Back To CourseAncient Greece Study Guide
13 chapters | 147 lessons
Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
We often talk about ancient Greece like it was a single culture; the way we talk about modern England or the USA. Ancient Greece was never a unified nation. It wasn't a country. Instead, the region we now as Greece was filled with smaller kingdoms and states based around a central urban center. We call these city-states.
One of the most influential of the Greek city-states was Athens. Athens was the birthplace of democracy, home to some of the most influential philosophers and artists of the ancient world, and the center of occasional empires. When we talk about Athens, however, we're usually talking about more than just the city itself. We're talking about the entire city-state, or the entire region under the control of this urban center. In this case, that's the part of the peninsula called Attica. But how did this happen? How did Athens go from being a city to being the center of a power city-state? For that, we're going to have to expand our vocabulary a bit and talk about synoecism.
The ancient Greeks paid close attention to their political lives, and so they had a term for the creation of a city-state. They called it synoikismos, which literally means to dwell together in a shared house. We use the word synoecism. Synoecism refers to the collective gathering of a number of communities into a single political entity. Basically, this is the act of taking a number of small poleis (towns) and organizing them together into a single city-state, under the leadership of one main urban center. Athens wasn't the only place to do this. Synoecism was a big trend in Greek history, when city-states like Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes were formed from the political alliances of neighboring villages. This is what led to the creation of Greek-style civilizations as we think of them.
So, when and how did synoecism occur in Athens? According to Athenian mythology, the man responsible for this was none other than Theseus. Theseus was the mythological founder of true Athenian civilization, the epic hero who defeated the Minotaur and built the small city of Athens into a Mediterranean power.
In Athenian mythology, Theseus unified the villages of Attica under Athenian authority through his feats of strength and skill. He battled monsters, completed his own set of heroic labors, and so unified the people through his leadership and goodness. The fact that Theseus oversaw synoecism as a benevolent leader who inspired people to follow him is important. We'll get to that later.
The actual history of Athenian synoecism is a little harder to pin down. Historians disagree on exactly when, why, and how it happened. All that we really know is that by the 5th century BCE, Athens was the center of a city-state that expanded across Attica.
We're going to explore this question by starting with the unified city-state and working backwards in time. The earliest point that we can clearly identify synoecism in Athens is 508-507 BCE. Why this date? This was when the great Athenian statesman Cleisthenes reformed the Athenian constitution. The Cleisthenic Reforms increased the power of the citizen's assembly in Athens, reorganized the political districts of the city, and decreased the role of the nobility. In short, Cleisthenes is credited with establishing the foundation of Athenian democracy, which is kind of a big deal.
As part of these reforms, Cleisthenes reorganized the tribes of Athens, separating the traditional four tribal units into ten. Each tribe was responsible for maintaining its own legislative councils, called demes, giving them greater political control over their own lives. In total, each tribe had six demes. Why so many? Cleisthenes gave the tribes within Athens two demes, but also created two demes for members of that tribe who lived in the inland farms of Attica, and another two for the members who lived on Attica's coastline.
Can you see what Cleisthenes was doing here? He used shared tribal identities and common interests to encourage the other villages of Attica to participate in Athenian democracy. But recognizing Athens as their political capital, the villages of Attica could become part of a larger, stronger unit that still respected their rights and needs. It seemed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement, and through this process, the Athenian city-state was formed.
Now, remember how I said we'd work backwards from this moment? Cleisthenes' synoecism was motivated by the chance to share in Athenian democracy, but this idea didn't just appear out of nowhere. Athens had been sowing the seeds for decades before Cleisthenes rose to power.
Sometime in the early years of the 6th century BCE, the myth of Theseus really took off. The people of Athens celebrated him as their founder, but also celebrated him as the original unifier of the people of Attica. The Athenians held celebrations to honor this history, wrote stories about it, and actively encouraged their allies across the peninsula to participate in the legend. Over the century, Athens built up a cult to Theseus and his mythological synoecism that emphasized a common heritage for all the peoples of Attica. That's likely a big part of the reason that Cleisthenes reforms so successful unified the villages of Attica under Athens' authority. That shared mythology had already laid the basis for a cultural unity. All they had to do was provide a good enough incentive to solidify the political side.
Synoecism is the political unification of several communities into a single city-state, under the authority of one main urban center. This term is most often applied to ancient Greece and the rise of city-states like Athens. Athenian synoecism relied on a mixture of mythology and politics, as 6th century BCE Athenians celebrated their founder Theseus as the original unifier of Attica. After decades of expanding this myth to incorporate communities of Attica, Athens unified the region under its authority when Cleisthenes laid the basis for a democratic city-state in 508-507 BCE. Thus, Athens became a city-state through diplomacy and negotiation, not conquest. After all, the people of Attica already believed they'd voluntarily unified once before under Theseus. Now they'd do it under Cleisthenes.
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Back To CourseAncient Greece Study Guide
13 chapters | 147 lessons