The Rise of Poleis

Sun Mar 8 23:09:56 2009
Probably the most significant change in the Greek world after the Dark Ages was the rise of the poleis in the 9th and 8th centuries. The word polis is found in Homer where it means a central fortification or citadel which reflects its origins. The polis was often setup along some kind of natural fortification and it formed the “urban” center of the surrounding agrarian countryside. Power belonged to a handful of wealthy landowning families.

Polis is often translated into English as “city-state.” These are not like the Near Eastern city-states of Mesopotamia where there was a central palace compound where a king or emperor ruled, there were temples for the major deities and central administration was located. The Greek polis is much smaller and the idea came to mean more the men who make up the polis, the politês or citizens, rather than the place or buildings, the asty.

Each polis had a small but relatively stable sphere of influence. They were frequently in conflict with their neighbors. They would often form alliances, but rarely expanded their sphere of influence. Typical disputes were about the boundaries of land between two poleis.

The political system that worked for the small and isolated communities during the Dark Ages were insufficient as the population grew creating a scarcity of land and as the economy became more diverse with trade providing alternatives to farming.

The rise of trade brought a decrease in relative wealth and influence for the traditional aristocratic landowning families. In many cases a tyranos would seize control of the government and establish their own personal rule. While it is common to portray the tyrannoi as violent dictators (especially by Classical era Athenian writers) many of them were benevolent rulers that brought about essential reforms. Peisistratus is a well documented example. He receives praise from Herodotus for consistency and fairness and Aristotle regards him as an example of one of the greatest virtues, sophrosune. While he took the lands of his political rivals he did not incorporate them into his personal holdings but distributed them among the hektemoroi, making them landowners and stabilizing the society. He also imported the popular cult of Dionysus which also reduced the influence of the hereditary priesthood. He encouraged trade, commerce and set about to improve the city of Athens.


~ by severalfourmany on March 8, 2009.

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