Is it possible to define the Greek polis, and to identify its main characteristics? Was the polis the building block of Greek civilisation?
The polis was defined by its citizens rather than its physical structures. Each city state was an amalgamation of many key components. The polis was the building block of Greek civilisation and the growth of its great empire. It could have survived without it, however it would have remained a scattered society of independent villages and not have amounted to its great and successful empire. The main characteristics of a Greek polis was; the city itself and those that inhabited it; the citizens, their wives/families, foreigners and slaves. The polis was an integral part of Greek life as through its hierarchical structure it defined a way in which its inhabitants lived. The polis itself was surrounded by farms and agricultural lands, with the city in the centre. The most significant parts of the polis were the residences or Oikos's, the marketplace or Agora, the theatre, and the Acropolis. The Acropolis held the most important buildings of the polis; as it had the treasury, main temple, barracks, and assembly area for the governing bodies within it.1 The agora was not only the market place, but also the social hub of the polis as it was here, where citizens met to exchange gossip and news.2 The Acropolis was originally built as a defensive structure on the highest ground.3 However later on it became the centre of the polis. The Acropolis later still served as a defensive structure/safe haven in times of conflict or siege.4 The polis as opposed to the less formal life of the demes provided a structured life for the majority of the polis. Athens was not the typical Greek polis, as it was the richest and largest of polis that was the head of the Ionian league. Its only rivals were those of the mighty Sparta and the wealthy trading polis Corinth, the leading powers of the Peloponnesian league.5 Although there were cultural and ethnic affinities between city states their rivalries and regionalism prevented them from becoming allies. Corinth much like Athens was a largely wealthy city state due to its dual trading ports and its great naval power. 6 The polis of Athens was a large, wealthy city state. It 11
Morris, I. 1990, 'The early polis as city and state', in City and Country in the Ancient World, eds J. Rich &A. Wallace-Hadrill, Routledge, London, 1990, pp. 24-57. 2
Kitto, H. D. F. 1951, 'The Polis', in The Greeks, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 1951, pp.64-79. 3
Ehrenberg, Victor 1960. The Polis: The Greek State; Blackwell Chapter no.2
Morris, I. 1990, 'The early polis as city and state', in City and Country in the Ancient World, eds J. Rich &A. Wallace-Hadrill, Routledge, London, 1990, pp. 24-57. 5
Grant Michel. 1987. "The Peloponnese" The Rise of the Greeks. Michael Grant, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987. pp. 73-109. 6
Freeman, K. 1950, 'Corinth', in Greek City-States, MacDondald, London, 1950, pp.83-126.
was one of the most significant cities in ancient Greek history7. Its main rival in power, size, and military might was Sparta. Sparta's polis was relatively modest. It was more a collection of villages and had not amalgamated into one great city, unlike that of its rival Athens. The synoikismos of surrounding villages made Athens a great city of citizens, magnificent buildings and structures.8 Sparta's power and wealth might have been historically portrayed as being less powerful and dynamic, if not for its many military feats having been recorded. Sparta left behind few archaeological remains whereas the city-state of Athens constructed many religious,9 social and political buildings10. If to be found at a later date it would have appeared that Athens was far wealthier and more powerful than its neighbouring city sates. With any large population there is an opportunity for specialized work. The...
Bibliography: Brock, R. & Hodkinson, S. 2002, 'Introduction: Alternatives to the Democratic Polis ', in Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization and Community in Ancient Greece, eds R. Brock & S. Hodkinson, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 1-32. Ehrenberg, Victor 1960. The Polis: The Greek State; Blackwell Chapter no.2 Freeman, K. 1950, 'Corinth ', in Greek City-States, MacDondald, London, 1950, pp.83-126. Kitto, H. D. F. 1951, 'The Polis ', in The Greeks, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 1951, pp.64-79. Lewis, S. 1996, 'The Assembly ', in New and Society in Greek Polis, Gerald Duckworth & Co., London, pp. 97-123,180-185. Grant Michel. 1987. "The Peloponnese" The Rise of the Greeks. Michael Grant, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987. pp. 73-109. Morris, I. 1990, 'The early polis as city and state ', in City and Country in the Ancient World, eds J. Rich &A. Wallace-Hadrill, Routledge, London, 1990, pp. 24-57. Richardson, N.J. 1992 "Panhellenic Cults and Panhellenic Poets". The Cambridge ancient history. Volume V. The fifth century B.C. D. M.Lewis. 2nd Edition Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.pp. 223-244 Herodotos 1.64.2 in Dillon & Garland Ancient Greece, doc. 9.17, p. 327.
http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/jms089/Z-Unpublished%20Work/Athena.pdf James Mark Shields © 1991, revised 2007. Visited 7th April, 2012
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