The Ancient Greek City-States: Identity and the ‘Polis’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History—Daily Life in the Ancient World

by Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Around 800 B.C. something remarkable took place in Greece. After going through a dark age, Greek society suddenly gave rise to the polis, the city-state. But what made a Greek polis? An analysis of the population and society may help to explain this.

Image in the style of ancient Greek pottery, showing human figures in black on a red background.
After a dark age, Ancient Greek civilization returned to life in the 8th century B.C.
with city-states becoming powerful. (Image: matrioshka/Shutterstock)

A Population Explosion in Attica

Some archeologists have suggested that in the first half of the eighth century the population of Attica, the territory surrounding Athens, quadrupled and that in the next half-century it almost doubled again. This may be an exaggeration, but it is undeniable that the population of the Greek-speaking world did indeed expand.

It may in part have been because the production of grain replaced animal husbandry as the main means of farming. Whereas an ox or a cow is only good for a few meals, grain can sustain a much larger population.

Population size materially affects the quality of everyday life. As the population increases, communications improve, individuals develop specific expertise, and societies become more stratified. So it was with Attican Greece.

Greek society now became dominated by aristocrats, who came to acquire large estates. But what about ordinary people? In fact, we know a great deal about how ordinary Greeks lived, from literature, vase-paintings, inscriptions, and archeological remains.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Polis, the Greek City-State

The story of ancient Greece is also a mountain story: the mountains of Greece favored the development of the quintessentially Greek political entity, the city-state or polis.

polis was an autonomous community of Greeks who considered themselves to be distinctive from other Greeks. Every polis had its own citizen army, its own set of laws, and its own specific gods. Every polis was also restrictive in its citizenship, it denied women what we would regard as basic human rights, and it practiced slavery.

Athens was one of about 1,000 poleis (the plural form of the word). The city-state that was most strikingly different from Athens was Sparta. However, we know much less about life in Sparta than we do about life in Athens.

A close up of a map of ancient Greece showing the major cities and the contours of the mountain ranges.
This detail from a map of Ancient Greece by Paul Vidal de Lablache shows how the borders of the territories of city-states follow the mountain ranges of the region. Athens (top right) and Sparta (bottom center) were major city-states of the time. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

Polis Versus Ethnos

However, some people were members of an ethnos, a word we usually translate as ‘tribal group’, and although an ‘ethnic’ Greek might have lived in an urban center of sorts, it would not have had any of the amenities of a polis.

When Aristotle in his work Politics famously stated that “Man is a political animal”, what he meant was that man is an animal who lives in a polis. He was incapable of imagining a life lived otherwise. In fact, no Greek ever bothered to describe what it was like to live in an ethnos.

The Beliefs and Mindsets in a Polis

So, what did it mean to be a Greek who lived in a polis? It meant you spoke the same language as every other Greek, although in a unique dialect. It meant you shared common literature with other Greeks, at least as far as the poems of Homer and Hesiod were concerned.

It meant you worshiped the same gods as other Greeks, albeit in slightly different forms. So, although your city-state worshiped its own variety of gods, they derived from the same gods worshiped by all other Greeks. This meant that you had the same beliefs as other Greeks did. Like all Greeks, you believed in the twelve gods who lived on Mount Olympus.

Grey stone fragment, roughly rectangular in shape, depicting twelve human figures in relief.
The twelve gods who lived on Mount Olympus were common to all Greeks, irrespective of the polis to which they belonged. (Image: Walters Art Museum / Public domain)

This also meant you had the same level of knowledge as the other Greeks who lived in your polis. You also shared the same mental view. This meant, for instance, that you took slavery for granted and had an intense suspicion and dislike of non-Greeks. In many cases, you would have an intense, visceral dislike of Greeks who weren’t from your polis.

Learn more about Greek religion.

The Polis: A Face-to-Face Community

For most practical purposes, being an Athenian, a Spartan, or a Theban would have meant far more to you than being a Greek. You experienced a sense of connectedness to your fellow Athenians or fellow Spartans, or to whoever were your compatriots. There were many reasons for this.

As a citizen of a polis, you would have experienced a much greater sense of exclusivity than anyone living in the west today. That is because the polis was what anthropologists call a ‘face-to-face’ community—a community that was sufficiently small that people would have known, or at least recognized, a significant percentage of the entire community.

In addition, the social and political structures of your polis would have bound you very closely to your fellow citizens and to your peers. And finally, you led a life that was much more like the lives of all your fellow citizens, simply because there were far fewer life-choices available.

Learn more about growing up in ancient Greece.

Shame as a Form of Social Organization

One of the characteristics of a face-to-face society is that it puts a lot of emphasis on shame. It is one of the ways in which it instills its value system into its citizens. Shame would have been one of the things that would have motivated you most strongly.

Let’s say you were not the kind of person who liked the thought of fighting in battle. As a Greek living in a polis, you could not honorably opt out of the army. If you did opt out, you would be an outcast forever.

The extent to which shame governed society in a polis can be found in a poem by the lyric poet Pindar. He describes the miserable fate of an athlete who let his city down. The athlete is said to be so afraid of being mocked that he slinks down back alleys, hoping that no one will see him. It sounds like a horrible fate, but that was life in the polis.

Common Questions About Life in the Polis

Q. What was a polis?

A polis was an autonomous community of Greeks who considered themselves to be distinctive from other Greeks. Every polis had its own citizen army, its own set of laws, and its own specific gods.

Q. How was the ethnos different from the polis?

An ethnos could be a tribal group in an urban center, but it would not have the amenities or the rules of a polis.

Q. Why was shame a big part of life in the polis?

A polis was a face-to-face society. So, it instilled its values in the citizens using shame as a tool. People who did not follow the values of the polis, or let down the polis in some way, were subject to public shame and mockery.

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