This centuries, never reached the level of power

This is a lecture about Greek city states. It begins with an examination of the influence geography had on Greek politics, by comparing Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia.

This is followed by a loose characterization of Greek poleis in general, with specific attention paid to constitutions, colonialism and competition.

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Comparing Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece

Greek civilization, like Greek religion, was a decentralized affair. For most of ancient Greek history the largest political unit was the city-state, which they called a polis (plural poleis). From this word we derive many English words: politics, for the running of a polis; police, a man who serves the polis; and even polite, meaning you have the manners of a civilized person.

But the Greeks did not invent the polis. You may recall that both Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations started out as competing city-states. What makes the Greeks unique was that they stuck with the polis long after their neighbors had created kingdoms and empires.This raises an important question: why? Why didn’t the Greek polis behave like the other city-states of the period, unite all of Greece into a single kingdom and expand to form a Greek empire? The answer lies not in political ideals, but geography. Let us compare the geography of Greece to that of Mesopotamia and Egypt.Mesopotamia is open on all sides, it is broad and it is flat. It is unified by the Tigris and Euphrates.

It is fully accessible from all sides. It is easily unified and easily invaded.By contrast, Egypt in closed in by deserts. It is narrow, it is flat, it is unified by the Nile and it is fully accessible from within but not from without. This made Egypt easily unified but hard to invade.Now let’s look at Greece.

Greece is closed in by mountains and the sea. Greek civilization is scattered over this mountainous terrain. This terrain is inaccessible from within and from without; this made Greece effectively impossible to unify and impossible to invade. The effect of geography on Greek politics can be seen rather clearly.

Compared to Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece was much more difficult, nay impossible, to invade
Egyptian pharaoh. We can see this clearly in The Iliad. Agamemnon might be king of Mycenae, but Achilles is King of the Myrmidons and Odysseus the King of Ithaka. Agamemnon is, at best, first among equals – and barely qualifies for that title, being neither as mighty as Achilles, nor as clever as Odysseus. Agamemnon may have led the invasion of Troy, but it was Achilles and Odysseus who won it.

Compare the depiction of Agamemnon in The Iliad to accounts of pharaohs and emperors who could freely claim ‘I conquered so-and-so’ as if they had done so single handedly.

The Mycenaean kings could not reach the power of Babylonian emperors or Egyptian pharaohs
Iliad Example

Comparing the Greek City-States

Thus we can see how the mountainous geography of Greece prevented the consolidation of a unified Greek kingdom and maintained the independence of the Greek polis. Each polis was fiercely independent, with its own customs, its own myths and its own festivals. With such variety, it is difficult to make generalizations about them.

Yet there are some things that the Greek poleis shared in common.For one, they all spoke Greek. This may seem a given, but many a Mesopotamian empire had subjects speaking half a dozen different languages. The Greek poleis also all worshiped the same pantheon of gods, albeit in different ways. They all knew the same myths, though each polis had myths of its own. And they all recognized certain places as holy, like Olympia and Delphi; though each polis also had its own holy sites as well.

The importance of these holy sites in uniting Greek culture cannot be overstated; they gave the Greeks places to meet and compete without bloodshed. Despite their isolation, the Greek city-states shared a common language, a common religion and common holy sites.Yet the shared values of Greek culture run even deeper. There are three other common features of Greek city-states that are uniquely Greek. These can be summarized with three Cs: constitutions, colonialism and competition.


Every Greek polis had a constitution. While these constitutions varied greatly from one polis to another, the fact that every polis felt they needed a codified system of government (one which held true for the high as well as the low) bears witness to the Egalitarian spirit of all Greek poleis.

Yet we must remember that this spirit of equality was restricted to citizens of a given polis, and did not extend to outsiders.


Another thing the various Greek Poleis had in common was colonialism. Since the mountainous terrain of Greece offered little arable land, a prosperous polis would quickly outgrow its limited surrounding countryside.

As populations grew, new sources of food needed to be found. The Spartans solved this problem by conquering and enslaving their neighbors. This was made possible by the relative flatness of the Peloponnese compared to the rest of Greece. Most Greek poleis did not have this option; instead, they established colonies elsewhere.With the Mediterranean as a trade route, Greek poleis could transport harvests from hundreds of miles away to feed their growing populations at home.

Conversely, colonies allowed a polis to relocate some of its population elsewhere, and thus relieve crowding. Finally, founding colonies in strategic positions allowed city-states to control trade routes and expand their influence. As a result, the Greeks established colonies from Asia Minor to the Iberian Peninsula.

Indeed, Southern Italy was so densely colonized by Greeks that the Romans would later call the South Magna Graecia, or Great Greece.


The most important unifying feature of Greek culture was their focus on competition
Greek Competition

Perhaps the most important unifying feature of Greek culture was their fixation on competition. The Greeks always want to find out the best of every field: the best potter, the best playwright, the best athlete, the best constitution, the best polis. To decide the winners, the Greeks held countless competitions at all levels.

From local court cases that read like high school speech competitions to Pan-Athenaic theatrical festivals in which citizens from all of Attika competed at Athens. To Pan-Hellenic Olympics, athletic competitions between all the Greek poleis, at the holy city of Olympia. To the Pan-Hellenic sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, where the Greek poleis tried to outshine each other with ornate treasuries full of lavish donations to the oracle.While these rivalries might seem like a divisive force, in fact they worked in just the opposite way, bringing the disparate Greek poleis together.

While each polis believed its system of government and its way of life was the best, they did not simply assert their beliefs as fact. Instead the Greeks put their competing perspectives to the test with contests, games and festivals. This open competition of ideals allowed rivals to respect and even admire one another instead of simply hating one another.

Lesson Summary

We have seen how Greece’s geography maintained the independence of Greek poleis. We have also seen that though Greek poleis were fiercely independent, they still had a great deal in common. The unique nature of the Greek poleis becomes abundantly clear when we compare them to the Mesopotamian city-states of Assur and Babylon.Like the Greek poleis, Assur and Babylon shared a common Akkadian language. Yet, though they also shared a common pantheon, unlike the Greeks, they did not agree on common holy sites.

Each was more than willing to burn the other’s temples to the ground as they vied with one another for religious supremacy. With no neutral ground to meet on, they had no Pan-Mesopotamian competitions to bring them together; instead, each insisted on its own superiority. With no mountains to keep them from one another’s throat, they engaged in centuries of near constant bloodshed as each tried to impose its system on the other.Thus we’ve seen the basic characteristics of the Greek polis.

Each polis was fiercely independent, with a unique culture and set of values. Each polis codified its values and customs in a constitution. Each polis had to expand to feed its people through colonialism. Finally, each polis engaged in competition with the other poleis. Though rivalry between the Greek city-states sometimes led to military squabbles, the Greeks also had peaceful methods to resolve conflicts and establish relative precedence in the form of competitions – ranging from local contests like the Pan-Athenaic theatre festival to Pan-Hellenic contests like the Olympics.


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