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The Polis in Ancient Greece

The Polis in Ancient Greece

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Published by Scott Abel
Written for Rutgers Newark professor Gary Farney, this work is a historiographical essay regarding political frameworks employed by the ancient Greeks.
Written for Rutgers Newark professor Gary Farney, this work is a historiographical essay regarding political frameworks employed by the ancient Greeks.

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Published by: Scott Abel on Dec 31, 2011
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10/29/2012

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Scott AbelAncient Greek Democracy Review TwoThe Polis, Empire, and ConquestIn Classical Greece, the polis dominated the politics of the Hellenes as each poliswas the center of power for a region Greece. Classical historians, Rhodes and Bosworth,discussed the advantages and limitations of the polis system along with other types of states and governments available to the ancient Greeks. Rhodes analyzed Atheniandemocracy, whereas Bosworth examined the administration of Lycurgus. Both historiansconceded the limitation of the polis as the primary state system of the Greeks, but this didnot mean that they rejected it. Rhodes and Bosworth argued successfully that althoughthe polis failed in military conquest, it succeeded through development and prosperitythat lasted for centuries.Rhodes began his work with comments on Athenian democracy, particularly inregard to the limitations of democracy. He stressed the restrictiveness of the Atheniandemocratic system with only citizen adult males being allowed to participate. Rhodes placed an emphasis on the power of the Council of 500, as only it could determine theissues for the Assembly to vote on. The administrative system left little room for anybody to show great competence with only year of service per administrator allowed.
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According to Rhodes, the wealthy elite possessed an advantage over other citizens, asonly the wealthy served as generals and could be reelected. But, he left out the sheer volume of pressure under the generals not only to win, but perform without anysignificant errors.
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 Therefore, he was unfair to the rest of the citizens who could hold the
1
Rhodes,
Cambridge Ancient History
, “The Polis and the Alternatives,” (Cambridge: Cambridge UP,1994), 565.
2
Rhodes, “The Polis and the Alternatives,” 566. Discussed in class.
1
 
elite accountable for their actions. He examined the effect war had on the Atheniandemocracy with a population drop and poorer attendance in the Assembly. Equallyimportant to the democracy remained how the Assembly regulated the taxes with the helpof a revenue clerk.
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Although a population decline in war would be understandable, adecline in Assembly attendance makes little and determining this information must behighly speculative. Rhodes reminded the reader that democratic Athens possessed anaristocratic element within it while downplaying the abilities of the poorer classes.Bosworth focused on the administration of Lycurgus in Athens during the reign of Alexander the Great. He focused more on civic responsibility and finances, rather thansocial Athenian history. With little threat of war or invasion, Athens prospered under theadministration of Lycurgus, an aristocrat, who oversaw Athens’ revenues triple from 400to 1,200 talents a year. For the twelve years of his administration, Lycurgus controlled14,000 to 18,000 talents, making him extraordinary influential in Athenian politics.
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Rather than writing about the structure of the financial system, which would requiremuch speculation, he examined how Athens received and spent its wealth. Placingemphasis on expenditures made the essay interesting because it allowed greater insight of how Athenians lived. With little evidence of a tax increase, Bosworth deduced thatincome must have come from harbor taxes, sales taxes, and mining concessions.
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Therefore, we may conclude that the standard of living went up for Athenians.Alexander’s hold over Greece made examining the foreign policy of the democracyirrelevant, so Bosworth chose wisely to write about the more interesting topic of administration.
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Rhodes, “The Polis and the Alternatives,” 567-569.
4
Bosworth,
Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great 
, (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1988),204-206.
5
Bosworth,
Conquest and Empire
, 206
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Rhodes examined the systems of other poleis such as monarchies and oligarchies,along with organizations larger than the polis such as federations and leagues. Althoughthese systems were larger, these systems or their government failed to impress Rhodes.Boeotia, a federation with Thebes as hegemon, made others within the federationsecondary citizens.
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Rhodes looked down upon the Homeric monarchy possessed byMacedon as “rudimentary” and autocratic. The hereditary system lacked any formalcouncil or ministries with only the king giving orders enforced by his loyal army.
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Alliances and leagues also were a form of union, albeit a loose confederation united onlyin foreign policy. These unions allowed the Greeks to combine their power to weaken or destroy enemies. This system permitted Philip of Macedon to control the Greeks with theLeague of Corinth, thus limiting Greek freedom.
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Macedonian revolts throughout theLeague of Corinth proved that many Greeks disliked Macedonian domination.
9
Rhodes placed the polis as the most effective state system available to the Greeks during the fifthand fourth centuries, whereas other systems were innately unfair which sometimes causedrevolts.The polis system allowed Athens to reap the benefits of peace effectively,ensuring security, prosperity, and perhaps happiness for its citizens. One important goalof Athens was the increase of commerce by reducing piracy, a parasite that sucked thewealth out of the Greek commercial system. The Athenians established a naval base andcolony on the coast of the Adriatic Sea to intercept pirates and protect trade.
Bosworthdid not place enough emphasis on piracy suppression as a reason for the expansion of the
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Rhodes, “The Polis and the Alternatives,” 581-82.
7
Rhodes, “The Polis and the Alternatives,” 586-87.
8
Rhodes, “The Polis and the Alternatives,” 588-89.
9
Terry Buckley,
 Aspects of Greek History
, (New York: Routledge, 1996), 491.
10
Bosworth,
Conquest and Empire
, 207.
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