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Lifecycle of the Greek Polis

Mike Anderson By Mike Anderson Published on November 4, 2015

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The Greek Polis has had a significant influence on Western Civilization as a model for modern political systems and Democracy. It had its beginning in the valleys of Greece where the population was limited by geography and the people could invent ways to govern themselves. Ultimately, the Polis would become an incubator for political systems that would embrace human freedom and citizen participation in the political process.

The Polis had it beginning in many parts of Greece so the early model was similar everywhere. Later, Athens took the model beyond that of its neighbours and perfected it into the ultimate antiquarian political system, only to see it collapse under the weight of war.

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We start our history of the Polis with the chronology shown above. By 1100 B.C, Mycenae had fallen, dragging the Greek world into its own version of the Dark Ages and it took three hundred years to recover. During the next three centuries, slowly but surely, a political system was created.

The military leader, or Basileus, was the first step out of the abyss. No royalty survived the Mycenaean collapse, so all that remained were aristocrats who possessed wealth but no legitimacy to rule. The Basileus, were not wealthy, but emerged because they possessed an uncommon skill – military prowess. The wealthy granted them one and only one power – control of the militia, and that power was confined to the local village or town -- not beyond. With the Basileus well established, the Greeks could have gone in either of two directions politically: strengthening collective action through a complex political organization or moving toward personal leadership. There is evidence that the latter was attempted; that the Basileus became more powerful. But that path was a dead end and they were eventually replaced by an administrator type – similar to the Archons of Athens. The Basileus lacked the historical requirements for personal leadership – wealth, a significant following among the people, and precedent. Ultimately, the people were unwilling to cede power and make them kings. Instead, they kept power for themselves and elected administrators they could control.

Even as a dead end, the Basileus was important to the future development of the Polis because they were the first structural element of a non-hereditary authority – one building block of a future Political system.

In the first half of the Archaic Period, which began in 800 B.C, the threads of a new political order became tighter as a result of two forces: aristocratic power and the unification of the lower class. In the former case, the aristocrats became a power class by banding together based on common interests and employing administrative types to carry out the operations of a rudimentary government. Concurrently, a tactical view of battle evolved and the Phalanx became the Greek’s prime military formation. The Phalanx gave power to the common people because it was a large scale military organization of equals. Once they realized what they had, the people began asking for a part in government and the result was power sharing between themselves and the aristocrats.

By 650 B.C. the young Polis was functional but weak -- its structure lacking the power and legitimacy to exercise complete authority over the society. The delicate political balance between the aristocrats and the common people had produced a stalemate. It wasn’t long before that balance was upset by the aristocrats, who became more oppressive, driving popular support away from them and toward anyone who would stand for the people. Ultimately, tyrants stepped in and took power for themselves. The incubator of Democracy had rejected pure aristocratic power as an unworkable political system.

Oddly, the tyrants turned out to be benign rulers for the most part. They did not abuse their power but, instead, found ways to move their society forward. Herodotus wrote,

“not having disturbed the existing magistrates nor changed the ancient laws… they administered the State under that constitution of things which was already established, ordering it fairly and well”

Aristotle wrote, of Peisistratus the tyrant, that “his administration was temperate…and more like constitutional government than a tyranny.”

Tyrants came to power because the early Polis did not have enough democracy in it to foster the long term stability that would come later. In the end, tyrants corrupted themselves by attempting to prolong control as hereditary models, but failed because of uneven governance. Fortunately, the Polis had not retrogressed during this period, so it could renew its path to a mature political system.

Next, we move on to the period, starting in 510 B.C, where the Polis rises to its zenith, helped along by visionaries who sought to build a structure that would be stable, enduring, and divide power fairly. The strength of the Polis would often be tested over the next eighty years, and it would survive.

The first visionary, Clisthenes, blocked an effort by Isagoras to reverse the rising independence of the lower classes in 508 B.C. Clisthenes intended to permanently break the power of local social units in favor of the state, and to make sure power was permanently placed in the hands of the people. He organized the populace into demes or political units numbering about 140, requiring that each tribe contain demes located in the country, the city, and the coast so that self-interest would be equally distributed.

He also established a council of 500, consisting of 50 men from each tribe. The 500 were chosen by lot to make insure their independence. This council had responsibility for preparing bills for the assembly and supervising public business.

Clisthenes’ reforms were tested immediately when Athens was attacked by Boetia and Chalcis in 506 B.C. Both were defeated and the balance between the classes held. The Polis was further strengthened by the wars with Persia. When Athens was attacked and occupied in 480 B.C, unity among the people, created to fight a common enemy, strengthened the bond between them and kept the Athenian political system together.

A second important Athenian visionary was Pericles, who instituted a variety of reforms after 461 B.C. An aristocrat, Pericles had the gifts of intelligence and leadership. He became the leader of the council of ten generals and served as the de facto leader of Athens until his death from the plague in 429 B.C. During his tenure, Pericles passed laws allowing poor citizens to attend plays for free, and began a system of compensation for magistrates and jurors. This allowed a broader spectrum of the populace to participate in government and lowered the property qualification for the archonship to help breakup the monopoly of the aristocratic class. The time of Pericles has been labeled the “Golden Age” of Athens because the stable, open democracy provided the fuel for continued Athenian intellectual development.

Still, there is a paradox in the label, because the high point of the Polis was also the beginning of the end. The accomplishments of the Athenians had made them arrogant and they abused their partners in the Delan League. Hubris made them believe they could defeat the Spartan Army so they launched the Peloponnesean War in 431 B.C, only to see their political system destroyed after nearly thirty years of conflict.

With Athens weak, Sparta felt it had to control Greece to protect itself but she did not have the skill. She engaged in a series of attempts to exert power during the thirty year period after the Peloponnesian War until the battle at Leuctra, when her military might was destroyed for forever. Thebes stepped in and spent nine years (371-62) trying to control northern Greece, but following the Battle of Mantinea its hegemony came to an end. Greece was now vulnerable as a divided people and that division would leave it ripe for the taking by an autocrat.

Philip of Macedonia was the man whose strong will would overcome a fragmented Greece. The Athenians, led by Demosthenes, tried their best to oppose him, but the end for Athens came at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. As victor, Philip convened the League of Corinth, including all the Greek powers except Sparta who refused to participate. Now the Polis had reached the end of its life, superseded by autocratic rule. The reign of Philip and his son Alexander, the Diodochi, and regional kings occupied Greece until the Macedonian Wars with Rome made her a client state.

The Polis had lasted four hundred years. During that time it evolved into the greatest of the antiquarian political systems. But, like all systems man has created, it would fall. No concept or belief system can remain static because it must adapt to its time. Evolution brings risks and eventually the political structure fails to meet the needs of its people.

I have a PhD in Information Science and work in the technology industry, although I have also done academic work in history and philosophy. My avocation and true passion is the study of the ... Show More

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