Greek City-States and Governments

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  • 0:05 Comparing Civilizations
  • 4:36 Greek City-States
  • 6:01 Constitutions
  • 6:30 Colonialism
  • 7:42 Competition
  • 9:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This is a lecture about Greek city states. It begins with an examination of the influence geography had on Greek politics, by comparing Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia. This is followed by a loose characterization of Greek poleis in general, with specific attention paid to constitutions, colonialism and competition.

Comparing Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece

Greek civilization, like Greek religion, was a decentralized affair. For most of ancient Greek history the largest political unit was the city-state, which they called a polis (plural poleis). From this word we derive many English words: politics, for the running of a polis; police, a man who serves the polis; and even polite, meaning you have the manners of a civilized person.

But the Greeks did not invent the polis. You may recall that both Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations started out as competing city-states. What makes the Greeks unique was that they stuck with the polis long after their neighbors had created kingdoms and empires.

This raises an important question: why? Why didn't the Greek polis behave like the other city-states of the period, unite all of Greece into a single kingdom and expand to form a Greek empire? The answer lies not in political ideals, but geography. Let us compare the geography of Greece to that of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Mesopotamia is open on all sides, it is broad and it is flat. It is unified by the Tigris and Euphrates. It is fully accessible from all sides. It is easily unified and easily invaded.

By contrast, Egypt in closed in by deserts. It is narrow, it is flat, it is unified by the Nile and it is fully accessible from within but not from without. This made Egypt easily unified but hard to invade.

Now let's look at Greece. Greece is closed in by mountains and the sea. Greek civilization is scattered over this mountainous terrain. This terrain is inaccessible from within and from without; this made Greece effectively impossible to unify and impossible to invade. The effect of geography on Greek politics can be seen rather clearly.

Compared to Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece was much more difficult, nay impossible, to invade
Greece Comparisons

When Hammurabi decided to expand his city-state of Babylon into a Kingdom (and then to an Empire), he encountered no real geographical barriers. In fact, geography helped Hammurabi. The network of rivers between the Tigris and Euphrates and the uninterrupted plains of the region allowed Hammurabi to move his troops in any direction. Yet the same lack of barriers that made Mesopotamia so easy to unite also made it vulnerable to invasion. Hammurabi's Babylonian empire was very short lived.

The Pharaohs of Egypt did not have to worry so much about invasion, as Egypt is protected by deserts on three sides. Yet within its borders, Egypt was very easy to unify and unify and maintain, since the entire civilization clustered along a single river. Thus, the city-states of Egypt were consolidated into a single kingdom with relative ease. The kingdom was protected from the outside by deserts, but the same deserts made it difficult to expand the kingdom of Egypt into an empire.

Where the Sumerians built their empires on an open plain, the Greeks were restricted by mountains on all sides. Where the Egyptians united their kingdom along a single river, the Greeks were scattered in mountain valleys and islands. This isolation made unifying the Greeks into a single kingdom all but impossible. It took too long to move soldiers across the mountainous terrain of Greece, and the seasonal storms along the Mediterranean made naval empires difficult to maintain.

Even the Mycenaean kings, who dominated the eastern Mediterranean for a couple centuries, never reached the level of power exercised by a Babylonian emperor, let alone the absolute authority of an Egyptian pharaoh. We can see this clearly in The Iliad. Agamemnon might be king of Mycenae, but Achilles is King of the Myrmidons and Odysseus the King of Ithaka. Agamemnon is, at best, first among equals - and barely qualifies for that title, being neither as mighty as Achilles, nor as clever as Odysseus. Agamemnon may have led the invasion of Troy, but it was Achilles and Odysseus who won it. Compare the depiction of Agamemnon in The Iliad to accounts of pharaohs and emperors who could freely claim 'I conquered so-and-so' as if they had done so single handedly.

The Mycenaean kings could not reach the power of Babylonian emperors or Egyptian pharaohs
Iliad Example

Comparing the Greek City-States

Thus we can see how the mountainous geography of Greece prevented the consolidation of a unified Greek kingdom and maintained the independence of the Greek polis. Each polis was fiercely independent, with its own customs, its own myths and its own festivals. With such variety, it is difficult to make generalizations about them. Yet there are some things that the Greek poleis shared in common.

For one, they all spoke Greek. This may seem a given, but many a Mesopotamian empire had subjects speaking half a dozen different languages. The Greek poleis also all worshiped the same pantheon of gods, albeit in different ways. They all knew the same myths, though each polis had myths of its own. And they all recognized certain places as holy, like Olympia and Delphi; though each polis also had its own holy sites as well. The importance of these holy sites in uniting Greek culture cannot be overstated; they gave the Greeks places to meet and compete without bloodshed. Despite their isolation, the Greek city-states shared a common language, a common religion and common holy sites.

Yet the shared values of Greek culture run even deeper. There are three other common features of Greek city-states that are uniquely Greek. These can be summarized with three Cs: constitutions, colonialism and competition.


Every Greek polis had a constitution. While these constitutions varied greatly from one polis to another, the fact that every polis felt they needed a codified system of government (one which held true for the high as well as the low) bears witness to the Egalitarian spirit of all Greek poleis. Yet we must remember that this spirit of equality was restricted to citizens of a given polis, and did not extend to outsiders.


Another thing the various Greek Poleis had in common was colonialism. Since the mountainous terrain of Greece offered little arable land, a prosperous polis would quickly outgrow its limited surrounding countryside. As populations grew, new sources of food needed to be found. The Spartans solved this problem by conquering and enslaving their neighbors. This was made possible by the relative flatness of the Peloponnese compared to the rest of Greece. Most Greek poleis did not have this option; instead, they established colonies elsewhere.

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