Greek city-states Essay

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The ancient Greeks revered the city-state, or polis, as something special, precious, and particularly their own. The city-state distinguished their culture and provided a vehicle for their social and economic interactions. The great philosopher Aristotle regarded it as the only suitable living arrangement. Moreover, the Greeks believed that the polis distinguished Hellenics from other peoples whom they thought barbarian. The polis was more than a city-state; it was also a place of gathering, conversation, political evolution, civic pride, and artistic achievement.

The roots of the polis lie in the aftermath of the Greek Dark Ages (1100–800 b.c.e.), which set in after the destruction of Mycenaeaen civilization. This time was referred to as the Homeric age, since it is thought that the events recounted in the Iliad took place then. By the end of the Dark Ages, migrations, particularly by a people referred to as the Dorians had changed the demographic landscape of Greece from the population of a large empire to lesser numbers of individuals living in smaller political units thanks to the creation of the polis. The Dorians came not as a mass migration but in small groups. Thus Greece became the home of the polis with many of them developing, large and small, throughout the country. In addition, the nature of the Greek countryside, rocky and divided by mountains, encouraged settlement in smaller numbers.

The polis usually included a fortress called the acropolis, on an elevation, and an agora, or market. The population lived in the houses and farms surrounding this area and could vary greatly in size. Some were large like Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth, while others were extremely small. All seemed to have a strong sense of identity and patriotism; each might have their own god or goddess. Some, like Sparta, became land powers, while others, like Athens, depended on their navy. In addition, it was common for city-states to establish colonies in such places as Italy, France, and even Russia. Political arrangements differed among the poleis and in many cases the form of government would change over time. At the outset many of them had kings and some continued in this manner.

Many city-states evolved from a monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy (the rule of the few) to a plutocracy (the rule of the wealthy), a tyranny (the rule of one), or a democracy (the rule of the people). In many poleis a sense of participation arose, but women, slaves, and resident aliens were excluded from the political process. The polis was also an artistic center. Two poleis stand out as examples of the various ways in which the city-state might develop. Sparta was the warrior society in which all institutions were dedicated to that end, and Athens was the open society, whose hallmark was the freedom and individualism of its citizens. Sparta was the major power in the Peloponnese. It reduced the native population to state slavery (helots) and after a dangerous rebellion created a fortress state under the guidance of Lycurgus. Spartan male citizens were trained for war, taken away from their mothers and taught by the state. Given physical exercise and martial training, they were also taught to spy on the helots and report those who might be suspect. Though life in Sparta seemed harsh, their discipline and courage won the plaudits of many other Greeks.

Athens, on the other hand, set in Attica, with a fine harbor nearby, traveled in a different path. Having begun as a monarchy and transformed itself, largely thanks to its lawgiver Solon, the Athenians had evolved into a democratic polis, in which all free Athenian male citizens could participate. Popular assembly ran both the government and the judicial system, and Athens became a thriving and creative polis. Its major leader in the fifth century b.c.e., Pericles, spoke of Athens as the school of Hellas, emphasizing its intellectual and cultural dominance over the rest of Greece.

In many respects the fate of the Greek polis was closely connected to the relationship between these two rival cities. War against the Persians from 490 to 479 b.c.e. had been preceded by some bad feelings, but the actions of Athens and Sparta led the outnumbered Greeks to victory. In 490 b.c.e. the Athenians defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, while the brave Spartans held the pass at Thermopylae in 480 b.c.e. long enough to slow down the Persians. Finally in at the Battle of Salamis, the Athenians destroyed the Persian fleet. However, the amity between the two poleis did not last.

Following the Persian wars the Athenians established a defensive alliance known as the Delian League with the ostensible purpose of protecting its members from future attacks. Athens controlled the treasury of the league on the island of Delos and began to use the money for its own purposes. In addition, member states were not allowed to opt out. Sparta responded by setting up its own alliance of poleis, known as the Peloponnesian League. The two defensive leagues fell into a disastrous conflict known as the Peloponnesian War, beginning in 431 b.c.e. and ending in 404 b.c.e. Fought intermittently, the war caused great loss of life and destruction as Athens used naval strength against Sparta’s military dominance. The ultimate result was the total defeat of Athens, described by Thucydides. It ended with a brutal Spartan-controlled tyranny in Athens, and that city’s moral decline is seen in the trial and execution of Socrates in 399 b.c.e. The fourth century b.c.e. began with Spartan supremacy, but this shifted to other cities such as Thebes and a recovered Athens. By 340 b.c.e., however, power shifted to Macedonia under Philip of Macedon and then, upon his death, to his son, Alexander the Great.


  1. Hansen, Mogens H. Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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