The Rise of the Polis in Ancient Greece

Ancient Athens aerial / Framepool Stock Footage

Lecture by Dr. Donald Kagan / 09.18.2007
Sterling Professor of Classics & History
Yale University

Defining Arete

Head of Odysseus from a Roman period Hellenistic marble group representing Odysseus blinding Polyphemus, found at the villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga. / Museo Archeologico Nazionale

I have spoken about the world of Homer from the side of, you might say, the life of the mind rather than the practical matters of society by talking about values and ethics in the world of Homer. I also spoke to you about the heroic ethic, which is the dominant element in this system of theirs. Another way of looking at it is that it is an aristocratic way of thinking and feeling. At the core of it, is the concept of arête. Now, that’s a word that causes us some problems because it comes to mean even in antiquity something quite different, and especially if you’re talking about Christianity which adopts the word as well, where it comes to mean goodness, goodness in a kind of a Christian sense. Well, erase all of those ideas from your head when you think about the world of Homer, and I would say, the world of Greece in the period we’re studying. Arête derives from the Greek word anar, which means man; man as opposed to woman. These are the masculine qualities as the Greeks saw them and primarily among them was the idea of courage: physical courage, moral courage, mental courage, manly courage in battle is the most core aspect of this word, an idea which comes to spread and to be much more encompassing than that. I guess the most neutral way to translate the word is excellence, prowess, the ability to do something or to be something, which is admired in the fullest way possible.

Some of the desired quality, some of the examples of arête are courage as I’ve said, but also beauty, strength, the ability to perform athletics very well, but also to speak very well. And it is an extraordinary thing I think for modern people to see that there are two central heroes in the poems of Homer-Achilles the great central figure of the Iliad who represents physical courage, strength, power, beauty, speed, all of those things, and Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, but present and very important in both poems. He has also got all of these things, but the thing that sets him apart, that makes him the special kind of hero he is, is his skill in speech which doesn’t mean only that he pronounces words very well, or that he selects them very well for beautifully or something. But rather that he is enormously clever, that he can use speech to achieve practical ends just as he uses strength and power, and all those other things. The Greeks, in Homer’s world, seem to regard one just about as well as they do the other. Odysseus is the man, the wily Odysseus as Homer calls him, the man of many devices, all of those things are great and they are equally honored along with the physical courage that is so characteristic of these guys.

The recognition of those qualities, the recognition of the arête that these heroes have is what their lives are all about. First of all, they have to have these qualities, but it’s not enough. They must be recognized by the people among whom they lived, by the communities in which they live. The highest rewards the individual can have is the recognition of their fellow men for their very, very high qualities. We are talking about a society, therefore, the anthropologists have come up with, which I think is a useful distinction. Societies, based on shame, as opposed to those that practice guilt; guilt is something very internal and personal. Shame is something very external and public. How you are treated and greeted is what makes your worth. So, it is from the beginning a society in which the community is a critical element, maybe the critical element, an individual who didn’t live in a society could not achieve the kinds of glory and fame, and recognition that you expect from a hero.

All of these heroes are aristocrats in the traditional sense of the word; they arrive at their high standing in their community by virtue of birth. You are born to be one of these people because your father was such a person belonging to the right families and so on. The noble families of Greece, and we see it already in Homer, typically claim descent from some god or other and ordinary people do not have that ability. The family and the individual are the critical elements. A larger community, meaning your entire village, your entire city, your entire region, that is barely mentioned. That is not talked about. Again, think about Achilles, when he refuses to do what he’s supposed — to fight with the Greeks because he’s had a fight with Agamemnon, nobody says, “Wait a minute that’s treason, you can’t do that. You’ve been signed up by your city or by this expedition to fight and you’ve got to fight.” Nobody says that. What they say is, “Oh please, we need you Achilles, you must not do this.” But nobody says, “Arrest that man, he has broken his debt; he’s not performing his debt to the community.” Everybody knows that all those heroes are there because they want to be and they want to be there, so that they can earn both the wealth that can be taken from a defeated city, but even more important, the kind of fame and glory that comes with such deeds. I’ve already told you the story about Achilles having the choice of living forever without fame or dying with fame, and he makes the choice for death and fame. That, I think, is very critical.

That attitude, that point of view, even after the world of Homer is gone, remains a very powerful influence on the Greeks throughout the rest of their history, so that you have built into that society an inherent conflict. After all, even these heroes need communities in which to live for all the various purposes that human beings do. So, you would think they have some allegiance to them. They do, but they also have an allegiance to their families and to themselves, which, in Homer, tend to predominate, and yet there is a sense in which the conflict is very real. If you look at the problem in Homer, Achilles when he withdraws and refuses to fight for the army, nobody can tell him to do otherwise. He has a right to do that but that means that something is wrong and it’s very clear that he has been overcome by rage and he is not behaving in the sensible way — that even a Greek hero is supposed to and he has not brought back to normal, to a position in which people can say, yes, well, you’re a great hero and you’re not out of your mind. Even Achilles gives up his rage, and he allows — you remember he allows Priam to bury his son Hector, something he would have refused to do in his rage. So, even Achilles has got to come to terms with the community norms, in order to be living in a proper life, and this conflict between his family and private desires and needs, and those of the community will be characteristic very strongly of the Greek way of life for the rest of its history, not always in precisely the same form but it will be there.

Competition, again, is rearing its head. It’s another form of competition, the competition between these two sources of values, the community at large versus the individual and the family. This kind of tension doesn’t make things clear; the rules are not absolute, and not everybody fits into a pigeon hole. It is not easy to say, what is the right thing, or what is the wrong thing. All of that creates confusion, problems, but also, conflict, tension, competition, all those things create a degree of freedom which doesn’t permit the typical despotic kind of culture which characterizes almost all of the human experiences that we know in the early history of the human race.

Impacts on Western Civilization

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC. From Vulci. By Sosias (signed) / Altes Museum

So, I want to turn now to the way in which this way of thinking had an impact on the future, and of course I’m speaking about the future of Western civilization which was the heir to this tradition. I mentioned to you already, last time, that in a way the poems are a kind of a bible. It is the source of all knowledge and wisdom that anybody who knows anything knows, and how they were used for practical purposes as when the Spartans made a decision about who owned Salamis based on what it said in the Iliad, but it’s also important to realize how those poems inspired the imagination of Greeks for the rest of their history. Another fact is that we are told that when Alexander the Great went out to conquer the Persian Empire, and as far as he was concerned, to conquer everything he could reach, he carried with him a copy of the Iliad which it is alleged he put under his pillow. This is a problem when you consider that books in the days were not likely to be codices as they are today, but scrolls that took up quite a lot of space. I don’t know quite how Alex managed it but that’s what they say, but the principle is established. It was clear, he was another Achilles in his own eyes, and it was for him to achieve the great deeds that I have been mentioning.

Now, if you look at the story of Western civilization, it provides a very interesting contrast within it and the, I’m sorry, the Greek experience that I’m talking about now based upon what you see in Homer, provides a contrast within a competition to the other great tradition of Western civilization, which is the Judeo-Christian tradition. I just want to make a few small points that indicate how that works. The Iliad begins — the first word in the Iliad is the accusative noun, mēnin, wrath, anger. I am singing about the wrath, the anger Achilles which brought so many men to their doom, is what Homer says. The first thing is the emotion of an individual man. The Odyssey begins even more strikingly with the word andra, the accusative of anēr, the accusative case of a man, and he says, sing to me goddess about that man, that man of many devices, that clever man Odysseus.

The Aeneid of Virgil based, of course, on the Iliad and the Odyssey, begins arma virumque cano, I sing of arms and the man, the man Aeneas. What are the Greeks talking about? I’m talking about individual men, extraordinary men and the events that emerge from them and the life they lead. Well, look at our Bible. It begins — this will be news to most of you; in the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth and it. The book goes right on to talk about God, what he does, sometimes why he does it, what is the effect of what he does, but the center of our book is God, not man. It’s not just an accident that this reveals the characteristic of each one of these cultures. The Greeks had a humanistic outlook on life. They believed in the gods, they were religious people, but the core of their lives was shaped by human things in a way different from what was true of the Hebrews and the Christians later on, that is a Divine view. The secular approach is very, very Greek versus a religious approach.

The Greek view, moreover, presupposes that man lives in society. He is not a creature off by himself. By definition, he necessarily lives in society. He is conceivable to the Greeks only in a society. The Iliad, which is about a war, immediately is a kind of an artificial society put together for the purpose of defeating the Trojans and taking their city. As I’ve suggested to you, the values that are the most important are community values. That is to say, the reward of good behavior is the admiration and the honor that a hero gets, and the most serious punishment he can suffer is to be shamed in front of that community. Aristotle, writing late in the Greek tradition, but still powerfully influenced by these kinds of ideas, speaks about man as a — the Greek words are a politicon zoon, and I think the best way to understand it is to think of it as meaning, man is a creature who lives in a polis, in a city state, in a Greek kind of a city state. In the same general passage he says, a man who is by nature without a polis is either more or less than a man. What he means by that is, if a man is superior to the polis doesn’t need a polis, he is a god because men need a polis. If he is beneath the polis it means he’s beneath what it is to a human being, and that tells you just how potent is this concept of a community for the Greeks and it emerges in its own way from the Iliad in the Odyssey.

Odysseus also was offered an opportunity to live forever. When he was shipwrecked on the island in which the goddess Calypso ruled, she fell in love with Odysseus, just as the fate of great heroes — they are heroic and handsome, and fast and women love them. She says, just stay with me and I — you will live forever and all will be well and he says, well, you’re a very beautiful girl and I enjoy you a lot, but I got to go back to Ithaca. Now, why does he have to go back to Ithaca? Well, he has a wife whom he loves, Penelope, and he has a son whom he has barely seen because he had to go off to Troy almost 20 years ago to fight that battle and he hasn’t been home since. Those are very powerful pulls that we easily do understand, but it’s also true that he is the king in Ithaca, and when he returns to Ithaca he immediately moves into a position of honor and respect, which is a critical part of his own sense of himself, of what he needs to be what he wants to be.

We don’t have in American society an Iliad, an Odyssey, we don’t have our own bible, but I think Mark Twain’s Huck Finn is really very, very revealing to see what is so different about us in the modern times from the Homeric world. When things don’t go right for Huck, what does he do? He lights out and wants to get away from society, he wants to go wandering and exploring, as an individual rejecting society, fleeing for his individualism, and that tradition, as you all know — how many examples can we think of works that really project the greatness of being all by yourself and away from people, and away from society. That’s where good things are. The Greeks would have thought you were out of your mind, or that you were some kind of barbarian, but that’s okay. People who have never known of civil society; people who have never known of a world with polis, well, of course, they would do something stupid like that. I think that’s an interesting contrast.

Now, let me carry on with this by talking about the views of society which are characteristic of the two traditions in Western civilization. What do we see in the Bible? When God decides to invent man, he places him in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden contains, first of all, just Adam and then when God decides, for his own reasons, that he needs a companion, he invents one other companion, Eve. Where they live is paradise. One man, one woman, that’s all you need, it’s great. Nothing could ever be so good. Well, what happens? They transgress. Eve persuaded by the serpent, persuades Adam to do what was forbidden by God. What is forbidden by God? It is to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge because if human beings obtain knowledge, they will be like the gods, and that is unacceptable. So when you do that, you have to be punished. What is punishment? To be thrown out of Eden, to be thrown out of this isolated condition of perfection. What is perfection? You don’t have to work, you can eat without doing anything about it, you don’t seem to do much of anything, which is fine. Everything is quiet, peaceful, no problems, no action, that’s paradise.

The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, by Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Elder, c.1617, oil on panel / Mauritshuis, The Hague

A Greek would go crazy at the thought. It is a pre-social, a pre-political life. Life in society what Adam and Eve have to encounter now. They now have to form villages, cities, start living among each other, and so on. That is the punishment for the sin of seeking knowledge of good and evil and therefore of straining for divinity. Man, the message I think is, must know his place, which is humble and not close to divine. His hope rests simply with God not with himself. When he tries to take the things into his own hands, and in the process, to contravene the will of God, only terrible things can happen to him. It’s very interesting, I think, that in the eighteenth century, Rousseau, who himself seems to me to have been a kind of like a poisoned apple in the history of the human race oddly, revives that biblical view, if you think about it. His view is man was happy and good before the invention of society, which society corrupts man and takes away from him his happiness. What we need to do is undue the evils that organized society have done, and if only we remove all of the bad things created by society, man would return to his naturally perfect virtuous self, which is of course, a major source of individualism which is this great Western force, and the nihilism that I think inevitably emerges from it.

I think people have, in different ways, found in Russo, the root both of a Nietzschean nihilism and of Marx, and I think there is powerful reason to do so, because you can go in either one of those directions once you start making this kind of assumption. For the Greeks, on the other hand as I’ve said, political society was essential for living any kind of a good life. In the Odyssey, you remember Odysseus finds himself on the island of the Cyclops, those one-eyed monsters, and what is it about them that make them so monstrous, so inhuman from the perspective of the Homeric heroes? Here’s the line that Homer writes, they live without — the Greek word is nomoi, which we would translate as laws, but before they become laws they are the customary norms of society, in other words, civilization. They live without nomoi and they wreck not of one another, that is to say, each family lives by itself. They have nothing to do with each other, they do not have a community, and they do not have a society. So, they are, of course, sort of prehistoric monsters as far as the Greeks are concerned.

Now, the Judeo-Christian story, as I think of it — by the way, the word “story” is a translation or it means the same thing the Greek word muthos, our word, myth. A myth, in this sense, according to the Greeks, is just a tale. It can true, it can be false, and so on. Anyway, the Judeo-Christian story says, in the beginning, men were innocent. Innocent was the same as ignorant because knowledge gets in the way of their innocence and they have solitude, living in paradise. What destroys their happy, permanent condition is the sin of pride and the consequence of that sin is society, corruption, pain, and death because they knew neither pain nor death while they were in Eden. Salvation is available, and with it immortality, but it comes from God and it doesn’t come in the world in which we live, but in some other world to be achieved in the future. That, I think, is a very thumbnail sketch of the Judeo-Christian story.

The Greek story is quite different. War is right at the center of it, and war itself requires political and social organization. There can be fighting without war but there can be no war without an organization that makes it something more than just plain fighting. It requires political and social organization. The search for honor and glory are at the root of why men fight and why they do many, many other things in their lives, according to this view. The Greeks did have a notion that in a way resembles some of the things I’ve said about the Judeo-Christian story. They had a concept called hybris, to be translated as something among these terms, excess, arrogance, violence. I think the fullest grasp of it, I think, might be rendered best by violent arrogance. Some notion of being above yourself and thinking yourself more than a man with the implication that you are approaching some kind of divinity by being more than a man, and acting accordingly, which usually requires that you use violence to achieve what you want. The sort of the standard picture in Greek ethics runs this way. A man is granted too much, he is too well off, he is too rich, he is too strong, he is too beautiful, so much so that he becomes too arrogant and is ready to step beyond his human condition.

At that point, the gods don’t like it because like the Judeo-Christian god, they want to have some boundary between the two, but for them it’s very important, because the boundary is far from clear. So what happens to the man who has too much? He is afflicted with hybris, which leads him to take the violent action. Onto the scene then comes the goddess Ate, which might be translated moral blindness. In other words, he no longer can think straight and so he will do something dangerous, harmful, and very ultimately bad for himself, and when he does whatever it is, he is struck by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution.

Well, of course, the most famous Greek case, I think of these things, is in Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, which illustrates it perfectly well. Oedipus is a brilliant man; he achieves the kingship of his city because of his extraordinary intelligence, and he’s a very good man. He is king, don’t imagine that he’s a despot, anything but; the people love him. He saved the city thanks to his brilliance and his goodwill. However, after a while, he comes to be too satisfied, too comfortable with his own brilliance and when another threat comes to the city, he is confident that he can solve the problem again for his people. He is warned by the gods through seers, and by men of wisdom saying, don’t investigate this question too far; you might be making a mistake. He won’t listen; he bowls ahead, and he discovers in the process the terrible, terrible truth, which is that by accident, by coincidence, not by intent that as a young man he killed his father and subsequently married his mother. And this most horrible combination of facts drives him — and he’s already suffered from the hybris and the atē, and his retribution is terrible in his. In his madness, when he discovered these things, he tears his own eyes, blinds himself. And, of course, now for the rest of his life, he must just go about as a kind of a beggar, having been this former tremendously great king.

So these are examples of what happens in Greek ethics later on, if you are guilty of this characteristic. On the other hand, when he, even Oedipus himself, when he understands and he relents, and in a sense he apologizes for what he’s done, but more importantly, he ceases, of course, to be powerful and to act in that way, wisdom comes to him. He understands that, he has acted immoderately. That is the critical concept. Moderation is this wonderfully great important thing for the Greeks. You must act in moderation. They don’t ask you to just be humble and throw yourself on the ground and consider yourself as nothing compared to the god, or the gods. Be a man, be proud of what you should be proud of, but don’t go beyond limit of what is human, because if you do terrible things will come. Seek fame, we all want that, and I’ll say more about that, but you can’t push it too far, there has to be some kind of a reasonable human limit to what you do.

So, here is this problem. A typically Greek problem is where there is a contradiction that you’ve got to live with; you can’t resolve. If you want to seek the fullness of a human experience, you have to try to be the best possible man, the greatest possible man to compete successfully against others and to achieve fame, glory, and recognition. But if you push it too far you will anger the gods and something terrible will happen to you. So, it seems to me, that Western civilization, ever since, has been a composite of these two traditions. But there is no way to put them together, and so Western civilization is an ambiguous society with a war always ragging within the soul of Western civilization and it’s never perfectly clear which of the two approaches to life is the better one.

I don’t know whether any of you have ever thought about this, and anything like this way. But if you contemplate your own way of thinking about what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. I think you will find some combination, if you’re sort of typical, but that combination doesn’t ever have to be fifty-fifty, and I’m sure it very rarely is. More typically, one aspect of the culture dominates rather than the other. But the shifts in place and time, and in many I would say, throughout most human beings, there is a consciousness of both. They both have some attraction and one has to grapple with that. So, a part of you wants to become the greatest whatever it is that you want to become and you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t very competitive and very eager to come out first, devoted to arête and your own version of that kind of thing. Yet, it’s very easy to say to you that’s not a good thing to do. What you should try to do is to be humble. You should be like what Jesus suggests in the Sermon on the Mount. Your soul is in deep danger if you indeed continue to lead the life that you have mainly been leading up to now, and those two things are in conflict. I don’t care if you ever go to church, that is no longer confined to a religious organization. It floats around in Western civilization all the time. They’re aspects of demand for performance at the highest level, and at the time there is a great deal of blaming people for pursuing such things instead of humility. That’s Western civilization, friends, and the Greeks are at the root of the whole thing.

The Rise of the Polis

The Palaestra at Olympia / Wikimedia Commons

So now, let me turn to my next topic, which is to leave the world of Homer behind us and to begin to tell the story of how it was that the characteristic unit of Greek civilization, the polis came into being out of the Dark Ages about which we’ve said a little bit. Let me say a little bit, first of all, about the way scholars have categorized the history of Greece. Typically, we speak of the Bronze Age, the Mycenaean Period and so on, followed by the Dark Ages, but after that, you started having refined terms which derive actually from the world of the history of art. That is because in the Dark Ages we don’t have any writing. So, if you want to designate anything it has to be by tangible things like pottery, particularly painted pottery, because it’s easier to categorize. It’s from that most of our terms show up. So, for instance, you will see references to words like proto-geometric. They’ll be sort of post-Mycenaean then proto-geometric. These would be the very earliest kinds of pots that have geometric designs on them, then comes the geometric period and the orientalizing period; all of these refer to pottery styles.

Then next we come to a larger period, which is referred to as the Archaic Period, the Archaic vis-à-vis the Classical Period, which is the central subject of people’s interest in the Greeks to begin with and later on they studied its surrounding periods. This Archaic Period is roughly speaking about 750 B.C. to 500 B.C. Why this period as a unit? What makes it a unit? Well, it’s around 750, a great number of the changes that moved the Greeks away from the Dark Age kind of society to the full scale polis begin. And 500 but if you were being a little more precise, you would say something like — well, no even 500 isn’t really bad, because if you think about the Persian wars as being the breaking point, before the Persian Wars, you’re in the Archaic Period, after the Persian Wars, you’re in the classical period. Well, the Persian Wars begin in 499 B.C. when Miletus starts the Ionian rebellion. So, that’s really, I think, the reason for the dating.

During this Archaic Period, some of the things that happened are these. The isolation of the Greek towns in the Dark Age gives way increasingly to contact with the east and the south, and when I say the south I really mean Egypt and all around the eastern Aegean Sea. The rise of the polis is based upon critical, economic, military, social, and political changes, all of which produce a world that’s really strikingly different from the one that was just before it. I suppose the first apparently historical event that we know something about is the first Olympic Games, which according to Greek tradition were held in 776 B.C. The precision of that, of course, is not to be taken seriously, but it gives you a general idea of when we are talking about. What’s interesting about that is the Olympic games, like all of the Pan-Hellenic Games, was that it was not a local event just for one polis and maybe for a couple. It was one to which all the people who thought of themselves as Hellenes, which we would call Greeks, took part in. So, that meant the concept that there is something that all of us are — have in common, that make us all Hellenes now exists. It’s not there in Homer. So that’s one thing.

Then literacy returns to the Greek world. It is as I told you before, not a development of the Mycenaean script which we saw, but rather a new writing system, a true alphabet. Most of the symbols were borrowed from a kind of a Semitic language and a Semitic alphabet that came from Phoenicia, I would have guessed, or someplace near it. I think I mentioned to you that the Greeks improved upon it and made it a true alphabet by taking some signs that they didn’t need for their own language by turning them into vowel sounds. If you read a — well, a good example of that kind of Semitic script is Hebrew. If you read biblical Hebrew, you have to supply the vowels yourself. You have to know where the vowels are supposed to go, and that makes it harder to learn how to read, but when you have the vowel sounds it’s easier and the Greeks made that contribution.

In one of Plato’s lesser known dialogues he makes a statement — the following statement, which I think shows both the typical arrogance of the Greeks and also says something true. He says that the Greeks never invented anything, but everything they borrowed they improved upon. I think they probably also invented a few things, but it was very, very characteristic of the Greeks to borrow from the cultures they encountered and to adapt them, to make them more useful for their own purposes and nothing could be clearer than the alphabet as an example of that. Henceforth, we will see writing in Greece, but now very, very little of it. Of course, what we have is confined to things that are not perishable. These would have been inscriptions either on pottery, which the earliest ones are, or on stone, but otherwise I’m sure there was writing on perishable material-wooden plaques, probably not yet paper, but these would have been destroyed. So what we have is on the pottery.

We know that the first colony that the Greeks established was in the Bay of Naples on the island of Ischia. They established a colony somewhere in the 750’s, and soon afterwards, there is a colony established on the east coast of Sicily at what we call Syracuse now, and a rash of others. So, the Greeks are in the 750’s engaged in spreading themselves from the mainland of Greece and from the Aegean in general, even so far out west as Italy and Sicily, and soon we know they are in touch with just about every place in the Mediterranean Sea. In the same period, there is clear-cut, unmistakable, oriental influence on Greek pottery and other things that they make. What oriental? That means mainly the Tigris and Euphrates, Mesopotamia, Syria, all those older civilizations and much more advanced civilizations than the Greek. The Greeks are in touch with them again and they borrow styles, copy styles, maybe in the early day they used some of the craftsmen from out there or maybe their own craftsmen picked it up. However that may be, no question about it, there was contact, interaction, and influence. Most of the influence, I suspect, was going one way in those days-from the more advanced civilization of the east to the Greeks. The Greeks are doing a lot of learning, borrowing, and adopting. Of course, this is the period in which the Homeric epics are finally written down now that there is writing and that gives them, I think, even greater impact on the Greek world in the future. All of these things are happening about the same time as there is a major fundamental change in farming, commerce, and warfare, which will have very significant political consequences as well, but I want to postpone that story for a little while.

The Features and Importance of the Polis

Sappho and Alcaeus, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema / Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Let me then just turn to this phenomenon that is the polis. The word polis appears in Homer, but it means something different from what it means throughout most of Greek history. It just means a physical place, and what it appears to be is the citadel, the fortress that was the center of the towns that grew up after the Bronze Age, after the collapse of the Mycenaean world. So, that’s how it is in Homer. Later definitions, however, will be expansive and broad and as you go further and deeper into Greek history, the claims become greater and greater. Aristotle, in his Politics of course, tells us the most on this subject and often he is our source of information. But one thing is clear and pretty early. The polis is not merely a city state in the same way as, let us say, the Mesopotamian city states of the third millennium B.C. were. Places like Ur, or Kish, towns that we know back there. Those places were simply the place where the king or the emperor ruled, the place where the main god’s palace was, the place where the bureaucrats were to do their business, that’s what it was, no more than that. But immediately, very early, you start hearing the Greeks talk about the polis in terms that are more in your mind than in touch.

Sixth-century Greek poet, Alcaeus wrote, “not houses finally roofed, or the stone of walls well built, no not canals or dock yards make the polis, but men able to use their opportunity.” If you get into the fifth century, late in the fifth century, Thucydides in his history has one of his generals speak to his men and say, “men are the polis.” So, we need to straighten out for ourselves what that means? Does that mean that the place where these people live is not the polis? Is it only men? Well, we’ll come back to that. Let me read you something, as we move to the fullest claims that will be made for the role of the polis. Aristotle in his Politics says this: “as man is the best of the animals when perfected, so he is the worst of all when he is divided away from the law and justice.” But he tells us, human justice can be found only in thepolis, because he says, man is by nature a politicon zoon, an animal of the polis, and as I told you, a man who is without a polis by nature is above or below the category of man.

It’s because man alone has the faculty of speech and the ability to distinguish good from bad, and right from wrong. In addition, since he is born with weapons for the use of wisdom and virtue, he may use them for the opposite ends. Therefore, when he is without virtue, man is the most savage of animals. Justice on the other hand, is an element of thepolis. The administration of justice, which means deciding what is just, is the regulation of the partnership which is thepolis. Man can’t live without the polis, justice exists only in the polis, the polis is something more than a place, it’s more than the walls, it’s more than the ships, it is some kind of a thing that is spiritual it seems to me.

But about the size of this thing — let me back up. There’s something else I wanted to say to indicate this notion of men being the polis as opposed to anything tangible. When the Persians conquered the Greek cities of Asia Minor, when they came to the coastal city of Phocaea, the Phocians had a choice of either giving bread and water to the great king and becoming subjects of the Persians — all they would have had to do was pay taxes and do military service for the king, since he didn’t go about killing people he conquered. The Phocaeans chose instead to take their city, which is to say, all the people in the city, put them on ships, sailed to the far west, and organized a new city out there. In fact, they landed on the Riviera in France and did pretty well for themselves afterwards. But that’s a beautiful example; they thought they had taken their polis with them, because they have had moved the entire city there.

Statue of Themistocles at Piraeus, Athens / Wikimedia Commons

During the Persian Wars, when the Themistocles is trying to convince his fellow Greeks to stay and fight at Salamis, but they are reluctant to do, he says okay if you won’t stay and fight at Salamis, while all our men are already located on our ships, we will take these ships, sail them away to Italy, and settle an Athens in Italy. Well, the Spartans take them very seriously and they say, okay we’ll stay and fight at Salamis. So, such a concept was a possibility. It’s not the whole story though. Let me turn to the question of the physical picture that you ought to have of a polis. Remember there is that citadel standing on a high hill; the acropolis as it is called, the polis up high. There is surrounding farmland going as far, typically, as there is either a natural or an artificial frontier. Typically, a mountain range will be the boundary between the area of two poleis or a stretch of water, because Greece has the sea winding through it everywhere.

But when that’s not true, then there is a typical sort of modern frontier, a land bridge which there a line is-a theoretical line is drawn through it, and on one side is one city, and the other side is another city. There is a wonderful archaeological discovery of a boundary stone near Athens on which it is written on one side, this is Athens, it is not Megara. On the other side it says, this is Megara, it is not Athens. So, there is that kind of a boundary as well, and that is a place where trouble is likely to emerge. Once the poleis are in place, they will spend a great deal of time fighting each other. A normal reason for fighting is a dispute about a piece of land that is more or less on the boundary between them, and so that’s one aspect of their world.

What about how big are these things? An answer from twentieth-century America, very small. I think the word tiny might be justified. We start with the most abnormal of them in this respect. The largest polis, of which we know, is Athens. Unlike many poleis, Athens had been successful in gaining control of the whole region which it dominated, the region of Attica. So, anybody by the time history dawns, who lives in the peninsula that is Attica, is Athenian, even if he lives in a village or a good size town sixty miles away; he is still an Athenian. He can be a citizen of his community, he can be a Marathonian, but he is also and more primarily, he is an Athenian. Now Attica is, in fact, approximately 1,000 square miles, which I am told is about the size of Rhode Island, and that’s the biggest polis of which we know. There are well over a thousand poleis. Some people want to push the number at its height up to maybe 1,500, but it doesn’t matter. You’re talking about lots and lots of them.

What is the typical size of them? What is the typical population of them? Well, Aristotle and Plato, both sort of theoreticians of the polis each had an idea what’s the right size for the perfect polis. Aristotle said the right size is a place where all of the citizens, by which he meant the male adult citizens, could come to a central place and hear a speaker and that number comes out to be about 5,000 male adults. Plato, being a mathematician, as Aristotle was not, decided that the perfect polis would have 5,040 citizens. Why 5,040, you may ask; do we have any mathematicians among us who will give me a quick answer to that? Tell me does it mean the same thing as it has the greatest number of numbers that go into it equally? That’s the answer I heard. Is that all right? Okay, enough of this mathematical falderal. As you can see I don’t understand it. But look, here’s the point. We’re talking about 5,000 adult males. That’s the ideal polis as far as these guys are concerned.

Athens was not the ideal polis; it was big. How many men did it have in its fullest bloom? Somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000. It’s impossible to have a better guess than that. Then, if you want to say, how many human beings lived in Attica at it greatest, we are speaking about something between a 125,000 and 300,000. But you have to understand just from what I’ve already told you, this is extraordinarily large, and I think you must realize that most poleis, if you’re thinking about 1,000 or more poleis would have been well under 5,000 adult male citizens. So, I just wanted to give you an idea of just how small most of these places are as well as indicating sharp departures.

Okay, now the polis from the beginning, and it never stopped being what I’m about to say, chiefly agricultural communities. Most of the people, and I think it’s reasonable to guess that a very high majority of the people would be living on farms, engaged in farming, feeding themselves, and the rest of the community. Unlike the ancient near eastern cities, these towns do not grow up around a temple or a marketplace, confluence of rivers as they do in medieval Europe. No, they grow up like the Athenian does, right smack in the middle of a plain, which is a good place for farming, with a great high acropolis available. Even the characteristic thing in a polis, the agora, the marketplace, which also becomes the civic center of these towns, even these grew up later than the polis. They show up a century or more typically after we know that there is a polis there, and the agora comes about in a gradual way. I think you should never imagine in these real old poleis that got the thing started, that somebody said let’s have a polis. Things just happened; they just grew up.

One nice way to think about it — here Athens is helpful. How many of you ever been to Athens? Raise your hand. And the rest of you, when you go — on the north shore — north slope of the acropolis, beyond the agora, there is the area of Athens known as the Plaka. It’s the oldest inhabited area in Athens, and there you will find that unlike the more modern Athens, in which streets laid out at ninety-degree angles perfectly, it’s a mess. The streets wind around and that’s because the original streets followed the way the cattle did their wandering, looking for food. These became the roads. So, I want to stress the sense of natural development, not some kind of a central authority making a decision about anything. It is also pretty clear that for some after the foundation of the polis, there were no city walls. These were not defended. Your farmland was not defended. If you had a house outside the acropolis as you would, it was not defended. What happened if the town was attacked, invaded? Everybody who could ran up to the acropolis to defend themselves. So, that’s how things were in the elementary phase.

Now, there are Greek traditions that are taken seriously by the Greeks that suggest that kings ruled these cities from the beginning and they have lists of kings with their names, and sometimes with stories attached to them. I think myself, that there were people who had the title basileus and they were noblemen and that they had some kind of a position of influence and authority in the state, but as I think we have seen already, they were not kings in the oriental sense and once we have a polis, it looks as though we don’t have kings any longer in any shape, manner, or form. What the kind of regime that emerges along side the polis, is an aristocratic republic in which the noblemen have influence and power within the community by tradition and they are plural. There is not one real king. There is typically a council of aristocrats; that is the outfit that counts.

Hesiod, whom I have not mentioned to you before, a poet who we think to have lived around 700 B.C., very early in the history of the polis, wrote one of his poems called, Works and Days. This poem offers advice to farmers on how to live, but it also contains a story in which Hesiod talks about himself and the quarrel he has with his brother over who inherits what from the father, and he claims he’s been cheated out of his inheritance because his brother bribed the judges. Well, who are these judges? He calls them basileis, kings. These would have been these aristocratic figures who we know in the earliest days of the polis. They were the judicial authority basing that on their claim to divine descent on their, certainly, noble descent, and on the fact that the nobility had a monopoly of knowledge about what the traditions of the community are. So, Hesiod complains about them and calls them bribe swallowing basileis, crooked ones, plural; kings as in Homer.

It’s also interesting that Athens has a very clear tradition of thinking they had kings, and what I think is very telling is the story they give us about how kingship came to an end in Athens. Let me start by contrasting it with what I think is fairly typical. The Romans also had kings, I think they had probably real kings just before the emergence of their republic and kingship came to an end according to the Roman story, and the republic succeeded it when one of the kings, the last one Tarquinius Superbus (Superbus in Latin means arrogant) misbehaved, most seriously, by raping the daughter of a nobleman, Lucretia. That caused a rebellion and they overthrew the kings, and thereafter, the word king was a dirty word in Roman history. The best example is when Julius Caesar has made himself master of Rome, but he’s still behaving as though the republic exists. People either who want to embarrass him — well yes, I think people who want to embarrass him send around the story Caesar wants to make himself king. The word for king in Latin is rex. And so, he tried to diffuse that with a pun by saying, Non sum rex sed Caesar. I’m not rex, I’m not king, I’m not rex, my name is Caesar.

Well, in fact, he pretty well was ready to turn himself into a king, but he wouldn’t use that word, because it had such a terrible smell. Kings were despots, dictators, rapists. You didn’t want to be one. Well, look at the story the Athenians tell. There was this king of Athens. Codros was his name. The Athenians were invaded by an army from the outside, and Codros led his forces out against them. He fought brilliantly and bravely, and drove the enemy from the field, but in the course of the battle he himself was killed. The Athenians loved and respected him so much that they gave him the almost unheard honor of burying him right on the spot where he fell in the field, and thereafter, his name was always followed with glory, admiration and devotion. Well, what kind of story is that? Why do you get rid of a kingdom? Why would you get rid a king? Oh, I forgot to tell you. Why did they get rid of the king? Because they thought they could never have another so good; so, why try? Give me a break. No, I think somebody had to make up a story, but the memory of kings was not of a Tarquinius. It was not of a brutal despotic ruler, because they didn’t have any such thing.

We don’t know how the change came about or if — some people question if they ever really did have kings, but the picture I want you to have is that’s not the tradition. The tradition is aristocracy; that’s what we connect with the polis, and of course, it was natural, because it also fit into the world of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which they were accustomed to think about.

The Polis in Hesiod’s Work

Ancient bronze bust long called Seneca but now thought to be Hesiod / Photo by Massimo Finizio, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

The subject of the way the Greeks thought about the significance and the function of the polis is really critical in distinguishing between thepolis example of a city state and other city states in history. It’s the notion of what the function of that state is, I think, that is most striking. I was about to tell you last time about the poet Hesiod, who lived in a little town in Boeotia to the north of Attica. He describes himself as a farmer and in the Works and Days, he talks about the quarrel that he had with his brother and how he was mistreated, in his opinion, when his brother bribed the barrens, the basileus, in his area, and cheated him of his birth right. He quotes a kind of a fable. He says that he is a fool; I’m sorry, he tells this fable of the hawk and the nightingale, which illustrates really the doctrine of might over right. The hawk says he is a fool who tries to match his strength with the stronger. He will lose the battle and with the shame will be hurt also. So, don’t try to fight against stronger people is what he said.

Hesiod says that this is the wrong doctrine. It is better, he says, to go by the path leading to justice. For when justice is outraged, and by the way justice here is personified in the form of the goddess called Dike. She follows before us weeping to the polis and the gatherings of people. She puts a dark mist upon her and brings a curse upon all those who drive her out, who deal in her and twist her in dealing. He speaks about the word polis more than once in the same general context. He draws a contrast between the men who give just decisions to strangers and to natives, and who do not depart from what is just, and those who practice violence and cruel deeds. In the case of the former, the polisflourishes and its people prosper. Peace reigns over their land and Zeus keeps them free of wars. They don’t suffer famines or disasters. Their flocks have thick wool. Their wives bear them children. So fruitful is their land that they are spared the evil necessity of traveling on ships and there you have an interesting point about the Greeks. Hesiod is not alone in saying, for God’s sake try not to take a voyage at sea because your chances of coming back are really bad, which was a reality to a degree. That’s a very strange thing because the Greeks turn out to be an enormously active seafaring people with tremendous fear of the seas. I think that those things are connected.

What about those who don’t follow the path of righteousness, of justice, of Dike? Zeus orders severe punishments for them. Often, even a whole polis, is paid punishment for one bad man. His people are troubled by disaster, plagues, famines, the men die, the women are barren. At another time, Zeus destroys the wide camped army of people or wrecks their city with its walls, or their ships on the open water. Well, one thing that emerges from these lines of Hesiod is that the polis is already there. There is no way to talk about what he’s talking about in the kinds of settlements that existed before the invention of the polis, and that I think is worth mentioning. If our date for him, which is very problematical, is right roughly, then by certainly 700 B.C. there are people who know what poleis are, poleis exist.

But beyond that, there is the fact that for the Greeks that early and always — by the way it remained so, the notion of justice is directly connected with a polis. The only place where justice exists or can exist is in a polis. The only way you can lead a good life is if you live in a polis, and when you do live in a polis of course, you will have to behave justly because — and this is tremendously important, your behavior doesn’t affect just you and your family, it involves the entire community. Remember, even one bad man can ruin a polis. That is a very strong statement about the priority of community and it’s very different from the values that we saw in the Iliad and the Odyssey. You cannot imagine, it seems to me, in the world that Hesiod describes, Achilles or anybody else saying, “Well, you insulted me and so I’m not going to fight anymore for my polis.” That would have been inconceivable in this world.

Now, given this information, we are onto the problem that will be a problem for the Greek polis for the rest of its history and it’s really a problem to this very day for all people who live in some sort of a civilized community. How do you reconcile the interests and desires, and well being of the individual and his immediate family with those of the community at large? They may seem, and probably might even be said to be, different and antagonistic at some point, and when they are what should you do? For the Greeks the answer was pretty clear hereafter. One ought to be interested and to take action on behalf of the polis. We’ll be seeing this kind of argument and people presenting positions about it going on into the future. But nobody is going to be very comfortable, if comfortable at all. It would be a very oddball position to take for the rest of Greek history. No, the right thing to do is to take care of yourself and the hell with the polis. That’s not what you’re going to hear. What you’re going to hear is to the contrary. Little bit later, when we get to talking about Sparta, you’ll see a beautiful example of that in the form of the poems of Tyrtaeus, who is a poet in Sparta, and whose poetry became so central to their way of thinking and living that they were used as marching songs for the Spartan army as they walked, and they make the same point, but I’ll come back to that.

Now, here’s another document that you want to be aware of that gives you some idea of what the Greeks fairly early thought the polis was for and about, and what the relationship between individual and polis was. In this case I’m talking about Herodotus, who very early in his history tells the story really of his visit to Lydia, to the land of the great Tyrant Croesus, who is also the richest man in the world. It’s not clear that this event ever really took place, but it’s really not very important, because what Herodotus is doing is telling how he, I think, and how the Greeks in general viewed the questions at issue. So on goes the visit to Croesus. Croesus asked Solon to tell him who is the happiest, the most fortunate — both of those things contained in the words he uses — that he had ever seen. Solon was now a man of full years, he was a man greatly respected, and he turns out to be one of the seven sages that the ancient Greeks selected for the wisest men who ever were. So, it would be interesting to know what he thought about that.

Of course, Croesus had shown his great wealth already to Solon. In my view, he put the question this way. Solon, as he looked around at his fabulous wealth and great good fortune, who do you think is the happiest, fortunate man you ever knew? You know what the answer was that he expected. Solon answered, Tellus of Athens. I’ll bet you never heard of Tellus of Athens, neither had Croesus, neither had anybody else outside of Athens. Croesus was astonished and he asked Solon why did he select Tellus? Here’s what Herodotus says: First, because his city was flourishing, that is hispolis, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good. The words in Greek are kalos kagathos for the singular, kaloi kagathoi for plural and it’s a kind of a formula. It means a gentleman; it means the best kind of person. If a person kalos kagathos, it means he is good to look at and his soul is excellent — all that you could expect of a person. So, he had sons, beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up, and further. After a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious.

In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbors near Eleusis he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell and paid him the highest honors. So, to summarize, the happiest, the most fortunate man that Solon ever knew was a dead Athenian that nobody ever heard of. Why? What does this say? Right, we see in this passage something that reveals so much about what the Greek values were and you’ll see how closely they were tied up with the polis and the primacy of the polis in their lives. Well, why are things good? Well, his city, his polis was going well. A man who is living in a polisnot doing well, how can he be happy? There’s just no way. Secondly, he had sons. Now, this has to do with the Greek idea about immortality and mortality. Since, the Greeks really didn’t believe in personal immortality, how do you find what everybody wants? Immortality. One way is through your family and its sons who carry forward the family name, so to speak. So if you have sons and they are healthy, and they do well, and they have children, that means your name will be carried into the future, your memory will persist and that is one form of immortality.

Then, of course, the greatest form of immorality — and think of it when you compare it with what was the form of immortality available to Achilles and his fellow heroes. You fought for your polis and when you died fighting nobly for your polis, you will be – and were then – honored extraordinarily by that polis and what everybody knew was that your memory would last thereafter so long as your polis lasted, and the proof of it is that Herodotus knows that story and is telling it, as will other story tellers, and in fact, it worked. Here we are talking about Tellus all these many years later thanks to Herodotus. But the point is that this form of immortality is available to Tellus because of his place in the polis, because of the deeds he does for the polis, and that is the greatest possible payoff.

Marble bust of Solon / National Museum, Naples

I’ve been making the case that a polis is a different thing from any other city state. I’m not aware that any other culture that had city states had ideas of this kind that helped explain why one was associated with it and cared about it. The final document I want to use to make the point here comes from precisely the poems of Solon. As we shall see later, Solon will be a very important political figure in Athens, and at a critical moment in Athenian history, the Athenians will give him the honor and the responsibility of being the sole public official and to draw up a new constitutional laws for Athens, an enormously important job. And in the course of doing that, and in the course of defending himself against the attacks after he had done it, he wrote what really amount to political pamphlets to defend his actions and to set forth the ideas that lay under the actual laws that he had put forward.

But as you may know, in writing, the earliest kinds of writing among the Greeks anyway, but I think this is not atypical, come not in the form of prose but in the form of poetry and that’s because people are used to, before they used writing, remember things through verse. I don’t know if that’s true of you, but it certainly is true of people of my generation. The things that they taught us in school, when they required us to remember poetry, no matter how we try, we can’t forget it, and the stuff that we had to remember that was in prose, no matter how we try we can’t remember it. It’s the rhythm. I’ll bet even all of you can remember songs that you have known all your life, but not other things. So it’s a great mnemonic device. But in any case, that’s why Solon’s pamphlets are written in poetry and apparently in really good poetry. So, we have his very words.

Here is a fragment from one of his poems: “So the public ruin invades the house of each citizen, and the courtyard doors no longer have strength to keep it away, but it overleaps the lofty wall and though a man runs in and tries to hide it in his chamber or closet, it ferrets him out. So, my spirit dictates to me. I must tell the Athenians how many evils a city suffers from bad government.” The Greek word for that is dysnomia and how good government eunomia displays all neatness and order, and many times she must be shackles on the breakers of laws. Now, get this eunomia levels rough places, stops glut and greed, takes the force from violence, she dries up the growing flowers of despair as they grow, she straightens out crooked judgments, remember those crooked judgments that Hesiod complained about. Well, the polisstraightens out crooked judgments, gentles the swollen ambitions and puts an end to acts of divisional strife. She stills the gall of wearisome hate and under her influence all life among mankind is harmonious and does well. Wonderful, where do all these good things come from? From God? No, they come from the polis when its laws are good and therefore when what the government provides is eunomia rather than the opposite.

He is making a claim here which is a very strong, powerful one, but which was characteristic of the Greeks and I want you to take note of it here. He is giving the law and the polis that gives law. It’s not merely a negative thing the way I think modern ideas about law, as for instance, represented in the American Constitution are, which is to say, its function is to prevent wrong doing, to punish wrong doing. It doesn’t really — well, let me just say what the polis claims to do here in Homer. It claims actually to shape the character of mankind. The polis makes, a good polis, following good laws, makes its citizens better. It not only defeats wrong, but it creates right and it creates citizens who behave rightly. This is tremendously important because every Greek state that we know about made the claim that that’s what it did. No matter what its constitution was, no matter how these differed from one another, the idea was that the state has to make good men and that for a city to be good, the men must be good.

This is very different. If you think about the American idea as an example of the modern way of thinking about these things, the notion is we can’t do anything. The laws can’t do anything about making people better or worse, it takes them as they are and then it deals with them accordingly. But for the ancient Greeks that was not enough. If you even think about the founding fathers Madison, Federalist ten, based upon the principle that you can expect that men will do wrong things, and that a good constitution has the role of balancing the wrongs off against each other, so as to produce the closest approximation possible to justice. You can only do that by balancing competitive desires that can be thought of as evil; faction was what they were talking about and everybody thought faction was bad, but it was inevitable. You couldn’t get rid of faction by saying to men, it’s not good to be factious, you should think of the whole community at all times. That’s not what the American constitution is about, but it was what the Greek constitutions were about. A polisought to make men like that, and in fact, there’s a great revolution in the political theory presented by the American constitution in that it’s not the first thing to do it, but it was the first one that was really applied, in turning away, rejecting the possibility that a constitution could make men better. It accepted the premise that men were what they were and that the state had to control that by various devices.

So, it’s very important to see how different from that the Greek idea was and what an enormous responsibility the poliswas supposed to have, and of course with that, there had to be an enormous amount of support for the state by the citizens.

The Citizen

Marble bust of Pericles bearing the inscription “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian”. Roman copy after a Greek original from c.430 BC / Vatican Museums, Rome

That’s another thing I want to emphasize before I leave this subject — the word, citizen. We should not take that for granted. By the way, in Greek the word citizen is politas, derives from polis. He’s somebody who lives in a polis; he’s a citizen. Well, there never was a citizen in the world before the polis. There are only subjects, people who are subject either to a god, or to the king, or to a representative of the god, or to a chieftain or whoever, but somebody in a sense owns them all, but nobody owns a citizen. This is something brand new in the world and we shall see how it crops up in different forms and how it shapes the course of Greek history.

Well, this whole business presents the problem I mentioned a moment ago. All of us have this natural selfishness when we are born. We all seek our own interests and soon we join up with a family, we want the family’s interest up to a point, but how is this fit together with the needs of the community at large? A problem the Greeks always wrestled with, but when you get down to the fifth century, and indeed the latter part of the fifth century, there is a marvelous document from Thucydides, the famous funeral oration of Pericles delivered in the winter of 431 – 430 B.C., where one of the, in my judgment, great things about Pericles was that he had given a great deal of thought to this problem and presented the best argument he could think of for solving that problem, which was to claim that the individual’s highest needs and greatest personal and family goals could be met only through the polis, that his well being was tied up inextricably with the well being of the polis.

Now, you don’t have to buy that and individuals undoubtedly found the strain too much from time to time, but what’s interesting, is rather the ideal, the claim, the theory. You cannot truly achieve what you want and need as a human being without being an active and loyal citizen of this great community which you need to achieve what you want in life. It is a claim already, and as you’ve seen in Aristotle, towards the end of the history of the free polis, it is something necessary for mankind. It is the center of his life and it explains the Greeks devotion to the independence, to the autonomy of thepolis, and their desire to beautify and make it as great as it could possibly be. All of that sounds very nice and it certainly had very nice aspects to it, but there was of course a down side to it as well, which is every polis wanted to be great, and being Greeks they wanted to be greater than their neighbors and sometimes that involved conflict, and it often among the Greeks did involve war.

Now, the Greeks were not unique in history in constantly being at war. That is, if you just examine the history of the human race, so soon as they were sufficiently organized to wage war they began doing it all the time, but it is true that the life of the Greek world was much more filled with war throughout the history of the polis than other civilizations, because other civilizations after a time, had one great power that was able to dominate the entire region. Egypt being the best example, so that no longer was war possible, but the flip side of that is, there was also another thing that was impossible; freedom. In Greece you have a lot of war and you have a lot of freedom, and all of that is tied up, I think very much, with the development of this very special thing called the polis.

Greek Farmers and the Function of the Polis

This is an artist’s impression of how an ancient Greek or Roman agora or forum (market) may have looked like. / Wikimedia Commons

Now, let’s take a look at other aspects of the polis; not ideas, but rather how it functioned, how its function developed and how that helped to shape the characteristics that it showed in its full blown period, that is to say, the Classical Period. I want to talk about — there were really three things that come together. One of them is how the Greeks in the late Dark Ages and in the period in which the polis emerges, made their living. The second has to do with how they fought. The third is, and these are not necessarily in any particular order, how they were governed or rather how they governed themselves. All of these three things, in my judgment, are necessary to understand how the polis came into being, how it came to be what it was, and how it came to fulfill and believe in these ideas that I have just been telling you about.

I should say it once, that this is now a very controversial subject. Let me just back up a second. Along the way I’m attempting to also to answer the question that people always ask me when they understand I’m a historian about Greece and if they have any interest in the subject. They say, “yeah, yeah the Greeks were terrific, they achieved wonderful things, they were a miracle, the golden age, and all that. But tell me how did that happen? Why did they do that? Why them and not somebody else?” Until I came upon a brilliant solution that another scholar presents to us, all I could do was tell jokes.

I remember, way before you guys were born, there was a TV show run by Sid Caesar, and one of the characters that repeatedly showed up on this thing was a kind of a comic German/Austrian professor of seemingly everything, and then Carl Reiner would interview him on the topic that was allegedly the topic of the day, and the one I remember best was he was a great aeronautical expert and here he was landing briefly. He was being interviewed by Carl Reiner, and he would ask him questions, and in his comic German accent he would give silly answers. But finally, Reiner says, well, thank you for visiting us, it’s all very wonderful, but you know our audience would really like to know; it seems like a simple question but it’s awfully hard to understand, but how can a great, big, enormous, heavy thing like this airplane get off the ground? He says, oh it’s a very simple question; it’s not difficult to answer. I mean, you know the wings go, and the air runs, and then the motor on the engine and it’s a miracle how it gets up there and that is the way I used to explain the Greeks, because I had no better idea. I could bumble around about geography and this and that, but nothing.

Then there came a great voice from the west, Victor Davis Hanson, who was a professor at Fresno State, California and he thought about this and he brought to it, in addition to extraordinary intelligence and remarkably good knowledge of Greek and the Greeks, a magical additional element, and that was the fact that he was a farmer and he was, I think, in the fifth generation that had farmed the same piece of farmland in California, in the Central Valley of California ever since the nineteenth century. And that climate by the way and that whole scene is very similar to the Mediterranean kind of climate that the Greek farmers were engaged in, and so it had potentially, Hanson thought, and I think he was right, proper analogous possibilities and he came to the conclusion that much could be learned about the development of thepolis if one looked at the business of how one farms in these kinds of environments. And I think that turns out to be a great key to understanding what’s happening, and everything you hear from me on this subject I learned from Hanson.

It is, needless to say, being a bright, brilliant idea that one guy thought of, it has been assaulted on all sides and there is plenty of controversy about it. You start with the Dark Ages and there is general agreement, I think, that the population of Greece had become much smaller than it had been in the Mycenaean Period, and that from the standpoint of the population it could sustain, it was under populated. If you start with a look at what was the way in which the land was worked for the purposes of feeding the population, it would be okay to take a look at the Homeric poems as some kind of evidence to help us out, and Hanson focused on this, what was really obviously the units that mattered in the world of Homer, call it the family — the Greek word is oikos, and it really means household. But it comes to mean the land that the family works, the family itself, and what does it look like?

Well, in the Odyssey, there is a very fine example of such a place in the form of the oikos of King Laertes, the father of Odysseus, who somehow is still alive when Odysseus is king, but he is in retirement and there he is. We see him, a nobleman that he is, former king that he is, working the soil and how he does this is very illuminating, because he is clearly, according to Hanson, involved in the period after the transition away from an earlier style. The earlier style pictures rather large estates by Greek standards, with raiding warrior groups going out to steal what they can. They are engaged in raising livestock, which in Greece is more likely to be sheep and goats than cattle, but also breeding horses, which is very important for the aristocracy for carrying on warfare.

Let’s flip back a step beyond that to Mycenaean civilization for the purpose of noting the great contrast, the great change. Remember the ancient near eastern kingdoms and their collectivized agriculture, control from the center, the individuals who carry out the farming or the grazing. They are not permitted individual initiative; they are controlled. This civilization, like these other ancient Mediterranean kingdoms, was rather advanced. They knew how to cultivate the grape to make excellent wine; they knew how to cultivate olives to be able to make superb olive oil and how to process them to produce the result. They were engaged in arbor culture; they had fruit trees that produced very well. It was a civilization that was rather advanced in terms of its agricultural skill. They knew the techniques for grafting and improving, and domesticating species of grapes and olives particularly. You can’t go out there and just plant these things. What comes out is inedible, unusable until you finally — what’s the word that I want? What do you get when you mix two agricultural things? You have to — what do you get? You need hybrids, in order to improve the category of what you’re doing. Well, they could do all that and that’s the knowledge that was in the palace that allowed the kings and his people to send out messages, orders to everybody to do what they did. Now, when the palace civilization collapses, the whole system collapses. That explains, in large part, why there was such a decline in population, why the Dark Ages were so dark, lots of poverty, lots of starvation, but also, as I suggested when I spoke of this earlier, also the freedom if you could make it, to learn and also to grow stronger.

Property Holding and Internal Colonization

Ancient Greek kleros illustration / Wikimedia Commons

Now, in some time in that period of the Dark Ages, and Hanson would suggest, I think, probably around the eighth century is the greatest transition. Somehow the oikos obtains a chunk of land that is understood to belong to it. The Greek word for that is a kleros, and what happens is now the family knows that it has this land, it has it now, it will have it next year, the family will be able to pass it on from father to son, so that he can inherit it, and that changes everything. That kind of stability gives promise and is a basis for making every kind of necessary investment in the soil that you are working in order to make it better and more profitable for you, and it’s worth it because you’ll be, you and your children, there to collect it. Thus arose the kleros, or the idea of a privately held plot attached not to any one person, but rather in perpetuity to a single farm family or oikos.

Look at the difference between this and previous ways of working the soil. People either rented the land from a large landowner or they were hired help who got nothing except a salary or a piece of what they did. Serfs who are compelled to work the land, or in some places even slaves, well, they have no incentive, put aside the question even of capacity, to invest capital for the purpose of improving the size and quality of the their crops, their trees, their vines. They would not be willing to take the risk without clear title to the land. That is the critical thing. Once they have it, and they plant permanent crops, that changes the whole basis of society and the values, and the attitudes that go with it. In short, according to Hanson, it is the invention of the family farm that is the critical moment in this very, very important moment in the history of the human race and there certainly is no example of it that I know of, apart from Greece, when it happens right about this period. You can imagine that this can only happen gradually; none of this happens overnight.

But if you think of the time span about 900 to 700 B.C., that is, when these changes are taking place. I would have guessed at an increasing pace as you go further down the road. Then what happens is the population grows, and for this the archaeological evidence is very strong. There are getting to be more and more people living on the land of Greece. What do they do? One of the problems that it produces is the more people you have, up to a point that’s good. There are more people who can work to increase the production, but beyond that point there are more people to feed than the production can produce, and that leads to a desire for expansion of the land available for cultivation.

Now, there are a couple of ways that can go; one that was certainly important and again it’s for something that Hanson emphasizes, is what he calls internal colonization. The way these things work, when you are engaged in agriculture, it’s natural to go first to that soil, to that patch of land which is known to be likely to produce the best land, the most fertile, the best product, the most fertile land there is. So, that is where they start. But now, when you need more, you can’t just say I only want the best bottom land there is. You move out to someplace that nobody bothered to farm before, because it wasn’t profitable enough, because you need more land. So, marginal land is brought into play with hard work and ingenuity, and this is one of the things that Hanson emphasizes that is so helpful. You got to be a farmer to understand these things — not everything that you try works. I think the picture he paints of farming reminds us of the picture that Homer pays of human condition as explained in the pot — the two jars of Zeus. Most of the luck is bad; it’s hard to succeed, and with some combination of luck, skill, determination and hard work all of that will decide which of these farmers will be successful and which will not. And that’s an important thing to remember.

There will be success and there will be failure. Quoting Hanson, “the real beginning in the West of individual property holding on a large scale is what he is describing.” Hanson himself has a farm that specializes in grapes for the purpose of producing raisins. I guess all the raisins in the world are produced near Fresno, isn’t that right Curtis? He points out that the knowledge of how to do this, of how to grow the kind of grapes you want, viticulture, and also arboriculture, both of these, are learned from Asia. The Asians were ahead and the end of the isolation of Greece made possible communication, and it allowed this kind of learning and so you got this picture of some people learning how to do these things very, very well.

The New Farm

The fact that the ancients considered the olive tree to be of divine origin, clearly states the great value the ancient world attributed to it.

Everything is farmed in a new way and let me just give you a picture of what this new farm that Hanson describes is like. There is intensive farming. It’s not extensive in the sense that you just have to scatter your stuff over wide fields; that’s not what it is. Every piece of that soil is necessary. A lot of it can’t produce the crop you would most like to grow. So, you find another crop that will grow there that can be useful; that’s the picture. So, you have varied crops, among them. These are the ones that are typical of a Mediterranean climate. Everybody needs grain; bread is the stuff of life as you have been rightly told. So you try, if you can grow grain on your land or you grow it where you can, if not, you have to get it elsewhere. Olives is a very important one. Vegetables can be grown many times in places where you could never grow wheat or grain. Fruits from the trees — what have I left out Curtis, anything? Have we left out any other crops? That’s about it. Those are the things that you do.

Now, observe several things about them. They together will make up everything you need to live. All the food groups are represented there. I have left out meat and fish, of course, neither of them very common in this part of the world, but meat was common enough, because there were sheep and there were goats, even when beef would have been very hard to get. But what you need to understand about the Greeks is that they don’t eat a lot of meat. Now, you might say, how come no fish? I mean, they’re surrounded by water everywhere you look. Well, guess what, it turns out fish don’t live everywhere in the water and they don’t live very much around Greece as it turns out. I don’t mean no fish, but no sort of major schools of fish. This is not the banks of Newfoundland and the Greeks do eat fish, but not a lot. So, their diet is a little bit of that — some of their protein from that, then bread, olive oil, fruit, vegetables, cheese, milk, those kinds of things they can do.

Well, now one of the things farmers in history discovered is that it’s very hard to do well as a farmer if all you do is grow the crops, because people normally don’t use what you grow in the form in which you grow it. I’m thinking again of grapes and olives; they made mostly olive oil and wine. So, what do you do? Well, if you’re a poor farmer, you don’t know what else to do. So, you send it off to a middleman who does the turning of the grapes and the olives into the liquids that are necessary, and he takes a good bit of the profit. But these farmers didn’t do that. They acquired the equipment necessary; grape and olive presses which allowed them to purify and to produce the final product, and that made them more successful than they otherwise would have been, and also another great thing that you have to be able to do, if you’re going to succeed as a farmer, if you have to have places to store what you produce, so that you will have it for next year when you need it. And also if you have a surplus, and that’s a desirable thing to do, you can sell it. Probably in the early days, this was largely a question of barter. You could trade it in for those things that you didn’t make yourself and needed. But in any case, it is a profit, but it’s no good if it’s going to spoil. So it’s important to realize the role of ceramics; they need to make storage jars that could be sealed very well and preserve the stuff for a very long time, and indeed, they did that.

Another thing that you need to understand about these farms, if you’re going to grasp their significance for the society that will come, is that they are small, really small. Maybe a typical farm, you might imagine, is maybe ten acres; that is a very small farm. Some of them, of course, were bigger. There was no regulation about it, but we are talking not about the emergence of an agricultural aristocracy, but we are talking about the emergence of an agricultural community of small family farms. One of the things that come with the development of this kind of agriculture as the polis is coming into being is slavery. Now, of course, slavery is as old almost as the human race, and it certainly was already present in the world of Homer, but it looks like in the Dark Ages there were very few slaves around just because owning slaves requires wealth. You can’t have slaves without wealth, because you got to feed them at the very least, and no matter how wicked a master you are, dead slaves are no good to you. Chances are you had to pay something for them; they are like a machine. If a slave dies you got to buy a new machine, and while he’s alive you got to feed him. So, when you’re talking about a very poor society, you’re not going to see much slavery, but it is true, that as the family farm I’ve been describing comes into being, a way is found to use slaves in a productive, positive way, positive from the standpoint of profits.

The reason for that is, if you are just engaged in a single crop farming, well you plant it, you take care of it, and then when the times comes you reap it. What do you do in between? Well, there’s not much to do. So, you have to feed the slave all year round to work only a small part of the time, that’s not very profitable. But Hanson’s farm, as I like to think of it, there’s work to do all year round, because these different crops need attention at different times, and they need different kinds of attention, and some of them need all kinds of very hard work to keep them going, so that there’s plenty of work to be done that is useful and profitable. Therefore, you will produce enough profit to make it possible, so that these small farms, you should imagine had one or two slaves playing a part in this experience.

I mean, you should not imagine when I say slaves — just take out of your mind the plantations of the old South, because when you only have one or two slaves, the master is working right alongside them, doing exactly the same work that they are doing, and also instructing them and telling them what’s what. If you want to really understand this in a practical sense, it’s more as though these guys are hired hands. I mean, they live in the house, they get fed, probably with everybody else, they work with the master; the difference being that they are slaves rather than free men. One of the funny things is that the emergence of this family farm gives rise to the polis‘ character as a land in which there is a citizenry, which is to say free men who rule themselves. So, the polis will see the invention of freedom in this way, and oddly enough, it is accompanied by the growth of slavery at the same time. Both slavery and freedom come along at the same time in the Greek world.

One of the interesting documents we have is a fragmentary inscription from the Island of Chios. I think it’s in the eighth century that Hanson points out is relevant here. On it there is little language and it’s obvious it’s talking about some kind of a town council. This is the first time we have such a reference. The Greek words are, boule he demosia; the best translation I can come up with is the council for the people. It doesn’t mean the council of the people necessarily, that would suggest something democratic. It’s probably more oligarchic or aristocratic, but the point is this is something we haven’t heard of ever before. There is clearly some kind of an official group that has some sort of political role to play, which is popular in its character. It’s the word demos that’s at the root of demosia and demos means the people, all the people. That’s one of its meanings and I think it’s the meaning that’s relevant here. As Hanson points out, only in early Greece did independent agrarians have free title to their land, own slaves, and ultimately out of this council that I told you about, ultimately, came to have control of their own communities. Although the political development came late in the process, it did come.

As Hanson says, the new farmer is not just a different kind of farmer, but a different kind of person. He is a citizen in his political role, he is a soldier but he is a soldier not in the pay or the hire of a king, or of an aristocracy; he is a citizen soldier who has participated in the decision that says it is time to go to war and who will play an active role in making decisions about his state’s policy and behavior. He is independent in a way that nobody who was not a king or an aristocrat in the past has ever been — a new kind of man, the backbone of the polis as it emerges. I don’t want to overstate this. There is still an aristocracy made up of the old guys and they don’t just disappear and there will be a long stretch in which there will be some degree of conflict between these new independent farmers and the old established aristocracy, and never does that aristocracy go away, that’s old. I’m simply emphasizing what’s new in the situation and it’s very new indeed.

I might just say a little bit more. Hanson has a marvelous situation in which he’s the scholar telling us about these developments in the world of ancient agriculture and farming, but he’s also an active farmer and reacting to what happens to farmers today, and he’s written a book, a wonderful book called, Fields Without Dreams, which is the story of modern farming in America. But this is also true of all of Western Europe, which has to do pretty much with the abolition of farmers and I just don’t think it’s right for me to pass without mentioning the significance. Nobody knows anything about it. What percentage of Americans do you think worked on farms at the end of the nineteenth century? Twenty, thirty percent? You better believe it’s sixty to seventy percent, and the further back you go in American history the closer it is to ninety and ninety-five percent. That’s the history of the world; the whole human race has spent the bulk of its time farming.

What percentages of Americans are engaged in farming today? Well, the figure I saw last was a number too small to be mentioned; I mean, to say you just can’t really say how much it is, but all right, two percent. Does anybody know a farmer? How, how come? Just by accident; still farming? God bless him. Is his son farming? No kidding, where is this? Fantastic, that’s a marvelous thing; please give him my greetings. But it’s kind of a miracle; I don’t know any farmers. Oh yeah, I know Hanson, but if I didn’t know him, I wouldn’t know any farmers. So, now I don’t want to go too deeply into this, but if you’re interested in this subject get a hold of his book. What is inescapable is farmers are a sociological category of people, different from non-farmers in all kinds of critical ways, and it is just an example of how this whole business has disappeared. Nobody even thinks about it anymore. If you were to say to me, what do you think is the most important thing, however you define thing, that has changed the character of life in the United States in the twentieth century, I would say the disappearance of farmers. There are so many ways in which that has changed the world, but I can’t do justice to it but Hanson does, so if you want to read, Fields Without Dreams, you can ponder the significance of this great change.


These are all my proofs to support all the things that I’ve already told you, but I’m not going to bother proving it, it would take too long. Well, I guess the next thing I might mention is in the area of politics. If you look at the world of Mycenae once again, we’ve already seen this, you have a despotism of some kind. You have some kind of a lord, I mean a king, for lack of a better name, a monarch who fundamentally rules and everybody is subject to him. He has an aristocracy around him, he has a lot of helpers, but he’s the boss and that’s what you see in the world everywhere else. After that, if you examine as best we can the cities of the Dark Ages and ask what kind of government, if you want to use that word, would these communities have had, you probably wouldn’t do badly if you looked at the Odyssey for the best clues you could find. Of course, they won’t be perfect, there’s a mixed character of the world of Homer, but still, if you look at the world of Odysseus, his home, what’s going on in Ithaca, there are some valuable clues.

There is somebody in that world called a basileus, who is a single individual who is understood to be superior in some way to everybody else. However, he’s not very superior to everybody else. He has all of these noblemen around him, all of whom claim to be basileis, as you recall, and a fairer way to put this would be that this is largely an aristocratic society, that was our conclusion after we looked at the poems of Homer, and I think that’s what continues, even after the world of Mycenae. People who had power by virtue of their wealth, by virtue of their personal physical strength maybe, by virtue of their descent because people always have theories about individuals in their society, I mean early societies, who were born to the purple so to speak, but whatever the criteria were, and birth always was a critical criterion in the days of the aristocracies, you would have aristocracies who would have the practical, the de facto control of things.

Well, by definition, an aristocracy is plural not singular, so how do you make decisions in an aristocracy? The answer, typically, is a council. I use the word council, the Greek word is boulē, and not assembly, which in Greek comes to be called ecclesia, because an ecclesia is understood to be a gathering of the entire adult male population, and a boulē is understood to be not a gathering of the whole, but rather a smaller group who has some degree of authority, and I would have suggested that in the earliest days they had all the authority that mattered. However, it’s interesting that these Greek communities from a very early time seem to have been different from the Mycenaean kinds of things by virtue of the fact that the men who fought in the army always seemed to have had to be consulted when it came to a question of fighting, and so you always had an assembly, even in an aristocratic state, but decisions in general were made by aristocrats. Moreover, the law was interpreted, spoken, and to the degree it had to be enforced by the aristocrats working through a council in their community, and these councils might have been elective from within the aristocracy or they could have been simply the whole aristocracy, depending really on the size of the community, because you can’t have a council functioning to any useful purpose if it gets to be too big; it just becomes something else.

That’s where you start; that’s the Dark Ages. Now, what we shall see as the polis grows and develops, and as these changes in the economic situation that I’ve described are happening, is that these successful farmers, as I will be telling you next time, who also will be the fighting men who fight for their polis as infantrymen when the infantry becomes the critically important part of the army. These men, the combination of their independence, their wealth — when I say wealth I don’t mean great wealth — but the fact that they do have wealth, that they amount to something, and their role as soldiers makes them demand a larger voice in the government of the state, in the decisions that affect them so closely. So, there will be a whole — I’m looking ahead now, projecting into some topics that we’ll explore more closely later. They will be finding different ways to insist on their inclusion and the results will be different in every state.

Sometimes the old aristocracy will be able to hold on for a very long time and to suppress any attempt to change things. Other times, and this will be widespread in certain places and will be very significant, the dissatisfied people in the society, mainly these farmers I’m talking about, will get together and perhaps fix on some discontented aristocratic individuals, and most particularly pick some aristocrat who has distinguished himself typically as a soldier, as a leader of troops, and engage really in what amounts to a kind of a revolution or at least a coup, and bring about a different kind of a monarchy which the Greeks called a tyranny. When these tyrannies take place, they last for different periods of time, but when the tyrant is removed, what follows after that is, there is never again in that town a one-man rule of any kind. Either what is established after the tyranny is an oligarchy, but notice I didn’t say an aristocracy. An oligarchy just means rule of the few, but as we shall see what changes is, is it is no longer the rule of those few who are born in the right place, it will be based upon the wealth of those people and that means that the newly wealthy, or the newly well, that is, the reasonably well-off will participate in their government and the form of government which is oligarchy will be throughout the classical period the most characteristic form of government in Greek city states.

When democracy is invented it will have its moment and it will spread, and there will be numerous democracies but they will never be the majority of the poleis. Your typical polis will be a kind of a Hanson farmer outfit, where people from that class and up, will participate in politics, will be the governing bodies in their state, they will be the ones who continue to fight in that infantry that is decisive for the state, and they will be the ones who make decisions, and the people poorer than them will be excluded. So, it’s very important to realize that these family farmers, who are successful, do not necessarily lead to democracy. Indeed, I want to emphasize again, it is an unusual outcome when they end up with democracy.