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Greek City-States

Oxford Handbooks Online

Greek City-States
Mogens Herman Hansen
The Oxford Handbook of the State in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean
Edited by Peter Fibiger Bang and Walter Scheidel
Print Publication Date: Feb 2013
Online Publication Date: Jan

Subject: Classical Studies, Ancient Greek History, Social and

Economic History, Greek and Roman Law
DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195188318.013.0010

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the history of city-states of polis in ancient Greece. It explains that a polis was a strongly
institutionalized and centralized micro-state consisting of one city and its immediate hinterland, and that it had an
advanced degree of urbanization whereby the majority of the population lived in the urban center. Aside from
being the center of habitation, it was also the center of industry and trade, education and entertainment, political
institutions, and defense. The chapter furthermore considers the relation between the poleis.
Keywords: city-states, polis, ancient Greece, micro-state, urbanization, industry and trade, urban center, education, political institutions

The Polis
Both in extent and in population, the largest of all the city-state cultures in world history was that of the Greek polis
(pl., poleis), which dominated the eastern part of the Mediterranean world in the Classical and Hellenistic periods
(Hansen 2006a, 728).
There were Greek poleis all over the Mediterranean world, from Emporion in the Pyrenees to Ai Khanoum in
Afghanistan, and from Olbia at the mouth of the Bug River in Ukraine to Kyrene in Libya. Almost all these poleis had
arisen or been founded in the period from 750 to 200 BCE, and as late as the sixth century CE some of them were still
city-states, though most were just cities. Thus the ancient Greek city-state culture lasted for some 1,200 years,
only exceeded by the thousands of years of history of the Sumerian and Babylonian city-states (Mieroop 1997, 6).
A polis was a strongly institutionalized and centralized microstate consisting of one city (polis) and its immediate
hinterland (chora or ge). There were in all approximately 1,500 poleis (Hansen and Nielsen 2004). Over 600 are
attested in Greece proper; over 400 were colonies or Hellenized communities along the coasts of the
Mediterranean and the Black Sea; and in addition there were over 300 Hellenistic foundations in the Near East as
far as the Indus River (Tscherikower 1927; Cohen 1995). But there were never 1,500 poleis at the same time. All
through this period there were new poleis being founded and old poleis disappearing. At any given point of time in
the Classical period there were at least a thousand poleis, and that makes the ancient Greek city-state culture the
biggest in world history (Hansen 2006a, 31). The next biggest was that of the Aztecs in central America in the
fifteenth century CE (Smith 2000, 591593).
(p. 260) In contrast to many other city-state cultures, the Greek poleis did not lie together in one large region so
that communication between them could take place by land. In this respect the Greek poleis were like the
Phoenician and Malayan ones: most Archaic and Classical Greek poleis were on the sea. Only in the Hellenistic
period did the Greeks found a long row of colonies well into the Persian Empire and far from the coasts of the
Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Most early Greek city-states were by the sea or near the sea like frogs round a

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Greek City-States
pond in Platos vivid phrase (Phaidon 109b; cf. Aristotle, Politics 1271b345). And his remark is borne out by the
fourth century BCE geographer known as Pseudo-Skylax, who lists poleis in the order in which they lie along the
coast. Only occasionally is his list interrupted by the standard comment, there are also some poleis inland
(Pseudo-Skylax, Periplous, chapters 3436, etc.; Maps 9.1 and 9.2).
As the world looks today it is sea that divides and land that binds together. but in antiquity it was the other way
round: communication was easiest by sea and by land it was complicated and costly. The Greeks were a seafaring
people, and next to the polis it is the limen, the harbor, that is the commonest term for settlement in Pseudo-Skylax.
With Classical Sparta as the one notorious exception, the ancient Greek city-state was anything but a society of
xenophobic stay-at-homes. The Greeks were, on the contrary, very mobile and quite easygoing about letting
strangers settle in their cities.
Population-wise there is no city-state culture that can measure up to ancient Greece. While we do not have precise
figures, a cautious estimate is that in the fourth century BCE the population of all Greek poleis totaled at least 7.5
million people (Hansen 2006b, 2729), and in the time of the Roman Empire there were about 30 million Greekspeaking people living in poleis (Millar 1993, 254).

Click to view larger

Map 9.1 The Greek Polis of the Aegean World

In the fourth century BCE some 800 of the approximately 1,000 poleis had a territory of at most 200 square
kilometers each. A polis covering 200 square kilometers seems to have had a population of, on average, about
6,000 people of whom no more than around 1,000 to 1,500 were adult male citizens. Many poleis covered less than
25 square kilometers and had a total population of no more than 1,000 inhabitants. In these 800 poleis, all citizens
would know one another, and the polis was a face-to-face society of full citizens. But some 100 poleis possessed a
territory of over 500 square kilometers. These poleis had, on average, a population of about 30,000. and a good
number of them lived up to the ancient ideal that a large polis was a myriandros polis, namely, a polis with 10,000
adult male citizens. So altogether the 800 small poleis accommodated no more than about 35 percent of all the
ancient Greeks whereas the 100 large poleis counted for about 40 percent of the total population (Hansen 2006b,
2324, 2930). Largest of all the poleis were Athens and Sparta. Athens had a territory of 2,500 square kilometers
and a population of perhaps over 200,000 people of whom some 30,000 were adult male citizens (Hansen 1999,
9094). Including Messenia, Sparta covered over 8,000 square kilometers and had a population the same size as
Athens, but only about 8,000 of these people were full citizens in the early fifth century, and in the fourth century
BCE the number of citizens dropped to under 1,000 (Hodkinson 2000, 399400). (p. 261) Of the colonies some
were as large as or even larger than Athens and Sparta, namely, Akragas, Syracuse, Taras, Kyrene, and, in the

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Greek City-States
Hellenistic period, Alexandria and Antiochia.

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Map 9.2 Greek Colonization.

In order to understand what a polis was we must begin with an investigation of what the word means (Hansen 1998,
1734). Polis is the word the ancient Greeks used to describe their principal type of state and community and it is
the (p. 262) (p. 263) most common of all nouns in ancient Greek (Toner 2004). There are over 11,000
attestations in Archaic and Classical sources alone. The word polis has two basic meanings, namely, settlement
and community. As a settlement a polis consisted of houses; as a community it was made up of human beings. But
not every settlement and every community was a polis. In the sense of settlement a polis was primarily a nucleated
settlement of some size, not just a village (kome), and in the sense of community it was a self-governing
community. Polis has two principal meanings, city and state. The word is often used in both senses
simultaneously so that an apt rendering is city-state. If the focus is shifted from the meaning of the word to its
reference we observe, once again, that the two senses are virtually inseparable: an ancient Greek urban center is
only called a polis if it is also the political center of a polis state; and, conversely, a polis in the sense of state
almost exclusively applies to a small political community consisting of a city (polis) with its hinterland (chora). In the
urban sense polis is sometimes used as the generic term for polis (city) and chora (hinterland). In the political
sense polis can be applied to the entire territory including the urban center (Hansen 2007, 1372). Two other
political keywords are derived from polis in the sense of state: polites, citizen, and politeia, citizenship.
Politeia is used sometimes in a concrete sense about the citizenry and sometimes in an abstract sense about the
privileges and obligations connected with being a citizen. A further development of this meaning is politeia in the
sense of constitution. Since the polis was mostly conceived as a community of citizens (politai), it is perfectly
logical that the Greeks used the word for citizenship (politeia) about the structure of the polis and its political
system (Hansen 2006a, 5661, 110).
In Archaic sources polis sometimes means stronghold or hilltop settlement (equiv., akropolis), and that
stronghold is the original meaning is apparent from the etymological link with words for stronghold in other old
Indo-European languages: pur in Sanskrit, pils in Lithuanian, and pels in Latvian.
Some of the fortified hilltop settlements of the dark centuries (1100700 BCE), such as Zagora on Andros and
Koukounaris on Paros, may in fact have been poleis in this sense. In the course of the Archaic and Classical
periods polis in the sense of hilltop settlement disappeared, and in the Roman period only learned people would
know about the original meaning (Hansen 2006a, 40).
It is still much debated whether the polis in the sense of city-state emerged in Hellas before the beginning of the
colonization period circa 750 BCE, or whether it took shape in the colonies and then was copied in Hellas (Malkin
1987, 12; Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 19). The polis seems to have emerged almost contemporaneously in both
places. But the colonists had to set up a new self-governing community with an urban center built up from scratch
that indicated that the polis as both a type of community and a type of urban settlement must soon have reached
its mature form in the colonies, whereas the development was slower in Hellas itself. In Hellas the first poleis
emerged along the coasts of the Aegean, partly in Asia Minor where the oldest identifiable poleis are Miletos and
Smyrna, and partly in mainland Greece where, for example, Eretria, Athens, Argos, and Corinth can be (p. 264)
traced back to the eighth century BCE The first poleis attested in datable written sources are Sparta (Tyrtaios,
fragment 4.4), Thasos (Archilochos, fragment 228), and Dreros in Crete (Meiggs and Lewis 1989, 2.12).
Hellas itself was divided into regions each populated by a people (in Greek called an ethnos) with its own identity
(Hall 1997; Morgan 2003), for instance, the Arkadians were settled in Arkadia (Nielsen 2002), the Thessalians in

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Greek City-States
Thessaly, and so on. Each region was subdivided into poleis (Morgan 2001, 93; Hall 2007, 8891), apart from a few
regions in which one polis had succeeded in subduing the entire region and transforming it into one oversized
polis. Athens and Sparta were such regional poleis, and that is one reason for their position as the two Great
Powers in Classical Greece (Hansen 2009, 388). The poleis in Hellas emerged gradually, starting in the east and
moving west. Apart from some early colonies along the coast of the Ionian sea, Aitolia (Funke 1997, 154),
Akarnania (Gehrke 199495, 4148), and Epeiros (Davies 2000, 260) were regions in which polis formation began
late in the fifth century BCE and gathered momentum only in the fourth century and later. During the late Classical,
Hellenistic, and Roman periods, polis was the dominant form of settlement and community in all regions. But a
citizen of a polis was, at the same time, the member of an ethnos. An ethnos was primarily a people. It sometimes
acted as a political unit, especially in regions organized as federations, but the ethnos was not a type of state as
the polis was (Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 45).
The Greek poleis were all part of a city-state culture in which there was a clear divide between ethnic and political
identity. Greeks living in one polis shared their language and culture with Greeks living in other poleis, and they
recognized each other as belonging to the same people. They were all Hellenes and as such opposed to all the
surrounding barbarian peoples. At the regional level, the citizens of the approximately forty poleis in Arkadia were
all Arkades. But politically they considered themselves to be citizens of their own polis as opposed to citizens of
other poleis (Hansen 2006a, 6364). The specific political identity is reflected in the way they named themselves.
When citizens from different poleis were together they used an adjectival form of the name of their polis as a kind
of surname, which was added to the citizens name and patronymic. Thus, the full name of the architect
Hippodamos was Hippodamos Euryphantos Milesios, that is, Hippodamos, the son of Euryphon of Miletos. The
Greeks seem to have been the only people in history to use surnames that were not just habitation names but at
the same time an indication of political status (Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 5869).

The Polis as a City

As in other city-state cultures the degree of urbanization was far more advanced than it was in other historic
communities before the industrial revolution (Hansen 2000, 614). In small poleis the majority of the population lived
in the urban center, (p. 265) while the others were settled in the hinterland either nucleated in villages or
dispersed in farmsteads. Only in large poleis did the majority of the population live in the hinterland. And even in
the largest poleis it can be conjectured that a fourth to a third of the population lived behind the walls of the polis
town (Hansen 2006a, 7784). Many of them were farmers who went out daily to their fields outside the city and
home again each evening to their dwellings in the city. There was no sharp divide between the urban and the rural
population and all were citizens. In this respect there is a marked difference between the ancient Greek polis and,
for instance, the medieval Italian city-state culture where citizenship was a prerogative of the urban population
(Hansen 2000, 32).
As a town the polis was first of all a center of habitation and, according to how polis towns emerged, we can
distinguish between four different types: (a) a small settlement, often placed on a fortified rocky hilltop (akropolis),
was extended downhill and grew to become a proper town enclosed by a new wall; (b) a cluster of closely set
villages were eventually merged into a conurbation with a defense circuit enclosing the entire settlement
(Snodgrass 19871989, 5664); (c) by a formal act of migration, called a synoikismos, people living in a number of
nucleated settlements were gathered together in one of the settlements or moved to a central place where a
proper city was built from scratch (Moggi 1976; Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 115119); (d) a number of colonists
went abroad to found a colony invariably centered on a nucleated settlement that rapidly grew to become a polis
(Tsetskhladze 2006, xliixlvii). Regardless of their origin many poleis had an akropolis sometimes reserved for
temples and other public buildings, but sometimes used for habitation as well.
Every polis was divided into publicly owned quarters, used for walls, streets, harbors, markets and all kinds of
monumental architecture, as against privately owned habitation quarters, used for (mostly) fairly simple family
houses (Jameson 1990; Hlscher 1998). Mansions and palaces were virtually unknown before the late Classical
and Hellenistic periods, and that goes even for poleis governed by a tyrant (Hansen and Fischer-Hansen 1994, 25
30). Only citizens were entitled to own a house; metics (i.e., guest workers) and other foreigners had to rent their
homes from citizens.

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The houses were originally built without a plan and they were either scattered or placed along crooked streets, but
already in the Archaic period an astonishing number of towns adopted a centralized planning of streets and
habitation quarters. Rectangular blocks were framed by the streets and subdivided into lots of equal size, mostly 8,
10, or 12 lots per block, and often standardized terrace houses were constructed on the lots. A famous example of
this form of grid-planning was Piraeus, the port of Athens, built around 450 BCE by Hippodamos of Miletos. From him
this form of town planning is often called Hippodamian, although on Sicily, for example, it can be traced back to
circa 700 BCE (Hoepfner and Schwandner 1994; Shipley 2005).
The most urgent need of the polis as a habitation center was a sufficient supply of fresh water, and as a specific
type of public monumental architecture many poleis were adorned with one or more fountain houses where the
inhabitants (p. 266) could supplement the water drawn from wells in private houses (Wycherley 1967, 198209).
Apart from being a center of habitation, the polis was a center of (a) political institutions, (b) cults, (c) defense, (d)
industry and trade, and (e) education and entertainment.
1. Re (a). As a political center the polis accommodated all the central political institutions and the buildings in
which they resided: first virtually every polis seems to have had a prytaneion (ceremonial building) with a
dining room in which the chief magistrates of the polis hosted prominent guests, and with an eternal flame
burning on the altar of Hestia (the goddess of the hearth) and symbolizing the eternal life of the polis.
Secondly there was a town hall (bouleuterion), in which the council (boule) held its meetings, and thirdly a
number of archeia, that is, offices for the various boards of magistrates. For some unknown reason specific
law courts (dikasteria) are only exceptionally mentioned in our sources whereas it is not infrequently
recorded that various public buildings erected for other purposes could be used as law courts. Similarly, only
a few poleis had a separate meeting place (ekklesiasterion) for the peoples assembly (ekklesia), whereas
there are quite a few references to assemblies of the people being held in the theater. In the Archaic and
Classical periods the public political buildings were small and undistinguished and, apart from the city walls,
monumental political architecture began to appear only in the fourth century. Furthermore, the agora was no
longer seen as the institutionalized political center of the polis where assemblies were held but rather as the
social and economic center of the town (Martin 1974, 253286; Hansen and Fischer-Hansen 1994).
2. Re (b). As a center of public cult the polis, and especially its akropolis, housed a number of sanctuaries,
some with monumental buildings such as temples and theaters. But many sanctuaries were either suburban
or extraurban (Coldstream 1993). The suburban sanctuaries were placed in the immediate vicinity of the
town; the extraurban were often situated right on the border of the polis, almost as a demarcation of the
territory (Polignac 1995). As time went on new cities had their urban sanctuaries interspersed between the
habitation blocks and no longer erected on the akropolis. Sanctuaries of Athene, Apollon, and Aphrodite are
typically found inside the walls whereas sanctuaries of Zeus, Demeter, Hera, and Poseidon are often situated
in the hinterland (Schachter 1992).
3. Re (c). As a center of defense the polis was a town whose walls could protect its inhabitants, and inside the
walls was enough open space to accommodate the rural population for as long as the enemy occupied and
pillaged the countryside (Hansen 2006b, 3845). Towns with an akropolis often had a double defense
system: one wall protecting the akropolis, and one the lower city. In the fourth century almost every polis
had a town (p. 267) wall (teichos), or at least a walled akropolis; and a defense circuit had become an
essential aspect of the town just as it was in the Middle Ages (Camp 2000; Hansen 2006b, 1617). But there
is an important difference in the function: in the medieval town the sharp division between city and country
began at the gates. They were guarded all the time and closed during the night. Furthermore, customs were
often exacted on all goods that passed the gates. In the ancient Greek city walls were erected for defense
purposes only; the gates were guarded in time of war, but in peacetime people could get in and out even
during the night. Thus, in contradistinction to what happened in the Middle Ages, the walls around an ancient
Greek polis did not become a barrier between the town and its countryside (Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 137).
On the other hand they became gradually an essential feature of the polis, and if the focus is the polis of the
Classical period it is not misleading to take the walls to be one of the elements of the ideal type (Ducrey
1995, 253254).
4. Re (d). As an economic association the centers of the polis were the marketplace (agora) (Kenzler 1999)
and the harbor (limen). Every polis had an agora, which in Archaic and early Classical towns was just an
open square marked off with boundary stones (horoi). A polis might have an emporion, that is, a market

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reserved for foreign trade (Hansen 2006c). From the Classical period onward the agora was often adorned
with a stoa (a roofed colonnade). Especially in poleis with a grid plan, the agora was flanked with two or even
three stoai, some of which were used for shops and others as offices of magistrates.
5. The economy of a polis town was characterized by a considerable degree of division of labor, and the
inhabitants had to satisfy an essential part of their daily needs by buying goods that they had either
produced themselves or bought from others for the purpose of sale in the market. Many city dwellers were
farmers who had their plots of land within walking distance from their homes in the city but they were not just
subsistence farmers; probably, they produced some of their crops for the market. With a few exceptions,
notably Sparta, the polis was not a Sombartian consumption city in which a small group of absentee
landowners derived their maintenance from taxes and rents exacted from a much larger rural population
(Hansen 2004; contra: Finley 1981).
6. Re (e). As a center of education and entertainment the polis was the place where the privately owned
schools for children were found (Harris 1989, 96102). The more advanced education of adults was often
connected with the public gymnasia, which, however, were primarily centers for sports and military training.
In the Archaic and early Classical periods gymnasia were usually placed outside the polis, but in the course
of the late Classical and Hellenistic periods the gymnasion was moved inside the walls and became perhaps
the most important public building housing what was now the most important institution in the polis, the
ephebeia, that is, the education and military training of young citizens (Gauthier 1995).
(p. 268) Of entertainments, often connected with the major religious festivals, the two most spectacular types
were competitions in sports, conducted in a palaistra (a wrestling-hall), a stadion, or a hippodromos, often
connected with a gymnasion (Delorme 1960); and drama competitions, performed in a theater that was usually
placed in a sanctuary consecrated to Dionysos (Isler 1994). In the Archaic and early Classical periods both the
gymnasion (with palaistra, stadion, and hippodromos) and the theater were simple constructions that in most
poleis have left no traces whatsoever, but all three types of building became monumentalized in the course of the
late fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

The Polis as a State

Like the modern state a polis can be described as a centralized system of political institutions in possession of the
necessary means of coercion by which the legal order can be enforced within a territory over a people. Also, a
three-digit number of sources shows that the Greeks often saw the polis as an abstract public power above both
ruler and ruled, that is, as an agent that passed laws, inflicted a punishment, founded a colony, went to war, took
up a loan, and so on. In democratic poleis and in some oligarchic poleis as well, the laws of the polis were passed
by all citizens in assembly but were enforced by boards of magistrates either elected or selected by lot for a short
period. In every polis some were rulers and some were ruled, but the citizens took turns. Rotation in office was a
principle applied in all the poleis we know about. In the administration of justice prosecution was usually left to
private citizensas it was in all European states until the nineteenth century. And self-help was allowed against
adulterers, robbers, and some types of burglar, as was the case in all European states of the early modern period
(Hansen 2002; contra: Berent 1996; 2000). But there are of course differences between the polis and the modern
state. One is that the modern state is primarily identified with the government or the territory, whereas the polis, first
of all, was identified with the people, that is, the citizens. A polis was the community of adult male citizens (politai),
and the name of the state was not the name of the country but the people. We use the toponym Athens about
the Athenian city-state; its ancient name was hoi Athenaioi (the Athenians) or Athenaion ho demos (the Athenian
people). Louis XIV of France is supposed to have said, ltat, cest moi; the Athenians could, with even greater
justice, have said, The polis is us (Hansen 1998, 117123).
An important difference between the polis as a town and as a state concerned membership of the group. The
population of a polis was divided into three orders: citizens (politai), free foreigners (often called metoikoi), and
slaves (douloi). The polis town with its hinterland was an economic and social community of all households (oikoi),
those of the metics as well as those of the citizens. The community comprised all members of the household, free
as well as slaves of both (p. 269) sexes and all ages. As a state the polis was the community of citizens with
respect to their political institutions, and active membership was restricted to adult male citizens no matter whether
they lived in the town or in its hinterland. But the citizens wives and children as well as free foreigners and slaves
were excluded. Female citizens possessed citizen status and transmitted citizen status to their children, but they

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did not themselves possess citizenship in the functional sense (Hansen 1999, 8688).
In practice citizenship was defined as being born from citizens whereas, functionally, the citizens were those who
participated in the running of the political institutions of ones polis. The political organization varied from polis to
polis according to whether the constitution was monarchical, oligarchical, or democratic. In a democracy the two
definitions of citizenship coincided; in an oligarchy citizenship was restricted to those natural-born citizens who
also fulfilled a census qualification; and in a monarchy, in the strict sense of the term, the monarch was the only
person who was a citizen in the functional sense. Since a polis was principally a community of citizens, the polis
par excellence was the democratically governed polis, and from the fourth century BCE and onward there is an
undeniable trend to associate the concept of polis with the concept of democracy.
However, most oligarchic poleis had a popular assembly with restricted powers. It was usually open to all citizens
so that it was the holding of (major) offices only that was restricted to those who passed the census qualification.
Similarly, tyrants often convened all citizens to a meeting of the assembly, and in many cases their power lasted no
longer than they could rely on the acclamation of the people. Conversely, even democracies could impose
restrictions on access to offices. Thus, irrespective of its type of politeia, the typical polis had at least some political
institutions in which all citizens were entitled to participate whereas noncitizens were excluded. With variations,
most poleis had roughly similar political institutions, namely, a popular assembly (ekklesia), a council (boule), a
senate (gerousia), boards of magistrates (archai), and specific law courts (dikasteria), to be found especially in
poleis in which the administration of justice was not left to the archai (Hansen 2006a, 111113). These institutions
are attested in laws and decrees passed by poleis from all parts of the Greek world (Rhodes 1997). One example is
the moderate oligarchic constitution of Kyrene. It was inscribed in, probably, 322 BCE and happens to be the oldest
surviving written constitution in the world. The sections about the political institutions prescribe that the citizens are
all those born from citizens in Kyrene and in the dependent poleis founded by Kyrene. Full citizen rights, however,
are restricted to a body politic (politeuma) of 10,000 politai who fulfill a census requirement of 2,000 drachms. The
basic political institutions are: a popular assembly to which all 10,000 politai have access; a council (boule)
manned with 500 citizens selected by lot for two years; a senate (gerousia) manned with 101 citizens elected for
life by the ekklesia; various boards of officials of which the most important is a board of five generals (strategoi)
elected by the assembly to assist the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemaios, who is strategos for life; and councilors, senators,
and officials who are to be over fifty years of age. Administration of justice in capital cases (p. 270) rests with the
boule, the gerousia, and 1,500 citizens selected by lot from among the 10,000 (Supplementum epigraphicum
graecum vol. 9, no. 1).
In the Archaic period the constitution of a polis was either monarchical (kingship or tyranny) or oligarchical
(aristocracy or oligarchy). In the course of the sixth century BCE democracy grew up as an alternative form of
government (Robinson 1997), in the course of the fifth and fourth centuries it became the dominant form of
constitution (Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 8086), and in the Hellenistic period down to the mid-second century BCE
almost all poleis were democracies that had their autonomia (no longer independence, but just self-government)
confirmed by royal decree (Carlsson 2005). In the course of the Roman period democracy was, once again,
replaced by oligarchy: the council (boule) eclipsed the assembly (ekklesia) as the important decision-making body
of government, and the poleis were now governed by an upper class that monopolized all important magistracies
(Jones 1940, 113115, 120121).
One reason for the development from monarchy and oligarchy toward democracy seems to be that in the ancient
Greek polis world democracy was a strong and efficient form of government. Today it is a common belief that it
must be impossible to conduct a consistent line of policy in a state in which all major decisions are taken directly
by the people in assembly. Such decisions will be made on the spur of the moment, and the state will follow a
zigzag course in domestic as well as in foreign policy. If all states were direct democracies, direct popular rule
might be feasible, but a direct democracy will always be unable to assert itself against its much more efficiently
governed neighbors in which power rests with a single ruler or a government. In Classical Hellas, about half the
poleis were monarchies or oligarchies, and half were democracies, most of them direct democracies of the
Athenian type (Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 8086). If it were true that a direct democracy is an unwise and
inefficient form of government compared with oligarchies ruled by an elected elite, or monarchies ruled by a strong
leader, then it follows that the many hundred ancient Greek democracies would soon have succumbed to the
oligarchies and monarchies, and democracies would have been crushed and eliminated from the political map in
the course of the many centuries the poleis existed. But that did not happen. On the contrary, if we judge the

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Athenian democracy by the consistency and efficacy of its policy, we have to note that democratic Athens was
much more efficient and much stronger than its oligarchic neighbors, though these neighbors were as populous as
Athens. Like Athens, Thebes was strongest, in fact the strongest polis in Hellas in the fourth century, when it was
democratically governed. Again, both in the fifth and in the fourth centuries, there is little evidence that the
Athenians followed a zigzag course in their foreign policy (Harding 1995). One major reason for the opposite
development in the later Hellenistic period is the Roman conquest of the eastern Mediterranean world.
When we move from the institutions to the tasks they performed, the differences in the poleis become apparent and
we can distinguish among several types. In a polis that was a dependency of another polis or a member of a
federation, (p. 271) foreign policy and defense was usually left to the hegemonic polis or a federal government,
and the self-government of the polis was restricted to domestic policy (Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 8794).
Furthermore, the degree to which economic and social life was regulated by the community varied considerably
from polis to polis. In democratically governed poleis a difference between a public and a private sphere was
emphasized, and the ideal was that, in the private sphere, every citizen should be allowed to live as he pleased. In
such poleis economic, social, and educational issues were peripheral to what was regulated by the polis. In other
city-states the polis institutions interfered with all aspects of human life, and there was no private sphere in the
proper sense. Athens and Sparta were seen as the two model poleis representing each type, and since antiquity it
has been debated whether the majority of the other approximately 1,498 poleis were organized like Athens or
Sparta (Hansen 1998, 84106).
Apart from legislation concerning citizenship and the political institutions themselves, there were three major fields
of activity, which in all poleis were regulated by the community: (a) defense, (b) cult, and (c) finance.
a. Defense. Every polis had its own army, and armies mobilized by leagues or federations were composed of
contingents from the individual poleis. The core of a citys armed forces was the heavy-armed infantry, the hoplites
(Schwartz 2009). The connection between the hoplite and the citizen was so close that in some poleis citizenship
was restricted to those who served as hoplites in the army. In some of these poleis citizenship was even restricted
to citizens of military age so that a citizen lost his political rights when, probably at the age of sixty, he had to leave
the army. In other poleis, however, the veterans were allowed to retain their political rights (Hansen 2006a, 116).
Sparta seems to have been a polis of this type (Murray 1993, 159180). It has often been suggested that the
emergence of the hoplite phalanxnow dated to circa 750 BCEwas closely connected with the emergence of the
polis, and that the development of mass fighting in close formation went hand in hand with the development of a
political community ruled by a decision-making citizen body of hoplite farmers (Raaflaub 1997, 5357). In the
Classical democratic polis not only hoplites but also light-armed soldiers and rowers in the fleet became citizens in
the political sense of the term. Also middle-class metics had to serve as hoplites in the phalanx side by side with
the citizen soldiers. Thus, the identification of hoplites with citizens gradually lapsed (Hansen 2006a, 117). And a
further dissociation of the military and the political aspect of the polis took place in the course of the Classical and
Hellenistic periods when citizen armies were increasingly supplemented with or even replaced by mercenaries
(McKechnie 1989, 79100).
b. Cult. It is sometimes stated that religion was the dominant aspect of community life (Sourvinou-Inwood 1990, 295,
322). And polis religion is often used as a technical term for ancient Greek religion in general (Sourvinou-Inwood
1990). Religion was indeed extremely important, but it constituted one aspect of polis life only and not necessarily
the focal one, which was the polis as a community (p. 272) of politai. Both as a political and as a military
organization the polis was a male society from which women were excluded (Vidal-Naquet 1983, 26). Religion was
different. Here women took part in the rites and cults of both their household and the polis itself. There were some
cults from which women were excluded; but similarly, there were cults from which men were excluded, such as the
Thesmophoria (Parker 2005, 270289). Most goddesses were served by priestesses rather than by priests
(Holderman 1985). In religion women were insiders; they joined in the performance of many rituals, and even
possessed an official status (Parker 2005, 218219).
Polis religion was religion (a) used by the polis itself, (b) organized by the polis, or (c) directly created by and
related to the polis and its institutions (Burkert 1995, 202). In fact, polis religion has conveniently been subsumed
under those three headings: (re a) Every communal activity was accompanied by religious acts; thus a meeting of
the peoples assembly in Athens was opened with a sacrifice, a prayer, and a curse. (re b) Both gods and heroes
were worshipped publicly by the whole community in connection with the large festivals, which were organized by

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the polis and usually attended by all the poliss inhabitants (not just the citizens). (re c) As the polis developed,
new political cults were set up: most poleis had a specific patron god or goddess (Cole 1995); many of the poliss
symbols were connected with its tutelary deity; and the annual festival for the patron deity was one of the
grandest. In the council house there was, typically, a cult for Zeus or Athena with the epithet Boulaios (-aia).
Similarly, abstract political concepts were sometimes deified: in Athens the democratic constitution was
represented as a goddess, Demokratia, to whom the strategoi made annual sacrifices (Alexandri-Tzahou 1986).
Homonoia, Concord, was another personified deity worshiped in many poleis, especially in the Hellenistic and
Roman periods (Thriault 1996). Deification of the polis itself, however, is very rare and attested in the Hellenistic
period only.
c. Finance. Conceived as a community of citizens the polis was only to a small extent an economic organization.
The right to own landed property was confined to citizens (Hennig 1999, 592596). And yet, with the exception of
Sparta and perhaps some other poleis, foreigners and slaves took part in trade and crafts side by side with citizens
and often on the same footing. To a large extent the polis involved itself in the economic life of the people only to
collect taxes from them and to ensure that a citizen could get his daily bread at a manageable price. In this respect
there was a fundamental difference between ancient Greece and, for example, the Italian city-states of the Middle
Ages. In the latter the right to work at a craft or trade was a political right reserved to the citizens just as much as
the right to participate in politics, and the political institutions were built directly upon the economic organization of
the guilds and associations (Hansen 2000, 169170).
From a modern point of view the political institutions are often seen as a framework through which the state
regulates community life. The Greeks took a different view of their polis. They took participation in political life to be
a value in itself, and the political institutions were not seen as a frame of the polis but as the core of the polis
(Murray 1990, 1922; Hansen 2006a, 115).

(p. 273) Civil War (Stasis)

Ideally the city-state was a community of citizens who regarded the polis as their fatherland and were willing to
sacrifice life and possessions for it (Nielsen 2004). But very few poleis were societies in harmony who lived up to
the ideal. Most poleis were split into two rival poleis, one of the rich, who supported oligarchy, and one of the poor,
who preferred democracy. The rival parties could also be different ethnic groups living side by side in the same
polis, a situation typical of poleis founded by colonists from several different city-states. Or the community could be
polarized about two rival groups of rich contending for power. The result was almost constant political tension that
often led to civil war, in which every group was ready to work hand in hand with a like-minded group in a
neighboring city or in one of the powerful cities that led the shifting alliances of poleis. The members of both groups
were therefore prepared to sacrifice the independence and autonomy of their city if, in return, they could keep or
win power in the polis. Such a group was called a stasis, and the word was also used as the term for the civil war
itself that often resulted from the splitting of rival groups (Gehrke 1985).

The Relation between Poleis

Politically, the polis was a self-governing but not necessarily an independent state. The Greeks distinguished
between poleis with and without autonomia, which in the Classical period denoted independence but in the
Hellenistic period just self-government. Everywhere in the Mediterranean world Greek poleis formed complicated
hierarchical networks of hegemonic poleis, independent poleis, and dependent poleis. The Spartan polis dominated
some score of perioikic poleis scattered over Lakedaimon and Messenia. Thebes was the leader of the Boiotian
federation whose other members were half a score of dependent poleis. In the second half of the fifth century BCE
almost all the approximately 330 members of the Delian League were dependent city-states (hypekooi poleis) that
had been deprived of their autonomia by Athens. Syracuse came to rule all poleis in eastern Sicily, and so on
(Hansen 1995; Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 8794).
War between poleis was endemic, and for most poleis war was the norm and peace the exception. Longer periods
of peace were only experienced under the Roman principate. During the first three centuries CE the Hellenic poleis,
except some near the frontiers, enjoyed the Pax Romana and accordingly could afford to neglect their walls and
defenses. Many wars were fought between neighboring poleis, such as the arch-enemies Sparta and Argos, and

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others between alliances of poleis, such as the Peloponnesian War (431404 BCE) between the Delian League led
by Athens and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. The constant wars (p. 274) often resulted in the
annihilation of poleis, sometimes physically by razing the city to the ground, killing all men and enslaving the
women and children. The Greeks called it andrapodismos (enslaving). One example is the destruction of Melos by
the Athenians in 416 BCE (Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 120123). In other cases a conquered polis was deprived of
its self-government and reduced to being a civic subdivision of the conquering polis; thus Mykenai, Tiryns, Orneai,
Midea, and Hysiai were all conquered by Argos in the period 468416 BCE and transformed from poleis into komai
(villages) (Pirart 2004, 599). But often the conquered city-states were allowed to retain their status of poleis and
became dependencies (poleis hypekooi) instead of mere municipalities. Examples of dependent poleis of this type
are the perioikic poleis in Lakedaimon dominated by Sparta (Shipley 1997), and all the poleis in Asia Minor, which
were under Lydian and Persian rule in the late Archaic period, then under Persian rule once again in the period
386334 BCE and later ruled by Hellenistic monarchs until, eventually, they became poleis in the Roman province of
Asia (Rubinstein 2004, 10571058). Other types of dependent poleis were the result of alliances and federations.
Major alliances often developed into empires dominated by the hegemonic polis (see Morris, chapter 10). The
Delian League, for example, was formed in 479/478 BCE as an alliance of autonomous poleis led by Athens, but was
transformed into an organization of dependent poleis under Athenian rule. The Peloponnesian League underwent a
similar development, especially in the period 404371 BCE, and even Thebes became a Spartan dependency in the
years 382379 BCE
From circa 500 BCE onward a constantly increasing number of poleis united to form federations (see Mackil, chapter
11). All poleis in a region, such as Phokis or Achaia, set up a koinon, a community with a kind of federal
government responsible for defense and foreign policy, whereas all other matters rested with the individual poleis.
The members of the federation were still poleis, but no longer independent poleis. Some federations were
dominated by a hegemonic polis, which almost invariably tried to interfere with domestic policy in all the member
poleis. Thus, the small Boiotian poleis were dominated by Thebes, and the Chalkidian poleis by Olynthos. The
oldest known federations are the Lokrian and Phokian, both attested circa 500 BCE In the fourth century BCE at least
a third of all poleis in Hellas had become member states of one of the regional federations (Larsen 1968; Beck
1997). The subjugation of poleis due to conquest, the formation of alliances and federations, as well as the creation
of the large Hellenistic monarchies had the result that, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, almost all poleis were
dependent poleis.
Diplomatic relations between poleis were not maintained by permanent ambassadors but by envoys (presbeis)
sent out, whenever needed, to negotiate, for example, a truce or an alliance (Adcock and Mosley 1975). In addition
to the sending-out of envoys, a whole network of personal relations between prominent persons in the various
poleis was developed through institutionalized guest-friendship (xenia) (Herman 1987), later connected with the
political structure through the institution called proxenia: the city of Eretria, for example, would pass a decree
whereby (p. 275) a citizen of Taras became the proxenos (host and protector) of any Eretrian citizen who
happened to visit Taras (Meiggs and Lewis 1989: 82; Marek 1984).
In conclusion, from beginning to end the poleis did not form a network of independent peer polities, but rather a
complicated hierarchy of self-governing communities with other types of permanent political communities both
above and below polis level. Above the polis were, first of all, the federations each normally embracing all the
poleis within a region. Below the polis was a network of civic subdivisions: phylai (tribes), demoi and komai
(municipalities), and phratriai and gene (brotherhoods and clans, originally kinship groups but later just artificial
subdivisions of the body politic; Jones 1987).
Ancient Greek civilization remained a city-state culture and the Greeks never tried to unite all poleis into one large
territorial state, like the Greece created in 18301832. All attempts to form larger political units took the form of
alliances and federations, undoubtedly because both types of association were compatible with the preservation of
the polis as the basic political unit. In some regions small poleis were swallowed up by the larger ones; but when
that happened the result was still a large city-state and not a large territorial unitary state. To form such a
community was as foreign to Greek mentality and culture as, for instance, the abolition of slavery.

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Mogens Herman Hansen
Mogens Herman Hansen at the University of Copenhagen is a leading authority on Athenian democracy and the Greek polis.

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