ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Greek History: Lesson 2--The Formation of the Polis

Updated on November 25, 2009
Black-figure Amphora by Exekias c.530 bce. 24" high.   Vatican Museum, Rome. Achilles and Ajax playing dice.
Black-figure Amphora by Exekias c.530 bce. 24" high. Vatican Museum, Rome. Achilles and Ajax playing dice.

Transformation from Prestate to State

In my previous hub Oikos and Basileus, we encountered the small communities of early Greece, which from a sociological perspective are categorized as "prestate" societies. The term "prestate" is used for political units that do not have enforceable state authority and that rely on traditions rather than formally enacted laws as principles of community life. We saw that the basileus, as a man of influence, did not dominate decision-making and dispute resolution by top-down decrees, but rather lead through consensus building. Early Greek communities did not act without the assent of its citzens.

In this hub, we will discuss the development of these early Greek communities from prestate to states, or "poleis" to use the ancient Greek term (polis sg., poleis pl.). We will also see how the self-made basilees (pl. of basileus) of the earlier periods evolved into a hereditary aristocracy.


The period between 725 B.C. and 675 B.C. saw a rapid transformation from "basileutic prestates" into the aristocratic poleis. Evidence of this transformation is derived from archaeologists who document both a rapid rise in the general population and a rapid increase in wealth among the elites. Archaeologists interpret these two trends as evidence of a shift in the social and political configuration of ancient Greek society--specifically, a transition from prestate to state with increased social stratification and political/institutional formality.

Olive Harvest from the British Museum in London
Olive Harvest from the British Museum in London

A. Population Increase

Between 780 and 720 B.C., archaeologists estimate that the population of Greece increased by 300% to 600%. Evidence includes the number and size of settlements, increased burials, new well-digging, internal colonization and emigration abroad to Sicily, Italy and to regions around the Black Sea. In 800 B.C., land was plentiful in mainland Greece and social status was fluid as the land was still being settled. As land become increasingly scarce, greater disparities in wealth began to arise within the poleis, since ultimately the ownership of land was the source of most wealth in antiquity.

The scarcity of land also caused poleis to compete for interjacent land with border wars becoming more frequent. As conflicting claims for land were resolved, the borders of each polis became more defined. The informal military hierarchy of earlier periods was transformed into more organized hoplite militias with a more unified command. The rise of increasingly formal political and military structures were key elements in the transformation from prestate to state--both in terms of the creation of institutions with official authority and the development of a patriotic consciousness.

In addition to external competition for increasingly scarce land, internal competition arose among the citizens of individual poleis as well. Citizens begin to colonize and claim less desirable land around the polis. Agriculture become more labor intensive as populations found themselves increasingly investing their energy in developing irrigation and cultivating the slopes of hills and mountains for orchard crops such as olives and grapes. As the demand for agricultural output increased, the need for plowing and manure also increased, thereby making agriculture even more labor intensive. At this point, slave labor become increasingly prevalent to satisfy the ever increasing demands for labor. Unlike modern society, unemployment was rarely an issue in antiquity; rather manpower shortages were a perennial problem where many of the labor saving devices we take for granted today were unknown.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the ancient Greek population as compared to their neighbors in the Near East (Anatolia, Persia, Egypt) is that they were "citizens" of their local community rather than subjects of some distant and perhaps foreign monarch. Citizens of the Greek polis had three defining characteristic: landownership, militia participation and religious participation. Foreigners ("xenoi") and slaves ("douloi") were excluded from citizenship; and therefore were not permitted to own land or participate in the civic and religious activities of polis.

One of a few Greek wall paintings that has survived is the Tomb of the Diver (Italian: Tomba del Tuffatore), c. 475 bce. Paestum, Italy.
One of a few Greek wall paintings that has survived is the Tomb of the Diver (Italian: Tomba del Tuffatore), c. 475 bce. Paestum, Italy.

B. Elite Wealth

The second body of evidence that indicates a transformation from prestate to state pertains to elite wealth. "Wealth" in ancient Greek society should not be equated with a post-industrial conceptualizations of wealth (i.e. capital or other income producing assets). Wealth in ancient Greek society signifies the possession of scarce personal property (gold, silver, horses, objects of art) which was used primarily as a display of social status.

Increasingly, wealth and social worth came to be inherited by limited segments of the population. Because the elites likely had more labor (slaves) at their disposal, it meant they had enough of an agricultural surplus to exchange for metalware and display goods. The elite became increasingly conscious of itself as "superior" calling itself "aristoi" (the best) whence we derive our word aristocracy. This class ideology was played-out with flaunting displays of wealth including extravagant weddings, funerals and festivals. Another sign of social consciousness is endogamy, or the exclusive intermarrying among members of the aristocracy.

Increasingly, we find textual evidence from this period of class ideology and consciousness where personal excellence and social worth are described as being biological or inherited from divine ancestry. In addition, we find a conflation of social and moral worth where the lowly are now spoken of as "poneroi" ("wicked, despicable") and "kakoi" ("bad, mean"); the elite are "kaloskagathos ("the virtuous and good"). This is a stark contrast to the later Christian equation of virtue with humility and poverty. Famous aristocratic clans included inter alia: the Bakchiadai of Corinth, the Aiakiadai of Aigina, the Basilidai of Ephesus, the Neleidai of Miletos, the Medontidai of Athens.

Stayed tuned for future lessons where we'll see the varied ways class tensions played out in different Greek poleis.

Greek hoplites in phalanx formation.
Greek hoplites in phalanx formation.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Sufidreamer profile image


      10 years ago from Sparti, Greece

      Nice one - the hub made it through to the last five! :)

    • Nickny79 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from New York, New York

      Sam, thank you for taking a look at my article!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Keep it up, this is amazing :)

    • Nickny79 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from New York, New York

      Thanks. Your kind words are encouragment for me to continue this series.

    • Sufidreamer profile image


      10 years ago from Sparti, Greece

      Nice Hub, Nick. A concise yet informative account of the rise of Greek history, culture and values.

      It got my vote!

    • profile image

      C. C. Riter 

      10 years ago

      Congratulations Nick, good luck.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      10 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Hi, Funride just posted up this week's HubNugget nominations and your hub was chosen as one of them. If your Hub gets enough votes to be in the top 5, then it will be featured in the newsletter that goes out to thousands of Hubbers each week. Congrats! Go and vote now. Invite your friends to vote too. :-)


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)