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The Greek City States. Chapter 4.2. Polis: The Center of Greek Life. The polis or city-state was the central focus of Greek life. The citizens of a polis had defined rights and responsibilities, as well as a strong identity and loyalty that kept the city-states divided.

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Polis the center of greek life
Polis: The Center of Greek Life

The polis or city-state was the central focus of Greek life. The citizens of a polis had defined rights and responsibilities, as well as a strong identity and loyalty that kept the city-states divided.

Polis the center of greek life1
Polis: The Center of Greek Life

  • By 750 B.C., the city-state or polis became the central focus of Greek life.

  • The polis consisted of a town, a city or even a village, along with its surrounding country side.

  • The town, city or village served as the center of the polis where people could meet for political, social, and religious activities.

Organization of the city state
Organization of the City-State

  • The main part of the polis was usually the acropolis, a fortified hilltop that served as a place of refuge in time of attack.

  • Below the acropolis was the agora, and open area that served as a place where people could assemble and use as a market.

  • City states varied greatly in size, from a few square miles to a few hundred miles.

  • The population in each polis varied from more than 300,000 to as small as several thousand people.

Community of the city state
Community of the City-State

  • Male citizens has both rights and responsibilities within the polis. They could vote, hold public office, own property, and speak for themselves in court.

  • They were expected to take part in government and defend the polis in times of danger.

“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics minds his own business. We say he has no business here at all.”

-Pericles (495-429 B.C.)

Community of the city state1
Community of the City-State

  • As the polis developed so did the Greek military system. In earlier times nobles on horseback fought wars in Greece.

  • By 700 B.C. the Greek military system was based on hoplites, who were heavily armed foot soldiers.

  • Greek hoplites wore a bronze breastplate, a helmet and greaves on their legs.

  • They carried a shield, known as an aspis or hoplon.

  • A hoplites primary weapon was his spear or dory (or doru) which could measure from 7 to 9 feet long.

  • The secondary weapon of the hoplite was the xiphos or short sword. It was used if his spear was broken or lost. It measured around 2 feet and was ideal for slashing and stabbing in the breaks of a shield wall.

Community of the city state2
Community of the City-State

  • Hoplites went into battle as a unit, marching shoulder to shoulder in a rectangular formation known as a phalanx.

  • This close formation created a wall of shields and it was difficult for enemies to harm them if they kept in formation.

Greek expansion
Greek Expansion

  • Between 750 B.C. and 550 B.C., large numbers of Greeks left their homeland to settle in distant lands.

  • They left for a desire for good farmland, overpopulation at home and the growth of trade.

  • Each Greek colony would eventually become an independent polis; spreading Greek culture.

Greek colonies
Greek Colonies

  • Greeks spread out across the Mediterranean establishing colonies along the coast lines of southern Italy, southern France, eastern Spain, and northern Africa.

  • The Greeks settled along the shores of Thrace and along the coast of the Black Sea, setting up cities on the Hellespont and the Bosporus Straits, in search of good farmland.

  • The most famous of the Greek colonies was Byzantium which would later be renamed Constantinople and is now Istanbul.

Greek colonies1
Greek Colonies

Greek colonies2
Greek Colonies

  • The expansion throughout the Mediterranean gave the Greeks an economic advantage.

  • Setting up colonies in prime port locations led to increased trade of Greek products such as pottery, wine, and olive oil.

  • In exchange for their goods they received grains, metals, fish, wheat and slaves.

  • This increase in trade led to an increase in wealth and created a new group of wealthy individuals who would look to gain political power.

Tyranny in the city states
Tyranny in the City-states

  • The wealthy merchants desire for political power would lead to the rise of tyranny in Greece.

  • Greek tyrants seized power by force from ruling aristocrats.

  • They gained the support of the newly rich merchants who were seeking a bigger voice in government, and the poor farmers who were heavily in debt to the aristocratic ruling class.

  • They gained and kept power through hired soldiers. Once in power they undertook building projects to give the poor jobs and to gain more favor.

  • Tyranny’s would eventually be replaced by democracy and oligarchies in most city-states.

Two rival city states
Two Rival City-STATES

  • The two most famous Greek city-states were that of Athens and Sparta.

  • These two cities would develop different systems of government.


  • The descendants of the Dorian invaders of the dark age founded Sparta on the Peloponnesus in Greece.

  • The Spartans handled population increase different than other city-states. Instead of setting up overseas colonies they simply invaded and conquered nearby territory of Laconia, and Messenia.

  • Their conquests led to a growing number of helots or slaves and perioeci (artisans and merchants who worked for the Spartans).

  • Around 650 B.C. the Helots revolted and it took the outnumbered Spartans 30 years to suppress the revolt.


  • All life in Sparta revolved around the military.

  • Spartan men strove to become soldiers, and Spartan women aspired to become mothers of soldiers.

  • Their cities did not have walls as they believed any city defended by a Spartan did not require walls.


  • From the age of seven boys began training to become soldiers.

  • At age 20 they joined the army.

  • At 30 years of age they could marry but still lived with the army.

  • At the age of 60 men were permitted to retire from military service.


  • Sparta had two kings who were in charge of religious ceremonies and leading the army.

  • The running of the city was left to the Assembly, which was made up of all male citizens over the age of 20. A Council of Elders, consisting of 28 men over the age of 60 proposed laws and served as the supreme court. Each year the Assembly would elect five overseers known as Ephors to administer public affairs.

  • The Assembly passed laws and made decisions about war and peace.


  • Spartan women were brought up to be as healthy and strong as Spartan men.

  • Young women were trained in gymnastics, wrestling and boxing.

  • Women married at age 19 rather than 14 as in other Greek cities.

  • The rights and privileges of Spartan women were greater than that of other Greek women. They could:

    • Go shopping in the marketplace

    • Attend dinners or functions at which other family members were not present

    • Own property

    • Openly express opinions on public matters

"Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?""Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men."

—Gorgo, Queen of Sparta and wife of Leonidas, as quoted by Plutarch


  • Athens is located on the Attica Peninsula in central Greece.

  • The founders of Athens were descendants of the Mycenaeansof Ancient Greece.

  • In the 600’s B.C. Athens would face the challenge of dealing with an increase in non-citizens (metics)living within the city.

  • Initially only a man whose father and maternal grandfather could become a citizen of Athens.

  • By 507 B.C. all free men in Athens were citizens no matter their class or if they owned land.


  • Four tyrants engineered most of the changes in Athenian Government.

  • Draco (621 B.C.):

    • Issued a new law code in 621 B.C. in which penalties were extremely harsh.

    • Law code was written down so aristocrats could not make up their own.

  • Solon(594 B.C.):

    • Cancelled all land debts and freed debtors from slavery.

    • He placed limits on the amount of land a person could own.

    • Trade was promoted by encouraging farmers to grow cash crops.

    • Farmers were ordered to teach their sons a trade and artisans were given citizenship to promote industry.

    • Set up a two house legislature where Aristocrats made up the Council of 400 who proposed laws the Assembly, which was made up of commoners.

Athens draconian law
Athens: Draconian Law


  • Peisistratus (546 B.C):

    • Divided large Athenian estates among landless farmers and extended citizenship to men who did not own land.

    • Provided the poor with loans and put many of them to work building temples and public projects.

  • Cleisthenes (508 B.C.):

    • He introduced a series of laws that established Democracy to Athens.