What was Synoecism in Ancient Athens?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

We hear a lot about the Greek city of Athens, but do you know how it first started rising to power? In this lesson, we'll explore synoecism in ancient Athens and see what this meant for Greek history.

The City-State of Athens

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 city-state of Athens had authority beyond just its own city walls


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.

Athenian Synoecism: Mythology

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.

Theseus was the legendary founder of Athens

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.

Athenian Synoecism: History

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.

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