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. You happen to be living at the end of such an era. Between about 1950 and 1990, the United States and Great Britain revolutionized global communication technology, fundamentally altering some of the more basic patterns of life and thought today. This so-called Digital Revolution has brought about the so-called Information Age, the historical era in which you live. Because people who reached adulthood before about 1990 grew up without the technology that you take for granted, they can still recall what life was before the internet and computer processing, and their brains work in different ways. (By the way, it was good and it was sane – unlike much of what passes for society today!) Your cognitive development, therefore, is fundamentally different than any person over about 45 years old, though not necessarily in a good way. But great intellectual activity and tech innovation cannot be separated from the political and economic conditions of the age that produced 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. A historian (or journalist or politician, for that matter) who uses information out of context is being disingenuous and should be discredited. A historian, likewise, who disregards the historical context of an event, including the production of a source, is distorting evidence. For example, when considering American scientific advancements of the late 20th century (the internet, wireless technology, space exploration, etc.) historically, one must take into consideration 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 built a space-ship or 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 that led to the Digital Revolution. In order to think historically, each specific achievement made during this uniquely significant fifty-year period (c.1950-2000) must be considered contextually. This way of thinking is also a fundamental part of evaluating causation. The moon-landing, for example, would not have happened in the way and at the time it did without the context of the Cold War. Failure to understand historical context leads to invalid and unreasonable conclusions.

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. Athenian ideas about politics, law, trade, science, and art have informed Western attitudes for twenty-five hundred years. Democracy, for example, was just one significant experiment tried out for the first time in ancient Athens. But democratic Athens was only part of a much larger civilization that emerged around the edges of the Aegean Sea in the 8th century BCE. And Athenian achievements of the 5th century BCE only make sense when considered within historical context. When the veil of the Dark Age lifted from the world of the eastern Mediterranean Sea c.800 BCE, the Greeks established entirely new patterns of thinking and living. Writing and record-keeping returned, but in a gloriously expanded and expressive form. At that time everything moved into the light, according to the historian Ferdinand Braudel, but the new world picture was nothing like the one that had been shattered in the age of the Peoples of the Sea. 1 When the ancient Greeks appeared as a distinct civilization, something entirely new began.

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 they did not all die off — and new blood from peoples migrating southward from Europe. The Dorians moved across the Isthmus of Corinth and settled the Peloponnesus, and the Ionians crossed the Hellespont and settled around the edges of the Aegean Sea proper. The cities these settlers built emerged from the Dark Ages like butterflies from their chrysalides, transformed into something even more beautiful and spectacular than their earlier and cruder Mycenaean forms. Settlers at Athens and Pylos rebuilt upon the older Mycenaean ruins. Others established entirely new cities like Corinth, Sparta, and Miletus. It was at this moment in history that the fundamental nature of Greek social existence, to borrow from Stephen Greenblatt, swerved, that is it deviated from the normal path established by all other ancient civilizations. 2 The Greeks in 800 BCE constituted a remote society spread out across hundreds of 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 elevated humanity’s perception of itself and the role of the individual in making his own way in the world.

The type of civilization the Greeks created, one fundamentally concerned with self-governing communities and invested in the human capacity for improvement still resonates after nearly three thousand years. Overall, the Greeks believed in a man-centered universe, that is, one in which humans were the most important actors in their own sphere – the gods tended to stay on Olympus. Further, within that sphere, they prioritized the human potential to create and to achieve excellence — physical, intellectual, and moral. 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 in the ancient world. As Josiah Ober of Stanford points out in his 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.” 3 Today, many people in the West consider, quite incorrectly, that such ideas are just part of the normal way of things. Democratic republics are fragile 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 of course by the time The Odyssey and the Iliad appeared as texts, the universe of the Bronze Age warriors they describe was long gone. A new culture replaced the warlord-dominated residences that doted on the likes of Achilles and Agamemnon; the assembly of the polis replaced the fire-side councils of chieftains tending to their spitted meat and mixed-wine suppers. The polis, most often translated as city-state, was a new type of community that expressed the new world view of the Greeks. 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 health of the polis depended upon community participation. Life took on human dimensions. And Greek cities came to rely upon trade with each other, which both bolstered their cultural homogeneity (sameness) and at the same time fed commercial competitiveness among the cities. All of these attitudes about collective small-scale government, political autonomy (i.e. freedom from an outside overlord), competitiveness, commercial rivalry, and reliance upon the skills of man to improve life in the here-and-now are at the core of the Greek civilization. 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 ancient Greeks, from start to finish (c.800-300 BCE), remained dedicated to the special kind of life stimulated by their unique political arrangement. Both city and state were organized to maximize the interaction among citizens. One historian from the University of Cambridge stated that if called upon to specify ‘Ancient Greece,’ he would “analyse it as a civilization of cities” – and that is even with the acknowledgement that 80-90% of Greeks normally lived in the countryside. 4 Even among an agrarian population which spend most time on their farms, it was the city that made life ‘snap, crackle, and pop’. The city, write the great English classicist Bernard Knox, was the matrix of Greek civilization. “Citizens 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.” 5 It was small enough so that people knew each other and interacted, and even its physical layout was designed with human interaction in mind.

Take, for example, the concept of the central square, or agora. Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of the New York Times, wrote the following in a book review he wrote on urban environments in 2016:

People are moving downtown for jobs, but also for the pleasures and benefits of cultural exchange, walkable streets, parks, and public squares. Squares have defined urban living since the dawn of democracy, from which they are inseparable. The public square has always been synonymous with a society that acknowledges public life and a life in public, which is to say a society distinguishing the individual from the state. There were, strictly speaking, no public squares in ancient Egypt or India or Mesopotamia. There were courts outside temples and royal houses, and some wide processional streets.

By the sixth century BC, the agora in Athens was a civic center, and with the rise of democracy, became a center for democracy’s institutions, the heart of public life. In ancient Greek, the word “agora” is hard to translate. In Homer it could imply a “gathering” or “assembly”; by the time of Thucydides it had come to connote the public center of a city, the place around which the rest of the city was arranged, where business and politics were conducted in public—the place without which Greeks did not really regard a town or city as a town or city at all. Rather, such a place was, as the second-century writer Pausanias roughly put it, just a sorry assortment of houses and ancient shrines.

The agora announced the town as a polis. Agoras grew in significance during the Classical and Hellenistic years, physical expressions of civic order and life, with their temples and fishmongers and bankers at money-changing tables and merchants selling oil and wine and pottery. Stoas, or colonnades, surrounded the typical agora, and sometimes trees provided shade. People who didn’t like cities, and disliked democracy in its messiness, complained that agoras mixed religious and sacrilegious life, commerce, politics, and theater. But of course that was also their attraction and significance. The agora symbolized civil justice; it was organic, changeable, urbane. Even as government moved indoors and the agora evolved over time into the Roman forum, a grander, more formal place, the notion of the public square as the soul of urban life remained, for thousands of years, critical to the self-identity of the state. 6

The polis, then, if we follow Kimmelman, is defined by its public spaces.

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 its past. And while the gods were still invoked in most civic ritual, religion became less constricting. There was no specially designated clergy and anyone could officiate as a priest. 7 The community of the polis created new type of individual, one who no longer served the interests of a king or a priestly caste, one whose destiny was bound to his family and his city, from which he derived certain rights and to which he owed certain duties.

The state 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 as a citizen and he can only attain his full potential there. 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 Greek citizens was how to foster a communal spirit 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 to identify the name of his polis. 8

Greek society 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 tended to separate each polis from its neighbors. 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 outside of the 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 emanation 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.” 9 Once the Greeks dedicated their political lives to maintaining good order (eunomia) by seeking justice (proper relationships) through the Law, they tended to look at their world in a similar fashion, that is as an earthly space 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 curses 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, which seeks to discover the structures of the universe by applying human reason, 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 fundamentally altered the concepts 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. Even atomic theory was first laid down by a Greek philosopher. An understanding of the historical achievement of the Greeks, therefore, is essential for appreciating the totality of Western and modern scientific 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.10 Large-scale shipping ventures to and from the Aegean were not unknown during the Bronze Age — the Minoans, for example, 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.750 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.” 11 Both politically and economically, then, the Greek city-states went into high gear sometime around 650 BCE.

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. Jealousy and hatred broke out into cruel and often inhuman conflicts between the classes. Thus at Miletus the poorer 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 agora with human torches. 12 The introduction around 650 BCE of gold, silver, and electrum coins into an already vibrant and volatile marketplace further divided the haves and the have-nots and added class divisions in the Greek world. One must be mindful of this economic situation when assessing the reforms of Sparta and Athens. 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. And in Athens, the political reforms that produced democracy were wildly experimental and aimed at ending the class manipulation that had caused serious disruptions in the city for over a hundred years.

These political and economic experiments that took place in the Aegean world nearly three thousand years ago laid the foundations for much that is considered both True and Good in the modern world. Their ideas and values have shaped and defined Western civilization. Ignoring them, which most American schools have done for the past century or so, has perhaps put us on a most perilous political path.


1 See Ferdinand Braudel, Memory and the Mediterranean (New York: Vintage, 2003)

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 Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, p.xiii.

4 Cartledge, 2-3.

5 Bernard Knox’s introduction to The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagels (Penguin, 1990), p.30.

6 Michael Kimmelman, The Craving for Public Squares, NYRB, 7 April 2016.

7 Fernand Braudel, Memory and the Mediterranean, p.241

8 See Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Volume 1 (Oxford, 1945)

9 See Starr, p.209.

10 Braudel, pp 83 and 159.

11 Starr, p.222.

12 Michael Rostovtzeff, Greece (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), p.71.

EXERCISE – In a few sentences, based on your reading, describe the HISTORICAL CONTEXT of the following lines written in Sparta c.650 BC:

Such a man is good in war; he quickly turns the savage hosts of the enemy, and stems the wave of battle with a will; moreover he that falls in the front line and loses dear life to the glory of his city and his countrymen and his father, with many a wound through breast and breastplate and shield, he is bewailed alike by young and old, and lamented with sore regret by all the city. His grave and his children are conspicuous among men, and his children’s and his line after them; never will his name and good fame perish, but though he be underground he lives evermore, seeing that he was doing nobly and abiding in the fight forthe sake of his country and his children when fierce Ares brought him low.



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