Sunday, April 4, 2010

History of World Civilization - Greek Civilization: Polis; Athens

“Men are the Polis.”


“Man is an animal whose nature it is to live in a polis”


Greek Civilization in fact has great meaning to Western Civilization. According to Dr. Donald Kagan, the professor of Yale University in his lecture on “Introduction to Greek History (2007)” said that “the positions of the Greeks are at the most significant starting point of Western Civilization, which is the culture that most powerfully shapes not only the West but most of the world today.” Actually, Greek Civilization was not one of the four centers of world civilizations. However, unlike other civilization emerged in ancient time, Greek Civilization has been admired due to its significance in shaping its political, economic, social and cultural aspects.

In speaking of Greek Civilization, there is Greek Bronze Age which includes Minoan and Mycenaean civilization. With Dorian invasion and the end of the Mycenaean civilization, there came “the Dark Ages”. During the Dark Ages, the cities and palaces, and other products of civilization were destroyed. Following the Dark Ages, there now came the emergence of city-states which the Greeks termed “Polis”. The period that the polis began to emerge can be considered not only as the time of recovery but also the peak of Greek Civilization in terms of politics, society, economy and culture.

Polis actually means a lot in dealing of Greek Civilization. Perhaps, without the time of polis the Greek Civilization would not be significance. It is to say that during the time of polis, those characteristics of Greek civilization which distinguished Greek Civilization itself from other civilization were shaped during this time. M. H Hansen in his book “More Studies in the Greek Polis (1996)” emphasized the significance of polis in studying Greek civilization by saying that “The study of Greek political structures must begin with the polis.”

Polis is generally defined as a city, a city state and also citizenship and body of citizens (Wikipedia). However, polis is something more than that. Polis is in fact something that cannot be defined in single word or sentence. M. H Hansen (1996) also said that “the question of what the polis is has no simple and straightforward answer. In fact, it is implicit in this collection of essays that there is not nor can there be any satisfactory, all-inclusive definition of a polis.” Aristotle, the great philosopher in the time of polis also said that “a man who is by nature is without a polis is either more or less than a man.” It is to mean that if a man does not need a polis, he is god because men need a polis. This saying of Aristotle may reflect the idea and concept of Greek people about a polis. To the Greeks, a polis was therefore what they essentially needed as long as they were a man.

Poleis were city-states established by the group of Greek people who proudly termed themselves “Hellene”. They liked to distinguish themselves from other groups of people for they thought to have superior culture than others. For this reason, indeed poleis were not just place where Hellenes lived in but the pride and spirit of Greek people.

From about BC 750 to the time when the poleis were invaded by Alexander the Great, the king of Macedonia, Greek people had left a lot of achievements. The achievements of Greek people in several aspects of their civilization during the time of polis would explain why the polis is considered significant in dealing with Greek civilization.


Greek city-states were self-governing and not ruled or controlled by any form of central power. Instead, it is noted that by the time of Aristotle (fourth century BC) there were more than hundreds of Greek Democracies. However none of those poleis that were democracies was as powerful, stable, organized as that of Athens.

Sparta and Athens were most powerful and significant among the thousands of poleis. But since Sparta was a champion of oligarchy, the political system was not that different with that of other civilizations, in this chapter I would like to discuss about Athenian government which was democracy which was totally new at the time.

Athenian Democracy

In Athens the political system had gone through several changes. Starting with Monarchy it changed to Oligarchy then to Democracy. The Origin of Athenian Democracy can be traced back to the time of Solon, the one of great wise men of Greece. Actually he did not believe in “democratika” which means “people-power” but the laws he constituted became the basis of democracy to be established in Athens. He was the one who arranged Athenian political society on a new basis. Solon’s constitution swept the political system in which only aristocrats could hold position by making wealth the sole qualification for office-holding. He also pushed through with the policy of Shaking-off of Burdens which in Greek is Seisachteia that cancelled all outstanding debts. In fact this law was to rectify the wide-spread of serfdom and slavery in Athens. Solon also divided the classes into four- pentakosiomedimnoi, hippeis, zeugitai and thetes and according to the class, the right of politics was given.

Solon cannot be a founder of democracy but at least he opened the way of democracy by restricting aristocrat-centered political system and freeing the people and making them a citizen. Solon’s constitution was the starting point of Athens democracy.

So what is democracy? It in Greek, is “democratika” which means “people-power”. Peter John Rhodes in his book “Athenian Democracy (2004)” explain about classical democracy in Athens that “the classical democracy of the fifth and fourth centuries was based as far as possible on active involvement of the citizens. Making decisions was entrusted to the citizen directly, in an ekklesia, assembly, open to all citizens.” Athenian democracy was direct democracy that the citizens could directly participate. The democratic government of Athens rested on three main institutions- The Assembly of Demos, the Council of 500 and the People’s court. The Assembly was an opportunity for Citizens to speak their opinion and to vote for certain matter of government of their city. The Council of 500 represented the full-time government of Athens. It consisted of 500 citizens, 50 from each of ten tribes. This body had authority to issue decrees on its own, regarding certain matter. But its main function was to prepare the agenda for meeting of assembly. The People’s court juried of citizens would listen to cases, would vote on the guilt or innocence of their fellow citizens, and vote on punishments for those found guilty.

I would like to discuss more about the “Assembly” because it is what differs from the democracy today. Citizenship was not given to all the people living in Athens but to men only. Aristotle in his book “Athenian Constitution (1952)” explained about the citizenship and its qualifications that “Citizenship belongs to persons of citizen parentage on both sides, and they are registered on the rolls of their demes at the age of eighteen. At the time of their registration the members of the deme make decision about them by vote on oath, first whether they are shown to have reached the lawful age, and if they are held not to be of age they go back again to the boys, and secondly whether the candidate is a freeman and of legitimate birth; after this, if the vote as to free status goes against him, he appeals to the jury-court, and the demesmen elect five men from among themselves to plead against him, and if it is decided that he has no claim to be registered, the state sells him, but if he wins, it is compulsory for the demesmen to register him.”

Although it was different with democracy today for Athens limited citizenship to adult man of Athens, the Athenian democracy is still significant for it became the basis or origin of democracy, the most prevalent political system nowadays not only in West but also in East.

Athenian democracy was proven its superiority during the Persian war. Paul Cartledge, the professor of Greek History at the University of Cambridge said that “It was under this political system that Athens successfully resisted the Persian onslaughts of 490 and 480/79…That victory in turn encouraged the poorest Athenians to demand a greater say in the running of their city, and in the late 460s Ephialtes and Pericles presided over a radicalisation of power that shifted the balance decisively to the poorest sections of society. This was the democratic Athens that won and lost an empire”

It was after Persian War when the Athens formed “Delian League”. Formation of Delian League was quite significant as far as democracy was concerned. Peter John Rhodes (2004) mentioned that “the first signs of the concept of demo-kratia, people-power, appear about the time; shortly afterwards we find Athens imposing democratic constitutions on some members of its alliance, the Delian League and we find Athens being regarded as a champion of democracy” Victory in the war with Persia encouraged the people of low class to demand political rights. Herodotus once said that “Great things are won by great dangers.” Athenian Democracy may be a great thing won by great danger.


The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life.

-Plato, Republic

Undoubtedly, the world’s greatest philosophers are namely Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They were the ones who founded the basis of Western philosophy. What we may notice about them is that they were the philosopher of Greece, during the time of polis. For Athenian education advocated training citizens’ intellectual ability. Unlike Sparta, the military whose purpose of education was to produce well-drilled marching army, Athenian interest in education was at producing intellectual, cultural, and artistic citizens.

Rupert Clendon Lodge, the author of “Plato’s theory of Education (2001)” clarified the meaning of education base on theory of Plato shown in his book “Republic” that “Education is thought of as a specifically human institution: a social technique or art not found in rerum naturae, but invented by man. As a technical art, education represents, not nature, but a human improvement upon nature.” Base on his account on Plato’s theory on education, we would infer that Greeks had a different concept about education with that of people of today. For Greek people, education does not mean mere “schooling” but encompasses “socially controlled experience (Clendon, 2001)” Plato according to Rupert (1947) understood education as a definite art: an art which guides, reshapes, and controls human experience in accordance with an intelligible principle of value.” Education was offered to the citizen in purpose of humanizing and Hellenizing them and helping them fully understand about their Hellenic society. For that reason, education is for the sake of their lives in their Hellenic society.

For Athens, education was quite practical and closely related to society and politics. Plato, the greatest philosopher of that time also advocated education for citizenship, and education for leadership. Plato was quite interested in education so he founded Academia to educate his people. For he was an advocate of elitism, he also advocated education for producing elites who were future leader of the society.

In Athens education began at the age of 6. When he/ she became 6 years old, he/she was sent to the schools which were all private at the time. For the teachers were mostly retired military man, the way of educating was quite strict. The students were taught mainly three subjects: Letters, Music and Gymnastic.

As mentioned above, Athenian education was aiming to produce culturally, intellectually outstanding citizens. So the school offered students a letters class in which they learned how to read, write and speak. They were also taught literacy like the words of Homer. Aristotle in his book Politics said that “the literary education is to train the mind.” They were also educated to be able to play instruments for improving their artistic and aesthetic sense.

Aristotle about music said “Music, though of no practical use, provides a noble and liberal employment of leisure.”With spiritual education, the students were given physical education like wrestling, boxing and javelin casting in purpose of improving extensive physical culture.

At age 18, regardless of social status, all Athenian boys were required to attend military school for two years. After that if they wanted, they were able to enter the academies established by Plato and Aristotle for higher learning. Athenian people given philosophical lessons that widened their insights in lives and the world they live.

As I have mentioned above, the education was quite practical in many ways for its aims were to offer proper understanding about the society and life and to improve the abilities needed in order for them to live as an Athenian.

Education, as it goes to higher level, was often related with philosophy that could be considered as highly intellect activity. This education enabled Athenian people to achieve distinct and highly developed civilization.

Acropolis and Agora

In the polis, there were two special places: Acropolis and Agora. These two places had significant meaning in Greek Civilization. Acropolis may represent the center of religion in Greek polis and Agora would represent the center of political, social and economic activities.

Most of polis at the time had a hill at the center of city. At first polis was referring to the hills in Greek city-states but as Greek city-states began to be called “polis” the hill became “acropolis”. The word “Akcros” meant “high”. So Acropolis would mean “highest city”. Since Acropolis was a hill, it was suitable spot to build wall to defend the city. Later on, people built the temple for gods and goddesses that were believed to guard poleis.

In the mid-fifth century BC, when the Acropolis became the seat of the Athenian League and Athens was the greatest cultural centre of its time, Perikles initiated an ambitious building project which lasted the entire second half of the fifth century BC. Athenians and foreigners alike worked on this project, receiving a salary of one drachma a day. The most important buildings visible on the Acropolis today - that is, the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike, were erected during this period under the supervision of the greatest architects, sculptors and artists of their time.

Acropolis was indeed the ambitious project of Athenian people who were highly advanced in terms of culture. Parthenon was one of the most significant buildings in their project. It was a temple for the Greek god “Athena” located in Athenian Acropolis. The temple was built in purpose of housing a 40-foot-high statue of Athena Parthenos sculpted by Phedias. Parthenon is built in Doric order and its decorative sculptures are showing the high point of Greek art. A side from the significance of Parthenon in terms of religion, it also had great meaning as far as art was concerned.

This monumental temple was indeed not only a great Doric style structure but the religious sprit of Athenian people. Athenian people dedicated this temple which they built on high hill in their polis to praise their guard goddess. The monumental religious festival such as Panathinaia was held in it. Many Athenians gathered in Acropolis their religious and cultural festivals. For during this time the religion was closely related arts and literature, the Acropolis would become not only the center of religion but also the center of culture and art. So Acropolis in Athenian civilization would symbolize its highly advanced cultural, religious and artistic spirit of Athenian people. Indeed, it is quite clear reflection of the splendour, power and wealth of Athens at its greatest peak, the golden age of Perikles.

Agora was an open place of assembly where Athenian citizens gathered for a wide variety of purposes. On any given day the space might be used as a market, or for an election, a dramatic performance, a religious procession, military drill, or athletic competition. Here administrative, political, judicial, commercial, social, cultural, and religious activities all found a place together in the heart of Athens, and the square was surrounded by the public buildings necessary to run the Athenian government.

The most significant of Athenian socio-political characteristic was active participations of citizens. For it was democratic society, the citizens could freely appeal their opinions and actively act and perform as a citizen. Guaranteeing the civil rights of citizens enabled Athenian citizens to perform what they can in society more freely and actively. This was driving force of Athenian society to be active society and lead itself to the advancement in politics, economy, and especially culture.

That is why Agora was considered important. For Athens was society whose people were active and social, the place where those people gathered must have been considered significant. Indeed, with Acropolis, Agora was the center of politics, economy and culture.

Public speeches and political agenda were delivered in this place. Active discussions about politics were done in this place. Market developed and economic activities were done in this place. Cultural and social activities like playing music and drama were performed in this place. This was Agora, the center of communication. Rome later on succeeded “Agora” which they renamed “Forum”.

Likewise, Acropolis and Agora were the central places that clearly showed what Athenian civilization was. Every significant aspect of Athens was shown in these places. Religion, Politics, Economy and culture of Athens were all clustered in this area and performed.

Poleis were the society formed by the people who called themselves “Hellenes”. In the word “Hellenes” there is pride and vigor of Greek people. Indeed, as mentioned above, they developed their own unique civilization which set up the foundation of Western civilization.

Greek cultures developed with civilization were widespread through Hellenization project of Alexander the Great. The unique and independent Greek culture became root of Rome. Then it became the root of Westerns.

What is the political system which is most prevalent today? It is democracy emerged in Athens. Who are the scholars whose theories are studied most today? Undoubtedly they are Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who lived at the time of polis. Their philosophies became the basis of Western philosophy.

These evidences prove significance of Greek civilization. Greece is indeed mother country of West. Although Greece is not really strong and prosperous today, this country is still respected for its legacies and attributions to Western civilization. It is where Western civilization was born. And still, the world is under Hellenic influence. For about 2500 years, Hellenes have been existing in field of politics, economy and culture. When we deal with Western spirit and root, undoubtedly it will be Greece that we will be talking about.


Aristotle, Athenian Constitution in 23 Volumes, Vol. 20, translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1952.

Aristotle “Politics, Book V”
Peter John Rhodes (2004) Athenian Democracy Oxford: Oxford University Press

Donald Kagan (2007). Introduction to Greek History. Open Yale Courses

M. H. Hansen (1996) More Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis Oxford: Oxford Press

John Porter (2009). The Archaic Age and the Rise of the Polis Retrieved 23:24 November 11 2009 from file:///F:/Polis.html

Polis (March 28, 2010). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia Retrieved 18:08 March 28, 2010 from

Michael Streich (2008). Forms of Government in Ancient Greek City States Retrieved from

Paul Cartledge (2009). Ancient history in-depth Retrieved from

Christopher W. Blackwell (2003) Athenian Democracy: a brief overview Retrieved from

Rupert Clendon Lodge, Solomon Frank (2001) “Plato’s Theory of Education” London: Routledge