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Greek Polis: Definition, Facts & Quiz

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Taught by

Mary Fogle

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Discover the Ancient Greek polis, a term used to describe small communities of Ancient Greeks that were among the first recorded democracies in the world. Learn about the Athenian polis and explore the legacy of these Ancient Greek communities.

Definition

Polis (the plural is poleis) is a term that is used to describe a tight knit small community of Ancient Greek citizens who agreed on certain rules and customs. Usually a polis was centered on a small town and the countryside the surrounded it. The Ancient Greek poleis are among the first recorded democratic governments in the world.

Site of the Ancient Greek polis Stiris
Site of Ancient Greek polis,Stiris

Government in the Polis

The government of the polis was made up of citizens who were supposed to work for the good of all inhabitants. Citizenship, and thus political power, was granted based on gender and birthplace. All males born to local families were citizens and were able to vote concerning the government of the polis. People born outside the polis were excluded from citizenship and could not vote in a polis that was not their birthplace. Women were also not allowed to take part in voting for the polis, although they could act as priestesses in religious ceremonies.

Although we would consider such a government to be exclusionary and discriminatory, to the ancient world the government practiced by the Ancient Greek poleis was considered very inclusive because it allowed poor males born in the polis to vote despite their low socioeconomic status. The low number of citizens allowed Greek voters to vote directly on any issue involving the government of their town. This type of democracy is called a direct democracy because citizens have the ability to vote directly on an issue rather than having an elected representative who votes on their behalf as many democracies, including America do today.

Ruins of Perseopolis
Ruins of Perseopolis

Athens, the Most Famous Polis

The Athenian polis was one of the largest city-states in Greece. In Athens, all adult male citizens gathered together ten times per year and voted on issues affecting the area. Civic offices were filled either by election or by a random lottery. Jury trials were common and most citizens served on juries or acted as civil officers during their lifetimes. There were term limits and a system on rotation in place for all civil officers. The Athenian polis enjoyed economic prosperity and became a critical stop in ancient trade routes. The example of Athens helped to spread the use of democratic government and served as an example for other city-states and for other nations.

Allies and Enemies

In some places several poleis would gather together and create leagues of city-states. Each city-state remained independent in its internal affairs, but they would band together to fight off invaders. One of the major problems of the Greek democracy was the extreme individuality of the each city-state. Since each polis was unique, it was difficult for a league of city-states to remain united for long.

In addition, it was common for several city-states to battle with one another over land or other resources. Because each city-state was unique and independent in its internal affairs, Greek city-states had difficulty with maintaining a cohesive league of city-states. In addition, most poleis lacked a clear leader and political power rested in the hands of many different officials. With each polis ruled by a group of leaders, maintaining an alliance could be difficult, and many leagues were ultimately unsuccessful.

Legacy of the Polis

Despite the problems of the Greek polis, its form of government, democracy, continues to live on. Following the example of the Ancient Greek poleis, people in nations across the world have gathered together to agree upon certain rules and customs. Many western nations practice some from of democracy, although most practice indirect democracy by electing a representative to make laws for them, rather than direct democracy as practiced by the Greek city-states. Democracy, the method by which people govern themselves, continues to flourish in the modern world and the word polis continues to be used to name cities like Minneapolis. The Ancient Greek poleis have an amazingly prolific legacy.

Photograph of Minneapolis by Doug Kerr
Photograph of Minneapolis by Doug Kerr

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