Dimensions of Staatlichkeit in the Early Greek World

Christoph Lundgreen

Citation with persistent identifier: Lundgreen, Christoph. “Dimensions of Staatlichkeit in the Early Greek World.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:LundgreenC.Dimensions_of_Staatlichkeit.2019


Leaving behind the old and often fruitless question of whether or not the category ‘state’ is applicable at all for the „pre-Jean-Bodin-world“, my study instead pursues a novel analytical concept called Staatlichkeit. This comprises four dimensions: statehood, state-organization, state-capacity and stateness. Focusing primarily on the last, I seek to establish different degrees of stateness i.e. the varying configuration of Governance-Functions: the competence to decide, the power to impose, and the ability to legitimize, while concentrating on Governance services in different fields (ranging from drinking water to dispute resolution and burials) visible both in Homer and legal inscriptions as early as 450 BC. Additionally, I re-examine Sophocles’ Antigone, which can be persuasively considered as being concerned much less about burials and much more about an awareness of the rising stateness in 5th century Athens and its side effects. Whereas this approach underlines how the Governance perspective can shed new light onto well-known sources, the concept as a whole enables historians to work with a neutral category without any inherent notion of progress or attached value; and since stateness/Staatlichkeit can be seen as both an explanans but also as an explanandum, one should also consider, whether the study of stateness in the early Greek world could provide insights for contemporary debates.


‘States’ and state-formation are of concern not only to historians and archaeologists, but are currently also of great interest to political scientists and jurists. The latter are reacting to the so-called failing and failed states as well as to the ongoing formation of the European Union; both phenomena, however, entail a re-assessment of conventional concepts of sovereignty and established definitions of a ‘state’, which are often built upon a teleology and an evolutionary development that will lead to any form of government ultimately taking the shape of a ‘normal western state’. Conversely, a governance approach conceptualizes the idea of ‘state as a process-category’ and questions the ‘state/no-state’ dichotomy. While these concepts challenge traditional models (and terminology) of our own time, they also allow, and indeed encourage, historians of the pre-modern world to revisit old questions and to re-engage with the concept of ‘state.’ Given the long debate whether or not the terminology and concept of the ‘state’ are permissible or even useful for the ancient world, I do propose to use the term ‘state’, but as an analytical category.

With this in mind, I arrived at the CHS with an analytical framework for which I combined several existing modern theories outlined above and created a model by distinguishing between four dimensions of Staatlichkeit: statehood, state-organization, stateness, and state-capacity. The value of these distinctions becomes immediately evident when combined with the very different questions they can answer. Statehood, to begin with, indicates a specific status of any given entity/state, only meaningful in a world of similar entities/states; it is like a de iure perspective of an inter-polity discourse, concentrating on the mutual recognition between Greek poleis or between Greek and non-Greek entities as in Hdt. 6,48sq. or 7,133sq. Different questions can be formulated as to how powerful an entity/a state is, which it is to be treated in the dimension of state-capacity, and who is powerful within an entity/a state, which would be part of the particular state-organization, comprising the usual classifications such as monarchy, aristocracy or democracy, but also aspects of the rule of law or the dichotomy proposed by North/Wallis/Weingast between natural states and open-access-societies. Everything so far is to be further separated from stateness, which is best understood as the degree of penetration of any given entity/state. To put into operation, I work with the distinction of three different Governance-Actors and their varying share of three so-called Governance-Functions such as decision making competence, organizational competence and legitimatory power – forming the „Governance-Constellation“.

Both the „Staatlichkeits-Configuration“ with four dimensions and the “Governance-Constellation“ in particular have then been applied to the Early Greek World from roughly 750 to 450 BC, taking into account epic poetry, epigraphy and tragedy for my current book. One chapter starts with „the world of Homer“ and discusses both (in the dimension stateness) Governance-Services such as dispute resolution as well as (in the dimension state-organization) the only limited competence of the already visible assemblies. The next chapter continues by addressing „the world of inscriptions“ with visible institutionalized state-organization of the emergent poleis from 650 BC onwards with, however, considerably varying Governance-Constellations in the fields of homicide, common goods, distribution of land, and burials. The third chapter enlarges somewhat the perspective and deals with the discourses on Staatlichkeit, focussing in particular (yet again!) on Sophocles’ Antigone. By modifying Hegel’s insight regarding the conflict as being between family and state into a model of different spheres of validity between kinship and the political entity, numerous intensively debated passages suddenly become quite apparent as conflicting claims of the legitimate authority, less actually about burials, more about the monopoly of deciding and implementing norms. Moreover, applying my general framework of Staatlichkeit, I maintain that Sophocles only superficially criticized Creon as a single ruler and thus the state-organization, but in fact actually wondered about the ‘right’ level of stateness, given the ecclesia’s (and jury’s) unlimited competences/power.

On the inspiring premises and in the most stimulating atmosphere of the CHS, and have been able to check a plethora of references for the chapter on Antigone in the splendid library and to draft ideas for further case studies. Most importantly however, I was able to write my chapter on Homer from scratch and completely revised the one on inscriptions. Regarding the latter, my focus was primarily on the dimension stateness. The very idea of looking for a Governance-Constellation allows first the search for different Governance-Actors and second their correlation regarding their Governance-Functions (in a zero-sum-game). This approach permits, for example, a neutral description of regulations in Paros against road pollution (IG XII 5,107; c. 475/450) as centrally decided upon by the polis but decentrally enforced by individuals, providing a Governance-Service via the mechanism of collective action. Such a decentralized enforcement of norms is, of course, neither new nor surprising in many parts of the ancient world, but can be described without resorting to a narrative of either progress or backwardness. Furthermore, the cases where the polis does play a more active role are all the more highlighted. A survey of inscriptions edited by Koerner and Effenterre/Ruzé elucidates two such areas: the allocation of land and the burial rites. Close to modern ideas of Governance, a 5th century inscription from Gortyn (I.Cret. IV 76 = Gagarin/Perlman G76) first restates the family duty of purifying a house following a death, second, outlines that if necessary a judge comes in order to purify the house but deducts double the amount he has had to spend from the inheritance. The polis thus clearly comprises all mentioned Governance-Functions, not only decision making competence and legitimatory power, but also organizational competence, including charging for it. For the oikoi, the Governance-Actor most clearly visible besides the polis, this established a more nuanced and neutral depiction of their actual role both in regard to the respective share of the emergent polis and distinguished by different fields.

Returning to the different dimensions, there is a fascinating development to add. On the one hand, governing bodies, such as assemblies or offices, in the dimension of state-organization, can be established as early as in the 7th century, if not already in the Homeric poems. On the other hand, most evidence in the dimension of stateness, i.e. the polis taking over more and more Governance-Functions, are to be dated to the 5th century. Leaving aside how to assess this „time delay“, I maintain that there is, for instance, no development within the dimension of stateness (and thus within the balance between polis and oikoi) between the dispute resolution in famous shield of Achilles (Hom. Il. 18,497-508) and the later law of Draco, whereas within the dimension of state-organization, the difference between the world of Homer and e.g. Dreros at 650 BC is clearly noticeable, albeit less drastically than sometimes supposed. Finally, the separation of different dimensions of Staatlichkeit provides us with the means of explaining lengthy and ongoing scholarly disputes, focussing only on one dimension for the often pointed yet ultimately pointless arguments – from the controversies around the „homeric state“ between Gschnitzer and Finley to the debate about Athens as a „stateless polis“.

The concept of both Staatlichkeit and stateness as analytical categories and heuristic tools thus aim at describing differences – both of stateness in different poleis and/or different fields (burials, education, tax etc.) and of Staatlichkeit in regard to the different dimensions. The results are thus much more precise – and are neither concealed under the coarse dichotomy between pre-state and state, nor forced into a ‘boxology’ like band-tribe-chiefdom-state with inherent notions of progress. Moreover, new questions arise: How can we explain the different „Governance-constellations“ or „Staatlichkeits-Configurations“? Which developments can be explained by high or low stateness? Valid for any epoch, beyond the ancient world, this approach seems conducive for comparative history. And last, but certainly not least, the results stemming from this approach should also be scrutinized in order to ascertain whether (ancient) history could provide some insights for contemporary debates on states and, indeed, Staatlichkeit.

Select Bibliography

Anderson, G. 2018. “Was there any such thing as a Nonmodern State?” In State Formations: Global Histories and Cultures of Statehood, ed. J.L. Brooke, J.C. Strauss, and G. Anderson, 58–70. Cambridge.

Ando, C., and S. Richardson, eds. 2017. Ancient States and Infrastructural Power: Europe, Asia, and America. Philadelphia.

Fox, R. 1993. “The Virgin and the Godfather: Kinship versus the State in Greek Tragedy and After.” In Anthropology and Literature, ed. P. Beson, 107–150. Chicago.

Frisone, F. 2000. Leggi e regolamenti funerari nel mondo greco. I: Le fonti epigrafiche. Galantina.

Gehrke, H.-J. 2009. “States.” In A Companion to Archaic Greece, ed. K.A. Raaflaub and H. van Wees, 395–410. Oxford.

Genschel, Ph., and B. Zangl, 2008. “Metamorphosen des Staates – vom Herrschaftsmonopolisten zum Herrschaftsmanager.” Leviathan 36:430–454.

Gschnitzer, F. 1991. “Zur homerischen Staats- und Gesellschaftsordnung: Grundcharakter und geschichtliche Stellung.” In Zweihundert Jahre Homer-Forschung: Rückblick und Ausblick, ed. J. Latacz, 182–204. Stuttgart/Leipzig.

Hansen, M. H. 2002. “Was the Polis a State or a Stateless Society?” In Even More Studies in Ancient Greek Polis, ed. T.H. Nielsen, 17–47. Stuttgart.

Lundgreen, C. 2014. “Staatsdiskurse in Rom? Staatlichkeit als analytische Kategorie für die römische Republik.” In Staatlichkeit in Rom? Diskurse und Praxis (in) der römischen Republik, ed. C. Lundgreen, 15–61. Stuttgart.

Scheidel, W. 2013. “Studying the State.” In The State in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean, ed. P. F. Bang, and W. Scheidel, 279–303. Oxford.

Schuppert, G.F. 2010. Staat als Prozess. Eine staatstheoretische Skizze in sieben Aufzügen. Frankfurt u.a.

North, D., J.J. Wallis, and B.R. Weingast, eds. 2009. Violence and Social Orders. A conceptual framework for interpreting recorded human history. Cambridge.

Walter, U. 1998. “Der Begriff des Staates in der griechischen und römischen Geschichte.” In Althistorisches Colloquium zum 70. Geburtstag von J. Bleicken, ed. T. Hantos, and G. A. Lehmann, 9–27. Stuttgart .

We're trying out a new look. 🎉 Let us know what you think! Hide.