Last modified on 16 April 2013, at 17:01

Saylor.org's Ancient Civilizations of the World/The City-State

The polis or city-stateEdit

Polis (plural poleis), literally means "city" in Greek; but the word "city" also included the terms state, citizenship and body of citizens. In fact, the Greek term which specifically meant "city" as a conglomerate of urban buildings and spaces was ásty. In modern historiography, polis is normally used to indicate the ancient Greek city-states, like Classical Athens and its contemporaries, so polis is often translated as "city-state."

The term city-state which originated in English (alongside the German Stadtstaat) does not fully translate the Greek term. The poleis were not like other primordial ancient city-states like Tyre or Sidon, which were ruled by a king or a small oligarchy, but rather a political entity ruled by its body of citizens. The traditional view of archaeologists that the appearance of urbanization at excavation sites could be read as a sufficient index for the development of a polis was criticised by François Polignac in 1984 and has not been taken for granted in recent decades. In fact, the term polis changed with the development of the governance center in the city to indicate state (which included its surrounding villages), and finally with the emergence of a citizenship notion between the land owners it came to describe the entire body of citizens.

Archaic and classical polisEdit

Basic and indicating elements of the archaic and classical polis were:

Acropolis of Athens, a noted polis of classical Greece.
  • Self-governance, autonomy and independence (city-state)
  • Agora: the social hub and financial marketplace, on and around a centrally located large open space
  • Acropolis: the citadel, inside which a temple had replaced the erstwhile Mycenaean anáktoron (palace) or mégaron (hall).
  • Greek urban planning and architecture, public, religious, and private (see Hippodamian plan)
  • Temples, altars and sacred precincts: one or more are dedicated to the poliouchos, the patron deity of the city; each polis kept its own particular festivals and customs (Political religion, as opposed to the individualized religion of the later antiquity). Priests and priestesses, although often drawn from certain families by tradition, did not form a separate collegiality or class: they were ordinary citizens who, on certain occasions, were called to perform certain functions.
  • Gymnasia: a training facility for competitors in public games. It was also a place for socializing and engaging in intellectual pursuits.
  • Theatres
  • Walls: used for protection from invaders
  • Coins: minted by the city, and bearing its symbols
  • Colonies being founded by the oikistes of the metropolis
  • Political life: it revolved around the sovereign Ekklesia (the assembly of all adult male citizens for deliberation and voting), the standing boule and other civic or judicial councils, the archons and other officials or magistrates elected either by vote or by lot, clubs, etc., and sometimes punctuated by stasis (civil strife between parties, factions or socioeconomic classes, e.g. aristocrats, oligarchs, democrats, tyrants, the wealthy, the poor, large or small landowners, etc.).There were practising the direct democracy.
  • Publication of state functions: laws, decrees and major fiscal accounts were published, and criminal and civil trials were also held in public
  • Synoecism, conurbation: Absorption of nearby villages and countryside, and the incorporation of their tribes into the substructure of the polis. Many of a polis' citizens would have lived in the suburbs or countryside. The Greeks did not regard the polis as a territorial grouping so much as a religious and political association: while the polis would control territory and colonies beyond the city itself, the polis would not simply consist of a geographical area. Most cities were composed of several tribes or phylai, which were in turn composed of phratries (common-ancestry lineages), and finally génea (extended families)
  • Social classes and citizenship: Dwellers in the polis were generally divided into four types of inhabitants, with status typically determined by birth:
  • Citizens with full legal and political rights, i.e. adult free men born legitimately of citizen parents. They had the right to vote, be elected into office, bear arms, and the obligation to serve when at war.
  • Citizens without formal political rights, but full legal rights: the citizens' female relatives and underage children, whose political rights and interests were represented, and property held in trust, by their adult male relatives.
  • Citizens of other poleis who chose to reside elsewhere (the metics, μέτοικοι, métoikoi, literally "transdwellers"): though free-born and possessing full rights in their place of origin, had full legal rights but no political rights in their place of residence. Metics could not vote, could not be elected to office, could not bear arms and could not serve in war. They otherwise had full personal and property rights, albeit subject to taxation.
  • Slaves: chattel in full possession of their owner, and with no privileges other what their owner would grant (or revoke) at will.

Hellenistic polisEdit

Ancient Alexandria, a polis of Hellenistic Egypt.

During the Hellenistic period, which marks the decline of the classical polis, the following cities remained independent: Sparta until 195 BC after the War against Nabis. Achaean League is the last example of original Greek city-state federations (dissolved after the Battle of Corinth (146 BCE)) . The Cretan city-states continue to be independent (except Itanus and Arsinoe, which lay under Ptolemaic influence) until the conquest of Crete in 69 BCE by Rome. The cities of Magna Graecia, with the notable examples of Syracuse and Tarentum, were conquered by Rome in late 3rd century BC. There are also some cities with recurring independence like Samos, Priene, Miletus and Athens. A remarkable example of a city-state which flourished during this era is Rhodes through its merchant navy, until 43 BCE and the Roman conquest.

The Hellenistic colonies and cities of the era, retain some basic characteristics of a polis, except: the status of independence (city-state) and the political life. There is a self-governance (like the new Macedonian title politarch) but under a ruler and king. The political life of the classical era is now transformed to an individualized religious and philosophical view of life. The demographic decline forced the cities to abolish the status of metic and bestow citizenship; In 228 BCE Miletus enfranchised over 1000 Cretans. (Milet, I, 3, 33-8.) Dyme sold its citizenship for one talent, payable in two installments. The foreign residents in a city are now called paroikoi. In an age, when most of the establishments in Asia are kingdoms, an interesting example of a Hellenistic cities federation is the Chrysaorian League in Caria.

AttributionEdit

"Polis" (Wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polis