CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History

Lecture 4

 - The Rise of the Polis


In this lecture, Professor Donald Kagan offers a sketch of the Greek heroic code of ethics. He shows that in this community, arête (manly virtue) and honor are extremely important and even worth dying for, as the case of Achilles makes clear. In addition, Professor Kagan shows how this society eventually produced a new phenomenon, the rise of the polis. The discussion ends with a strong emphasis on the importance of the polis in Greek history.

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Introduction to Ancient Greek History

CLCV 205 - Lecture 4 - The Rise of the Polis

Chapter 1. Defining Arete [00:00:00]

Professor Donald Kagan: Last time I was talking to you about the world of Homer from the side of, you might say, the life of the mind rather than the practical matters of society by talking about values and ethics in the world of Homer. I also spoke to you about the heroic ethic, which is the dominant element in this system of theirs. Another way of looking at it is that it is an aristocratic way of thinking and feeling. At the core of it, is the concept of arête. Now, that’s a word that causes us some problems because it comes to mean even in antiquity something quite different, and especially if you’re talking about Christianity which adopts the word as well, where it comes to mean goodness, goodness in a kind of a Christian sense. Well, erase all of those ideas from your head when you think about the world of Homer, and I would say, the world of Greece in the period we’re studying. Arête derives from the Greek word anar, which means man; man as opposed to woman. These are the masculine qualities as the Greeks saw them and primarily among them was the idea of courage: physical courage, moral courage, mental courage, manly courage in battle is the most core aspect of this word, an idea which comes to spread and to be much more encompassing than that. I guess the most neutral way to translate the word is excellence, prowess, the ability to do something or to be something, which is admired in the fullest way possible.

Some of the desired quality, some of the examples of arête are courage as I’ve said, but also beauty, strength, the ability to perform athletics very well, but also to speak very well. And it is an extraordinary thing I think for modern people to see that there are two central heroes in the poems of Homer-Achilles the great central figure of the Iliad who represents physical courage, strength, power, beauty, speed, all of those things, and Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, but present and very important in both poems. He has also got all of these things, but the thing that sets him apart, that makes him the special kind of hero he is, is his skill in speech which doesn’t mean only that he pronounces words very well, or that he selects them very well for beautifully or something. But rather that he is enormously clever, that he can use speech to achieve practical ends just as he uses strength and power, and all those other things. The Greeks, in Homer’s world, seem to regard one just about as well as they do the other. Odysseus is the man, the wily Odysseus as Homer calls him, the man of many devices, all of those things are great and they are equally honored along with the physical courage that is so characteristic of these guys.

The recognition of those qualities, the recognition of the arête that these heroes have is what their lives are all about. First of all, they have to have these qualities, but it’s not enough. They must be recognized by the people among whom they lived, by the communities in which they live. The highest rewards the individual can have is the recognition of their fellow men for their very, very high qualities. We are talking about a society, therefore, the anthropologists have come up with, which I think is a useful distinction. Societies, based on shame, as opposed to those that practice guilt; guilt is something very internal and personal. Shame is something very external and public. How you are treated and greeted is what makes your worth. So, it is from the beginning a society in which the community is a critical element, maybe the critical element, an individual who didn’t live in a society could not achieve the kinds of glory and fame, and recognition that you expect from a hero.

All of these heroes are aristocrats in the traditional sense of the word; they arrive at their high standing in their community by virtue of birth. You are born to be one of these people because your father was such a person belonging to the right families and so on. The noble families of Greece, and we see it already in Homer, typically claim descent from some god or other and ordinary people do not have that ability. The family and the individual are the critical elements. A larger community, meaning your entire village, your entire city, your entire region, that is barely mentioned. That is not talked about. Again, think about Achilles, when he refuses to do what he’s supposed — to fight with the Greeks because he’s had a fight with Agamemnon, nobody says, “Wait a minute that’s treason, you can’t do that. You’ve been signed up by your city or by this expedition to fight and you’ve got to fight.” Nobody says that. What they say is, “Oh please, we need you Achilles, you must not do this.” But nobody says, “Arrest that man, he has broken his debt; he’s not performing his debt to the community.” Everybody knows that all those heroes are there because they want to be and they want to be there, so that they can earn both the wealth that can be taken from a defeated city, but even more important, the kind of fame and glory that comes with such deeds. I’ve already told you the story about Achilles having the choice of living forever without fame or dying with fame, and he makes the choice for death and fame. That, I think, is very critical.

That attitude, that point of view, even after the world of Homer is gone, remains a very powerful influence on the Greeks throughout the rest of their history, so that you have built into that society an inherent conflict. After all, even these heroes need communities in which to live for all the various purposes that human beings do. So, you would think they have some allegiance to them. They do, but they also have an allegiance to their families and to themselves, which, in Homer, tend to predominate, and yet there is a sense in which the conflict is very real. If you look at the problem in Homer, Achilles when he withdraws and refuses to fight for the army, nobody can tell him to do otherwise. He has a right to do that but that means that something is wrong and it’s very clear that he has been overcome by rage and he is not behaving in the sensible way — that even a Greek hero is supposed to and he has not brought back to normal, to a position in which people can say, yes, well, you’re a great hero and you’re not out of your mind. Even Achilles gives up his rage, and he allows — you remember he allows Priam to bury his son Hector, something he would have refused to do in his rage. So, even Achilles has got to come to terms with the community norms, in order to be living in a proper life, and this conflict between his family and private desires and needs, and those of the community will be characteristic very strongly of the Greek way of life for the rest of its history, not always in precisely the same form but it will be there.

Competition, again, is rearing its head. It’s another form of competition, the competition between these two sources of values, the community at large versus the individual and the family. This kind of tension doesn’t make things clear; the rules are not absolute, and not everybody fits into a pigeon hole. It is not easy to say, what is the right thing, or what is the wrong thing. All of that creates confusion, problems, but also, conflict, tension, competition, all those things create a degree of freedom which doesn’t permit the typical despotic kind of culture which characterizes almost all of the human experiences that we know in the early history of the human race.

Chapter 2. Impacts on Western Civilization [00:10:48]

So, I want to turn now to the way in which this way of thinking had an impact on the future, and of course I’m speaking about the future of Western civilization which was the heir to this tradition. I mentioned to you already, last time, that in a way the poems are a kind of a bible. It is the source of all knowledge and wisdom that anybody who knows anything knows, and how they were used for practical purposes as when the Spartans made a decision about who owned Salamis based on what it said in the Iliad, but it’s also important to realize how those poems inspired the imagination of Greeks for the rest of their history. Another fact is that we are told that when Alexander the Great went out to conquer the Persian Empire, and as far as he was concerned, to conquer everything he could reach, he carried with him a copy of the Iliad which it is alleged he put under his pillow. This is a problem when you consider that books in the days were not likely to be codices as they are today, but scrolls that took up quite a lot of space. I don’t know quite how Alex managed it but that’s what they say, but the principle is established. It was clear, he was another Achilles in his own eyes, and it was for him to achieve the great deeds that I have been mentioning.

Now, if you look at the story of Western civilization, it provides a very interesting contrast within it and the, I’m sorry, the Greek experience that I’m talking about now based upon what you see in Homer, provides a contrast within a competition to the other great tradition of Western civilization, which is the Judeo-Christian tradition. I just want to make a few small points that indicate how that works. The Iliad begins — the first word in the Iliad is the accusative noun, mēnin, wrath, anger. I am singing about the wrath, the anger Achilles which brought so many men to their doom, is what Homer says. The first thing is the emotion of an individual man. The Odyssey begins even more strikingly with the word andra, the accusative of anēr, the accusative case of a man, and he says, sing to me goddess about that man, that man of many devices, that clever man Odysseus.

The Aeneid of Virgil based, of course, on the Iliad and the Odyssey, begins arma virumque cano, I sing of arms and the man, the man Aeneas. What are the Greeks talking about? I’m talking about individual men, extraordinary men and the events that emerge from them and the life they lead. Well, look at our Bible. It begins — this will be news to most of you; in the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth and it. The book goes right on to talk about God, what he does, sometimes why he does it, what is the effect of what he does, but the center of our book is God, not man. It’s not just an accident that this reveals the characteristic of each one of these cultures. The Greeks had a humanistic outlook on life. They believed in the gods, they were religious people, but the core of their lives was shaped by human things in a way different from what was true of the Hebrews and the Christians later on, that is a Divine view. The secular approach is very, very Greek versus a religious approach.

The Greek view, moreover, presupposes that man lives in society. He is not a creature off by himself. By definition, he necessarily lives in society. He is conceivable to the Greeks only in a society. The Iliad, which is about a war, immediately is a kind of an artificial society put together for the purpose of defeating the Trojans and taking their city. As I’ve suggested to you, the values that are the most important are community values. That is to say, the reward of good behavior is the admiration and the honor that a hero gets, and the most serious punishment he can suffer is to be shamed in front of that community. Aristotle, writing late in the Greek tradition, but still powerfully influenced by these kinds of ideas, speaks about man as a — the Greek words are a politicon zoon, and I think the best way to understand it is to think of it as meaning, man is a creature who lives in a polis, in a city state, in a Greek kind of a city state. In the same general passage he says, a man who is by nature without a polis is either more or less than a man. What he means by that is, if a man is superior to the polis doesn’t need a polis, he is a god because men need a polis. If he is beneath the polis it means he’s beneath what it is to a human being, and that tells you just how potent is this concept of a community for the Greeks and it emerges in its own way from the Iliad in the Odyssey.

Odysseus also was offered an opportunity to live forever. When he was shipwrecked on the island in which the goddess Calypso ruled, she fell in love with Odysseus, just as the fate of great heroes — they are heroic and handsome, and fast and women love them. She says, just stay with me and I — you will live forever and all will be well and he says, well, you’re a very beautiful girl and I enjoy you a lot, but I got to go back to Ithaca. Now, why does he have to go back to Ithaca? Well, he has a wife whom he loves, Penelope, and he has a son whom he has barely seen because he had to go off to Troy almost 20 years ago to fight that battle and he hasn’t been home since. Those are very powerful pulls that we easily do understand, but it’s also true that he is the king in Ithaca, and when he returns to Ithaca he immediately moves into a position of honor and respect, which is a critical part of his own sense of himself, of what he needs to be what he wants to be.

We don’t have in American society an Iliad, an Odyssey, we don’t have our own bible, but I think Mark Twain’s Huck Finn is really very, very revealing to see what is so different about us in the modern times from the Homeric world. When things don’t go right for Huck, what does he do? He lights out and wants to get away from society, he wants to go wandering and exploring, as an individual rejecting society, fleeing for his individualism, and that tradition, as you all know — how many examples can we think of works that really project the greatness of being all by yourself and away from people, and away from society. That’s where good things are. The Greeks would have thought you were out of your mind, or that you were some kind of barbarian, but that’s okay. People who have never known of civil society; people who have never known of a world with polis, well, of course, they would do something stupid like that. I think that’s an interesting contrast.

Now, let me carry on with this by talking about the views of society which are characteristic of the two traditions in Western civilization. What do we see in the Bible? When God decides to invent man, he places him in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden contains, first of all, just Adam and then when God decides, for his own reasons, that he needs a companion, he invents one other companion, Eve. Where they live is paradise. One man, one woman, that’s all you need, it’s great. Nothing could ever be so good. Well, what happens? They transgress. Eve persuaded by the serpent, persuades Adam to do what was forbidden by God. What is forbidden by God? It is to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge because if human beings obtain knowledge, they will be like the gods, and that is unacceptable. So when you do that, you have to be punished. What is punishment? To be thrown out of Eden, to be thrown out of this isolated condition of perfection. What is perfection? You don’t have to work, you can eat without doing anything about it, you don’t seem to do much of anything, which is fine. Everything is quiet, peaceful, no problems, no action, that’s paradise.

A Greek would go crazy at the thought. It is a pre-social, a pre-political life. Life in society what Adam and Eve have to encounter now. They now have to form villages, cities, start living among each other, and so on. That is the punishment for the sin of seeking knowledge of good and evil and therefore of straining for divinity. Man, the message I think is, must know his place, which is humble and not close to divine. His hope rests simply with God not with himself. When he tries to take the things into his own hands, and in the process, to contravene the will of God, only terrible things can happen to him. It’s very interesting, I think, that in the eighteenth century, Rousseau, who himself seems to me to have been a kind of like a poisoned apple in the history of the human race oddly, revives that biblical view, if you think about it. His view is man was happy and good before the invention of society, which society corrupts man and takes away from him his happiness. What we need to do is undue the evils that organized society have done, and if only we remove all of the bad things created by society, man would return to his naturally perfect virtuous self, which is of course, a major source of individualism which is this great Western force, and the nihilism that I think inevitably emerges from it.

I think people have, in different ways, found in Russo, the root both of a Nietzschean nihilism and of Marx, and I think there is powerful reason to do so, because you can go in either one of those directions once you start making this kind of assumption. For the Greeks, on the other hand as I’ve said, political society was essential for living any kind of a good life. In the Odyssey, you remember Odysseus finds himself on the island of the Cyclops, those one-eyed monsters, and what is it about them that make them so monstrous, so inhuman from the perspective of the Homeric heroes? Here’s the line that Homer writes, they live without — the Greek word is nomoi, which we would translate as laws, but before they become laws they are the customary norms of society, in other words, civilization. They live without nomoi and they wreck not of one another, that is to say, each family lives by itself. They have nothing to do with each other, they do not have a community, and they do not have a society. So, they are, of course, sort of prehistoric monsters as far as the Greeks are concerned.

Now, the Judeo-Christian story, as I think of it — by the way, the word “story” is a translation or it means the same thing the Greek word muthos, our word, myth. A myth, in this sense, according to the Greeks, is just a tale. It can true, it can be false, and so on. Anyway, the Judeo-Christian story says, in the beginning, men were innocent. Innocent was the same as ignorant because knowledge gets in the way of their innocence and they have solitude, living in paradise. What destroys their happy, permanent condition is the sin of pride and the consequence of that sin is society, corruption, pain, and death because they knew neither pain nor death while they were in Eden. Salvation is available, and with it immortality, but it comes from God and it doesn’t come in the world in which we live, but in some other world to be achieved in the future. That, I think, is a very thumbnail sketch of the Judeo-Christian story.

The Greek story is quite different. War is right at the center of it, and war itself requires political and social organization. There can be fighting without war but there can be no war without an organization that makes it something more than just plain fighting. It requires political and social organization. The search for honor and glory are at the root of why men fight and why they do many, many other things in their lives, according to this view. The Greeks did have a notion that in a way resembles some of the things I’ve said about the Judeo-Christian story. They had a concept called hybris, to be translated as something among these terms, excess, arrogance, violence. I think the fullest grasp of it, I think, might be rendered best by violent arrogance. Some notion of being above yourself and thinking yourself more than a man with the implication that you are approaching some kind of divinity by being more than a man, and acting accordingly, which usually requires that you use violence to achieve what you want. The sort of the standard picture in Greek ethics runs this way. A man is granted too much, he is too well off, he is too rich, he is too strong, he is too beautiful, so much so that he becomes too arrogant and is ready to step beyond his human condition.

At that point, the gods don’t like it because like the Judeo-Christian god, they want to have some boundary between the two, but for them it’s very important, because the boundary is far from clear. So what happens to the man who has too much? He is afflicted with hybris, which leads him to take the violent action. Onto the scene then comes the goddess Ate, which might be translated moral blindness. In other words, he no longer can think straight and so he will do something dangerous, harmful, and very ultimately bad for himself, and when he does whatever it is, he is struck by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution.

Well, of course, the most famous Greek case, I think of these things, is in Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, which illustrates it perfectly well. Oedipus is a brilliant man; he achieves the kingship of his city because of his extraordinary intelligence, and he’s a very good man. He is king, don’t imagine that he’s a despot, anything but; the people love him. He saved the city thanks to his brilliance and his goodwill. However, after a while, he comes to be too satisfied, too comfortable with his own brilliance and when another threat comes to the city, he is confident that he can solve the problem again for his people. He is warned by the gods through seers, and by men of wisdom saying, don’t investigate this question too far; you might be making a mistake. He won’t listen; he bowls ahead, and he discovers in the process the terrible, terrible truth, which is that by accident, by coincidence, not by intent that as a young man he killed his father and subsequently married his mother. And this most horrible combination of facts drives him — and he’s already suffered from the hybris and the atē, and his retribution is terrible in his. In his madness, when he discovered these things, he tears his own eyes, blinds himself. And, of course, now for the rest of his life, he must just go about as a kind of a beggar, having been this former tremendously great king.

So these are examples of what happens in Greek ethics later on, if you are guilty of this characteristic. On the other hand, when he, even Oedipus himself, when he understands and he relents, and in a sense he apologizes for what he’s done, but more importantly, he ceases, of course, to be powerful and to act in that way, wisdom comes to him. He understands that, he has acted immoderately. That is the critical concept. Moderation is this wonderfully great important thing for the Greeks. You must act in moderation. They don’t ask you to just be humble and throw yourself on the ground and consider yourself as nothing compared to the god, or the gods. Be a man, be proud of what you should be proud of, but don’t go beyond limit of what is human, because if you do terrible things will come. Seek fame, we all want that, and I’ll say more about that, but you can’t push it too far, there has to be some kind of a reasonable human limit to what you do.

So, here is this problem. A typically Greek problem is where there is a contradiction that you’ve got to live with; you can’t resolve. If you want to seek the fullness of a human experience, you have to try to be the best possible man, the greatest possible man to compete successfully against others and to achieve fame, glory, and recognition. But if you push it too far you will anger the gods and something terrible will happen to you. So, it seems to me, that Western civilization, ever since, has been a composite of these two traditions. But there is no way to put them together, and so Western civilization is an ambiguous society with a war always ragging within the soul of Western civilization and it’s never perfectly clear which of the two approaches to life is the better one.

I don’t know whether any of you have ever thought about this, and anything like this way. But if you contemplate your own way of thinking about what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. I think you will find some combination, if you’re sort of typical, but that combination doesn’t ever have to be fifty-fifty, and I’m sure it very rarely is. More typically, one aspect of the culture dominates rather than the other. But the shifts in place and time, and in many I would say, throughout most human beings, there is a consciousness of both. They both have some attraction and one has to grapple with that. So, a part of you wants to become the greatest whatever it is that you want to become and you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t very competitive and very eager to come out first, devoted to arête and your own version of that kind of thing. Yet, it’s very easy to say to you that’s not a good thing to do. What you should try to do is to be humble. You should be like what Jesus suggests in the Sermon on the Mount. Your soul is in deep danger if you indeed continue to lead the life that you have mainly been leading up to now, and those two things are in conflict. I don’t care if you ever go to church, that is no longer confined to a religious organization. It floats around in Western civilization all the time. They’re aspects of demand for performance at the highest level, and at the time there is a great deal of blaming people for pursuing such things instead of humility. That’s Western civilization, friends, and the Greeks are at the root of the whole thing.

Chapter 3. The Rise of the Polis [00:36:02]

So now, let me turn to my next topic, which is to leave the world of Homer behind us and to begin to tell the story of how it was that the characteristic unit of Greek civilization, the polis came into being out of the Dark Ages about which we’ve said a little bit. Let me say a little bit, first of all, about the way scholars have categorized the history of Greece. Typically, we speak of the Bronze Age, the Mycenaean Period and so on, followed by the Dark Ages, but after that, you started having refined terms which derive actually from the world of the history of art. That is because in the Dark Ages we don’t have any writing. So, if you want to designate anything it has to be by tangible things like pottery, particularly painted pottery, because it’s easier to categorize. It’s from that most of our terms show up. So, for instance, you will see references to words like proto-geometric. They’ll be sort of post-Mycenaean then proto-geometric. These would be the very earliest kinds of pots that have geometric designs on them, then comes the geometric period and the orientalizing period; all of these refer to pottery styles.

Then next we come to a larger period, which is referred to as the Archaic Period, the Archaic vis-à-vis the Classical Period, which is the central subject of people’s interest in the Greeks to begin with and later on they studied its surrounding periods. This Archaic Period is roughly speaking about 750 B.C. to 500 B.C. Why this period as a unit? What makes it a unit? Well, it’s around 750, a great number of the changes that moved the Greeks away from the Dark Age kind of society to the full scale polis begin. And 500 but if you were being a little more precise, you would say something like — well, no even 500 isn’t really bad, because if you think about the Persian wars as being the breaking point, before the Persian Wars, you’re in the Archaic Period, after the Persian Wars, you’re in the classical period. Well, the Persian Wars begin in 499 B.C. when Miletus starts the Ionian rebellion. So, that’s really, I think, the reason for the dating.

During this Archaic Period, some of the things that happened are these. The isolation of the Greek towns in the Dark Age gives way increasingly to contact with the east and the south, and when I say the south I really mean Egypt and all around the eastern Aegean Sea. The rise of the polis is based upon critical, economic, military, social, and political changes, all of which produce a world that’s really strikingly different from the one that was just before it. I suppose the first apparently historical event that we know something about is the first Olympic Games, which according to Greek tradition were held in 776 B.C. The precision of that, of course, is not to be taken seriously, but it gives you a general idea of when we are talking about. What’s interesting about that is the Olympic games, like all of the Pan-Hellenic Games, was that it was not a local event just for one polis and maybe for a couple. It was one to which all the people who thought of themselves as Hellenes, which we would call Greeks, took part in. So, that meant the concept that there is something that all of us are — have in common, that make us all Hellenes now exists. It’s not there in Homer. So that’s one thing.

Then literacy returns to the Greek world. It is as I told you before, not a development of the Mycenaean script which we saw, but rather a new writing system, a true alphabet. Most of the symbols were borrowed from a kind of a Semitic language and a Semitic alphabet that came from Phoenicia, I would have guessed, or someplace near it. I think I mentioned to you that the Greeks improved upon it and made it a true alphabet by taking some signs that they didn’t need for their own language by turning them into vowel sounds. If you read a — well, a good example of that kind of Semitic script is Hebrew. If you read biblical Hebrew, you have to supply the vowels yourself. You have to know where the vowels are supposed to go, and that makes it harder to learn how to read, but when you have the vowel sounds it’s easier and the Greeks made that contribution.

In one of Plato’s lesser known dialogues he makes a statement — the following statement, which I think shows both the typical arrogance of the Greeks and also says something true. He says that the Greeks never invented anything, but everything they borrowed they improved upon. I think they probably also invented a few things, but it was very, very characteristic of the Greeks to borrow from the cultures they encountered and to adapt them, to make them more useful for their own purposes and nothing could be clearer than the alphabet as an example of that. Henceforth, we will see writing in Greece, but now very, very little of it. Of course, what we have is confined to things that are not perishable. These would have been inscriptions either on pottery, which the earliest ones are, or on stone, but otherwise I’m sure there was writing on perishable material-wooden plaques, probably not yet paper, but these would have been destroyed. So what we have is on the pottery.

We know that the first colony that the Greeks established was in the Bay of Naples on the island of Ischia. They established a colony somewhere in the 750’s, and soon afterwards, there is a colony established on the east coast of Sicily at what we call Syracuse now, and a rash of others. So, the Greeks are in the 750’s engaged in spreading themselves from the mainland of Greece and from the Aegean in general, even so far out west as Italy and Sicily, and soon we know they are in touch with just about every place in the Mediterranean Sea. In the same period, there is clear-cut, unmistakable, oriental influence on Greek pottery and other things that they make. What oriental? That means mainly the Tigris and Euphrates, Mesopotamia, Syria, all those older civilizations and much more advanced civilizations than the Greek. The Greeks are in touch with them again and they borrow styles, copy styles, maybe in the early day they used some of the craftsmen from out there or maybe their own craftsmen picked it up. However that may be, no question about it, there was contact, interaction, and influence. Most of the influence, I suspect, was going one way in those days-from the more advanced civilization of the east to the Greeks. The Greeks are doing a lot of learning, borrowing, and adopting. Of course, this is the period in which the Homeric epics are finally written down now that there is writing and that gives them, I think, even greater impact on the Greek world in the future. All of these things are happening about the same time as there is a major fundamental change in farming, commerce, and warfare, which will have very significant political consequences as well, but I want to postpone that story for a little while.

Chapter 4. The Features and Importance of the Polis [00:45:41]

Let me then just turn to this phenomenon that is the polis. The word polis appears in Homer, but it means something different from what it means throughout most of Greek history. It just means a physical place, and what it appears to be is the citadel, the fortress that was the center of the towns that grew up after the Bronze Age, after the collapse of the Mycenaean world. So, that’s how it is in Homer. Later definitions, however, will be expansive and broad and as you go further and deeper into Greek history, the claims become greater and greater. Aristotle, in his Politics of course, tells us the most on this subject and often he is our source of information. But one thing is clear and pretty early. The polis is not merely a city state in the same way as, let us say, the Mesopotamian city states of the third millennium B.C. were. Places like Ur, or Kish, towns that we know back there. Those places were simply the place where the king or the emperor ruled, the place where the main god’s palace was, the place where the bureaucrats were to do their business, that’s what it was, no more than that. But immediately, very early, you start hearing the Greeks talk about the polis in terms that are more in your mind than in touch.

Sixth-century Greek poet, Alcaeus wrote, “not houses finally roofed, or the stone of walls well built, no not canals or dock yards make the polis, but men able to use their opportunity.” If you get into the fifth century, late in the fifth century, Thucydides in his history has one of his generals speak to his men and say, “men are the polis.” So, we need to straighten out for ourselves what that means? Does that mean that the place where these people live is not the polis? Is it only men? Well, we’ll come back to that. Let me read you something, as we move to the fullest claims that will be made for the role of the polis. Aristotle in his Politics says this: “as man is the best of the animals when perfected, so he is the worst of all when he is divided away from the law and justice.” But he tells us, human justice can be found only in thepolis, because he says, man is by nature a politicon zoon, an animal of the polis, and as I told you, a man who is without a polis by nature is above or below the category of man.

It’s because man alone has the faculty of speech and the ability to distinguish good from bad, and right from wrong. In addition, since he is born with weapons for the use of wisdom and virtue, he may use them for the opposite ends. Therefore, when he is without virtue, man is the most savage of animals. Justice on the other hand, is an element of thepolis. The administration of justice, which means deciding what is just, is the regulation of the partnership which is thepolis. Man can’t live without the polis, justice exists only in the polis, the polis is something more than a place, it’s more than the walls, it’s more than the ships, it is some kind of a thing that is spiritual it seems to me.

But about the size of this thing — let me back up. There’s something else I wanted to say to indicate this notion of men being the polis as opposed to anything tangible. When the Persians conquered the Greek cities of Asia Minor, when they came to the coastal city of Phocaea, the Phocians had a choice of either giving bread and water to the great king and becoming subjects of the Persians — all they would have had to do was pay taxes and do military service for the king, since he didn’t go about killing people he conquered. The Phocaeans chose instead to take their city, which is to say, all the people in the city, put them on ships, sailed to the far west, and organized a new city out there. In fact, they landed on the Riviera in France and did pretty well for themselves afterwards. But that’s a beautiful example; they thought they had taken their polis with them, because they have had moved the entire city there.

During the Persian Wars, when the Themistocles is trying to convince his fellow Greeks to stay and fight at Salamis, but they are reluctant to do, he says okay if you won’t stay and fight at Salamis, while all our men are already located on our ships, we will take these ships, sail them away to Italy, and settle an Athens in Italy. Well, the Spartans take them very seriously and they say, okay we’ll stay and fight at Salamis. So, such a concept was a possibility. It’s not the whole story though. Let me turn to the question of the physical picture that you ought to have of a polis. Remember there is that citadel standing on a high hill; the acropolis as it is called, the polis up high. There is surrounding farmland going as far, typically, as there is either a natural or an artificial frontier. Typically, a mountain range will be the boundary between the area of two poleis or a stretch of water, because Greece has the sea winding through it everywhere.

But when that’s not true, then there is a typical sort of modern frontier, a land bridge which there a line is-a theoretical line is drawn through it, and on one side is one city, and the other side is another city. There is a wonderful archaeological discovery of a boundary stone near Athens on which it is written on one side, this is Athens, it is not Megara. On the other side it says, this is Megara, it is not Athens. So, there is that kind of a boundary as well, and that is a place where trouble is likely to emerge. Once the poleis are in place, they will spend a great deal of time fighting each other. A normal reason for fighting is a dispute about a piece of land that is more or less on the boundary between them, and so that’s one aspect of their world.

What about how big are these things? An answer from twentieth-century America, very small. I think the word tiny might be justified. We start with the most abnormal of them in this respect. The largest polis, of which we know, is Athens. Unlike many poleis, Athens had been successful in gaining control of the whole region which it dominated, the region of Attica. So, anybody by the time history dawns, who lives in the peninsula that is Attica, is Athenian, even if he lives in a village or a good size town sixty miles away; he is still an Athenian. He can be a citizen of his community, he can be a Marathonian, but he is also and more primarily, he is an Athenian. Now Attica is, in fact, approximately 1,000 square miles, which I am told is about the size of Rhode Island, and that’s the biggest polis of which we know. There are well over a thousand poleis. Some people want to push the number at its height up to maybe 1,500, but it doesn’t matter. You’re talking about lots and lots of them.

What is the typical size of them? What is the typical population of them? Well, Aristotle and Plato, both sort of theoreticians of the polis each had an idea what’s the right size for the perfect polis. Aristotle said the right size is a place where all of the citizens, by which he meant the male adult citizens, could come to a central place and hear a speaker and that number comes out to be about 5,000 male adults. Plato, being a mathematician, as Aristotle was not, decided that the perfect polis would have 5,040 citizens. Why 5,040, you may ask; do we have any mathematicians among us who will give me a quick answer to that? Tell me does it mean the same thing as it has the greatest number of numbers that go into it equally? That’s the answer I heard. Is that all right? Okay, enough of this mathematical falderal. As you can see I don’t understand it. But look, here’s the point. We’re talking about 5,000 adult males. That’s the ideal polis as far as these guys are concerned.

Athens was not the ideal polis; it was big. How many men did it have in its fullest bloom? Somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000. It’s impossible to have a better guess than that. Then, if you want to say, how many human beings lived in Attica at it greatest, we are speaking about something between a 125,000 and 300,000. But you have to understand just from what I’ve already told you, this is extraordinarily large, and I think you must realize that most poleis, if you’re thinking about 1,000 or more poleis would have been well under 5,000 adult male citizens. So, I just wanted to give you an idea of just how small most of these places are as well as indicating sharp departures.

Okay, now the polis from the beginning, and it never stopped being what I’m about to say, chiefly agricultural communities. Most of the people, and I think it’s reasonable to guess that a very high majority of the people would be living on farms, engaged in farming, feeding themselves, and the rest of the community. Unlike the ancient near eastern cities, these towns do not grow up around a temple or a marketplace, confluence of rivers as they do in medieval Europe. No, they grow up like the Athenian does, right smack in the middle of a plain, which is a good place for farming, with a great high acropolis available. Even the characteristic thing in a polis, the agora, the marketplace, which also becomes the civic center of these towns, even these grew up later than the polis. They show up a century or more typically after we know that there is a polis there, and the agora comes about in a gradual way. I think you should never imagine in these real old poleis that got the thing started, that somebody said let’s have a polis. Things just happened; they just grew up.

One nice way to think about it — here Athens is helpful. How many of you ever been to Athens? Raise your hand. And the rest of you, when you go — on the north shore — north slope of the acropolis, beyond the agora, there is the area of Athens known as the Plaka. It’s the oldest inhabited area in Athens, and there you will find that unlike the more modern Athens, in which streets laid out at ninety-degree angles perfectly, it’s a mess. The streets wind around and that’s because the original streets followed the way the cattle did their wandering, looking for food. These became the roads. So, I want to stress the sense of natural development, not some kind of a central authority making a decision about anything. It is also pretty clear that for some after the foundation of the polis, there were no city walls. These were not defended. Your farmland was not defended. If you had a house outside the acropolis as you would, it was not defended. What happened if the town was attacked, invaded? Everybody who could ran up to the acropolis to defend themselves. So, that’s how things were in the elementary phase.

Now, there are Greek traditions that are taken seriously by the Greeks that suggest that kings ruled these cities from the beginning and they have lists of kings with their names, and sometimes with stories attached to them. I think myself, that there were people who had the title basileus and they were noblemen and that they had some kind of a position of influence and authority in the state, but as I think we have seen already, they were not kings in the oriental sense and once we have a polis, it looks as though we don’t have kings any longer in any shape, manner, or form. What the kind of regime that emerges along side the polis, is an aristocratic republic in which the noblemen have influence and power within the community by tradition and they are plural. There is not one real king. There is typically a council of aristocrats; that is the outfit that counts.

Hesiod, whom I have not mentioned to you before, a poet who we think to have lived around 700 B.C., very early in the history of the polis, wrote one of his poems called, Works and Days. This poem offers advice to farmers on how to live, but it also contains a story in which Hesiod talks about himself and the quarrel he has with his brother over who inherits what from the father, and he claims he’s been cheated out of his inheritance because his brother bribed the judges. Well, who are these judges? He calls them basileis, kings. These would have been these aristocratic figures who we know in the earliest days of the polis. They were the judicial authority basing that on their claim to divine descent on their, certainly, noble descent, and on the fact that the nobility had a monopoly of knowledge about what the traditions of the community are. So, Hesiod complains about them and calls them bribe swallowing basileis, crooked ones, plural; kings as in Homer.

It’s also interesting that Athens has a very clear tradition of thinking they had kings, and what I think is very telling is the story they give us about how kingship came to an end in Athens. Let me start by contrasting it with what I think is fairly typical. The Romans also had kings, I think they had probably real kings just before the emergence of their republic and kingship came to an end according to the Roman story, and the republic succeeded it when one of the kings, the last one Tarquinius Superbus (Superbus in Latin means arrogant) misbehaved, most seriously, by raping the daughter of a nobleman, Lucretia. That caused a rebellion and they overthrew the kings, and thereafter, the word king was a dirty word in Roman history. The best example is when Julius Caesar has made himself master of Rome, but he’s still behaving as though the republic exists. People either who want to embarrass him — well yes, I think people who want to embarrass him send around the story Caesar wants to make himself king. The word for king in Latin is rex. And so, he tried to diffuse that with a pun by saying, Non sum rex sed Caesar. I’m not rex, I’m not king, I’m not rex, my name is Caesar.

Well, in fact, he pretty well was ready to turn himself into a king, but he wouldn’t use that word, because it had such a terrible smell. Kings were despots, dictators, rapists. You didn’t want to be one. Well, look at the story the Athenians tell. There was this king of Athens. Codros was his name. The Athenians were invaded by an army from the outside, and Codros led his forces out against them. He fought brilliantly and bravely, and drove the enemy from the field, but in the course of the battle he himself was killed. The Athenians loved and respected him so much that they gave him the almost unheard honor of burying him right on the spot where he fell in the field, and thereafter, his name was always followed with glory, admiration and devotion. Well, what kind of story is that? Why do you get rid of a kingdom? Why would you get rid a king? Oh, I forgot to tell you. Why did they get rid of the king? Because they thought they could never have another so good; so, why try? Give me a break. No, I think somebody had to make up a story, but the memory of kings was not of a Tarquinius. It was not of a brutal despotic ruler, because they didn’t have any such thing.

We don’t know how the change came about or if — some people question if they ever really did have kings, but the picture I want you to have is that’s not the tradition. The tradition is aristocracy; that’s what we connect with the polis, and of course, it was natural, because it also fit into the world of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which they were accustomed to think about. I think that’s a good place to stop. Next time, I will take up the story of the expansion of the world of the polis, which takes the form of colonization.

[end of transcript]

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