Reading History #12 – The Ancient Greek Polis

Copyright @2015 Robert M. Shurmer

The Greek City-State c.800-350 BCE 

Questions to consider during this unit:

  1. What did it mean to be a citizen in ancient Greece?
  2. Why was the Greek polis such a revolutionary concept in the ancient world?
  3. What was unique about Greek culture and thinking?
  4. Could ancient Greek attitudes about man and government have developed without the polis?
  5. Why do we make such a ‘big deal’ about ancient Greece?

So the world went on turning, and logically enough new patterns and a new world-map emerged in these centuries with no apparent history. When in the eighth century B.C. everything moves into the light, when human existence becomes easier and readable to us, the new world picture was nothing like the one that had been shattered in the age of the Peoples of the Sea. (F. Braudel, ‘Memory and the Mediterranean’)

Men at a cafe in Corfu, the ancient polis of Corcyra. (Photo: Thomas Schoch, 2006)

Men at a cafe in Corfu, the ancient polis of Corcyra. (Photo: Thomas Schoch, 2006)

Historians agree that there have been certain times in the past when a single society experienced such a cultural and intellectual flourishing that it fundamentally altered the way humans think and live. The United States and Great Britain, for example, revolutionized global communication technology during the 1960-80s which has fundamentally altered how we live today. This explains why your cognitive development is fundamentally different than your parents, not necessarily in a good way. But great intellectual activity cannot be separated from the political and economic conditions of the age that produces it.

Historians consider historical context when analyzing documents in order to get at the true meaning of the source and to end up with a more accurate assessment of the age. For example, when considering American scientific advancements of the late 20th century (the internet, wireless technology, space exploration, etc.) from a historical perspective, one must also assess the political, economic and social conditions in the United States that made NASA, Intel Corp. and Microsoft possible. Scientists did not just come to work one day and invent the internet. Two world wars that destroyed much of Europe but left the United States virtually untouched, unprecedented post-war prosperity, and a Cold War rivalry with an ideological enemy (the Soviet Union and its communist satellite states) all played vital roles in producing the environment of a uniquely significant fifty years (c.1950-2000) of human history.

Delving into ancient history, we similarly discover a fifty-year period (c.480-430 BCE) during which the efforts of a single city, Athens, fundamentally transformed the human condition and set Western Civilization on its own path. But Athens and the democratic state it established during the 5th century BCE was part of a larger civilization that emerged around the Aegean Sea three hundred years after the Minoans and Mycenaeans disappeared. The Greeks, or Hellenes as they called themselves,  were a combination of the descendants of the earlier Bronze Age peoples — the Mycenaeans may have abandoned their cities, but did not all die off — and new blood from peoples migrating southward from Europe. The cities of Greece emerged from the Dark Ages like butterflies from their chrysalides, transformed into something even more beautiful and spectacular than their earlier forms. People at Athens and Pylos rebuilt upon the older Mycenaean ruins. Others created entirely new cities such as Sparta and Corinth. At this moment in history the fundamental nature of social existence among Greeks in the cities around the Aegean Sea, to borrow from the great humanities professor at Harvard, Stephen Greenblatt, swerved, that is it deviated from the normal path established by all other ancient civilizations. 2 Greece in 800 BCE was a remote society spread out across harbors and islands, a porous and watery frontier of sorts at the edge of the civilized world. But what they created in those outposts fundamentally changed the nature of man’s place in the world.

The type of civilization the Greeks created, one fundamentally concerned with self-governing communities and the human capacity for improvement still resonates after 2500 years. Overall, the Greeks believed in a man-centered universe that prioritized the human potential to create and to achieve excellence — physical, intellectual, and moral — on earth. The very idea that groups of people might collectively govern themselves and strive to achieve better lives, a given in the developed world today, were revolutionary at the time. As Josiah Ober of Stanford points out in his new (2015) book on Ancient Greece: “Democracy and growth define the normal, although not yet the usual, conditions of modernity: Autocracy, while still prevalent, is regarded as aberrant, so that most autocrats pretend to be democrats. Economic stagnation is seen as a problem that demands a solution. These conditions were not normal, or even imaginable, for most people throughout most of human history.” 1 Today, most people in the West consider, incorrectly and perhaps too nonchalantly considering how much effort is required to maintain functional democracies, such ideas to be part of the natural way of things.

It is difficult to discern exactly why such unique attitudes developed among the Greeks. The written works of Homer show that when they emerged from the Dark Ages, Greeks already shared (besides language) a common history, culture, and moral universe. But by the time The Odyssey and The Iliad appeared as texts, the universe of the Bronze Age warriors they describe was long gone. The new culture of the polis had replaced the fire-side councils of warrior chieftains tending to their spitted meat and mixed-wine suppers. The polis, most often translated as city-state, was a new type of community, one that expressed a changed ideal of life. Generally limited in size to only a few thousand people, at least in the earlier centuries, and fiercely independent by an accident of geography, the polis was dependent upon its people; life took on human dimensions. Later, Greek cities came to rely upon a healthy trade with each other, with both bolstered their cultural homogeneity (sameness) and at the same time fed competitiveness. All of these attitudes about collective small-scale government, political autonomy (i.e. freedom from a outside overlord), competitive rivalry, and reliance on the skills of man to improve life in the here and now become hallmarks of the ancient Greek world.

And the ancient Greeks, from start to finish (c.800-300 BCE), remained dedicated to the special kind of life stimulated by their unique political arrangement. The word ‘political’ itself derives from of the Greek city-state system, a good indication of the impact that the Greek polis has had on ‘hard-wiring’ Western man to the peculiar style of life implied by that system. The city, as the great English classicist Bernard Knox wrote, was the matrix of Greek civilization:

The city was small enough so that citizens knew one another, participated in a communal life, shared the common joy of festivals, the sorrow of public bereavement, the keen excitement of competition, the common heritage of ancestral tombs and age-old sanctified places. The destruction of a city is a calamity all the more deeply felt because of the close cohesion of its inhabitants and their attachment, reinforced over generations from a mythical past, to its landmarks and buildings. 3

And while the gods were still invoked in most of these civic rituals, religion had become less constricting. There was no specially designated clergy and anyone could officiate as a priest. 4 Within the community of the polis a new type of individual emerged, one who no longer served the interests of a king or a priestly caste, one whose destiny was bound to his city, from which he derived certain rights and to which he owed certain duties.

In Ancient Greece, then, a radically new concept of state organization emerged that placed the equally radical concept of citizenship at its heart. The polis shaped every aspect of social and intellectual activity in ancient Greece. It was the basic framework for the development of Greek culture and therefore key for understanding ancient Greek history, and by extension Western history. The city (polis) encouraged its sons to share not only in economic and athletic competition (agon), but also in the poetic, musical, and historical heritage of it’s past. The state, then, became something of a spiritual entity that instilled patriotic attachment, cultivated human aspirations, and gave meaning to life. The Greek city and, of course, the laws that guided it, promoted good order (eunomia) and provided the best opportunity for cultivating excellence (areté) both personally and within the larger community. So when Aristotle famously asserted that ‘man is a political animal’ he did not mean that we inherently love political debate in the modern sense, but rather that man naturally inclines to live communally in cities and he can only attain completion there. Full humanity was, for Aristotle and the Greeks, only realized within the life of the state. And a man that refuses to take part in the life of the city, who lives on his own (idiot), was, yes you guessed it, acting idiotically.

This does not mean that all Greek poleis (plural of polis) employed exactly the same forms of government. We will see that Sparta and Athens, for example, differed greatly in how each was governed. (The political system of Sparta, for example, supported two kings, which was truly bizarre for a Greek polis.) What all citizens of Greek poleis did share, was 1) a hatred for tyranny, i.e. rule by an individual without law, 2) an interest in regulating their own communities, and 3) a rejection of all systems that demanded slavish devotion to any king or priest. The great social problem for the Greeks of the polis was how to foster a communal spirit in the city-state that could overcome, or at least mollify, the fierce individualism embraced by the older aristocratic warrior mentality. Again with the exception of Sparta, state education as we understand it was unknown to the Greeks. However, they did use state religion and festivals, which were always accompanied by athletic and musical competitions, to instill a sense of collective identity and unity among citizens. Therefore, to describe a Greek fully, says the noted classicist Werner Jaeger, one needs to mention not only his name and his father’s name, but also identify the name of his polis.

Greek system consisted of about 1100 autonomous city-states, each one no larger on average than a small American county. The topography of Greece provided natural boundaries, mountains and sea coast, that delineated and isolated from neighboring poleis. Most city-states had their port towns, situated in natural deep-water harbors, and a primarily city at some central point in the territory. Temples were constructed on hills or high-points (acropolis), which might also be fortified as places of refuge for the population. City builders designed open spaces (agora) for holding public assemblies and conducting business. And while most citizens continued to dwell on agricultural estates well beyond urban areas, the central city contained the heart of the polis.  What bound all citizens, urban and rural, was the idea that they were equal members of the community with fundamental rights and duties. Slavery, of course, was normal (though never a major factor in Greek economic output) and women and foreigners had no political rights, but male citizens participated in a system that they regarded as governed by justice, i.e. proper and harmonious relationships.

The embodiment of justice and single greatest shaper of collective values, the master teacher if you will, is Law. Law was the soul of the city and the Greek poleis fought for it as they fought for their walls. Thus “the law-abiding town,” claimed a poet from Miletus, “though small and set on a lofty rock, outranks senseless Nineveh.”5 Once the Greeks so ordered their political lives, that is creating good order (eunomia) by seeking justice (proper relationships) through the Law, they tended to look at their world in a similar fashion, that is, governed by Laws rather than the whims of the gods. And in doing so, they broke from the past and embarked on an entirely new direction of human thought.

While not entirely abandoning their religious traditions, Greek thinkers by the 5th century BC had freed themselves from the old myths and commenced looking at Nature (including Man’s place in it) through the lens of reason. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras was once asked why he lives and responded, ‘To look at heaven and nature’. Nature, too, the Greeks reasoned, inclined towards justice and was governed by laws, laws that could be discovered by man. This new intellectual interest in the structure of nature, that is using human reason to understand the structures of the universe, is one of the identifying features of Western thought. It is the origin of scientific inquiry. This is not to say that non-Western thinkers are not logical or reasonable, but it was the ancient Greeks who twenty-five hundred years ago fundamentally altered the concept of Truth and Knowledge by their unyielding application of reason to everything they encountered. Just as they sought laws to create good order (eunomia) in the city, they sought to discover the laws that regulate nature. The rational science of nature (physics) — or natural philosophy — was born out of the Greeks’ desire to discover the underlying laws of the universe. Mathematics, biology, medicine, music theory and history itself, as intellectual disciplines, come out of this new environment. An understanding of the historical achievement of the Greeks, therefore, is essential for appreciating the totality of Western thought.

A Sean-Borne Economy

The Greeks were, first and foremost, sailors and they are responsible for building the first specially-designed sea-going vessels. 6 Large-scale shipping ventures to and from the Aegean were not unknown during the Bronze Age, Minoans were virtually dependent upon it, but the sea-borne trade of the Greek poleis infused an unprecedented economic (the word itself is a Greek term meaning ‘managing the household’) dynamism into the system of long-distance trade. By c.800 BCE, commercial activity had returned to the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions. Using their advanced shipping technology, Greek cities eagerly exploited and expanded resources and markets by planting colonies from modern-day Spain in the west to Georgia in the east. Industry and commerce boomed. Colonization, increased skill specialization, ship-building, harbor improvement, and successful long-distance trading ventures fired the economic spirit of age. As Starr states, the Aegean world grew richer and “the conscious effort to gain economic advantage entered Greek life.”7

The drastic growth of wealth and manufacturing during this so-called Archaic Period (c.800-480 BCE) coincided with social and political changes. Economic disparity created new classes leading to resentment and fighting in most city-states. The social position of old aristocratic families was threatened by the newly-made rich, and both of these groups were threatened by the poor workers.

The lavish expenditure of the minority, the luxury with which they surrounded themselves, their exploitation of the masses, and the increasing number of slaves, were not passively endured: they begot active jealously and hatred, which broke out in the shape of cruel and often inhuman struggle between classes. Thus at Miletus the people were at first victorious and murdered the wives and children of the aristocrats: then the aristocrats prevailed and burned their opponents alive, lighting up the open spaces of the city with live torches. 8

The introduction around 650 BCE of gold, silver, and electrum coins into an already vibrant marketplace further divided the haves and the have-nots and added the emphasis to economic class divisions in the Greek world. One must be mindful of this economic situation when assessing the reforms of Sparta. To modern eyes, Sparta’s redistribution of land among its citizens (the Spartiate) and its ban on gold and silver seem like overly drastic measures, until we realize that the new wealth of the Greek world was tearing cities apart, pitting populations against each other.


  1.  Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, p.xiii.
  2. The term ‘swerve’  (clinamen) itself is taken from the ancient Roman author Lucretius, himself a product of Greek civilization. Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: Norton, 2011).
  3. Bernard Knox’s introduction to The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagels (Penguin, 1990), p.30.
  4. Fernand Braudel, Memory and the Mediterranean (New York: Vintage, 2003), p.241
  5. See Starr, p.209.
  6. Braudel, pp 83 and 159.
  7. Starr, p.222.
  8. Michael Rostovtzeff, Greece (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), p.71.

Photo: ‘Postcard from Piraeus’ by Sascha Kohlmann, 2014.


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