The polis: The heart and soul of Ancient Greece

The acropolis of Athens

The ancient Greek polis was a type of city-state which was prevalent in the Greek world and served as the foundation for classical Athens.


In this article, we will explore the features of the ancient Greek polis and how it functioned.


We will also take a look at some of the famous city-states that emerged during this time period.

What is a 'polis'?

The word 'polis' is Greek for 'city'. In the ancient world, a polis was much more than just a physical settlement.


For more than one polis, the plural word poleis is used. A polis was made up of an urban center, often fortified, and the surrounding countryside. 


An important feature of most poleis was an acropolis (which means 'high city'), which was a large hill or small mountain that served as a defensive position for the city.


The acropolis was also home to important religious and political buildings.

Each polis was an independent city-state with its own government, laws, currency, and culture.


Individual poleis could differ from each other in terms of size and population. They also had different levels of importance within the Greek world.


For example, Athens was one of the most powerful city-states, while other poleis were less influential.


In many cases, the polis was ruled by a small group of wealthy citizens known as the aristocracy.


The aristocrats usually had a strong military presence and controlled the economy.

Ruins of a Greek temple near the ocean

Historic origins

The first poleis appeared in the late Bronze Age in Greece, around 1200 BC. They were a response to the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces, which had previously controlled much of Greece. 


The early poleis were small settlements that gradually developed into larger city-states.


The ancient Greek world was made up of hundreds of poleis. Some of the most famous include Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes.

During the Archaic period (750-480 BC), the number of poleis increased, and they began to interact with each other more frequently.


This led to the development of trade and commerce, as well as the formation of alliances and conflicts between different city-states.


The Classical period (480-323 BC) was a time of great prosperity for many poleis, especially Athens.


This was due to the growth of trade, art, literature, and philosophy. It was also a time of great political turmoil, with various city-states vying for power.


The Hellenistic period (323-30 BC) was marked by the rise of Macedon after the conquest of much of the Greek world by Alexander the Great.


This led to a decline in the importance of the poleis. Many were absorbed into larger kingdoms, and their autonomy diminished.

How did a polis function?

A polis was a community that was bound together by shared customs, values, and beliefs.


The citizens of a polis would work together to defend their city from outside threats and to promote its interests in the Greek world.


Under a democratic system, the citizens of a polis would elect officials to represent them and make decisions on their behalf.


The government of a polis was usually headed by a small group of aristocrats. 


The economy of a polis was usually based on agriculture, trade, and manufacturing. Each polis had its own currency.


This allowed for the development of trade between different city-states. The citizens of a polis would pay taxes to support the government and the city's infrastructure.


The agora, or the marketplace, of a polis was the center of economic activity. This is where people would buy and sell goods, and it was also a place for political discussion and debate.

Social groups

Ninety percent of the population of a polis consisted of farmers, artisans, and traders. These people were known as the hoi polloi, or "the many".


The remaining ten percent consisted of the aristocracy, who controlled the government and the economy. They also held most of the power in society.


Slaves were usually captured in war or purchased from slave traders. They had no rights and were owned by the aristocracy. In some cases, there could be more slaves in a polis than full citizens.


The education of young citizens was important to the polis. Boys would learn to read and write, and they would be trained in athletics and warfare.


Girls would usually be educated at home by their mothers.

Religious life

Religion played a central role in the life of a polis. The citizens would worship the city's patron deity and build temples in their honor.


The most important temples were located in the agora or on the acropolis, and they served as the center of religious life.


Religion was used to unify the citizens of a polis and to legitimize the authority of the government.


The citizens of a polis would participate in festivals and religious ceremonies. These were important occasions for the community to come together and celebrate their shared culture and beliefs.

Ancient Greek temple columns


The military was an important part of the functioning of a polis. The citizens were required to serve in the army, and they would be called upon to defend their city from invasion.


The size of a polis' army depended on its wealth and population. The most powerful city-states could field large armies of professional soldiers.


Each citizen would be expected to pay for their own weapons and armour, and would take time to practice military maneuvers with other citizens.

A typical Greek soldier was armed with a spear and a shield. He would also wear armor to protect himself in battle.


Such spear-armed infantry was called 'hoplites' and were the backbone of the Greek army.



While a polis would focus on the defense of its own lands, they could also sign military alliances with other poleis, if it was in their interests to do so.

Statue of a Spartan warrior

Civic pride

Citizens became very proud of their own polis and would identify strongly with its values and traditions.


This sense of civic pride helped to unify the citizens and make them loyal to their city-state. It also made the citizens willing to defend their polis from invaders.


They would fight fiercely to protect their homes and families from harm.


The citizens of a polis would also take great pride in their city's art and architecture.


They would build beautiful temples and public buildings to show off their wealth and power.


Poleis would even advertise the success of their polis at the Olympic Games by paying for the construction of magnificent statues and temples.


The concept of Panhellenism was the idea that all Greeks shared a common culture and identity.


This sense of unity helped to bind the different city-states together.


Panhellenism was based on the shared language, religion, and culture of the Greek people.


It was also based on the belief that all Greeks were descended from the same ancestors.


This sense of unity helped the Greeks to repel invasions from foreign armies. It also allowed them to cooperate with each other in times of need.

Carving of a Greek battle

Further reading