The Foundations of the Greek Polis: Political Culture 700-500


The following page, designed to supplement Oswyn Murray's Early Greece (chapters 3-10), poses one large historical question: how, given the very scanty evidence, can one attempt to explain the emergence of and, above all, the character of the Greek polis and particularly of the Greek idea of citizenship? These ancient political communities took a rich variety of forms, but certain common features permit us to speak of a Greek political culture that took shape by the eighth century, if not before, and that defined Greek civilization well into the fourth century. The particular character of ancient Greek political culture is suggested in the two following passages; one drawn from a contemporary historian, the other from a fourth-century philosopher.

-- "The polis was a complex hierarchical society built around the notion of citizenship. It was made up of hundreds or even thousands of independent peasant households, which neither paid impersonal dues to a centralised government, nor depended on the state for the means of life.... The equation of the polis with the whole citizen body, even if governmental functions were often reserved to a smaller group, marks it off from other ancient states. All citizens had a share in the polis, which in its most developed form was based economically on the institution of chattel slavery. If the citizens became subjects, their community ceased to be a polis."

From Ian Morris, "The early polis as city and state," in John Rich and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill eds., City and Country in the Ancient World, (London, 1991), 26.

-- In the following passage from his Politics, Aristotle suggests the variety of political forms that characterized the polis and, in particular, the democratic polis. As in the Morris quote above,the nature of citizenship is a central focus of Aristotle's analysis. -- In his Overview of Archaic and Classical Greece (5:1- 5:4), Thomas Martin provides a convenient summary of modern scholarship on the early polis that allows you to put these quotations in some general context.

To begin your investigation of the polis, you might want to locate major cities on one of these maps.

You will also want to try to "imagine" the Greek city by browsing through the following images of the archeological remains of some fifty archaic cities.

2.Material Foundations

Today few historians would argue that the special features of early Greek polis culture -- legal equality, male citizenship etc. -- were simply and directly the result of economic and material factors. The formation of a political culture is a far more complicated process than simple economic explanations or materialist philosophy would allow. Yet the creation and expansion of "archaic" political communities cannot be understood without some general consideration of demography,trade,and,above all,agricultural practices. More important for our subject --citizenship--,the study of material life helps us understand the particular features of a political culture that was characterized by a certain rough equality among male property owners and in which a sharp line separated the political world from the world of the household -- public from domestic life.Thus, on the basis of fragmentary evidence,the historian must seek to recreate the material conditions of Greek life from the eighth century forward. To begin, consider Thucydides's famous and controverted account of early Greek civilization. (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War , 1.2.1- 1.8.1).

-- For a brief modern account of the recovery of Greek civilization, consult Thomas Martin, Overview, 5:5-5:11.

Clearly a certain level of demographic density and economic activity was necessary for the development of the polis as an independent institution. Within that broad framework, one wants to focus on the practices of daily life within which the Greek idea of citizenship developed. What was the citizen like as a material,domestic,spiritual being? What social world did he inhabit? The following site at the University of Pennsylvania offers a good introduction to the daily life of the Greeks. Note particularly the materials on women's and men's lives.

3. Historiographical Debates:

What forces shaped the emergent polis culture and the concept of citizen is, as you might expect, the subject of intense debate among historians. In the following section, different interpretations are briefly presented in order to stimulate thinking on this subject. Were polis institutions modeled on military institutions? on the agrarian life of small independent farmers? on the religious practices and territorial cults that were such a feature of Greek culture? These are among the arguments in the historiographical debate, and, in time,in conjunction with your reading in Murry and in the basic texts, you will want to fashion an interpretation of your own.

Consider the following arguments:

-- "...I do suggest that the proper framework of the entire historical discussion of both the genesis and the decline of the Greek polis must lie in the realm of agriculture. The material prosperity that created the network of Greek city states resulted from small-scale, intensive working of the soil, a complete rethinking of the way Greeks produced food and owned land, and the emergence of a new sort of person for whom work was not merely a means of subsistence or profit but an ennobling way of life.... The wider institutions of ancient Greece --military, social, political--embodied the subsequent efforts of these small farmers to protect their hard won gain....The original Greek polis is best understood as an exclusive and yet egalitarian community of farmers...." [Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks(New York, 1995),3].

Hanson's thesis focuses our attention on the land, agricultural practices, and the ethos that a certain mode of agrarian life produced. Other historians argue that the military organization of states --the so-called hoplite revolution -- was the key factor that defined polis political culture. Consider the two quotes that follow:

-- "At whatever instigation they came into being, and at whatever point of time between the end of the eighth and the middle of the seventh century BC, hoplite armies shaped rather than merely echoed the history of the polis. The existence of hoplites is the clearest a posteriori proof of the exitence of the polis...." [Anthony Snodgrass, "Archeology and the study of the Greek city," in Rich and Wallace-Hadrill eds., City and Country in the Ancient World, 19.

Marcel Detienne offers a much more provocative version of the hoplite thesis: (Marcel Detienne, "La Phalange," in Jean Pierre Vernant ed., Problemes de la guerre en Grece ancienne, 147 -48): "...There was a perfect reciprocity between the [hoplite] phalanx and the early Greek city. Not a simple coincidence in time, but a homology of structure, an identical model.... Composed of 'interchangeable parts,' the phalanx... was the best representation of the city in which each citizen was defined as an element similar to all others, an 'interchangeable part.' The political model and the military model were perfectly homologous."

Test the hoplite thesis out through your reading in Murray and in the following material on the hoplite revolution in the Martin Overview:

Martin Overview Hoplites

Finally, there is a powerful argument, well-stated below by Francois de Polignac, that early Greek political communites were founded in religion --that the city had a sacral character defined by the various major and minor cults within its boundaries. From this point of view, community --the organization of society-- was an expression, above all, of religious practices.

-- "One aspect of increasing solidarity was a stronger cohesion among those who bore arms.... But despite its general implications, warfare, as well as the exercise of power that went with it, was the business of only a small fraction of society....The creation of political organs that institutionalized new modes of exercising public authority could in itself achieve nothing unless it was backed up by a social body whose motives and desire for unity were inspired by something other than war....religion was the only agent to effect the entire social body....It signaled the emergence of a society that seemed to acquire self-awareness as it retook possession of the past by endowing it with a sacred character....It was thus through religious life that a new kind of social body was gradually to take shape...."

From Francois de Polignac, Cults, Territory, and the Origins of the Greek City State (trans. Janet Lloyd, Chicago, 1995). 151-152.[For another brief statement of the Polignac thesis, see the precis of his book]


This page has intended to raise --and make more complex in your minds -- questions about the institution of Greek citizenship. Remember that this was both an egalitarian notion and an exclusionary notion of politics and of the nature of the city. As you read your early texts --Murray, of course, but also Homer, Hesiod and the poets -- try to come to some conclusions of your own about early Greek political culture and the character of polis citizenship.

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This page was written by Ray Kierstead for Hum110 Tech.