The Polis: Was the Ancient Greek City-State the Greatest Political System Ever? αγγλικά/ αρχαιότητα
Submitted by Michael Anderson

The Greek City-state, or Polis, is arguably the greatest political system ever created – remarkable given its appearance some 2800 years ago. The Greeks successfully built a system to foster those most elusive of human desires – freedom and equality, and their efforts have had an influence on western thinking since the Hellenic culture was re-discovered during the Middle Ages.

But the Polis was much more than a governmental system. It was a culture built around expansion of the human intellect – through philosophy, architecture, drama, and mathematics. The Polis was the engine of these accomplishments because it valued and encouraged their advancement. Here I chart the development of the Polis as a political system and consider its influence in modern western society, art and culture.
From Bands to Tribes, and Back Again
The story of the Greek Polis begins in the Paleolithic Era, when man began to expand his capability to live in groups. As groups became larger over the centuries, “urban” living became possible along with the need for complex political systems. Those early bands of perhaps one hundred human beings would over time become the city-state: the culmination of man’s ability to create a culture of mutual interests.

In the Paleolithic Period, man learned to communicate and expand the size of his groups from single bands to connected bands of several hundred. This new structure became possible when women were traded between bands for the purpose of marriage, creating the strongest of social linkages.

The Neolithic Period saw the development of agriculture. Once man learned to grow plants he gave up his nomadic ways, because there was an ample predictable food supply to sustain him. With agriculture came a larger organization of human beings – the tribe. Tribes were physically collections of bands, but their inter-relationships were too complex for intermarriage to sustain them. They often had charismatic leaders, but no identifiable government. Tribes functioned as an fragile egalitarian society – stable because of the need to protect members from threats from the outside.

During the bronze age, the tribal form carried on as the most complex human organization, and grew more sophisticated. Metalworking reached maturity, trading was widespread, and in the Aegean, the Minoan Civilization emerged in Crete. Mycenae of Greece followed in the Minoan footsteps to became the next great Bronze Age civilization.

But Mycenae itself was overrun by the Dorians and the Greek peninsula transitioned into a period we call the Dark Ages. For three hundred years time stopped – culture did not advance, humans retrogressed to smaller groups, and there was little writing. Still, there was a silver lining, as the contraction of the Greek culture caused settlements to be isolated in a way that set the stage for the Polis to evolve. It was the beginning of a slow and steady process that produced the Greek enlightenment.
The Enlightenment and the Rise of the Aristocracy

The Greeks had now entered the Archaic Age; a time of recovery and steady development. This period produced two great outcomes: colonization of the Mediterranean and creation of the Polis. While the former was an expression of the Greek desire to expand trade and reach the outside world, the city-state would prove to be far more important to the Greeks and Western Man as a whole.
In the early Archaic Period, the Greek people were in a struggle to create a cultural model which would remove the individual from the tribe and overcome the clan-based existence which had constrained man’s ability to advance himself. An aristocratic class came to power in about 750 BC, as the most powerful and aggressive segment of Greek society. As they acquired wealth, the aristocrats were able to assert their independence as individuals. They began to create social distinctions to separate themselves from the rest of the people, and adopt a more refined and cultured way of life. This, in turn, fostered a more conscious analysis of man’s nature and place. Oriental influence was pervasive and the aristocrats did not limit themselves in any way, demanding new models for artistic expression. Demand for art required artists and intellectuals with an ability to advance the Greek culture, so there was a migration to growing population centers.

The stable political situation fostered an environment in which creativity could flourish, leading to advances in the Ancient Greek culture, illustrated by works such as the Venus de Milo.

The upper class realized the value of passing on their cultural model, so fathers began to set standards for their children’s education by engaging tutors and philosophers to teach them. As the children grew, they were subject to peer pressure to conform to the requirements of their class, which resulted in a tightening of the aristocratic model.

So the aristocracy grew – but not unchecked – because it had two significant brakes: its roots and pressure from the outside. The aristocratic class had not existed long enough to forget the egalitarian times and continued to retain a kinship with the lower class in Greek society. In addition, pressure from the outside was exerted by the masses, who lacked power, but had unity and the capability to meet the needs of the aristocracy in the economic and military spheres. The military formation known as the Phalanx was of particular value to the lower classes as a leverage point. The Phalanx was a large formation, and required so many members of the lower class that the hoplites could make political demands on their leaders in exchange for their service.

The word aristocratic is often used in a negative connotation; implying arrogance, abuse of wealth, etc., but I use the word in a more structural sense here. An aristocratic class develops as a logical step in the process of building human society. As a society grows, people become segmented by intelligence or skill – a natural process we cannot alter. In the same way, the aristocratic class is the first to develop because it is made up of individuals who are able to use intelligence and guile to accumulate wealth and power. This power can be used to exert control over the lower classes, but in Greece, that quest for power was tempered by the small farmers who were able to act as a counterweight through sheer numbers. The common people experienced significant growth to the point of a surplus, and those numbers drove migration, mobility, and freedom to choose how they wanted to live. In the end, the delicate balance between the classes was protected by geographical isolation. Greece was free to incubate its city-state in a pure form without interference from forces on the outside that would upset the balance.

Lack of Personal Leadership
Moreover, the Polis bloomed because of another factor – the decline of personal leadership. In many evolving societies, the same situation would have seen the central leader become dominant, as with the early Roman Republic and its Etruscan kings. But personal leadership did not survive in Archaic Greece.

The authoritarian model that was left after the Dorian invasion was the Basileus, or tribal chieftain. He was typically a military leader and not a king. The Basileis ultimately disappeared because they did not have the power to become kings. Their advancement was prevented by several factors including: the inability to accumulate wealth through taxation, the aristocracy’s stubborn refusal to cede power to a single individual, and the lack of foreign threats to create pressure for a single leader. In Greece, greater and lesser land owners were united in their stand against personal leadership.

So we see two great social forces at work: a controlling aristocratic class delicately balanced against a more numerous peasant class with a desire for freedom, with no path for a autocrat to emerge.

The Birth of the Polis
At what point did the Polis become a defined political system? No one knows exactly, but the following diagram provides some hints.

We know that the words of Hesiod are pre-Polis because they refer to an age of kings. We also know that the creation of the Phalanx (circa 700 B.C.) roughly coincided with its beginning. Perhaps the Phalanx was the tipping point that created the critical balance between the classes, and allowed the Polis to evolve. Cylon of Athens used his bodyguards to capture and hold the Acropolis.

Physically, the Polis evolved into a defined geographical unit, the boundaries of which were known to its citizens and located in an Asty or concentration of urban dwellings. Prior to its existence, tribes defined separate rallying points for military, religious, or political purposes. With the emergence of the city-state, however, these functions became concentrated in one place. Courts became centrally located and geographically separated religious functions were brought together in the temple of the state gods.
Economic – and Agrarian – Centres
The most important Poleis became economic centers when they attracted potters and other artisans to re-locate there, but growth was not a result of commercial activity, but rather, the complex organization of an agrarian society. Athens, in the beginning, was a group of villages located around the fortress acropolis – the connection between government and people being a loose one. There were no walls until hundreds of years later when the people had money to build them. It was the people and not the structures that mattered. As Alcaeus said – “neither houses finely roofed or canals and dockyards make the city, but men able to use their opportunity.”

Aristocrats gained the most from the emerging political system by consolidating their power. They became the officers of the state and imposed their moral and artistic preferences on the people. Even here, class power maintained its balance because the Polis was fundamentally a reaction of its citizenry as a whole to the problems of the age. All classes were convinced they must work together to make sure the changing world did not produce chaos.

The Age of Tyrants
To this point, we have painted a rosy picture of the evolution of the Polis, making it look like the Greeks awakened from their barbarism to quickly become enlightened and philosophical. The actual path leading to the golden age was not that smooth, however, and had many bumps in the road.

The Age of Tyrants is one of the more interesting detours, lasting through the second half of the Archaic Period from the time of Cypselus in 650 B.C. to the end of the reign of Hippias in 510. Tyrants sprang up around the Aegean including Athens, Corinth, Megara, Samos, Naxos, Miletus, and Sicyon. We will discuss three of them from Greece proper: Corinth, Sicyon, and Athens.

Corinth was one of the leading commercial cities in Greece when the unpopular and cruel Bacchiadae aristocracy was overthrown by the tyrant Cypselus in 650 B.C. This was the purest form of liberation, and Cypselus had such a high level of support from the people, he never needed a bodyguard. He ruled Corinth in a benevolent way for thirty years, and was succeeded by his son Periander, who ruled ruthlessley until 582 B.C. when he was overthrown and an aristocratic Polis restored.

Sicyon was located near the northern coast of the Peloponnese between Corinth and Achaea. After the Dorian invasion, it was divided into three Dorian tribes and one Ionian tribe, which remained subject to Argos for some centuries. In 600 B.C, a tyrant named Cleisthenes rose to power, instituted an anti-Dorian policy, and ruled for forty years. His successor, Aeschines, was expelled by the Spartans in 556 who made Sicyon part of the Peloponnesian League.
Athens and Peisistratos
Finally, there is the story of Athens and Peisistratos. As army commander in the Megaran conflict of 547 B.C, Peisistratus gained popularity in Athens, but did not have the political support to seize power so he staged an attempt on his own life, and in the chaos that followed, persuaded the Athenian Assembly to issue him bodyguards.

Peisistratus was ousted from political office and exiled twice during his reign. The first occurrence happened circa 545 B.C. after two political factions, normally at odds with each other, joined forces and removed him. He was exiled for several years, returned to power for a time, and then was exiled again. After ten years he returned in force, regained his dictatorship, and held power until his death in 527 B.C. Hippias succeeded his father in 527 B.C, and with his brother Hipparchus, ruled jointly until the latter was murdered by Harmodius and Aristogeiton (the Tyrannicides) in 514 BC. Hippias executed the Tyrannicides and became a bitter and cruel ruler. The exiled Alcmaeonid family helped to depose the Athenian tyranny for good by bribing the Delphic oracle to tell the Spartans to liberate Athens, which they did in 510 BC.

Peisistratus reorganised the Ancient Greek Agora, converting it into a place of Government in the 6th Century BC. Image credit – Bethany Weeks.
Peisistratus reorganised the Ancient Greek Agora, converting it into a place of Government in the 6th Century BC. Image credit – Bethany Weeks.
Why did these tyrants appear? As we have discussed before, the early Poleis were generally controlled by an aristocracy in a delicate political balance with the common people. As people will do, the aristocracies tended to become more oppressive, leading to popular support for someone who could take power on their behalf. These tyrannies attempted to continue as hereditary models but failed because of uneven governance. The failure of class balance is evidence that the early Poleis did not have enough democracy in them to create long term stability, which would come later.

Four Reasons Why the Polis Survived
So, we arrive at the year 510 B.C, which marked the end of the Age of Tyrants in Athens. All that remains between here and the Golden Age is the war with Persia. But, there are some missing points which are needed to fill out the picture of the evolving Polis. These factors helped cement the Athenian Polis as a strong democracy – one that would lead the world’s intellectual advancement and endure until the time of Alexander.

1: The Nature of the Tyrants
The first factor was the non-destructive behavior of the tyrants. Despite the cruel reign of Hippias (514 BC – 510 BC), the tyrants did not slow down democratization. Moreover, they did not make significant changes to the governmental structure and ruled in a way that was satisfying to the Athenian people. Herodotus remarked,

“not having disturbed the existing magistrates nor changed the ancient laws… they administered the State under that constitution of things which was already established, ordering it fairly and well”

Aristotle wrote, of Peisistratus, that “his administration was temperate…and more like constitutional government than a tyranny.”

The Athenian Polis did not go backward under the tyrants, so it did not have to regain ground once they were gone.

2: Clisthenes’ Organisational Structures
The second factor was the political reforms of Clisthenes in 508 B.C. After the fall of the tyrants, Isagoras, a noble, tried to reverse the rising independence of the lower classes. This effort was blocked in 508 by Clisthenes, a member of the Alcmeonid family, who assumed the leadership position. Clisthenes intended to permanently break the power of local social units in favor of the state, and to make sure power was permanently placed in the hands of the people. He organized the populace into demes or political units numbering about 170. Clisthenes required that each tribe contain demes located in the country, the city, and the coast so that self-interest was equally distributed.

He also established a council of 500, consisting of 50 men from each tribe. The 500 were chosen by lot to make sure the elected assemblymen were independent. The council had responsibility for preparing bills for the assembly and supervising public business. This new political structure was tested immediately when Athens was attacked by Boetia and Chalcis in 506 B.C. Both were defeated and balance between the classes held together.

3: A Common Enemy
The third factor strengthening the polis was the war with Persia. Even though Athens was attacked and occupied in 480 B.C, the unity created to fight a common enemy strengthened the bond between all the Athenian people.

4: Governance of Pericles
The fourth and final factor was the reforms of Pericles after 461 B.C. Pericles, an aristocrat, had the gifts of intelligence and leadership. He became the leader of the council of ten generals and served as the de facto leader of Athens until his death in 429 B.C. During his tenure, he passed laws allowing poor citizens to attend plays for free, and began a system of compensation for magistrates and jurors. This allowed a broader spectrum of the populace to participate in the Athenian political system. He also lowered the property qualification for the Archonship to help breakup the monopoly of the aristocratic class. The time of Pericles has been labeled the Golden Age of Athens because the stable, open democracy had reached its final form.

Polis: The Golden Age of Athens

The term “Golden Age” should not be taken to mean this was the only time of intellectual advancement in Athenian history. In fact, drama, philosophy, and sculpture were in full bloom a hundred years before Pericles. Unfortunately, the reign of Pericles also signals the beginning of the end for Athens. After the Persian War, Athens became imperialistic and sought to extend its power around the Aegean. This eventually caused a confrontation with Sparta leading to the Peloponnesian War and the defeat of the Athenians. Thus, the “Golden Age” was both the pinnacle of intellectual achievement and the beginning of the end for Athens. Greed and the desire for power had corrupted as they often do.

The Polis had succeeded for some three hundred years by being flexible and adapting to the growing sophistication of its people. Each time the balance of power between the classes was disturbed, forces brought it back to equilibrium.The people were patriots, not by class but as a whole; willing to sustain a political system which represented their desire for freedom and equality. For as long as that balance was in place, the Athenian people had the time and encouragement to be creative. Their output would grace the museums, playhouses, and lecture halls of the Western World for all time.