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Greek City-states – Ancient History Essay


Introduction

Scholars and practitioners have often debated the nature and composition of governments. Several pieces of information have come from their studies.1 For example, some say a state consists of its citizens, while others say it consists of its leader’s actions. Most of these outcomes highlight why it is difficult to understand governments if people fail to understand the nature of states in the first place.2 However, throughout history, states have changed.

Many factors have caused their evolution. Using the case of the early Greek poleis (city-states), this paper shows that commercialisation and changing attitudes about leadership have changed the nature of states. However, before explaining how these factors redefined state structures, this paper puts the above argument in context by explaining city-state changes in ancient Greece.

The Case of the Greek Poleis

A Greek polis was a small geographic region where residents could meet and discuss governance issues (Athens developed from such a political unit).3 Sometimes, such units encompassed residents of the city’s outskirts (usually, these units stood on hilltops). They later became religious centers and marketplaces for all residents in the jurisdiction.4 However, a city-state was more than a religious center or a marketplace; it was also an important political meeting place for all citizens.

At the same locations, citizens practiced several social and economic activities. Different groups of citizens comprised interacted in these city-states. For example, some people (mostly adult men) had political rights. Similarly, some people lacked political rights (women and children), while others had no rights at all (foreigners).5

Usually, the state gave its citizens new responsibilities that equaled their rights. From this background, Aristotle argued that the people were not only entitled to their existence; instead, they belonged to the state.6 To create state unity, a tyrant (leader of a city-state) played an active role in influencing the patterns of life, thereby creating strongly individualised city-states. These jurisdictions later developed into big political units because of the following factors.

Factors Driving Change like States

Commercialisation

Christian says that today, commercial networks have integrated many societies (high levels of innovation and productivity characterise these networks).7 Historically, commercialisation influenced the nature of states because it increased the political influences of mercantile elites in society.8 Secondly, it increased people’s participation in state activities because they become labourers and dependents of commercial activities (to earn a daily wage).9 Greek city-states also developed from the commercialisation of the city-states.

For example, this paper shows that such poleis were religious centres. These centres often imported or manufactured “religious products” such as Vodka.10 From the spread of commercial activities in the city-states, authorities started taxing such commodities and established monopolies in the region. These commercial activities changed the nature of such poleis.

Similarly, commercialisation created powerful city-states in Greece. For example, Murray says the earliest “tyranny” that explains Greece’s development is Corinth, which became a prosperous city-state because of its commercial contacts with far-flung cities (and its strategic positioning in the north-south and east-west land trades).11

Relative to this fact, Murray says, “The trade routes in Western metals and eastern luxury goods pioneered by Europeans rapidly came to focus on Corinth.”12 The city-state greatly benefitted from this trade by establishing new colonies and helping other city-states to do the same.13

Marxist traditions affirm commercial influences on the nature of states. For example, they show that commercial networks affected the nature of many agrarian states. Christian says that commercialisation also affected the nature of modern-day states, such as Poland and Siberia (through colonisation and commerce).14

Therefore, kingdoms became increasingly dependent on commercial networks for survival. Indeed, even today, commerce has changed the lifestyle of traditional societies and increased their dependence on similar networks. For example, commercial interests continue to influence foreign and domestic policies in many countries. Today, this trend has changed the nature of modern states, as it did traditional human societies.

Changing Attitudes about Leadership

Tyrants managed different city-states in ancient Greek. Since the Greek society consisted of different city-states, the leader of each unit (tyrant) wanted to expand their territories (acquire new city-states).15 This process coincided with city-state growth through territorial consolidation. Although aristocrats tried to prevent this action, tyrants set up dictatorships and created new governments within their jurisdictions.

Although such leaders did not advocate for social reform, they often became arbitrators and mediators when disputes arose within their city-states. Their quest to create militaries and acquire new territories led to growing resentments about their leadership styles. Relative to this observation, Crawford and Whitehead says,

Good men, Kyrnos, have never yet ruined a polis, but when bad men turn to insolence and corrupt the demos and treat wrong as right, for the sake of their enrichment and advancement; do not expect a polis to be quiet for long, even if it is now completely calm.16

Since people disapproved of the activities of tyrants, they sought alternative governance systems, which later changed the nature of states. For example, the “Athenian democracy” developed from changing attitudes about leadership in Greece’s city-states.17 Although the fall of tyrants did not automatically create democracies in the political units, it created a strong conviction among their citizens to find a more efficient governance model. This push changed the nature of city-states.

Conclusion

This paper shows that commercialisation and changing attitudes about leadership defined the nature of city-states. Particularly, the paper focuses on the effects of these factors in shaping the nature of Greece’s city-states. It shows that these political units mainly developed because of their strategic positioning along trade routes. Similarly, they developed from the changing societal attitudes about governance models. While these two factors show the changing nature of states during the medieval period, they still affect the nature of states today. For example, commercialisation still affects governance structures and state activities in modern times.

References

Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. San Francisco, CA: University of California Press, 2004.

Crawford, Michael, and David Whitehead. Archaic and Classical Greece: A Selection of Ancient Sources. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Marshal, Sahlins. Stone Age Economics. Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Company, 1972.

McNeill, John, and McNeill William. The Human Web: A Bird’s-eye View of World History. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Murray, Oswyn. Early Greece. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Sealey, Raphael. A History of the Greek City States, Ca. 700-338 B.C. San Francisco, CA: University of California Press, 1976.

Footnotes

1 John McNeill and William McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-eye View of World History, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2003), 1-25.

2 McNeill and McNeill, The Human Web, 1-25.

3 Raphael Sealey, A History of the Greek City-States, Ca. 700-338 B.C, (San Francisco, CA: University of California Press, 1976), 19-25.

4 Sealey, Institutions, 19-25.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, (San Francisco, CA: University of California Press, 2004), 386-390.

8 Christian, Maps of Time, 386-390.

9 Sahlins Marshal, Stone Age Economics, (Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Company, 1972), 1-39.

10 Christian, Maps of Time, 386-390.

11 Oswyn Murray, Early Greece, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 140.

12 Murray, Early Greece, 140.

13 Ibid.

14 Christian, Maps of Time, 386-390.

15 Michael Crawford and David Whitehead, Archaic and Classical Greece: A Selection of Ancient Sources, (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 68.

16 Crawford and Whitehead, Archaic and Classical Greece, 69.

17 Ibid.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Greek City-states - Ancient History'. 6 April.

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