Within two years of the founding of the League of Nations (1919), historians such as Arthur E.R. Boak were wondering if forerunners could be found in antiquity. The League of Nations was regarded as “a voluntary association of self-governing states for the purpose of promoting international peace and security” (“Greek Interstate Associations and the League of Nations”. American Journal of International Law 15, 375–83: 382, my italics). Boak examined both the federal states of antiquity and supra-state “federal” forms in the broad sense (such as hegemonic symmachies, Hellenic Leagues, amphiktyonies). Were these forms of federation forerunners to the League of Nations? At the end of his survey, Boak concluded they were not: “the amphictyonies and other religious leagues had an entirely different basis and object. The federal states differed both in object and in organization”. Boak was in search of precedents for the League of Nations, driven by a dilemma that must have been widespread at the time: what were the chances of success for the League of Nations when it came to promoting peace? What does history teach us? What do the ancient Greeks teach us? Compared to the ambivalent history of Greek antiquity – characterised by peaceful conflict resolution strategies as well as secular wars - for Boak the answer “no” was inevitable. The League of Nations had no precedent, and thus a certain optimism in it was permitted.

In a different yet equally vibrant context, Jakob A.O. Larsen (“Federation for Peace in Ancient Greece”. Classical Philology 39, 145-62) started from the same question and analysed more or less the same ancient Greek cases (federal states, but also federations). Larsen was writing in 1944, as the world was being ravaged by war and searching for a way out. Could federal bodies promote peace? Like Boak, Larsen also looked to the ancient Greeks with hope, but unlike Boak, he allowed himself a degree of optimism even with regard to the ancients.

The “federation for peace” dilemma has dominated studies on federalism in general (not just ancient federalism) and has run through post-World War II Europe, the Cold War, and the nascent European Union.
Moreover, federation for peace has been the hope to which many have clung in the face of crumbling nations, the dramas of ethnic conflicts and the challenge of religious conflicts. Something had to exist to
keep nations united in peace. That something seemed to be federalism

Investigations into Greek Federal States have also been guided by this question. Articulate and nuanced answers have been developed, although these have scarcely been conclusive. The evidence seems not to allow for clear-cut conclusions, but that is not the point. The point is that we are still looking for answers to the same question, namely Boak’s question: did federalism promote peace

FeBo does not seek an answer to that question because it starts from the assumption that the question itself is wrong, and that it is necessary to go beyond it. Leaving aside romantic and utopian attitudes (“federation for peace”), federalisation processes alone do not guarantee peaceful coexistence, neither on the internal borders of the constituent federal states nor on the external borders, neither in ancient Greece nor in the contemporary world. As far as ancient Greece (and perhaps not only ancient Greece) is concerned, the question we should be asking is a different one, and it focuses on borders: how did the Greek federal states deal with the problem of internal (intra-federal) and external borders?

The working hypothesis of FeBo is that in ancient federal Greece:

  • border management policies did not aim at peaceful coexistence per se, but rather at a balance of power and stability;
  • in order to be successful, these strategies had to take into account economic, ethnic, cultural and religious networks, i.e. they had to be multi-level policies of border management.

Politics was not enough. Much more was needed.

FeBo is one of the 313 ERC Consolidator projects funded in 2021 under the Horizon Europe programme and one of the 17 ERC Consolidator projects funded in the Panel SH6 (The Study of the Human Past. Archaeology and history), where it is the seventh Greek History project ever to receive funding since the ERC was established. It is one of 30 Italian projects funded for the year 2021 and one of two funded projects by scholars from the University of Trento. 

FeBo is hosted by the University of Trento, Department of Humanities. Principal Investigator is Elena Franchi. Collaborators are Claudio Biagetti, Rebecca Massinelli, Sebastian Scharff and Roy Van Wijk. The project also relies on the facilities of the LabSA.

More information on FeBo, its results, its impact and dissemination can be found here.