From the Polis to Politics

The earliest communities in ancient Greece appear to have been ruled over by local warlords. Each would have a fortified house, in a strategic position on a hill, from which they could dominate the surrounding area. Around them would live their slaves and the small farmers who depended on them for their protection, paying a portion of what they produced as a sort of taxation in return for security. For centuries, this elite of nobles or aristoi held all the power in their communities, the origin of the modern word 'aristocracy'.

As they grew in wealth, however, the aristoi developed a taste for imported luxuries, so a new class of traders and craftsmen arose to meet this demand. By about the eighth century BCE these merchants were starting to form a sort of ‘middle class' between the lords and the peasantry, and their existence made the life of the community more complex than it had ever been before:

  • The aristoi still enjoyed great power, but the wealthier citizens were too influential to be ignored in the running of the polis or city-state
  • Debate and discussion, give-and-take, became a vital part of community life: the modern word ‘politics' originates in the polis of the Greeks.


The need for compromise between the different classes, and the delays that were caused as issues were discussed, meant that political affairs were not always conducted as quickly and effectively as they might have been. Powerful individuals often grew impatient and seized power. These men were known as tyrannoi, the origin of the modern word ‘tyrant'. Though they were dictators, they were not always monsters. Tyranny today implies a very cruel and ruthless rule, but that was not necessarily the case in ancient times.

The Athenian example

Athenian voting systemIn 510 BCE, the people of Athens drove out the last of a line of tyrants. They decided to introduce reforms to prevent any future tyrant from seizing power. Rather than live under the rule of a single strongman (tyranny) or of a noble elite (aristocracy), they would govern themselves under a system of democracy – rule by the demos or people.

Previously, the people of the Athenian polis had been divided up horizontally, into social classes: the nobility on top, then the wealthy citizens and then the poor. Now, however, steps were taken to divide it vertically, so that every Athenian – rich or poor – belonged to one of ten electoral ‘tribes'. Despite its name, the tribe was not a family grouping but a geographical division. It gave everyone from a given district a motive for working with his neighbours and prevented the nobility from banding together to oppress the poor.

In Athens, all citizens had the right to a voice in the Ekklesia or Assembly of the People, which was held whenever an especially important decision had to be taken. The day-to-day business of the state was conducted by a boule or council. This had 500 members, 50 from each tribe. Members were appointed by rota, so that everyone would have his turn to participate in the government of the city.

Democratic ironies

Every citizen was to have a voice under the new system of democracy – but not everyone in Athens was a citizen:

  • Women had no voice at all – it never occurred to anyone that they should have a say in the government of the state
  • Neither did the city's thousands of slaves or free foreigners.

Of course, Athenian citizens would never have had the leisure to attend all these meetings if they had not been able to rely on their womenfolk to run their homes and on all the slaves and foreigners to keep the economy going.

A modern parallel?

Athenian democracy was in many ways much more far-reaching than its modern equivalent. Today's voter is able to express his or her will only at elections held every few years. The party which wins at the polls then forms its own government. It will then set about ruling the state in the way it chooses, in the process taking many thousands of decisions without any need to refer back to the electorate which placed it in power. If enough of the people are unhappy with the way it governs, the government will be voted out at the next election a few years later, but the ordinary people have no control at all over the daily conduct of the state.

A citizen army

The traditional aristocracy had justified their power and privilege by their claims to be the warrior-class, the protectors of the state. In Athens, the citizens themselves undertook the defence of the city. Where the old elite had fought on horseback, they developed a new way of fighting, as ‘hoplites' – infantry troops, fighting on foot, standing side-by-side in tightly-drilled ranks, with large round shields and long thrusting spears. It was a form of combat that called upon the democratic virtues of social solidarity and strength-in-numbers and it made the Athenian army a formidable fighting force.

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