Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State

Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State

Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State

Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State

Synopsis

From antiquity until the nineteenth century, there have been two types of state: macro-states, each dotted with a number of cities, and regions broken up into city-states, each consisting of an urban center and its hinterland. A region settled with interacting city-states constituted a city-state culture and Polis opens with a description of the concepts of city, state, city-state, and city-state culture, and a survey of the 37 city-state cultures so far identified.

Mogens Herman Hansen provides a thoroughly accessible introduction to the polis (plural: poleis), or ancient Greek city-state, which represents by far the largest of all city-state cultures. He addresses such topics as the emergence of the polis, its size and population, and its political organization, ranging from famous poleis such as Athens and Sparta through more than 1,000 known examples.

Excerpt

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. 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 . . .

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