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Polis Culture and Impacts

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Polis Culture and its Impacts

Patrick Boucher


HIST 205

Professor John Serrati

October 7, 2013

        “The country which is now called Hellas was not regularly settled in ancient times. The people were migratory, and readily left their homes whenever they were over powered by numbers” [1]. This excerpt, taken from Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, represents how life in previous societies was. Indeed, during the dark ages, a basileis was in charge of society, but over time, came the formation of the polis. A polis may also be called “a city-state” which is a term that encompasses the central city and its chora of a polis. This new urban system had a culture that was endogenous to it and this is precisely what this essay will analyze both by defining it and by observing its impacts in the ancient world of Greece. Polis culture is rooted in a well-cemented idea of competition in which poleis were in search of constant dominance over one another. This aspect of the paper will be analyzed through putting it in opposition to the common counter-argument against the existence of polis culture and by proving it through the work of Thucydides and through other historians work. This new culture in ancient Greece impacted the amount of warfare between city-states, but it also permitted the flowering of new forms of politics, patriotism and a sense of superiority in the city-states.

        Historians have speculated that the start of this new urban structure replaced the previous “basileis ruled societies” by the end of the seventh century.  By this time, the Greek land was already scattered with a large number of poleis. With a growing population, and a limited supply of land, land became a premium. Moreover, the Greek system of land ownership is one of heredity, in which the land would be divided equally amongst all sons of a family. With time, this system fails as the land once occupied by a single or few families now supports a lot more[2]2 which thus creates a shortage of land. As a result, neighboring city-states quarreled over land ownership and often went to war with one another in order to acquire one’s land. Therefore, competition and warfare became the business of the polis. Evidence for this claim may be seen in Thucydides work as he states that: “[…] we find shores becoming the site of walled towns, and the isthmuses being occupied for the purposes of commerce and defense against a neighbor”[3]. This proves that the competition between neighbors escalated and that improved defenses was needed to counteract the presence of this new culture. The entity of the polis was constantly in search of a local hegemony in an area and there was a common want by the poleis to be dominant and to be superior to the other polis. Hence, numerous wars were fought between neighboring states and war became more common than peace[4].  Metaphorically speaking, this competitive culture in ancient Greece may be compared to modern day capitalism in which the ultimate goal for one’s company is to eradicate competition and to become a monopoly. Some would argue that polis culture never actually existed, as some evidence proves that Greek culture was nearly the same throughout Greece[5]. Indeed, Panhellenic events did assemble the people of Hellas and in a way did represent Greek culture overall but this may not be seen as a mean to say that their was not such a thing as polis culture. For example, if taking the Panhellenic institution of the Olympics, one may come to realize that this event is a simple conduit for the poleis to settle their differences[6]. Indeed, the competitors fought, ran, threw, wrestled and more in the goal of making both themselves and their polis victors at the Olympics. In a way, this gave the opportunity for the polis to boast their wealth, athletes and accomplishments[7]2. This “agreed peace” between the poleis during the Olympics is only an illusion as the warfare between the poleis took a different form, one of athleticism. In conclusion, polis culture is one of competition where the poleis of ancient Greece had a ferocious appetite for victory and dominance. Eventually this culture will take ancient Greece to its height but in the long run it will bring its downfall as well.

        Polis culture impacted the ancient Greek world in numerous ways. Firstly, the formation of the polis brought upon itself the “hoplite revolution”. As stated in Raaflaub’s Soldiers, Citizens and the Evolution of the Early Greek Polis, there was a major difference between the styles of fighting which prevailed in early Greece and the style of fighting after the creation of the polis. The new style of fighting involved a new technique that is called the phalanx. The phalanx counted numerous hoplites who were each equally equipped and equally trained. In opposition to the archaic method of fighting which involved two basileis fighting one another, this new military arrangement included any able bodied male citizens which could afford equipment. The citizens thus realized that they played an important role in the defense of the polis and this led to their desire to be politically included in the polis[8]6.  The political integration of the citizens greatly diminished the power of the basileis and ushered the Greek world to new political systems such as the oligarchy and later, democracy. Therefore, with the arrival of the polis structure in 700 B.C and its culture of competition associated to it, the poleis entered an era of mass fighting where an egalitarian view between warriors arose and thus changed the face of politics in ancient Greece. This leads me to the next point, patriotism.  The polis culture of ancient Greece has an aspect of patriotism associated to it. With the increased amount of competition and warfare between the city-states, the male citizens of a given polis believed that it was their duty to protect the land that they inhabit. In comparison to the previous Homeric style of fighting which drove individuals to fight in order to gain individual glory, the hoplites of the polis were fighting to protect their land; to protect their polis. In Chester Starr’s book: Individual and Community : The Rise of the Polis 800-500 B. C.,  he states that in the remaining fragments of Callinus’s poetry there is a line which reads “For ‘tis an honorable thing and a glorious to fight the foe for the land and the children and wedded wife”[9]5. This sentence represents patriotism as the individual is no longer fighting for personal glory but is fighting for the good of the community. In essence, patriotism was a direct consequence of polis culture as it derives from the competition existing between the city-states. Thirdly, as mentioned previously, the idea of competition in polis culture, led to an idea of superiority. This notion of superiority has two facets to it. The first facet has been implicitly mentioned previously through the need of city-states to be superior to their neighbors through hegemony in an area but the second facet may be seen through the works of Aristotle. In Aristotle Politics, Aristotle writes: “It is spirited and intelligent, and for this reason remains at liberty and attains the highest political development, while it is able to rule everyone else, if it can achieve political unity”[10]6. This quotation shows that city-states did not only view themselves superior in relation to one another but that individual city-states viewed themselves as better than other countries in the world. Once again, this shows that the idea of competition was so deeply induced in their community that the poleis sought to justify the inferiority of neighboring countries through their polis structure. Lastly, as shown throughout the essay, the culture of competition between the city-states led to terrible and brutal warfare. Indeed, this culture of warfare advantaged some poleis as they were able to grow in size and in numbers but some city-states suffered very different fates. In some cases, entire city-states were destroyed in a process called andrapodismos that revolved around the slaughtering of the men of a polis and the enslavement of both the children and woman.[11]7 Indeed, according to historian Mogens Herman Hansen, accounts of some 46 poleis suffered this fate. Although andrapodismos did happen in some cases, most poleis were simply destroyed. In fact, a total of 121 poleis are known to have been completely eradicated due to warfare.[12]8 In most cases though, the conquered polis simply became dependent of the conquering polis and was still able to keep a form of self-governance.[13]8 As this evidence shows, polis culture led to intense warfare and sometimes led to the eradication of some city-states.



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