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An Introduction to the
Ancient Greek City-State


Polis is the ancient Greek word for ‘city’ ‘state’ and the combination of city and state, the
‘city-state’. It has often, quite rightly, been said that the polis,as a form of state and society, was
the basis of the whole of Greek civilisation; and the implication of that is that one can only
understand Greek civilisation if one understands the form of the society the Greeks lived under,
i.e. the polis. However, this illuminating truth is, regrettably, seldom followed up by a
description of what a polis actually is (or rather was, for the form of city-state culture that
dominated Greece in antiquity no longer exists anywhere in the world). We have lacked
comprehensive, fundamental studies of the polis both as a concept and as an actual phenomenon:
earlier investigations have been subjective, and the examples chosen were mostly taken from
sources that dealt with Athens. But Athens was only one of about 1,500 poleis, and was in many
respects anomalous. So what about the roughly 1,499 other poleis? Very little has been written
about them, and that is one of the reasons why there goes on being deep disagreement about
almost all the fundamental questions that can be asked about the polis: when it arose,when it
came to an end, how many poleis there were and precisely where they were situated, whether it
was a fusion of state and society or, on the contrary, a society but not a state, i.e. without the
institutions that characterised a state.¹ There is disagreement also as to how entirely a polis was a
society of adult male citizens or whether it included women, children, outsiders, slaves and so
on. All these unsolved—and often unaddressed—problems were the background that led to the
setting up by the Danish National Research Foundation in 1993 of a centre for the study of the
ancient Greek city-state: the Polis Centre. It was at Copenhagen University, in the Faculty of
Humanities, and its primary remit was to describe the form of state and settlement typical of
ancient Greece, the polis, the city-state. On the basis of a great number of published researches
about the polis, both as form of state and as form of settlement, it has been for the first time
possible to create an Inventory of all known Greek poleis in the Archaic and Classical periods
(c.650 to 323bc); and starting from that Inventory we have carried out an analysis of the ancient
Greek polis-world. That has produced a new evaluation and a revision of many standard
doctrines about the development and character of the Greek polis.The Inventory was published
by Oxford University Press in 2004.²
The second task of the Centre was to understand the polis in a wider world-historical
context. The ancient Greek polis was a city-state, and when historians nowadays talk about city-
states, they are thinking first and foremost of ancient Greece and after that of the cities of north
Italy in the Middle Ages. But there have been city-states in other places and at other times. A
general analysis of urbanisation and state formation shows that in world history from antiquity to
c.1900 two different types of state have existed: macro-states, with numerous cities included in
the territory of each of them, as against regions divided into micro-states each of which consisted
of one city and its hinterland. Such a micro-state is what is called a ‘city-state’, and regions
divided into city-states form what the Polis Centre has called a ‘city-state culture’. We have
succeeded in identifying thirty-seven ‘city-state cultures’, from the Sumerians in Mesopotamia in
the third millennium bc to several city-state cultures in West Africa which were only wiped out
by the colonial powers a bit over a hundred years ago. In this matter also, nobody has yet tried to
get an overall picture of how many and what kind of city-state cultures there have been in the
history of the world.

To sum up the results of the researches of the Polis Centre I single out four features. In
city-state cultures, including that of ancient Greece, there has been (1) a degree of urbanisation
unexampled in major states before the Industrial Revolution, which began in the second half of
the eighteenth century; (2) an economy based on trade and centred on the city’s market; (3) a
political decision-making process whereby laws and decrees were not always dictated by a
monarch, but were often passed by majority votes after a debate in an assembly, which mostly
was a selection from among the better-class citizens but sometimes included them all; (4)
interaction between city-states, which resulted in the rise of leagues of states and federal states.
As a type of state, the federal state grew up within the city-state cultures, and only appeared as a
macro-state with the foundation of the USA in 1787–9.³

There is no longer any city-state culture remaining; the last of them vanished in c.1900.
So it is an irony of history that the social, economic and political organisation that characterised
the city-state cultures did not disappear when they disappeared, but came to dominate states and
societies in the world we have today. In many important respects modern macro-states are more
like the ancient city-state cultures than they are like the ancient macro-states.

This brief overview is designed for a broad band of interested readers and also for the
narrower public of classical scholars, archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists and historians,
who in the course of their professional work have to come to terms with what is understood by a
city, a state and a city-state. The present book is in three parts. The first is a relatively wide
overview of the concepts of city-state and city-state culture and of the thirty-seven such cultures
that we think we have uncovered in world history. The second is a specific description of the
ancient Greek polis,and the third is a Conclusion, in which the Greek polis is compared with the
thirty-six other city-state cultures and with the concept of city-state culture as such.⁴
Question 1: Why do we, as historians, care about this fact?

Question 2:____________________________________________________________________

Question 3:____________________________________________________________________

Question 4:____________________________________________________________________

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