What Is A Polis?


Craige B. Champion


It is common practice to refer to the Greek polis [plural, poleis] as the Greek city-state. This translation is misleading because the ancient Greek polis really shares few common features with a modern city; in fact, the differences are much greater in number and of far greater significance than the similarities. The differences are even greater when we compare the Greek polis and the modern nation state. Here there are few points of contact, and the ancient Greek would have been bewildered by the sheer size and impersonal nature of the modern nation.  In order to understand anything about ancient Greece (and at least a rudimentary understanding should be high on any educated person's list of priorities, if for no other reason than the fact that "democracy" was born there), one must have an understanding of what the polis was to the Greeks. As H.D.F. Kitto observed long ago, "Without a clear conception of what the polis was, and what it meant to the Greeks, it is quite impossible to understand properly Greek history, the Greek mind, or the Greek achievement" (The Greeks, 64-65).

First let's consider the physical characteristics and dimensions of the Greek polis. The single most striking feature of a Greek polis is its small size. It is easy to overlook this fact because classical Greek history is dominated by the polis of Athens and the polis of Sparta. Both of these places, and particularly Athens (which had a population in the fifth century BCE on the order of 350,000), were atypical in their population size and in their military power. The scholar R.J. Hopper refers to them as "abnormal states" (The Early Greeks, 156-187). Plato considered the ideal polis to have a population of around 5,000 households, and Aristotle felt that in a polis each citizen should know the others by sight. In fact, only three poleis in the fifth century BCE had populations exceeding 20,000: Athens, and Syracuse and Acragas in Sicily (Kitto, The Greeks, 66). Politics, a word which incidentally derives from the Greek word polis, was of a face-to-face variety in these small communities. Kitto describes life in the Greek polis as follows, "...the polis every Greek knew; there it was, complete, before his eyes. He could see the fields which gave it its sustenance--or did not, if the crops failed; he could see how agriculture, trade and industry dovetailed into one another; he knew the frontiers, where they were strong and where weak; if any malcontents were planning a coup, it was difficult for them to conceal the fact. The entire life of the polis, and the relation between its parts, were much easier to grasp, because of the small scale of things.... Public affairs had an immediacy and a concreteness which they cannot possibly have for us" (The Greeks, 73).

Although there was great variation in details from polis to polis, there are some standard physical features of the polis which one can expect to find. The polis would have a place of citizen assembly and a religious center for public worship. These public places most often would be located on a defendable high ground of the community which served as a place of refuge in time of attack, the acropolis (literally, the "high polis"). The polis typically would have a marketplace or agora, which was the center of communal life. Here the adult male citizen lived out much of his life, engaging in informal public discourse, informing himself on affairs of state. Most every polis had its temple to the protecting deity or deities of the political community.

There also was great variety in the political structures of Greek poleis: in the historical period, we find monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic forms of government. Yet all poleis to a greater or lesser degree shared the same political characteristics of citizen involvement and citizen participation in public life. There was not the same desire to retreat from the world of public affairs familar to our world, the private sphere did not yet preoccupy men's minds in the same way. Paul Cartledge points out that the Greek word politeia, a derivative of the Greek word polis, means both citizenship and the rules of citizenship (Portrait, 92). For the Greeks, there could be no community without politeia; it was the "life", the "soul", the "beating heart" (psyche) of the city (Isocrates, 12.138; 15.14). The words which the ancient Greek historian Thucydides puts into the mouth of the Athenian statesman Pericles characterize fairly well, I think, the Greek view of the polis and of the citizen's role in it: "Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics... we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all" (Hist. 2.40). Jean-Pierre Vernant stresses the emphasis on the community over the individual in his account of the spiritual universe of the Greek polis (Origins, 51), and indeed, Greek literary masterpieces, such as Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy and Sophocles' Antigone, revolve around the competing claims of the individual household, or oikos, and those of the larger community of the polis. The communal orientation of the ancient Greek perhaps is one of the most difficult features of the Greek mind to grasp for a citizen of a large modern nation state in which few actually participate in the political process, where individualism and the private sphere are engrained in the national psyche, and in which even national elections can fail to turn out the vote of the majority of the citizen population. Paul Rahe writes of "the primacy of politics" in classical Greece (American Historical Review, 89 [1984] 265-293), and we have to work hard to imagine that mental landscape. It is this distinctive way of life, the active participation on the part of the individual (adult male) citizen in all aspects of these small Greek communities that is most salient. In these communities there was daily engagement with affairs of state. Here the individual could have a real impact on state policy. Autonomy was a priceless possession for the adult male Greek citizen, and the polis was the medium through which it was realized.

There is an old Greek story which says that Zeus, the king of the gods, dispenses some good and some bad for every human life; no one enjoys a life devoid of pain and suffering. If it is true that the Greeks have given us biological sciences, physics, advances in mathematics, drama, history, philosophy, political science, classical sculpture and a keen aesthetic sense of the beauty of balance and proportion, they also are part of a heritage we do not wish to embrace. Many of the negative qualities of the ancient Greeks seem to have been engrained in the polis. 

The polis demanded a great deal from the citizen: service in public office, attendance in political assembly, attendance at religious and dramatic festivals, military service. It would seem that a great deal of time had to be freed up from simple subsistence duties in order to participate in the civic life of the polis. The ancient Greek definition of freedom (eleutheria) was a condition in which the free man is in no way under the constraint of another (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1367 a 32). How did such a conception arise among the Greeks? The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson writes of the western chordal triad of freedom: personal freedom (the right to live without being under compulsion), civic freedom (the right to participate in public decision-making), and sovereignal freedom (the right to dominate other states, whenever possible). Patterson maintains that the western conception of freedom, which he breaks down into these three spheres and which begins with the Greeks, could arise only in a society which used slave labor (we encounter the word andrapoda, or "man-footed beast," that is, slave, in early Greek literature). In other words, freedom as a concept came about by way of comparison with the slave, a "natally- alienated" human tool with absolutely no rights (Freedom in the Making of Western Culture [Harper-Collins 1991]). The historian M.I. Finley observed, "...the more advanced the Greek city-state, the more it will be found to have had true slavery rather than the "hybrid" types... More bluntly put, the cities in which individual freedom reached its highest expression... were cities in which chattel slavery flourished." Finley goes on to conclude this famous article with the statement, "One aspect of Greek history... is the advance, hand in hand, of freedom and slavery" ("Was Greek Civilization Based on Slave Labour?", in Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, edited by B.D. Shaw and R.P. Saller [Viking Press 1982]).

It is disturbing to think that freedom is not a natural conception, that non-western civilizations lived for centuries without it, and that the conception arose from the institution of slavery. If Patterson is right, the Greeks gave us the idea of freedom, but they also gave us the practice of dehumanizing others, of exploiting their labor, and of devising subtle ways to justify such practices.

In a pre-industrial, agricultural society, which is what the ancient Greek world was, how did the citizen participate in political life to such a degree and at the same time maintain a household? Scholars such as Patterson and Finley point to mass slavery. Yet it may be historically inaccurate to use scant evidence gleaned from our remaining literary sources for general Greek notions on freedom and the employment of slave labor. The views on slaves and the aversion for physical labor which we possess come for the most part from the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and these men certainly were not typical Greeks. But if slavery is not the answer, the question remains: In a pre-industrial, agricultural society, how does the citizen participate in political life to such a degree and at the same time maintain a household? Ancient Greece, the world of the polis, was a peasant society. Most men had to work for a living; many could not afford to own slaves. Ellen Meiksins Wood has argued that in Mediterranean dry-farming agricultural communities, subsistence farming is not all that labor-intensive; there are considerable periods of idle time in the agricultural year (Peasant-Citizen and Slave [London and New York 1988]). In this context, we can see how the ancient Greeks were able to survive and to engage in participatory self-government.

Meiksins Wood makes a good case and makes us realize that the answer to our question is complex. The idea of the typical Greek sitting around philosophizing or attending political assembly and debate while slaves performed all of life's menial tasks is most certainly historically false. Yet the answer to the question probably does lie in a more complicated scheme of social differentiation of the polis. The Greeks were a slave-owning society, and in a place like fifth-century Athens, slave labor was employed on a vast scale. The free adult male citizen and the chattel slave represent two poles in what Finley called a "spectrum of statuses." In between there were statuses of semi-dependence: debt bondsmen, resident aliens, women. Within the polis the citizen was distinguished from these people of inferior status. In this sense, the world of the Greek polis was in no way egalitarian or equalitarian. To use the Harvard psychologist G.W. Allport's terminology, there were several "out-groups" within the polis.

Collective decision-making and open public debate in the polis were practiced only by adult male citizens. The nature of this debate was one of conflict, competition, antagonism. The climate of the polis was agonistic (from the Greek word agōn, "struggle" or "trial" or "competition"). The Greeks made nearly everything into a competition (even the dramatic performances of tragedy and comedy were judged, with winners and losers). The agonistic nature of Greek society has been described as "zero-sum competition," which means that there was a limited amount of honor, or timē, to go around, and that the glory which the victor gains entails a corresponding loss of face on the part of the loser. The sum of the benefit to the victor and the detriment to the loser is zero. This type of remorseless agonistic struggle may be a part of the legacy of the Greek polis to the modern world.

It's time to sum up. The Greek achievement has been under attack in recent years, as for many the ancient Greeks created many of the undesirable aspects in the western tradition; and in a post-modernist, multi-cultural environment it is time to reevaluate that tradition, dominated as it has been by 'dead, white, male Europeans'. Yet it is difficult to deny that the Greeks did make positive contributions of a nearly unbelievable magnitude to the basic structures of the modern world.  Politics as we know it also was a product of the polis. Dēmokratia or democracy, "the rule of the people," was a Greek invention. To be sure, there are highly negative aspects of the Greek legacy--imperial exploitation, oppression of women, and chattel slavery.  Yet the Greek achievement still commands awe and respect, and that achievement was played out in the strange, small community we call the Greek polis. 

We can admire the ancient Greek polis for its communal spirit, its experiments in participatory democracy, and its cultural productions. At the same time, we may find it repulsive in its combativeness, its exclusionary principles, and the limitations of its political vision. Like most things Greek, we react ambivalently, finding things to cherish and things to loathe. But in in considering the ancient Greek polis, one has the feeling of an incomprehensible strangeness, but there is also a suspicion that in some ways we are looking at hyper-charged illustrations of ourselves.