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Comparisons between the Greek and Sumerian City-States

Updated on July 23, 2016


Greek and Sumerian city-states shared some similarities, as well as glaring differences. A city-state can be defined as a political city composed of an independent city with hegemony over a particular surrounding area. It serves as an authority in political, cultural, religious and economic life. Hansen construes the city-state as “A highly centralized and institutionalized micro-state composed of one town (most of the time walled) with its immediate surroundings and occupied by a stratified population.” The population of city-states consisted of citizens, slaves, and foreigners. The territory of Greek and Sumerian city-states were so small that the urban center could be reached in just a few hours’ walk. The term city state1 was first used in the 19th century to chronicle ancient Phoenician and Greek settlements which had glaring differences in their makeup. They differed in patriotism, size, reclusiveness and the capacity to resist incorporation by other cultures. They may have been created when the previous tribal setups disintegrated, and the individual splinter groups entrenched themselves as independent entities2. The city-states numbered in their hundreds by the 5th century BC, Sparta, Athens, and Thebes were the most populous and as a result were considered to be the most important.

City-states of the ancient summer


Sumerians settled first between 4500 and 4000 BC. They were a non-Semitic people who did not speak nor understand the Sumerian language. Sumerian city-states were among the earliest forms of civilization; they were spread out across the southern part of the region.

1 First used in the early 19th century, probably in 1847.

2 Hansen 2000: 19

Greek city-states: Characteristics

Following the classical age, which occurred between 800 and 500 BC3, Greece underwent notable advancements in technology, poetry, and art. It is during this period that the city-state was conceived. It became a defining characteristic of the Greek political arena for centuries4. Greek city-states evolved from small farming villages. They built walls around themselves and also built communal meeting places and marketplaces. Greek city-states created governments and categorized their inhabitants based on a set of laws or a constitution. They collected taxes and built armies. Each and everyone one of these city-states was protected by a specific god or goddess. The residents of the city-state owed a high level of respect, sacrifice, and reverence to their protective god. For instance, Athens’ god was Athena.

In the Greek city-state of Sparta, there were two hereditary kings; they served as religious heads and commanders of the city’s army. There existed a council of elders and a body known as the gerousia, this comprised of the two kings and twenty-eight members who were strictly men elected from a privileged clique of families. In addition to this, there was an assembly which had the power of decision making. Greek city-states had an array of interesting characteristics; these cut across the; political, religious and artistic interactions. The city-state was the center of the exercise of political power. In the beginning, this was a king, later, it was through democratic assemblies. They had one communal arena for holding political assemblies, with the citizens being expected to avail themselves in these areas for participation in public debate and voting.

3 A relatively sophisticated period in world history

4 Morris, I. 2005

This essentially meant that the polis could not be a large territorial nation because, if the citizens took a journey of more than a couple of days, this form of civic participation would be broken. The populations of the city-states ranged from as low as 1000 residents, e.g. in the tiny city-state of Plataea, to as much as one hundred thousand residents in a major city-state like Athens. Greek city-state culture was very huge and quite fragmented5. The Greek city-states divided their residents into four tribes which were further divided into three and subsequently into smaller units in which every citizen belonged to. Greek city states were protected by stout stone walls. The members of a particular city-state lived in its center and also in the villages adjacent to it. Different city-states could choose the same god as their protector. The residents of a city-state formed a religious association and were obliged to honor their protective god. The citizens of a city expressed homage to a deity through cults. These consistent involved forms of religious activities which were normally supervised by residents acting as priests and were sponsored by taxpayer’s money. The core ritual of a city-state’s set of cults was the sacrifice of various animals to portray to the gods as divine protectors the piety and respect of the residents of the city-state.

Sumerian city-states: Characteristics

Sumerians were the first people who settle in Mesopotamia, here, they developed a great civilization. The Sumerians built city-states along the rivers in the lower regions of Mesopotamia. The Sumerian city-states had a single language and believed in the same religious deities. There were seven notable city-states; each had its king and featured a building known as a ziggurat, and this was a huge pyramid shaped structure with a temple at its top.

5 Citizens could generally be referred to as Greeks, but they owed allegiance to individual city-states

This temple was dedicated to a Sumerian god. In as much as the city-states were similar in nature and composition, they incessantly fought for the control of the river water which was a very important resource. The societal structure of the city-states was categorized into a defined hierarchy. The priests, state officials, and the nobility sat at the top of the pecking order. Farmers and slaves were found at the bottom. The economies of the Sumerian city-states were based on agriculture; however, they also had a considerable number of craftsmen and architects.

The ziggurat was found at the center of each Sumerian city-state. The word ‘ziggurat’ literally meant the ‘mountain of god’ or the hill of heaven. These structures were made up of a series of square levels with each level being considerably smaller than the one before it. Stairways led to the top of these colossal buildings. Only priests were allowed to enter this revered area. The area outside the Sumerian ziggurats was surrounded by an open courtyard; this served as the center of Sumerian life. Traders, farmers, and artisans stored their wares here; Sumerian children were also schooled here. Education in Sumerian city-states was a preserve of the sons of the nobility. Poorer children were made to work in the fields, or better, learn a trade. The schools were built in the courtyards of the ziggurats; they were commonly known as ‘tablet houses,' because it is here that the children of the nobility learned how to read and write.

Sumerian cities set themselves apart from the other cultures with their participation in the development of early civilization. The cities had a unique set of beliefs regarding education, religion, and law. In the Sumerian city-state, all the land was owned by the city’s god, but the priests held and administered the land in the god’s authority, they also managed the schools. Essentially, the head of a typical Sumerian city-state was the priest; he received counsel from a general council composed of free residents. In case a war broke out, this Council elected one of its members to act as the leader until the war ended. In most instances, these leaders stayed in their positions even after the war had long ended. By 3000 BC, they transformed themselves into permanent kings, around this time, kingship became hereditary, and the world’s foremost monarchies were then established.

The Sumerian city-states were composed of the surrounding areas; each city-state was an individual political unit. The city-states had canals which were used to facilitate the transportation of produce from the farmlands. Each city-state was surrounded by a wall. The wall had soldiers positioned on all the towers. The soldiers also manned the gates.

Differences and similarities between the Greek and Sumerian city-states

Greek and Sumerian city-states were set in very different locations. Sumer was set on a plain, in between two rivers, while Greece was located in a rugged area made up of mountains.


Both the Greek and the Sumerian city-states were walled and had authority over the surrounding land. Both the city-states believed in a religious deity to protect the city. This god had a temple purposefully built for them. In the Greek city-states, for instance, Athens, this was the Parthenon, which was dedicated to the main god, Athena. In Sumer, this was in a form of the Ziggurats; they were the highest structures in the city. They resembled gigantic pyramids. Both the ziggurats and the Parthenon were dedicated to the god of the city.

Both the Greek and the Sumerian city-states were individual political entities, independent of each other. In both instances, the city-states fought each other; this could have been to gain dominance over city-states that were considered weak. In both the city-states, education was revered; they both had schools for the children of the wealthy. In these schools, a way of writing such as the cuneiform in Sumer was taught. In the two instances, there was a clear line between the rich and the poor, the rich lived in huge houses, with the poor occupying small and crowded houses.


Unlike the economies of the Greek city-states, the economies of the Sumerian city-states largely depended on agriculture. Trade was made a negligible contribution to the economies of these states. The systems governance in the Sumerian city-states was originally composed of a council, this transformed into a government by a hereditary king6. In the Greek city-states, governance was originally by a hereditary king, this then metamorphosed to an elected council.

Education in the Sumerian city-states involved the use of cuneiform and symbolism while that of the Greek city states involved the use of distinct alphabetical figures which were much simpler to learn.


The Sumerian and the Greek city-state concepts were more similar than they were different7. The Greek form of city-states had a form of governance based on democratically elected figures. This comes out as the best for of city-state because the leadership was not as oppressive as was the case with the Sumerian form of government which was based on intimidation. The Greek city state had a solid democratic way of governance which was based on a universal adult suffrage.

6 Bertman, Stephen 2003

7 It is quite interesting that in spite of the geographical distance, the city-states still shared some cultural and economical similarities


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