hospitality to visitors from his adopted city.

This successive elimination of distinctions of citizenship between two states by extending the right of citizens of state more and more in the other, could culminate in a sympoliteia. This sixth treaty is falls short of a full union of two independent sovereign subjects, because both cities retained administrative and legal autonomy; it was more like a “pairing” arrangement. Nevertheless, it is clear that the exchange of citizens and the merging of legal codes was more than an external relationship, but was increasingly internal.

The method of advancing the union of the two subjects had three arms: (a) the appointment of local citizens to act as proxies for the foreign state within the polity of the host city, (b) the awarding of the iconic status of philia or “friend” to dignitaries from the other city , and (c) the gradual extension of all the normal rights of local citizenship (property, trade, marriage, etc.), to citizens of the foreign state (xenois).

These three relations between subjects can be expressed semiotically.

The proxy is a symbol of the other subject within the host subject, a symbol which stands for the other, but belongs to the syntax of host language and not resembling the other. That is: “we see your theory like this in our theory.”

The philia is an icon which is adopted from the other subject into the host subject along with the rights the philia enjoyed in his own city. That is: “we accept that idea of yours even though it is foreign to us.”

The xenos is an index, a foreign individual integrated into the host subject, but not bringing with them the relations they enjoyed in their host subject. That is: “your ideas fit into our theory.”

Insert for “theory” – language, life-style, culture or whatever. Isopoliteia is an approach to unification of conflicting discourses or subjectivities, which does not attempt to set up an overarching master-theory, but rather the mutual modification of the two theories so that they can comprehend one another, without losing their independence.

Isopoliteia is a much more attractive model for a future society than “world government.”

(7) Sympoliteia

Each city-state participating in sympoliteiai [lit.: “together cities”] granted the full civic and political rights of citizenship to the residents of the other participating city or cities. A sympoliteia was therefore practically a complete federal union of states which would ultimately lead to the merging of the states into a single polity, even though, to begin with at least, the participating states would still retain the distinct identity, much like the colonies which came together to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Citizens would therefore carry both citizenship of their “home state” as well as citizenship of the federation.

Such a union of course carries no implication of the loss of subjectivity by any of the participating subjects, but rather constitutes the ideal of political union, in which the each polity is enriched by the union with the other(s). This remains the ideal, not only for the building of a counter-hegemonic anti-capitalist bloc, but for a society of the future. The problems the Greeks had with sympoliteiai was that the distances and numbers involved tended to eliminate the direct democracy that they were used to in their own city and the federation tended to generate an administrative bureaucracy. Welcome to modernity! The point is simply how the ancient Greeks sought to attain sympoliteia and how it could be attained today.

Social Justice Movements Today

The purpose of this exercise, of looking at the efforts of ancient Greek polois to achieve their dream of Greek unity, without giving up their jealously guarded independence and individuality, was to see which of their efforts were most successful over the centuries and how they can be translated into relations between subjects today, especially social justice movements of various kinds.

We have learnt that in the first place subjects have to learn how to politely communicate with one another and how to make binding promises to each other.

After that, the first stand-out lesson is that alliances are problematic and short-lived, useful only for accomplishing finite tasks or averting impending threats, but amphictonies are very promising, even if they do not promise and immediate end to conflict or the achievement of immediate short-term goals.

In modern political terms, what is the essential difference between amphictony and alliance?

Firstly, participants in an amphictony do not need to agree to have the same friends and enemies, or even to come to each others’ defence, things which are pre-conditions to making an alliance, only that they respect each others’ right to exist. Secondly, an amphictony pre-supposes egalitarian cooperation irrespective to qualitative differences between the parties involved, not “proportional representation” since there is no bounty to be divided up, all sharing entirely in the benefit achieved. Thirdly, the shared project is not a promotion of any or even all of the participating subjects, but simply a contribution to protecting and promoting what is good. The symbol of the joint project is therefore not an amalgam of the symbols of the participating subjects, but something higher and above them all.

Amphictony creates a shared material form of life, within which it is possible to go beyond the external relations between subjects.

Having established productive and amicable relations between subjects, we have to learn how to show appreciation for each other’s achievements and put an end to mutual hostilities.

The next make issue is the progression beyond external relation to the union of competing subjectivities. Here the first step is the “equalising” of subjects with the three-pronged approach, using symbols, proxies and inclusion, until conditions are created, at some future time, for the merging of subjectivities.

But the immediate task is amphictony.


International Law in Antiquity, David J. Bederman, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

The Islamic Law of Nations. Shaybani’s Siyar, translated with an Introduction etc., Majid Khadduri, John Hopkins Press, 1966.