Theory, originating in ancient Greece, of political community.
Life as a citizen in the polis was the highest form of human activity, in which all (adult males) participated, and all were equal. The idea of the polis remains potent for those who see politics as potentially a fulfilling activity in its own right, and who support the concept of citizenship.
David Robertson, The Penguin Dictionary of Politics (London, 1986)
Polis (/ˈpɒlɪs/; Greek: πόλις pronounced [pólis]), plural poleis (/ˈpɒleɪz/, πόλεις [póleːs]) literally means “city” in Greek. It defined the administrative and religious city center, as distinct from the rest of the city. It can also signify a body of citizens. In modern historiography, polis is normally used to indicate the ancient Greek city-states, such as Classical Athens and its contemporaries, and thus is often translated as “city-state”. These cities consisted of a fortified city centre (asty) built on an acropolis or harbour and controlled surrounding territories of land (khôra).
The Ancient Greek city-state developed during the Archaic period as the ancestor of city, state, and citizenship and persisted (though with decreasing influence) well into Roman times, when the equivalent Latin word was civitas, also meaning “citizenhood”, while municipium applied to a non-sovereign local entity. The term “city-state”, which originated in English (alongside the German Stadtstaat), does not fully translate the Greek term. The poleis were not like other primordial ancient city-states like Tyre or Sidon, which were ruled by a king or a small oligarchy, but rather political entities ruled by their bodies of citizens. The traditional view of archaeologists—that the appearance of urbanization at excavation sites could be read as a sufficient index for the development of a polis—was criticised by François Polignac in 1984[a] and has not been taken for granted in recent decades: the polis of Sparta, for example, was established in a network of villages. The term polis, which in archaic Greece meant “city”, changed with the development of the governance center in the city to signify “state” (which included its surrounding villages). Finally, with the emergence of a notion of citizenship among landowners, it came to describe the entire body of citizens. The ancient Greeks did not always refer to Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and other poleis as such; they often spoke instead of the Athenians, Lacedaemonians, Thebans and so on. The body of citizens came to be the most important meaning of the term polis in ancient Greece.
The Greek term that specifically meant the totality of urban buildings and spaces is asty (ἄστυ).
The polis in Ancient Greek philosophy
Plato analyzes the polis in The Republic, whose Greek title, Πολιτεία (Politeia), itself derives from the word polis. The best form of government of the polis for Plato is the one that leads to the common good. The philosopher king is the best ruler because, as a philosopher, he is acquainted with the Form of the Good. In Plato’s analogy of the ship of state, the philosopher king steers the polis, as if it were a ship, in the best direction.
Books II–IV of The Republic are concerned with Plato addressing the makeup of an ideal polis. In The Republic, Socrates is concerned with the two underlying principles of any society: mutual needs and differences in aptitude. Starting from these two principles, Socrates deals with the economic structure of an ideal polis. According to Plato, there are five main economic classes of any polis: producers, merchants, sailors/shipowners, retail traders, and wage earners. Along with the two principles and five economic classes, there are four virtues. The four virtues of a “just city” include wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. With all of these principles, classes, and virtues, it was believed that a “just city” (polis) would exist.
Archaic and classical poleis
The basic and indicating elements of a polis are:
- Self-governance, autonomy, and independence (city-state)
- Agora: the social hub and financial marketplace, on and around a centrally located, large open space
- Acropolis: the citadel, inside which a temple had replaced the erstwhile Mycenaean anáktoron (palace) or mégaron (hall)
- Greek urban planning and architecture, public, religious, and private (see Hippodamian plan)
- Temples, altars, and sacred precincts: one or more are dedicated to the poliouchos, the patron deity of the city; each polis kept its own particular festivals and customs (Political religion, as opposed to the individualized religion of later antiquity). Priests and priestesses, although often drawn from certain families by tradition, did not form a separate collegiality or class; they were ordinary citizens who on certain occasions were called to perform certain functions.
- Walls: used for protection from invaders
- Coins: minted by the city, and bearing its symbols
- Colonies being founded by the oikistes of the metropolis
- Political life: it revolved around the sovereign Ekklesia (the assembly of all adult male citizens for deliberation and voting), the standing boule and other civic or judicial councils, the archons and other officials or magistrates elected either by vote or by lot, clubs, etc., and sometimes punctuated by stasis (civil strife between parties, factions or socioeconomic classes, e.g., aristocrats, oligarchs, democrats, tyrants, the wealthy, the poor, large, or small landowners, etc.). They practised direct democracy.
- Publication of state functions: laws, decrees, and major fiscal accounts were published, and criminal and civil trials were also held in public.
- Synoecism, conurbation: Absorption of nearby villages and countryside, and the incorporation of their tribes into the substructure of the polis. Many of a polis’ citizens lived in the suburbs or countryside. The Greeks regarded the polis less as a territorial grouping than as a religious and political association: while the polis would control territory and colonies beyond the city itself, the polis would not simply consist of a geographical area. Most cities were composed of several tribes or phylai, which were in turn composed of phratries (common-ancestry lineages), and finally génea (extended families).
- Social classes and citizenship: Dwellers of the polis were generally divided into four types of inhabitants, with status typically determined by birth:
- Citizens with full legal and political rights: that is, free adult men born legitimately of citizen parents. They had the right to vote, be elected into office, and bear arms, and the obligation to serve when at war.
- Citizens without formal political rights but with full legal rights: the citizens’ female relatives and underage children, whose political rights and interests were meant to be represented by their adult male relatives.
- Citizens of other poleis who chose to reside elsewhere (the metics, μέτοικοι, métoikoi, literally “transdwellers”): though free-born and possessing full rights in their place of origin, they had full legal rights but no political rights in their place of residence. Metics could not vote or be elected to office. A liberated slave was likewise given a metic’s status if he chose to remain in the polis, at least that was the case in Athens. They otherwise had full personal and property rights, albeit subject to taxation.
- Slaves: chattel in full possession of their owner, and with no privileges other than those that their owner would grant (or revoke) at will.