Greek Polis: Definition & Facts

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  • 0:00 What Is a Polis?
  • 0:24 Government in the Polis
  • 1:42 The Most Famous Polis
  • 2:29 Allies and Enemies
  • 3:29 Legacy of the Polis
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Discover the ancient Greek polis, a term used to describe small communities of ancient Greeks that were among the first recorded democracies in the world. Learn about the Athenian polis and explore the legacy of these ancient Greek communities.

What is a Polis?

Polis is a term that is used to describe a tight-knit, small community of ancient Greek citizens who agreed on certain rules and customs. Usually a polis was centered on a small town and the countryside that surrounded it. The ancient Greek poleis (the plural of polis) are among the first recorded democratic governments in the world.

Government in the Polis

The government of the polis was made up of citizens who were supposed to work for the good of all inhabitants. Citizenship, and thus political power, was granted based on gender and birthplace. All males born to local families were citizens and were able to vote concerning the government of the polis. People born outside the polis were excluded from citizenship and could not vote in a polis that was not their birthplace. Women were also not allowed to take part in voting for the polis, although they could act as priestesses in religious ceremonies.

Although we would consider such a government to be exclusionary and discriminatory, to the ancient world the government practiced by the ancient Greek poleis was considered very inclusive because it allowed poor males born in the polis to vote despite their low socioeconomic status. The low number of citizens allowed Greek voters to vote directly on any issue involving the government of their town. This type of democracy is called a direct democracy because citizens have the ability to vote directly on an issue rather than having an elected representative who votes on their behalf, as many democracies, including America, do today.

The Most Famous Polis

The Athenian polis was one of the largest city-states in Greece. In Athens, all adult male citizens gathered together ten times per year and voted on issues affecting the area. Civic offices were filled either by election or by a random lottery. Jury trials were common, and most citizens served on juries or acted as civil officers during their lifetimes. There were term limits and a system on rotation in place for all civil officers. The Athenian polis enjoyed economic prosperity and became a critical stop in ancient trading routes. Athens helped to spread the use of democratic government and served as an example for other city-states and for other nations.

Allies and Enemies

In some places, several poleis would gather together and create leagues of city-states. Each city-state remained independent in its internal affairs, but they would band together to fight off invaders. One of the major problems of the Greek democracy was the extreme individuality of the each city-state. Since each polis was unique, it was difficult for a league of city-states to remain united for long.

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