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Boeotian Federal Coinage

Boeotia provides an early example of representative and federated democracy. "Ancient democracies and federations of states" is a theme in ancient coins that attracts my interest. Lessons in state and federal rights exist from this Boeotian experiment in which tensions rose from Thebes' dominance of the league.

It is always a challenge to bring some focus "notes" when there is so much source material as with Thebes and Boeotia. Thebes the source for many Greek myths, the birthplace of Hercules, Thebans written of by Sophocles (Athenian) in "Oedipus Rex", "Oedipus Colonus", and "Antigone". In the 5th Century, the Boeotians fought with the Persians against Sparta in 479 BC in the Battle of Plataea....

Public domain image from the Cyclopædia of Universal History, John Clark Ridpath, 1885.

Where is Boeotia?

Boeotia located on a modern map of Greece also showing Italy to the West and Türkiye to the East (Google Maps)

Boeotia from a map of ancient Boeotia in Professor G. Droysen's Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas, by Dr. Richard Andree, 1886. High quality image purchased from Thebes (THEBAE) was the dominant city of the Boeotian League.


This hemidrachm from Boeotia the time before the Pelopennisian War

Boeotia, Federal Coinage, circa 395-340 BC, hemidrachm (Silver, 14mm, 2.59g)

Obv: Boeotian shield

Rev: BO-I Kantharos; above, club; to right, bunch of grapes

Ref: BCD Boiotia 31

These sentences from Thucydides reinforce the dominance of Thebans over Boeotia.

"Our quarrel with them arose thus:—Some time after our first occupation of Boeotia we ("the Thebans") settled Plataea and other places, out of which we drove a mixed multitude. But the Plataeans refused to acknowledge our leadership according to the original agreement, and, separating themselves from the other Boeotians, deserted the traditions of their ancestors. When force was applied to them they went over to the Athenians, and, assisted by them, did us a great deal of mischief; and we retaliated."
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Thomas Hobbes, Ed., 3.61.2 

The Pelopennisian War (431 to 405 BC) was between Sparta and Athens and Boeotia took the side of Sparta while the Plataeans rejected Thebes and sided with Athens. Sparta was the ultimate victor after defeating Athens at Aegospotami in 405 BC which resulted in Athenian surrender in April 404 BC.

After the Boeotians, led by Thebes, defeated Sparta in 371 BC in the battle of Leuctra: a quarrel over naming:

"The Thebans also signed their names among the cities which had sworn, but on the following day their ambassadors came in again and demanded that the writing be changed to read that “the Boeotians” instead of “the Thebans” had sworn. Agesilaus (King of Sparta), however, replied that he would change no part of what they had sworn to and signed in the first place; but if they did not wish to be included in the treaty, he said that he would strike out their names if they so directed."
- Xenophon, Hellenica, Carleton L. Brownson, Ed., 1921, 6.3 

Public domain image from the Cyclopædia of Universal History, John Clark Ridpath, 1885.

A scene from the Battle with Sparta at Mantineia in 385 BC when Epaminondas, a Theban, saves his good friend Pelopidas, from being killed. Pelopidas was the head of an elite 300-person infantry called the "Sacred Band" that contributed to the defeat of Sparta at Leuctra (371 BC). An often quoted passage from Cicero is used to praise Epaminondas, but reading the passage in context I wonder why this particular passage would deserve so much attention.

"The Greeks held skill in vocal and instrumental music as a very important accomplishment, and therefore it is recorded of Epaminondas, who, in my opinion, was the greatest man among the Greeks, that he played excellently on the flute;"
-Cicero, The Tusculan Disputations, 1.2 

The Boeotian league was composed of 11 regions containing about 31 city-states each headed by a political and military leader, the "boeotarch", who was elected for one year to represent the region in the federal assembly in Thebes. Pelopidas became a boeotarch from Thebes.

The Boeotians were allied to Sparta in the 5th century, against the stronger Athens, and switched to Athens as an ally in the 4th century, in both periods allied against the stronger power.

Thebes ended violently in 335 BC when it tried to rebel against Alexander the Great without support of its neighbors. After their defeat, the city was destroyed and people killed or enslaved.

"Then indeed the Thebans, no longer defending themselves, were slain, not so much by the Macedonians as by the Phocians, Plataeans and other Boeotians, who by indiscriminate slaughter vented their rage against them. Some were even attacked in the houses (a few of whom turned to defend themselves), and others as they were supplicating the protection of the gods in the sanctuaries; not even the women and children being spared."
-Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 1.8.1

Plutarch writes of Alexander having remorse over the destruction of Thebes.

In later times, moreover, as we are told, the calamity of the Thebans often gave him remorse, and made him milder towards many people.
- Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 13.3 

Thebes was reestablished after the death of Alexander by Cassander (315 BC). The reconstituted Boeotian federation, in the 3rd century was more democratic without the domination of one city. Fast forward more than a century from the first coin, for a coin from near the end of the Boeotian league after the crushing destruction of Thebes by Alexander the Great (335 BC), the reestablishment of the city by Cassander (315 BC), and with the Roman Republic on the rise. I find this high relief coin particularly elegant despite the imperfect centering with its iridescent portrait of Poseidon and winged Nike.

Boeotia, Federal Coinage, Drachm, circa 225-171 BC, 19mm, 5.05g

Obv: Laureate head of Poseidon right.

Rev: BOIΩTΩN, Nike standing left, holding wreath and trident; monogram to inner left.

Ref: BCD Boiotia 127; HGC 4, 1175.

To Poseidon
I begin to sing about Poseidon, the great god, mover of the earth and fruitless sea, god of the deep who is also lord of Helicon and wide Aegae. A two-fold office the gods allotted you, O Shaker of the Earth, to be a tamer of horses and a saviour of ships!
Hail, Poseidon, Holder of the Earth, dark-haired lord! O blessed one, be kindly in heart and help those who voyage in ships!
-Anonymous, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica

Rome dissolved the Boeotian league in 171 BC.


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Alfred Kowsky
Alfred Kowsky
Mar 07, 2022

Sulla, Interesting article 😊. The changing loyalties of the Boeotians is perplexing 🙄. The hemidrachm with wine cup & clump of grapes is charming & the drachm with Poseidon has a wonderful portrait 😎.

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