This is the first of a planned three part look at the structure of the ancient Greek polis, the self-governing ‘city state,’ as part of a larger series on civic governance in the pre-modern world. Since I argued, way back in June of 2019, that a noble house in Game of Thrones was unlikely to have the administrative capacity to run a large city, folks have been asking: well then how were large ancient and medieval cities run? Some ask out of curiosity but a lot of folks because they are worldbuilding for novels or RPGs or just for fun and want to make more realistic towns and town governments. But offering a single, “here is what town government looks like” model isn’t going to work because forms of civic governance can be quite different across time and culture. So instead we’re going over the next several months be taking a few looks at different forms of communal government, starting with the Greek polis. After the polis, we’ll at least take a look at the civic governance of the Roman Republic (a much larger entity than any polis). After that, my hope is to get a few colleagues to perhaps offer similar primers on other forms of civic governance, particularly in the European Middle Ages.
I thus hope this series will speak both to readers who want to better understand ancient forms of civic governance as historical entities for their own sake, but also for the worldbuilders – I know I have quite a few readers who do this – who want to imagine pre-modern civic structures that make sense. At least a little more than the standard ‘this town has one mayor who does everything and one shopkeeper who sells everything.’ And the best way to do that is just to explore how actual civic governance was structured!
But for this series, we’re focused on the polis! In this first part, we’re going to look at how the polis is defined by its component parts: the households and physical space that all make up and are definitional to the polis. Then, all going to plan, part II will take a look at the typical governing structures of a polis and part III will then look at the members of the community both mortal (the status of various kinds of people in the polis) and divine (the role of religion in the polis).
And unlike an actual polis (which tended to be quite closed-off to new entrants), if you want to join the amici of the blog, you can do so by supporting supporting me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on Twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live.
(Bibliography: The first place to start on the polis is M.H. Hansen, Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City State (2006), though the book is less of an introduction than the title may imply. I am also here going to rely a fair bit, as any modern study of the polis must, on the Copenhagen Polis Centre’s great opus, M.H. Hansen and T.H. Nielsen, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis (2004), particularly its introductory chapters. Though it is an edited collection, there is enough useful in R. Brock and S. Hodkinson (eds.), Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization and Community in Ancient Greece (2000), that’s it’s worth noting the whole volume, as well as Hans Beck (ed.), A Companion to Ancient Greek Government (2013). On oligarchy in particular, note M. Simonton, Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History (2017). On the economics of the polis, A. Bresson’s, L’économie de la Grèce des cités (2007/8) is now available in English translation as, A. Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets and Growth in the City-States, trans. Steven Rendall (2016); it is a shame they did not keep the rather more to-the-point French title. On religion and the polis, F. de Polignac, Naissance de la cité greque: Cultes, espace et société, VIIIe-VIIe siècles (1984) is available in translation as Polignac, Cults, Territory and the Origins of the Greek City-State, trans. J. Lloyd (1995), a rare example of a title improved in its clarity by translation.)
A Typical Polis?
Defining the polis (plural: poleis) is remarkably tricky, so tricky in fact that the Polis Center, after spending ten years inventorying every known polis, did not quite manage to settle on a single definition and instead inventoried poleis based on if they are called poleis in the sources or if they show signs of doing the things that a polis usually does (like building walls or minting coins).1 In Greek usage, a polis was a town, but it was also the political community of that town (which may or may not be an independent state, though the Greeks tended to think that poleis ought to be independent by nature) and the broader territory that political community controlled and also the body of citizens, the politai, who made up the community. These are connected definitions, of course, but there is a lot of give in these joints, yet the idea of a polis as a self-governing community centered on a single, usually fortified, town center is a strong one in Greek thought.
In any case there certainly were a lot of them. The Polis Center’s inventory counts just over a thousand archaic and classical poleis (it does not extend into the Hellenistic period), of which probably around 800-900 existed at one time. Now our vision of these poleis is necessarily a bit skewed: most were very small and leave little evidence, while the two most prominent poleis in our sources by far, Athens and Sparta, were both very unusual in their size and governing structures. That said while most poleis were very small, it doesn’t follow that most Greeks lived in very small poleis; M.H. Hansen notes ((2006), 83) that by his estimates 80% of all of the poleis housed around 35% of the polis-living population, while the top 10% largest poleis housed roughly 40%.
But the smallest poleis could be very small. A touch over 200 poleis in the inventory had territories of less than 100km2. A small polis like that might have a total population of just a few thousand, with an even smaller subset of that population consisting of adult citizen males. On the other hand, very large poleis like Athens or Sparta might have hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, though as M.H. Hansen notes in the inventory these sorts of massive poleis with territories in excess of 1,000km2 were very rare: there are just thirteen such known.2
But crucially for this survey, what we’re going to see is that there some fairly common and standard polis institutions, which seem fairly common regardless of size. Indeed, the language and thinking of our Greek sources is often informed by a sort of idea of an ideal or standard polis, from which every real polis deviates in certain ways. These little communities had institutions which resembled each other, to the point that the difference between ‘oligarchic’ or ‘democratic’ or even ‘tyranical’ poleis could be surprisingly slight. So that’s what we’re going to look at here: a basic sense of what a polis notionally was. And we’ll begin by looking at the parts that comprised a polis, which is going to be quite important as we go forward, since the way one structures a government depends on how one imagines the component parts being governed.
Putting Houses Together
A polis is made up of households, called oikoi (singular: oikos),3 to the point that creating a new polis was called synoikismos (or synocism). The Greek there is συνοικισμóς, συν- (meaning ‘together’) and οἶκος giving the word a meaning something like ‘living together in one house’ or ‘putting the houses together as one.’ This was the word the Greeks used to describe the process by which a disparate set of tribes, villages and households came together to create a polis; Indeed Aristotle (Arist. Pol. 1253b) is explicit that the oikos is the smallest unit, the ‘atom’ to use M.H. Hansen’s word, of the polis, not the individual.
So what is an oikos? Well that word is about as plastic as polis. Oikos can mean a house (as in a physical building), or it can mean a household (as in the family that dwells in that building) or it can mean all of the property of that household, and indeed Greek writers will use this word to mean all of these things, often in the same context (that is they shift freely between these linked meanings, not seeing them as fully distinct). Now as a ‘family’ we should note that an oikos was rather more extensive than our sense of family (though rather less extensive than the Roman concept of a familia and a lot less extensive than a Roman gens; we’ll come to these in a later series): an oikos consisted of all of the people who lived together in a house, which generally meant the adult citizen male, his wife and dependents and also their enslaved workers. It that family had enslaved workers who did not live with them, they also generally counted as part of the oikos because they were understood as the property of it.
The creation of a polis meant merging all of these things together in a very literal way. In a physical sense the creation of a town core meant literally putting houses together, as a good part of the population might move to live in that town core (with their farms just outside the town in walking distance, remember: most of these poleis are very small). Indeed M.H. Hansen notes in the introductory article on synoikismos in the Inventory that the only “purely political synoecism” – that is, a synoikismos that did not involve actually moving people to form or merge with a new town center but merely politically united existing geographically distinct communities – occurs in myth in Theseus’ supposed creation of the Athenian poleis. That this sort of synoikismos never happens in the historical period (there’s an attempt in Ionia in 547/6 but it never gets off the ground) ought to suggest that it probably didn’t happen with Theseus either.
It is also in a sense the merging of families, as one of the key privileges of citizenship in a polis was the right to marry women of citizen status (that is, the daughters of citizens) and thus have citizen children.4 And it meant the new citizenry putting their fortunes – in a literal, physical sense of the wealth that enabled them to survive (think farms and farming) – together in common when it came to things like war.
This may all seem fairly straightforward, but I invite you to consider the different implications it has compared to the way we mostly conceive of the population of a country, which we tend to imagine as a collection of individuals; as we’ll see the Greeks did this a bit too, but it wasn’t the first thought they reached for. In the polis, it is the households that have standing, represented by their adult, free citizen male heads, not individuals. The polis protects the households from the world, not the members of the household from each other, with the most obvious and immediate legal implication being the fact that crimes against junior members of the household are often understood as property crimes against the head of the household and actions within the household are simply not the business of the state. Now we shouldn’t over-stretch this: the Greeks were capable of understanding non-free and non-male people as individuals at times, but the political structure of the polis is predicated on units of households.
The Polis as a Place
A polis is also a place made up of physical spaces. Physically, the Greeks understood a polis to be made up of city itself, which might just be called the polis but also the astu (ἄστυ, “town”), and the hinterland or countryside, generally called the chora (χώρα). The fact that the word polis can mean both the city and the (city+chora=state) should already tell you something about the hierarchy envisaged here: the city is the lord of the chora. Now in the smallest of poleis that might make a lot of sense because nearly everyone would live in the town anyway: in a polis of, say, 150km2, no point might be more than 8 or 9 kilometers from the city center even if it is somewhat irregularly shaped. A farmer could thus live in the city and walk out – about an hour or two, a human can walk 6-7km per hour – each morning.
But in a larger polis – and remember, a lot of Greeks lived in larger poleis even though they were few, because they were large – the chora was going to be large enough to have nucleated settlements like villages in it; for very large poleis it might have whole small towns (like Eleusis or Thoricus/Laurion in Attica, the territory of Athens) as part of the chora. But we usually do not see a sort of nested heirarchy of sites in larger poleis; instead there is the astu and then the chora, the later absorbing into its meaning any small towns, villages (the term here is usually kome), isolated homesteads or other settlements. The polis in the sense of the core city at the center of the community was not a settlement first-among-equals but qualitatively different from every other settlement in the polis – an ideal neatly expressed in that the name of the city served as synecdoche for the entire community (imagine if it was normal to refer to all Canadians as ‘Ottawans’ regardless of if they lived in Ottawa and indeed to usually do so and to only say ‘Canada’ when it was very clear you meant the full extent of its land area).
That is not to say that the astu and chora were undivided. Many poleis broke up their territory into neighborhood units, called demes (δημοι) or komai (κῶμαι, the plural of kome used already) for voting or organizational purposes and we know in Athens at leas these demes had some local governing functions, organizing local festivals and sometimes even local legal functions, but never its own council or council hall (that is, no boule or bouleuterion; we’ll get to these next time), nor its own mint, nor the ability to make or unmake citizen status.
There are also some physical places in the town center itself we should talk about. Most poleis were walled (Sparta was unusual in this respect not being so), with the city core enclosed in a defensive circuit that clearly delineated the difference between the astu and the chora; smaller settlements on the chora were almost never walled. But then most poleis has a second fortified zone in the city, an acropolis (ἀκρόπολις, literally ‘high city’), an elevated citadel within the city. The acropolis often had its own walls, or (as implied by the name) was on some forbidding height within the city or frequently both. This developed in one of two ways: in many cases settlement began on some defensible hill and then as the city grew it spilled out into the lowlands around it; in other cases villages coalesced together and these poleis might not have an acropolis, but they often did anyway. The acropolis of a polis generally wasn’t further built on, but rather its space was reserved for temples and sometimes other public buildings (though ‘oops [almost] all temples’ acropoleis aren’t rare; temples were the most important buildings to protect so they go in the most protected place!).
While the street structure of poleis was generally organic (and thus disorganized), almost every polis also had an agora (ἀγορά), a open central square which seems to have served first as a meeting or assembly place, but also quickly became a central market. In most poleis, the agora would remain the site for the assembly (ekklesia, ἐκκλησία, literally ‘meeting’ or ‘assembly’), a gathering-and-voting-body of all citizens (of a certain status in some systems); in very large poleis (especially democratic ones) a special place for the assembly might exist outside the agora to allow enough space. In Athens this was the Pnyx but in other large poleis it might be called a ekklesiasterion. The agora would almost always have a council house called a bouleuterion where a select council, the boule (βουλή) would meet; we’ll talk about these next time but it is worth noting that in most poleis it was the boule, not the ekklesia that was the core institution that defined polis government. In addition the agora would also house in every polis a prytaneion, a building for the leading magistrates which always had a dining room where important guests and citizens (most notably citizens who were Olympic victors) could be dined at state expense. Dedicated court buildings might also be on the agora, but these are rarer; in smaller poleis often other state buildings were used to house court proceedings. Also, there are almost always temples in the agora as well; please note the agora is never on the acropolis, but almost always located at the foot of the hill on which the acropolis sits, as in Athens.
And this is a good point to reiterate how these are general rules, especially in terms of names. Every polis is a little different, but only a little. So the Athenian ekklesiaterion was normally on the Pnyx (and sometimes in the Theater of Dionysus, an expedient used in other poleis too since theaters made good assembly halls), the Spartan boule is the gerousia, the acropolis of Thebes was the Cadmeia and so on. Every polis is a little different, but the basic forms are recognizable in each, even in relatively strange poleis like Sparta or Athens.5 But it really is striking that self-governing Greek settlements from Emporiae (Today, Empúries, Spain) to Massalia (Marseille, France) to Cyrene (in modern Libya) to Panticapaeum (in Crimea, which is part of Ukraine) tend to feature identifiably similar public buildings mirroring their generally similar governing forms.
A polis was mostly a polis, no matter where you went. Or no matter where it went, which brings us to:
The Polis as the Politai
A polis is most importantly made up of the citizens, the politai (singular polites (πολίτης), plural politai (πολῖται)); indeedAristotle says this too in his Politics (Arist. Pol. 1274b): “for the state [polis] is an assembly of citizens [politai].” Now we are used to the idea that most people in a country are citizens of it, but the idea of the politai is much narrower. In its fundamental meaning a polites is a person engaged in the running of the polis; it is an idea defined by political participation. The politai were adult, citizen men; women, children, the enslaved and free non-citizens were all excluded from this group. A bit of demographic math might suggest that a modest polis with 2000 inhabitants might thus have just 300-400 politai.6
Not everyone born in a polis was a member of the politai. Women could be of citizen status (and thus able to bear citizen children in poleis where that was required), but they could not be citizens at all.7 Being the male child of citizen parents was generally the core requirement of citizenship and in a democratic polis that was generally enough, but oligarchic poleis typically imposed wealth qualifications for political participation so not everyone born to citizens might themselves be a polites if they ended up too poor to meet the requirements. The terms astos and aste (ἀστός and ἀστή), ‘townsman’ and ‘townswoman’ respectively, might be used to make this distinction between the politai and people who were ‘merely’ natives of the polis but barred for whatever reason from political participation. These distinctions become a lot more meaningful when you realize the point Aristotle is making defining the polis this way: if the polis is a community of politai then the residents of a polis (the physical space) who are not citizens are not members of the polis (not merely, we might imagine, non-participatory members).
Now the politai themselves also existed in subdivisions. We’ve mentioned division into demes or neighborhoods; while notionally geographic, demes could become hereditary (and indeed did become so in Athens). In Sparta and some poleis on Crete, citizens were divided into mess groups (syssitia or andreia). But by far the most common and important such division was into ‘tribes’ or phylai (φυλαί, sing. φυλή), inherited8 kinship groups that often formed the largest subdivision of the politai of a polis, with even very small poleis having attested divisions into phylai in some cases (e.g. Delos as noted by M.H. Hansen in “Civic Subdivisions” in the Inventory). The politai might also be subdivided by other groupings like phratria (brotherhoods) and indeed a polis might have multiple such groupings, either neatly nested (as in Athens’ demes sorted into thirty trittyes sorted into ten phylai to make up the citizen body) or they might confusingly cross-cut each other.
There’s another key distinction between the politai – or at least men who might be politai – which isn’t a legal distinction but nevertheless matters for understanding how the Greeks imagined civic governance: the distinction between the few (hoi oligoi) and the many (hoi polloi). The few were the economic elite of the politai – the wealthy landowners – and the dominant group in oligarchies. A few terms might signify this group: ‘the few’ (οἱ ὀλίγοι – hoi oligoi) or ‘the best’ (οἱ ἄριστοι – hoi aristoi), or ‘the rich’ (οἱ πλούσιοι – hoi plousioi) and can also be part of the meaning of the appellation ‘beautiful and good’ (καλὸς κἀγαθός = καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθός – kalos kagathos) which translates more idiomatically to something like ‘gentleman’ with an implication of both good conduct (especially in war) and high status. At its broadest reach, the few might consist of those politai with enough wealth to serve as hoplites, though it seems in most cases this group is understood much more narrowly and might be defined by heredity in addition to wealth in some cases.
In contrast to the few were, of course, the many. Once again a few terms might signify this group: ‘the many’ (οἱ πολλοί – hoi polloi or οἱ πλῆθος – hoi plethos) or ‘the poor’ (οἱ ἀποροῖ – hoi aporoi) or the people (δῆμος – demos), the last of which gives us the word democracy – rule by the demos. At it’s narrowest extent, these are all of the people too poor to serve as hoplites but who would otherwise be politai; in fact in a democracy they are politai, but in closed oligarchies they may not be.9 More broadly the concept of the demos can encompass all of the politai, both wealthy and poor, especially in a democratic context. Nevertheless the Greeks often understand these two groups as oppositional and non-overlapping: the politai composed of ‘the few,’ with money and high status lineages and ‘the many,’ without that, but with far greater raw numbers.
As we’ll see, it is that distinction – between ‘the few’ and ‘the many’ which the Greeks used to define the different forms of polis government, what they called a politeia (πολιτεία), which we might translate as ‘constitution’ with the caveat that these are not written constitutions. And that’s where we’ll go next: now that we have our subdivisions, we’ll discuss next week the different ways they are organized and governed.
- And this definitional complexity is then immediately caveated by the note that the Greeks call some things which are obviously not poleis, like non-Greek settlements or smaller settlements within an existing polis‘ territory.
- But chances are you’ve heard of some of them: Argos, Athens, Byzantium, Rhodes, Sparta and Syracuse are all in this category, with Sparta (8,400km2) and Syracuse (12,000km2) being more than twice as large by territory as any other polis on the list (third place goes to Panticapaeum in Crimea with 3,000km2 and then Athens is in fourth place with 2,500km2). I thus reiterate my point that Sparta ought to have been a lot more powerful than it was given how enormous it was as a polis.
- No, I do not know why there is a Greek yogurt brand named ‘house.’
- We’ll come back to the question of how one gets citizenship a bit later, because it varies by polis.
- Indeed, this is one of the most useful points of recent Sparta scholarship to note: Sparta was a strange polis, but still recognizably a polis. I tend to regard Sparta as rather more strange than, say, Stephen Hodkinson does, albeit on different metrics.
- Assuming adult males are around a quarter of the population and something like 20% of the population are enslaved or non-citizen. The number could, of course, be much lower; as we’ve seen in Sparta the politai made up a single-digit percentage of the community.
- Whereas by contrast Roman women were citizens, albeit with sharply restricted rights. It is, in my view, a meaningful difference.
- Note again, oligarchies could often be quite a bit narrower than merely the hoplite class.
157 thoughts on “Collections: How to Polis, 101, Part I: Component Parts”
A nice overview. What continues to amaze me about the study of Greek antiquity is just how much of it hasn’t even begun to be looked at. My father in law grew up in the modern village of Platea, which is immediately adjacent to the ruins of the Polis. It is possible to wander around on the ruins. Until a few years ago there was a sign at the edge of the ruins that said ‘Ancient Ruins’ in a couple of languages, and literally nothing else whatsoever.
My FIL has told me stories of using pottery shards from the ruins in their slingshots when they were kids – a notion that would cause heart palpitations in most archaeologists and historians.
Surface sherds aren’t really all that useful archaeologically (other than establishing simple presence of a pottery type), since they’re “disturbed” and out of context. If one person’s used it as slingshot ammo (because it was lying around easily accessible), chances are good they’re not the first person to have disturbed it. 🙂
(Disclaimer: not an archaeologist, but I have been on a few excavations [including this past January]. Typically less than 10% of the pottery sherds we found would be considered interesting enough to save for study; the rest ended up in a big ol’ pile at the base of the tal.)
On re-reading this comes off a bit dismissive, which was not my intent – that’s incredibly cool to grow up in proximity to ancient ruins like that. And it’s exciting to think about how much is left to excavate and find (all over the world).
As Daniel mentioned, objects out of archaeological context are worthless to archaeologists. A gold crown may have monetary value but little intellectual one for an archaeologist precisely because it has no context – where did it come from (GPS coordinates would be the bare minimum needed), is there a sample of the soil it was buried in, precisely how deep was it buried in centimeters and what was its orientation, what artifacts and features were nearby, etc. Most archaeologists would likely be happier to uncover a garbage pit than some jewelry because the garbage will tell them much more about the culture they’re studying.
Sorry, meant to type a *looted gold crown.
On the subject of good and bad French to English title translations, I’ve always been a bit bemused by how René Barjavel’s science fiction novel “Le Grand Secret” when translated to English was given the spoileriffic title “The Immortals.”
Why even translate that title at all?
Oikos is a peer-reviewed ecology journal, too, but the connection there is clearer than with the yogurt – the “eco-” in ecology and economics is a direct simplification of “oikos”. Ecology is the study of the “household” of nature – all the plants and animals and the environment they live in – and economics originally meant something like “frugal household management.” Yes, this means that “home economics” is actually the original sense of the term and also just as redundant as “ATM machine.”
Yes, what we call “economics” was originally called “political economy,” i.e., the household management (as it were) of the state.
The difference being that the “machine” in “ATM” is much more directly…present than the “home” in “economics”.
You make the point here and in past posts that Greek polis citizenship was very restricted and virtually impossible to attain for outsiders. Now I am beginning to understand why exile was considered a very drastic punishment – it often meant that the condemned was never to be a citizen of anywhere ever again.
Repeatedly taking sides in XXI cent territorial disputes feels really weird in a article about ancient Greece.
It shouldn’t. I invite you to consider the contemporary implications of the questions, “Were the ancient Macedonians Greeks?” and “Was ancient Ionia part of Hellas?”
Are you implying that there should be different contemporary political consequences if the answer to these questions would be “yes” or “no”? Or what *exactly* is the statement here?
It’s an empirical fact that there ARE different contemporary political consequences if the answer to these questions is “yes” or “no”.
Logically, there shouldn’t be political consequences to the identities of people living in polities whose successors and conquerors are all gone. But nationalism isn’t logical, and it’s a major component of modern politics.
I’m not talking about right-wing ultranationalism, by the way. That is a depressingly significant component of modern politics, but I’m talking about the national identities constructed out of the parts of history that make “us” look impressive and unified, used to bolster a sense of “us” that should be controlled by central institutions and/or geopolitically significant.
Macedonians as the Greeks defined the term, or Macedonians as the Romans defined the term?
I vaguely recall that the Roman province of Macedonia included areas that the Macedonian kingdom of Alexander’s era never ruled. So you can have different answers depending on which definition you adopt.
And since FYROM (now North Macedonia) has always insisted on adopting the latter definition, and Greece has always insisted on using the former, the result was a decades-long dispute over nomenclature, only recently resolved.
I would like to name-drop the concept of “cognitive (de)coupling”.
Poetry and arts are some stereotypically coupling fields; they function using “loose” symbolic allusions (which associations may or may not be shared by other cultural groups). Whereas it is exactly the decoupling habits and norms of e.g. scientific fields and their practitioners that often earn them a reputation for pedantry; frequently they outright hold that the ideal way to examine a claim’s truth is to only look at its logical implications and to ignore its provenance and social implications.
From a very coupling point of view, a refusal to consider the social implications when deciding whether to endorse a claim often looks like a lack of, say, empathy or loyalty.
From a very decoupling perspective, dragging in irrelevant concerns when evaluating the truth of a claim looks like an inability to think straight.
Yeah, while I agree that Crimea is part of the Ukraine and Western politics should support the goal to make Russia retreat it’s occupation troops, this felt off.
The fundamental issue here is that ‘Crimea’ is a territorial region, not a country- this is a point nearly everyone agrees on, including the Ukrainians, the Russians, and the international community as a whole. However, ‘Crimea’ is a geographically distinct blob of land with a well known history, because it’s a peninsula so isolated from land as to nearly form a separate island off the coast.
It is objectively quite reasonable to say “this Greek polis, which is in Crimea,” as a way of informing the reader where something is. But further clarifying which country Crimea is a part of then makes sense, because we are using modern-day national boundaries as part of the guidelines for the rest of the list.
I presume this is a reference to comments in the above post mentioning that Marseille is in France and Crimea is in Ukraine. These are not in any way disputable statements. There is no doubt in law that Marseille is in France, or that Crimea is in Ukraine. It is an objective, demonstrable fact that Marseille is in France, and that Crimea is in Russian-occupied Ukraine.
You might as well complain that the courts take the side of the rightful owner against the thief, whenever they declare someone the rightful owner.
And if you want to ignore the law altogether, no modern state exists, as they are all creations of the law. Nor can you complain if a carjacker steals your car.
As a legal positivist, I have to note that if your car is carjacked, there is a strong possibility that armed representatives of a very powerful state will assist in recovering it. There is little likelihood of that happening with respect to Crimea: indeed armed representatives of a (somewhat less) powerful state are working hard to prevent its restoration to its prior ruler.
There is also a difference, in modern thinking, between property (what you have in your car) and sovereignty (what Ukraine had over Crimea), but I will ignore that for now.
None of this is meant to defend Russian behavior, only to enhance analytic clarity and refute false analogies.
But I wouldn’t say it is a false analogy; ‘carjacking’ (as opposed to ‘car theft’) requires the threat of violence to enforce the initial transfer of possession (and this distinction is the only reason the term exists). Rarely, but sometimes, the threats that enforce a carjacking are prolonged, made by organized actors, and carried through into direct violence even against intervening security forces. It is not difficult for a normative English-speaking American to parse the statement “Ukraine’s Crimea was peninsula-jacked by Russia a few years ago and they still haven’t gotten it back,” and said person would not think a transfer of ownership was being described, nor would they think the extreme difference in scale would invalidate the comparison.
If citizenship is inherited, I imagine you could have generational residency among free non-citizens. How much loyalty did non-politai residents have to the polis? Were there emotional ties? Or did they conceive of themselves as separate even after living there for a while?
Right, and how much could they contribute to the city? Like if Sparta is invading, it’s to the benefit of the Etruscan traders who have lived in the city for generations that it not be sacked, so would the polis accept donations of goods for the war effort? Or enslaved workers, ships, etc?
IIRC, they’d just confiscate their property as they were still foreigners.
I’m sure the polis would happily confiscate the useful property of non-citizens in an emergency. However, they might hesitate to do so until the situation became an emergency, because of the long-term consequences. Those non-citizens are presumably of value to the polis, after all, or they would already have been driven out and their wealth redistributed among the households of the polis.
Since non-citizens have much less incentive to remain in a given polis than citizens do, the likely consequence of a confiscation is that the polis would see a sudden exodus of non-citizens fleeing the area with all the transportable goods left to them, or non-citizens shifting their loyalties away from the polis of which they are a resident. Either outcome would tend to weaken the polis in the short term or the long term.
So in situations that were not deemed enough of an emergency to justify such mass seizures of goods, the polis likely would welcome donations, because very few people are going to turn down free stuff.
And indeed, one can easily imagine this becoming something of a ‘protection racket.’ The polis allows you to live in the city and keep your wealth, and does not immediately rob you of all things in an emergency. But part of the implicit understanding there is that you are far more willing to ‘voluntarily donate’ large portions of your worldly goods to the polis as the situation gets worse, so that they don’t feel the need to squeeze you to get the rest from you.
Ah, but where would they go? After several generations, they really have no other home.
Were non-citizens allowed to own real estate in a polis? House? Farmland? Did poleis have a land market? I’m guessing somewhat, allowing the accumulation of land by the ‘few’.
It may well be in everyone’s best interests for resident non-citizens to be incentivised to stay in a polis through preferential treatment. However, history is littered with examples of in-group/out-group politics driving policies and behaviours that are very much not in everyone’s best interests (even the people making the decisions themselves!).
In summary, I could see there being incentives to ensure the loyalty of residential non-citizens. I would also not be surprised if there wasn’t any at all.
Hopefully we’ll find out in a later post!
I suspect this is one of those things that varied greatly from polis to polis.
Plato’s “Republic” is set in the home of a third generation resident alien, who seems to have been a respected member of the community (and to have viewed himself as such). No idea how unusual this was (it probably helped that he was wealthy, but noteworthy that his family was allowed to become wealthy and mostly accepted by the wealthy citizens).
My understanding is that while citizenship and wealth tended to correlate it was not absolutely so: You had wealthy metics and poor citizens.
Actually I think Ben Akrigg makes a solid argument about Athenian metics (obviously with a book titled “Population and Economy in Classical Athens” it Athens centered) that they were a a majority of freed slaves and not a majority of economic migrants. Thus they really had no place to go. Compare than only a tiny elite of say the Aristotles that were always just fair weather ex pats who could go to the next pay check town or back home. Toss in some political exiles as well who might or might not ever go home. But Athens was exceptional in both needing the large metic population and open to them. I am guessing long term economic residents in Thebes would probably pull up stakes quite quickly and be a fairly small population.
How blessed am I have this pop up in my inbox for free!
I’m curious as to why feeding people at public expense would be a core/common feature across so many poleis. Did it serve some kind of political or religious function? Was food security in Classical Greece that bad that this was a big deal?
Especially since, in my uninformed amateurish set of assumptions, I would have thought visiting dignitaries, Olympic Athletes, and other people the state wanted to honor would generally have been drawn from the wealthier segments of society. And thus I would have thought a free dinner wouldn’t be that big of a deal to them if they’re already wealthier.
There is not much advantage in giving an honour to someone poor and unimportant: they have nothing to give you in return.
I think this may come up later in what I’ve heard about the Roman “patron-client” relationship.
Short answer: when you feed a poor man (he took your salt), he will do anything for you – including being part of the mob for you.
Indeed. But a patron would still give more to receive a rich clients loyalty than that of a poor client. The rich client brings his own clients with him.
If gifts are about establishing a reciprocal obligation, it’s best to give the most impressive ones to people who can give the most in return.
It depends. Do you want a mob? Then you get a lot of poor clients which you can feed cheaply.
If you want clients that can act themselves, then you give to richer people.
There are downsides. You have to keep giving. The mob isn’t going to feed itself – or if it does, its loyalty then may dissipate.
The rich clients also have their own goals, which will likely eventually conflict. This happened a lot with feudal clients, since they would often have several different lords they got stuff from.
It is true that you don’t give a poor man a lot of stuff, since you can buy his loyalty for a lot less than that.
Free/Subsidized grain for (some of) the poor was a thing in Rome because there would be food riots if they didn’t do that. Rome attracted lots of people, particularly in periods when poor farmers were being displaced by larger estates, and there weren’t exactly a lot of factory jobs in premodern urban centers, so it was hard for everyone in Rome to afford food at market prices even when there was enough food to go around.
Related to this, we can easily see from the factors listed in Dr. Devereaux’s Lonely Cities, and his ‘Bread’ and ‘Logistics’ series, that it would be virtually impossible to feed a city the size of Rome without massive shipments of grain from overseas. The market price of grain in Rome would thus rise to the point of being able to pay for such shipments, and that price was quite high.
Further related to this, as a brutally pragmatic matter, anyone who controlled the grain supply of Rome would necessarily have immense power over the people of Rome, and thus be able to influence its government at will.
I would argue that in Rome, the state took control of supplying grain to the people of Rome for the same reason that the state forbade private citizens from building up forces of heavily armed followers within the city limits. If they had not done so, then someone exploiting that power vacuum would have become the state in short order.
Rome attracted lots of people …because when people were displaced from their previous economic niche and had to decide where to go, the offer of free/subsidized grain made them choose Rome over a closer-by smaller town (which thus stayed small).
Since the Industrial Revolution, we have the concept of induced demand. Rail companies (and later governments) built rail lines (and later highways) into the agricultural chora of large cities, and the population followed them there, replacing agriculture with suburbs.
Or agriculture followed. Massive wheat fields in the US tended to follow, not precede, the railroad.
Rome grew for the same reasons Babylon or Constantinople or later London or Paris did. It needed migrants (because deaths outpaced births), and rural/small town areas had a surplus; Rome was the biggest magnet – lots of opportunities and open to hoped-for advancement in a way that a small town was not. It was not alone or unusual in having a dole.
Hospitality is a really big deal in a lot of ancient (and many modern) cultures, including Greece, where not treating a guest properly would offend Zeus. Feeding guests properly was part of a host’s obligations, so it doesn’t surprise me the state had infastructure to feed guests of the state.
It should be noted that the ancient world had a lot less of the sort of travel infastructure that we rely on today like hotels and resturants, so even wealthy visitors might well need to call on traditions of hospitality when travelling.
I recently read the Odyssey and it was remarkable how much of the story was dedicated towards hosting, good manners, the giving of gifts to your guests etc. In Greek I think this concept is called “xenia”
Some form of dole/ration was very common across the ancient and medieval worlds. Religious festivals (very frequent) often involved free food, price was regulated and hoarding discouraged. Yields fluctuated, transport was prohibitive other then by sea or navigable river (and not reliably then) and the community that did not share in hard times would not survive.
I’d guess that dining important people at expense often meant feeding them meat, which was both expensive and inherently collective if you’re killing a fresh animal rather than just cutting down some dried sausage.
Probably also religious and tie-building aspects to it. It’s bad form to fight someone you’ve “broken bread” with.
And why are business lunches and political dinners a thing today, even among people who can totally afford their own meals?
In pre-Modern (or even pre-Medieval) societies, it could be hard to find places that *sell* foods, not to say cooked foods, due to commercial activities were still underdeveloped. Most people prepared the food by themselves – farmers, fishermen, aristocrats who tax the farmers and the fishermen, etc. It was also why, as the other comment said, “hospitality” was a big deal in ancient cultures – without hospitality, one could easily starve when traveling.
As a result, giving people free food became stable in many societies. And it was not only a public affair – aristocrats, oligarchs, and powerful headmen would feed their followers (or pietas, retainers, etc.) at their own expense; that was also how they attracted these followers. Such practices gave us the word “parasite,” originally meaning “person who eats at the table of another,” usually implying someone poor eating at the table of someone wealthy. Similarly, in China, household retainers or dependent staff were long called 食客 or “catered outsiders.”
“In pre-Modern (or even pre-Medieval) societies, it could be hard to find places that *sell* foods, not to say cooked foods, due to commercial activities were still underdeveloped.”
This is a pretty sweeping statement, and, I think, not necessarily right. If you were in an ancient Roman city it would not be difficult to find a popina, a shop that sold simple food and wine. In fact, since the urban poor would not have had their own cooking facilities, these shops were vital.
Anglo-Saxon writings have references to cook shops. In one of those maddening references, one says there is one in London, and gives a meal of a number of dishes, and says it’s suitable for a city, and we don’t know whether it’s the meal or the shop itself.
What you have described was during later periods – Roman times – when more and more developed cities emerged. A lot of earlier and poorer regions did not have such establishments. Ancient Greece was such a place; and they inherited the tradition of xenia from much earlier times as well. There is a reason why Iliad and stories like Baucis and Philemon all put a strong emphasis on hospitality to hungry strangers.
Note that “hostile” and “hospitality” come from the same root.
This isn’t a question of food security, as you note the sort of folks dined at public expense are going to generally be rich. The purpose of dining at the Prytaneion was about honoring important people (thus the shocking nature of Socrates’ suggestion that he ought to be ‘punished’ for his ‘crimes’ be being dined in the Prytaneion of Athens like an Olympic victor).
So think about it less in terms of the food and more like being invited to the White House for dinner. Sure, the food is going to be nice, but the honor is even more central.
Was this generally an occasional, one-off thing where the person so honoured would have one meal, or perhaps one for each festival or similar special occasion, or would people entitled to being fed by the state typically exercise that option for most of the time it’s available to them, making it something like a gentlemen’s club or another similar recurring networking venue? I.e. all the town’s Top Men are guests at the mayor’s table each evening, which incidentally saves their household a bit but primarily lets them hobnob?
Organising public meals and celebrations was IIRC also the function of a Roman aedile, and being an aedile was a step on the cursus honorum.
I’ve always suspected that one reason was that, if you made it all the way up the cursus, you would be responsible as a consul for running the city, a military campaign, or both. You’d need to be good at organisation and logistics. And party planning was a good public way of testing that.
I can only speculate, but it occurs to me that 1. Greece is not blessed with wide acres of arable land, and, 2. it was important that the city keep its’ fighting men well fed and healthy.
I’m really happy for getting this series! Though I had hoped this would be a much longer post…
Well, that was challenging! Good thing work was canceled for the day due to the extreme inclement weather.
months be taking > to be taking
workers. It that family > If that family
Athens at leas these > at least
most poleis has > had
structure of poleis was generally > were
the acropolis of Thebes was the Cadmeia > [spelling above was cadmea??]
“Street structure” is not a plural noun. Why would you give it a plural verb?
I would have said that I wouldn’t . . . except apparently I did. That attempted “correction” is itself an error, as you have pointed out!
Looking forward to the rest of this series. I’m sure you’ll mention it but I’m noticing some similarities and differences between the Greek hoi polloi/hoi ogiloi and the Roman patrician/plebian divide (which of course got less important as time went on).
Not so much, I don’t think; hoi oligoi was a pragmatic and fluid real-time evaluation of wealth and influence; it was not (usually) hereditary and the spendthrift son of a powerful man who blew his fortune would be out. Whereas patrician status was entirely hereditary (in the Republic), and included impoverished, powerless men with old names like Sulla’s father and Caesar’s grandfather. By contrast plebeians were frequently at the very top- at least one and often both consuls were plebs, and in Cicero’s day plebs held maybe 400 out of 600 seats in the Senate. By the late Republic, at least, the equivalent to the Greek distinction would be that derived from the wealth-based census, and whether you belonged to the First or Second Class – the only ones which mattered politically, and which comprised all the equestrians and (for a while) senators.
I would really like for this series to include how cities were administered outside further outside Europe, because I know much less about those than about Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and Medieval cities. How did it work in the Islamic World, in India or China? What do we know about how Phoenician Poleis worked? Or if we go further back, how did it work in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia? What about pre-Columbian Mexico?
I know we likely can’t have all of these, but I am hoping for as many as possible.
The problem is pretty simple: Bret Devereaux studies the Roman world. He also knows a lot about its temporal and spatial neighbors, but not so much about pre-Classical Antiquity (pre-Roman) or the Islamic world (post-Roman and only partly overlapping with Roman territory), even less about Asia, and not much about the New World.
If Devereaux knows other reputable history bloggers focusing on areas outside his area of expertise, I’d love the recommendation.
My comment was in reference to what he said about bringing in experts for other eras, in particular the Middle Ages. This is just me hoping that, if he is already bringing in other people, maybe he could expand the geographical scope as well.
I’d actually like to know how unusual the polis arrangement was with Greece’s neighbours. Surely the Greeks didn’t invent this all out of nowhere? There must have been a lot of exchange of ideas in the larger region. Canadian and Mexican government have many similarities with government in the US, for example.
The Phoenicians and some peoples in Italy had city-states at least (Aristotle actually discusses the Carthaginian state in comparison with Greek ones in his *Politics*). Though the latter, it can be argued, had significant Greek influence
I read in one of the early volumes of CAH that the one of the Phoenician cities, Arpad maybe, had the earliest then known republican form of government.
One big difference is obviously going to be that most of the poleis were essentially sovereign. That’s a much different situation than a city that is either a tributary/ protectorate of an empire or else directly administered by imperial agents.
Theoretically, but the distinction can be more fleeting than you think. Greek cities continued to operate as poleis (and even founded new ones) post-Alexander, and there were plenty of exmaples of poleis being in various tributary or subject relationships.
Is F. de Polignac of the Prince Polecat Polingacs?
Leaving this comment while reading, so apologies if this gets addressed later in the text.
> But the smallest poleis could be very small. A touch over 200 poleis in the inventory had territories of less than 100km2.
This stood out to me because, well, I have no real sense of how big 100km2 is. So I did some Wikipediaing and, looks like the dry land area of San Francisco is about 120km2.
That doesn’t seem so small to me? A couple hundred or maybe couple thousand people living and farming in that space? Am I dramatically underestimating how big farms have to be? Because that doesn’t feel small to me, for a unit of political organization. _Especially_ in an era where you had to walk everywhere.
Remember that we are not merely talking about a unit of political organization. A polis is an independent state, the biggest unit of political organization. They are not part of something bigger. They would consider themselves on equal footing with the USA (though they obviously would recognize the power difference).
For comparison, in the modern day, there are 5 fully recognized states smaller then 100km2 worldwide: Vatican City, Monaco, Nauru, Tuvalu, San Marino. Four of those 5 have more then 10,000 inhabitants.
It’s not a small space for a couple hundred/thousand people. But a couple hundred, or even a couple thousand, people is barely anything in the context of larger poleis with hundreds of thousands of residents, let alone empires with millions or modern polities with tens or hundreds of millions.
According to “bread, how did they make it?” you should count 5 at least acres per (small) farm, and about 8 people per farm. A little number crunching revels there’s a bit shy of 5000 5 acre plots per 100 km^2. So, about 40000 people. That’s assuming a flat plain of uniform fertility, with no cities, no rivers, no forest, no nothing but small, poor farms. So with few thousand people, we are already looking at about 15% of maximum packing capacity of a absolute best case scenario. You can fit a 29 people into mini cooper. I leave you to decide if a mini cooper is small for 4 adults and a baby. (29*0,15=4,35)
You need *lots* of farmland to feed people, and depending on the soil you may need much, much more. When you factor in stuff like variety and efficiency, and pastures for livestock to graze.
There’s an illustration from an admittely quite old book (Historial Atlas, by William Shepherd, published 1923) on Medieval agriculture in England, which, even if very different from Ancient Greek practices and economics, helps put things into perspective: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6b/Plan_mediaeval_manor.jpg
Now, this is a somewhat idealised representation of an hypothetical manor and village combo during the manorial period and back when England had its open field system. But look at how *small* the village and manor are compared to the land needed to support them.
Still on the manorial medieval system, consider this: the village of Elton in England, is recorded in the Domesday Book as having 125-185 inhabitants, and had 2400 acres of arable land, plus a further 184 acres of meadows. So, back in the 11th century, this minuscule village needed almost 10 and a half square kilometers of land to support itself. Now imagine how much land you need to support, say, 3000 people!
I used to live in San Francisco and I can definitely imagine that it could only support a couple thousand people if they had to produce all their own food, because like the Mediterranean region it’s quite rocky and hilly. You could probably grow wheat in low places like Noe Valley and the Richmond district, but places like Twin Peaks and Diamond Heights would just be suitable for sheep grazing.
100 kilometers square is 24710 acres, divide it into, say 600 plots (realized population of 2400-3000) and that’s 41.2 acres each – but just a moment!
We need to pop the town and roads down on that for people to live on. That’s admittedly not a big demand. Around or less than 10%, certainly. We’ll call it 10. So, there’s 90 km² to use.
Wait! Not only do we need the town, the town is going to need wood, and probably has an olive orchard in Greece. That’s going to be 15-25% of your land. We can be generous on this bit, and reduce this and the next category by putting trees on it. 15%. 75km² remaining.
It’s another stop! Agriculturally worthless land! Too far from water, too many rocks, too much of a bog, etc. You can put your trees and animals here, though. 10-20%. We’ll go 10, having used the rest for horticulture. 65km² remaining.
65km² is 16061 acres. Or 26.77 per family of 4-6. The average medieval farm (apparently) was approximately 30 acres (I’m happy my slapdash method came close to the right number), and they used two thirds per year. But we’re in ancient Greece. The horse collar is far ahead. Meaning that you’re (if the male head of family) likely going out there and pulling that plough yourself (possibly alongside a slave, mule, or donkey), back and forth over most of that 20-odd acres. And then bucketing water from whereever the well is to every corner.
And the efficiency of those acres is low, so you (if the wife of the aforementioned), are going to be playing a balancing act almost every year to avoid starvation in the case of a bad next year. Because you (or she) deal(s) with the food that the backbreaking farming provides.
Putting more work into it has diminishing returns (for wheat-esque staples, as our host noted in his Making Bread series), so you can’t just community effort/slave up to more food, either.
And finally, some people will have larger farms than others, e.g. the rich/nobles/oligarchs, meaning that the above number is reduced again amongst the general population.
We are talking an area 10 kms (6 miles) on a side. If the town is in the centre – three miles to the boundary (an hour’s walk). Roughly a large suburb or a small county.
Low-end agriculture might be supporting 10 people/km2, so 1000 people (and some amount of livestock) total in 100 km2.
Ober went with Athens having 100 people/km2 (250,000 estimated people, on a firmer 2500 km2 land area) but probably with lots of trade and maritime grain import (plus fishing).
Did non-hoplites fight in wartime, maybe as more lightly equipped domestic auxiliaries?
Certainly! My understanding is that poorer citizens would often fight as peltasts (javelin-throwers), slingers, and archers (though the latter two could also be specialised mercenaries). In Athens and I believe also Rome the poorest could serve as rowers in the fleets as well
Yeah, the key was that if you weren’t rich enough to afford heavy body armor and a high-protein diet to bulk up, you were neither expected, nor likely, nor encouraged to fight in the “giant block of angry linebackers with spears” part of a Greek city-state’s forces.
Much better for everyone if you just kind of hang around on the side and toss a javelin in the general direction of the opposing force.
I remember asking about this on Twitter some years ago. Devereaux only had time for a book recommendation, but it was a good recommendation. The book was Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Geek City-State by Mogens Herman Hansen (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, builds in part on research from the Polis Center mentioned in this post).
The fact that there are poleis proper which were subjugated by other poleis and subjugated but non-polis-like settlements which were called “poleis” is another one of those little complications that never exist in fantasy worldbuilding.
On a purely rational level, I get why. Fantasy political systems, unlike real ones, are designed A. from the ground up and B. to be understood and interpreted by a reader. On the one hand, the author is not bound by generations of tradition and/or powerful institutions seeking to maintain their power in the face of change; on the other hand, the complications arising from such things can make it harder for a reader to parse the story’s events, let alone figure out what they mean (from either a raw-plot or thematic-analysis perspective).
But on a gut level…I find reading about all the little contradictions and complications and how all of this was resolved in practice to be so interesting! It probably wouldn’t be interesting to have our heroes sit down in a cafe/tavern and talk about it for half a chapter, but it’s still theoretically interesting, if that makes sense.
I imagine it would be reasonable to have that in cases where politics is the central conflict in the story!
On a more practical front, though, it’s sometimes hard for us moderns to imagine the state of these things sometimes, because we’ve spent the last 200+ years untangling a lot of them through state consolidation.
Or, as in the https://palelights.com web serial, cases where main characters come from different parts of such an environment and don’t otherwise know each other before the story starts, so the history and political context visibly influences their personal resources and first impressions of each other even when they’re not in a position to alter that context much by their own efforts.
I’m sure you could have a “city” proudly clinging to the privileges of its royal charter even though its been reduced to an inn and a cluster of buildings tucked into a corner of what were once the city walls.
“infodump! sweet, sweet, infodump!” — me, partway through a rather weird fantasy anime (Twelve Kingdoms)
Love that show, such a unique take on reproduction and the mandate of heaven.
I note that Aristotle talked about how cities restricted citizenship. He specifically singled out requiring a citizen mother as well as a citizen father was the very last restriction put in.
How did immigration among Greeks work? If a famous enemy general defects to your polis, or a non-famous but wealthy merchant from some other Greek city wants to settle down, is there absolutely no way they or their children can become citizens?
It was very, very, very rare for someone to become an Athenian citizen. Not completely unknown though. (Aristotle noted that Athens was in fact unwieldly in size.)
You might get the status of “citizen of an allied city.”
Thanks, but I was actually thinking more of smaller poleis and whether there was freer movement among them than with the big boys.
Pre-industrial urban areas were demographic sinks – more deaths than births. A small Greek polis was probably rural enough to escape this (had to be – Greece exported a lot of people), and maybe the big ones drew on the surrounding rural areas. I know medieval towns had to admit substantial numbers of new people to urban privileges all the time just to stay stable.
I imagine the bottom tier of the urban population in antiquity were slaves. The upper tiers of the population probably had a better life expectancy. So the need to import people from the outside could have been limited to a constant replenishment of slaves.
I don’t know if anyone has tested that proposition, much less proved it.
When Dr. Devereaux spoke before on citizenship in the ancient world, he mentioned that Athens could admit new citizens. It required a vote of the assembly, what amounts to a law enacted by the state for each admitted citizen, but it wasn’t strictly impossible.
He also described Spartan attempts in the 3rd century BCE to widely distribute citizen status in an attempt to reform the polis’ declining power, although both failed (the first was blocked by Sparta’s legislative bodies, the second briefly went into effect before being reversed after defeat to the Antigonid Macedonians).
So I would presume the same principle applied generally: a polis’ government could admit new members as citizens as it saw fit, but there was no standardized path or method to gaining that admittance (as we see in Rome or modern nations) beyond convincing the governing body to grant it.
> what amounts to a law enacted by the state for each admitted citizen
Which makes sense if you think about it in terms, of admitting a new household (not just a person) into your walled comunity, of maybe a hundered households.
Correct, but of course allow for substantial variation between poleis. Polis citizenship in particular might be more open in a crisis or in the initial colony founding process.
The Swiss have still some cantons where the assembled populage holds a vote on new citizens. An acquaintance was a German who had been resident for 15 years in one of those. He had a dream of being, one day, able to convince the local popular assembly of his ability of contributing to the community so much that he would be granted citizenship. And he was a Catholic German graduate engineer who had been born about 50 km away, a crew chief in a local volunteer fire department and a manager in a local major industrial facility. You can imagine what kind of chance of citizenship, say, a black or Slavic janitor would have.
When citizenship required citizen father and mother, is there a natural tendency for the citizen population to decrease with each generation due to everyone descending from outbreeding from the initial pool being excluded?
That law would mean that people stop outbreeding. (From what I understand, only the rich had been outbreeding anyway; it was intended as a “fuck you” to the rich.) Athens was big enough that they could marry each other without genetic problems.
They did allow for certain other cities’ citizens as acceptable brides after a time.
Appreciate the repeated statements that Crimea is part of Ukraine; you’re damn right it is!
I wonder what the trade-offs were for farmers living in the town and commuting to their fields or having houses in the countryside.
While it is true that walking 20km per day was probably not uncommon in the human ancestral environment, for a farmer (who might be on the brink of starvation in a bad year), spending the required time and calories seems risky.
On the other hand, the city is probably a much better place to be than the countryside if a hostile army appears.
Also, I have the suspicion that contrary to what Stardew Valley implies, the workload a farm requires may be distributed very unevenly around the year. So the farmer might sleep on their field during planting and harvest season but not visit the field every day to check the growth, but pursue some other trade in the town?
Of course, with animal farming the trade-offs are likely different again. While you might afford not to guard your green wheat plants all the time, unguarded life stock tends to get eaten.
Temple building time in ancient Greece was when the farmers could use their plow oxen to draw stones.
Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like a classical Greek army was the sort of thing that could sneak up on you, even if your polis weren’t wise enough to put out a few people as watchmen. Mostly heavy infantry and limited cavalry for raids, AIUI. And lots of mountain passes, AIUI. So I’d guess decent time for farmers in the outlands to run for the town walls.
_Twelve Kingdoms_ is fantasy but draws a lot on classical China, and has a system of farms around a large village or small town, where people move to town for the winter. I have no idea if Greece had a similar pattern of farm and town home but it seems plausible.
Of course, while a classical Greek army couldn’t sneak up on you, there was nothing actually stopping small armed parties from a hostile city-state from raiding into the hinterland of your polis and trying to ambush and wipe out isolated farm houses. Such small parties would also be more able to travel by night or along difficult mountain tracks so as to avoid watchmen and heavily traveled passes.
Or more accurately, the thing stopping them from doing this is “your own polis has an army will catch them and beat them often enough to make doing this dangerous unless they move in larger groups, at which point they lose some of their sneaking ability.”
Farmers living together in towns/villages was/is very common in many cultures, even if the settlement was unwalled.The thing is, much low tech agriculture is a communal effort, so you would walk to the fileds anyway. In medival germany village for example, each houshold owned one or more strip of several fields, but all the strips of one field where plouged and sown together by all housholds. Don’t know if there a simmilar arrangments in the ancient world, but I would expect it.
In Sicily – which followed the pattern of residence in a village/town with travel to farms (probably because of endemic violence); it was common for farmers to sleep in small huts or similar shelters whenever farm work required it. In Athens, part of the rationale for paying citizens for attendance at civic duties was that coming into the city deprived one of a day’s labour. But as only male citizens attended, presumably the wife, children and slaves could carry on.
One thing to remember is that it’s not just armies that are threats. Wild animals were also dangerous. Even today, farmers living away from other people often go around armed, not because a person may creep up on them (generally if a person wants to sneak up on you you can assume they’re armed as well, and in today’s world that means guns), but because wildlife used to people–or worse, interbred with domesticated animals–can be very, very dangerous. In the past, when “armed” meant you had a big knife, or maybe a knife on a stick, it’s even more of a risk.
There’s also horizontal social ties to consider. You can’t rely on people to help you in lean times if they don’t know you. You’ve gotta put in the face time with the other folks.
“a human can walk 6-7km per hour”
That seems pretty fast to me. Would people speedwalk for an hour before and after farm labor? Common walking speed is around 3 MPH, or 6 KPH. With long legs and a fast casual pace I tend to pass people on the sidewalk, and I’ve estimated myself at 3.8 MPH or 6.1 KPH tops. And that’s on flat well-maintained sidewalk.
When I’m in a hurry, I can hit 5 mph or 8 kph without too much trouble. I’m faster than most of my neighbors, but I weigh as much as two peasants so I think they could do better. 6-7 kph sounds reasonable to me.
On the other hand, if you do it every day you probably get more used to it. I have moved further from my school or work a number of times during my life and every time the bike ride feels terrible the first month or so, but starts feeling totally okay after a couple months
Is it really that surprising that Greek colonies would recreate where they came from?
It’s certainly something I notice with my students – I have them doing things the same way my doctoral advisor had me do them. Surely a new Greek polis would organize the same way they did in the poli they came from?
Conversely, you have emphasized the very collectivist/householdist/familial nature of Greek and Roman civilizations. The American Republic was very clearly intended to be rooted in Greco-Roman traditions, but we clearly have a very different society and mythos than the Greeks or Romans. How did we square the circle?
I’d like to know more about the oikoi. We start off saying they are the basic unit comprising the polis, but then all the discussion of who are the politai, the boule, etc all talk of people. Should we read these strictly as heads of households. Would the wealthy adult son of a living citizen be participating? What’s the lifecycle of the oikoi? How are they formed and when do they end?
” Should we read these strictly as heads of households.”
Mostly, yes. An oikos included all the children, the wife, the slaves and lots of “peripheric” members of the family, all their owned goods including animals, but most of the time, only the patriarch (kyrios) had full citizenship rights. In a sense, those patriarchs were the only ones afforded complete individual agency, while the rest of their oikos was expected to follow their decisions.
“Would the wealthy adult son of a living citizen be participating? What’s the lifecycle of the oikoi? How are they formed and when do they end?”
In Athens, for example, they would certainly have full rights in the Ekklesia, but until he actually became independent, he’d be still considered a part of his father’s oikos… After doing so, usually by inheriting or by simply being passed the title of Kyrios by their still-living father, they’d become the heads of their own oikos, albeit usually still tightly tied to their fathers, especially politically.
An oikos stars and ends with its kyrios. When the kyrios dies, or passes on the duty, that oikos ends and a new one begin.
Thanks for the explanation. When a father passes the oikos to a son is that a continuation of the oikos or a new one? Would a son always have to wait for his father to die or otherwise hand it down, or could be strike out and form his own? What about the case of multiple sons?
I suppose that’s where the constant emigration came in. Greeks founded colonies, went to serve in the armies and at the courts of the major Asian states and later flocked to Hellenistic foundations. People – especially youngish males – were a major export
One notes Greece was seriously depopulated during Hellenistic times.
At least in Athens, a kyrios could pass on the “title” while still alive, with the explicit implication that the son being given the title would be still expected to provide for his parents now, as his father had provided for him. Even when inheritance happened because the father died, the new head of the household was expected (and in some places even legally obligated) to pay for their parent’s funeral.
“Legally” speaking, this was a new oikos because the kyrios and the oikos were tightly tied together, but also obviously a continuation of the previous one.
“The American Republic was very clearly intended to be rooted in Greco-Roman traditions”
What did it take from them, other than the architecture and the name of a legislative institution?
Other than that, the law and political traditions must inevitably have stemmed from the country the founders of the American Republic had just been living in. And as I understand it, that country might have had the least collectivist/familial nature in what was then the history of civilization.
No surprise if its offshoot ended up similar, and not astonishing if it ended up even more extreme. As you say, colonies recreate where they came from.
What did the American Republic take from classical Greece and Rome? Certainly a commitment to republican virtue and hostility to monarchy. Really the Founders were eclectic, drawing on both ancient and contemporary political philosophy and practice.
An ancient Greek might well have thought of America as having a monarch. Just an elected one, rather than a hereditary one. In 1787, the Polish monarchy was elective. As was the position of Holy Roman Emperor.
And the Dutch Republic, American ally during the War of Independence, was a Republic.
If the US government had been inspired by Athens, it would not have had a President. If it had been inspired by Rome or Sparta, it would have had two of them.
Instead, they made the Kingship elective, and renamed it the Presidency. Indeed, almost every elective system today is 18th century England with either an elective king, or a powerless one. Sometimes both.
And if America had worked like any of those city states, only people in Washington DC would have been able to vote.
I could go on, but you get the point. There is no point America had in common with those ancient republics that it did not have in common with more recent ones. What the ancient world did offer was examples of important, powerful republics that sounded impressive when you compared yourself to them.
After all, who wants to publicly compare himself to a nobody?
I’m not sure I’d characterize ‘almost every’ parliamentary democracy as “18th century England with an elective king, or a powerless one.”
My impression is that many prime ministers aren’t really more powerful than, say, Pericles was in Athens. And the Athenians didn’t generally call Pericles a ‘king’ or a ‘tyrant’ (their word for an autocrat who wasn’t a king).
Simon, I wouldn’t characterize any parliamentary democracy as having an elective king. I’d characterize a presidential democracy as having one.
A PM, I grant you, has a position more akin to that of Pericles in Athens. Or the Speaker in the House of Representatives. Or Lord North in 1776. Such a man is dependent on his support in the assembly, in a way the President of the United States or Mexico is not.
So from the viewpoint of our hypothetical Greek, America and Mexico might be more reasonably called monarchies than Britain or Canada. It’s much more reasonable to say that President Biden rules America, than that King Charles III rules Canada. Or that Justin Trudeau does, as he has only the power that the dominant faction in the parliament permits him.
As I said, democracy in America came from making the executive office elective. Democracy in Britain (or Canada) came from making the executive office powerless.
I wonder if our Greek might draw analogies with Syracuse and Athens. One man rule was, I gather, a lot more common in Syracuse, even if the one man depended more on “the many” than “the few”.
@ad, the hypothetical Greek might have a different opinion if they attend the first day of Australian parliament and hear the new members swearing allegiance to the monarch of Great Britain. Or attend any entrance ceremony for the Australian Defence Force where the new members likewise swear allegiance and to obey the monarch of Great Britain.
As for practical power, in 1974 the elected government of Australia was dismissed by the governor-general on the sole authority “I can do this because I’m the representative of the Queen”. Just under fifty years ago as I write, well within living memory. A lot of Australians are still annoyed about it.
Scifihugh: “the hypothetical Greek might have a different opinion if they attend the first day of Australian parliament and hear the new members swearing allegiance to the monarch of Great Britain.”
Indeed. And if he had visited Rome in the reign of Augustus or Diocletian, and seen everything done in the name of the Senate and People of Rome, he might have thought that the Roman Senate and the Assembly of its citizen body still ruled. If he were to read the Constitution of the United States of America as it currently exists, he might think that the members of the Electoral College or House of Representatives decide on the identity of the new President. And if he were to read the Constitution of the Russian Federation as it currently exists, he might think that the Russian citizens decide on the identity of the new President.
And in all cases he would be wrong.
For example, he would not be aware that the members of the Electoral College are required to “vote” the way a previous vote of other people has told them to vote. Nor would he be aware that the English “monarch” is presumed to act always on the advice of her ministers, so that if she were “advised “ to say one thing, and explicitly said something else, it is presumed she meant to follow the advice anyway, and her actual instruction ignored.
In both cases the office continues to exist, even thought the actual decision-making power has been short-circuited out of existence. But honestly, we are following the constitution!
To take the Australian example you mention above, the Queen made no decision at all. The actual decision was made *as you yourself stated* by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr. And the Queen had not decided to appoint him, either. The person who did was Gough Whitlam, the Australian Prime Minister. The very man Kerr dismissed. The Queen did nothing, did not decide on the appointment of any of the people who did do anything, and had no say in what happened.
Note, by the way, that Kerr could not have acted as he did if Whitlam had had the support of the Australian Parliament. He had the support of the majority of the House of Representatives. Which was deadlocked with the Senate, in which the majority supported the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser. Whitlam wanted Kerr to dissolve the Senate and call for an election of that body alone. An election in which Australian voters might give Whitlam control of the Senate, but could not give Fraser control of the House of Representatives.
Kerr then dismissed Whitlam on condition that Fraser call for elections of the House AND the Senate. That gave the Australian voters the power to decide who controlled both bodies. And, as it happened, they gave Fraser a majority in both bodies. Your complaint about Kerr is that he did not deny Australian voters the right to make the decision they made.
But whether Kerr made the right decision or the wrong one, it was made by Kerr alone. The Queen made no decision at all, and was completely powerless.
@ad, you were claiming, exact quote,
“So from the viewpoint of our hypothetical Greek, America and Mexico might be more reasonably called monarchies than Britain or Canada.”
I’m pointing out that Australia (and probably Canada, but I don’t know as much) has AN ACTUAL GODDAMN MONARCH. There’s a guy who is the King. Not just claims to be king, in the way California apparently once had a “King Norton”, but a King who inherited the position, will hold it for life, from a line of ancestors stretching back centuries. A King who has rights and responsibilities written into the laws and constitution. A King who the government and armed forces swear loyalty to. A King in whose name the courts act: every criminal trial is “The Crown” trying to prove a case.
And specifically for the Whitlam dismissal, you say that the Queen had nothing to do with it. That is not how monarchies work. No monarch makes every decision themselves, they delegate. The Governor-General of Australia acts in the name of the monarchy, is assumed to have the approval of the monarch, the whole parliament recognises that this authority derives from powers of the monarch as written into the constitution. Modern day Australian republicans aren’t just angry about that particular governor-general, they want to abolish the entire legal framework around the monarchy.
So no, I seriously doubt that just about anyone from history would look at Australia and say “Nah, not a monarchy”.
EMPEROR Norton, thank you
Scifihughf, there is indeed a sense in which Australia is a monarchy and Russia, for example, is not. That sense depends entirely upon the job titles of Vladimir Putin, the man who rules Russia, and Charles Windsor, a man who doesn’t rule Australia. In that sense, all that is necessary for Australia to become a republic is for someone to call Charles the President of Australia. In that sense, Australian republicans should be perfectly happy to have Australia ruled as an absolute dictatorship of Charles Windsor, so long as he were called President instead of King.
Because in this sense, all that matters are the titles of an office, or the customary translation of those titles into English. The reality of how the country is governed doesn’t matter.
But to our hypothetical Greek, to whom monarchy means only the rule of a polity by a single citizen, all that is necessary for Australia to be a monarchy is for it to be ruled by a single citizen. The only person whom he might think does that is its Prime Minister. If he instead thought of Australia as being ruled by its Parliament, he would think it an oligarchy. And a democracy if he thought it ruled by its citizen body.
To persuade him that Elizabeth II had been the monarch, you would have to show that she made all the important decisions. That is what “sole ruler” means. And the only example you have given was a decision made by someone else. Did she, for example, decide to send Australian troops to Vietnam? Or to pull them out again?
And if she didn’t decide on a matter of war and peace, she can hardly have been said to be the sole ruler. Surely if she ruled Australia for seven decades you should be able to give an example of a decision she made herself. Or at least a decision where she could have overruled someone else. Give a decision where she could have acted differently.
At least explain how she could have acted differently during, or in the events leading up to, the 1974 crisis you yourself gave as an example of her having power. Could she, for example, have over ruled the Governor-general? Or the Prime Minister? Could she have fired Whitlam, before Kerr did? Or reappointed him afterwards? Could she have fired Kerr?
You told me this case showed her power. Show me how she could have used that power.
There’s a bold assumption being made here that this hypothetical Greek is *really* stupid and can’t conceive of a world in which the realities of an institution are divorced from their labels (i.e. they would not understand that “monarchy” to us means “a hereditary head of state where all officials, even if elected, are considered their agents”). Or indeed that the theoretical source of legitimate authority matters when it comes to addressing if somebody has the right to wield it.
WJ, the point of a thought experiment about someone from a different culture is to consider what something looks like from the viewpoint of a different society, not to see if such a person could imagine what things look like from our own viewpoint. We already know what they look like from that viewpoint.
One could argue that “Hostility to monarchy” doesn’t necessarily have to have come from any Greek inspiration and might instead be a survival and subsequent radicalisation of the political tradition that lead the English parliament to kill their king and assert sovereignty, and to boot the restored dynasty’s later offering from the throne and replace him with one that suited them in the century prior
One notes, as Burke noted at the time, that hostility was based on the issue of taxation, which is exactly what kicked off the English Civil War.
Really looking for more of this series, and I hope we do get to medieval towns also.
I wouldn’t call myself a worldbuilder (not after realizing how little the busywork usually described as worldbuilding actually matters to crafting a good story), but having an understanding of how things really were done goes far for faking that much vaunted sense of verisimilitude.
Thank you for the enlightening post Dr. Devereaux.
The social and political organizations of the Greeks has long been a topic that has interested me, so it is genuinely quite lovely to see you tackling that topic here in this new series.
A few questions stood out to me while reading it however, but I will pose just one here. In John D. Grainger’s 2000 work, Aitolian Prosopographical Studies, he discusses, well, the names of Aitolians available to us. One example that Grainger notes was that of a woman holding elected office, and I have chosen to quote the relevant passage:
“One woman, Lanassa, is also identified as holding a public office, as orphanophylax at Naupaktos,
an office elsewhere held by a man (Dikaiarchos (11) of Naupaktos). Since, like other public offices, this will have been elective, Lanassa had been the choice of the electorate of the city. These items might be held to imply a certain lightening of the social enclosure around such women; alternatively their social condition may never have been as restrictive in Aitolia as it was in, for example, Athens, where substantially greater quantities of source material are available.”
Specifically, my question here is that when you say women could not be citizens, does that preclude holding elected office? I would be interested in reading your thoughts and take on this.
There are more than a thousand poleis, so there are always going to be exceptions to rules somewhere (though – what is the date for this? The Hellenistic and later Roman periods sees the opportunities for public involvement afforded to women increased, so date matters here).
That said, it seems relevant to note that an orphanophylax is someone charged with the guardianship of war orphans, not a high magistrate. I don’t have Grainger’s book in front of me, but I think some argument would be necessary here to make the case that this is in fact an elected public office and not, for instance, a liturgy (though the latter of course would apply property holding which is also significant, but again date matters).
Thank you for the response. Grainger notes that dating is vague for the records we have here of the woman herself and her family, but he estimates that Lanassa was alive sometime in the mid-second century BCE (he also notes she was honoured at Delphi). So, as you say, we are well into the Hellenistic period.
As for the office of orphanophylax itself, I am afraid Grainger does not elaborate much more than the above on it being an elected office. The passage features in a longer paragraph on those Aitolian women whose names have survived to the present, noting that many of these are manumission notices, legal documents in other words. And he does then conclude that:
“The women are identified in many cases as daughters and as inhabitants of a place; exactly in the same way as men. Only very rarely on the inscriptions are they identified as wives. It follows that they were acting as their own agents in the acts of enfranchisement, though it may also be – the inscriptions do not show this – that they had to get their husband’s (or, perhaps more likely, their father’s) previous permission to sell off part of their property. But it was clearly not a legal requirement, or that would have had to be recorded, for the manumission inscriptions are precisely legal documents. And there are a number of women who freed slaves who are only identified by their names and homes, without further identification as daughters or wives; they were clearly acting alone, and independently. They were independent, therefore, as the owners of property.”
Immediately after which follows the passage of Lanassa being recorded as the orphanophylax of Naupaktos, and thence his comments on the social condition of Aitolian women in general. I am sorry that there is not much more discussion of the office itself. Even so, I remain interested in hearing your thoughts on this.
This does in turn bring me to additional questions I had, but I think it best to ascertain something first. Specifically, I had a couple of possible questions to this post (specifically stuff like synoikism and autonomy for communities within a polis) based on Ryan Boehm’s 2018 book, City and Empire in the Age of the Successors, focused on polis-developments in the early Hellenistic. However, if you are focusing more on earlier eras, those questions may be entirely relevant at this juncture? I thought it prudent to ask first.
Yes, what I’m laying out here is very much focused on the archaic and classic poleis, rather than the Hellenistic or Roman-era poleis.
Very excited for this series! I never knew there were Greek colonies in southern France or Spain, but it makes sense; if the Med is your wet highway, then those places are within reach.
This question may be somewhat off-topic but it does speak to the relationship between the oikoi and the polis: did the polis as a body enforce laws and rules regarding slaves; for example capturing and returning runaway slaves? Or was slavery purely a “domestic” matter within the oikos, the way a husband would discipline his wife and children? Or as a third possibility was it perhaps not an official matter of law or state, but most heads of households would consider it good form to cooperate on enforcing “domestic tranquility”?
That reminds me of Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” the word that we translate as “church” is of course “ekklesia”, but of course it *didn’t* mean church (since our entire useage of “ecclesiastical” and such *comes from this*) and it makes me wonder in what sense and what connotations it had.
Was it already used in a religious sense? Or is it more political?
Among Greek-speaking Jews in the 1st century “ekklesia” was used to mean the assembly of all the [Jewish] members of a local [Jewish] community, or to put it another way, a meeting of all the members of a synagogue. “Synagogue” is a near synonym of “ekklesia” etymologically but the former was generally used for the institution as a whole and the latter for the meeting.
I’m not sure that they would have seen the distinction between the “religious” and the “political”. From a Jewish point of view (pagans would have seen it differently) the synagogue was like a poleis: a self-governing group of households governing themselves according to their national norms.
Incidentally, our English “church” comes ultimately from “kyrios” (Lord), so “ekklesia” and “church” could be regarded as two halves of a phrase which make most sense together “the assembly of the synagogue that belongs to the Lord” (where “the Lord” means “Jesus” in a Christian context).
I have often heard it repeated (though substantiated much less often) that pre-modern cities were demographic sinks, i.e. they had more deaths than births.
But if this were true, the number of citizens in a Polis would decrease, not increase, yet we see Greece founding new cities left and right, so there must have been an increase of polis-forming people (people wealthy enough to do so, and their attached slaves, servants, etc).
So were Greek city states somewhat unique in that their central urban settlement was not a demographic sink, or were they exceedingly happy to actually grant citizenship to country bumpkins to keep up their numbers?
Or am I missing a third possibility?
The third possibility, which is that in a large polis most people live in the chora, while a small polis isn’t big enough to have the same demographic sink effect.
But these would be non-citizen residents of the urban settlement, no?
How did the polity itself deal with the gradual erosion of their citizen-ranked population?
You said that citizenship was hereditary and exclusionary, so unless there is a steady influx of people with citizenship (from citizens living in the chora?), then the ratio of citizens to non-citizens tilts ever more in favour of the non-citizens, and something must be done.
(I vaguely recall reading in your Sparta series that the number of people with citizenship did in fact drastically decline, but IIRC that was for reasons of wealth, rather than dying out).
Or is it option D: cities are demographic sinks, but not for the class of people having citizen status. Citizens are wealthy enough to afford the nutrition, postnatal care, etc that is needed to keep their population numbers stable, while the influx of urban poor are not.
Maybe I am coming to this from too modern a perspective, where “citizen of the city-state” is synonymous with “person living in the city itself”, and therefore subject to the demographic sink effect of the city?
Yup. Living out in the boondocks did not make you cease to be a citizen.
The ‘sink’ effect hit the upper classes too (although not to the same degree as the poor). It’s less about nutrition than exposure to endemic disease (rats, water, sewage, other people in constant close proximity), with attendant high infant/child mortality.
Under the “cities were population sinks” narrative (which is true, I think), the countryside produced excess population who then moved into cities. Since a polis included countryside, they could maintain population, or even increase, by pulling from their own countryside.
This blog is very very interesting. But it contains masses of text (which is of course part of why it is so interersting). The design of the blog, with white text on dark grey background makes it hard on the eyes. If you could change it to black text on light background I would be very very grateful. Not that I would stop reading it if you don’t, but it would really make me happy.
what happened to all the greek polii in spain, France, ukraine, etc? Based on the map the phoenicians also do the polis. How similar are they to the greeks?