Setting The Stage: By 750 BC the Greeks saw the rise of Powerful City-States
Rule and Order in Greek City-States
By 750 BC, the city-state, or polis, waws the fundamental political unit in ancient Greece. A polis was made up of a city and its surrounding countryside, which included numerous villages. Most city-states controlled between 50 and 500 square miles of territory. They were often home to fewer than 20,000 residents. At the agora (public center), or on a fortified hilltop called an acropolis male citizens gathered to conduct business.
Greek Political Structures
There were many ways to rule a Greek polis. In some city-states, muck like river- valley civilizations, kings or monarchs ruled in a government called a monarchy. In time, some city-states adopted an aristocracy, a government ruled by a small group of noble, land-owning families. These very rich families often gained political power after working in a kings military cavalry.
Later, as trade expanded, a new class of wealthy merchants and artisans emerged in some cities. When these groups became dissatisfied with aristocratic rule, they sometimes took power or shared it with the nobility. They formed an oligarchy, a government ruled by a few powerful people. The idea of representative goovernment also began to take root in many city-states. Regardless of its political structure, each polis enjoyed a close knit community. Most Greeks looked down on all non-Greek foreigners, whom they considered barbarians.
A New Kind of Army Emerges
During the Dorian Age, only the rich could afford bronze spears, shields, breastplates, and chariots. Iron later replaced bronze in the mmanufacture of weapons. Harder than bronze, iron was more common and therefore cheaper. Soon, ordinary citizens could afford to arm and defend themselves.
The shift from bronze to iron weapons made possible a new kind of army composed of merchants, artisans, and small landowners. Citizens were expected to defend the polis. Foot soldiers, called hoplites, stood side by side, holding a spear in one hand and a shield in the other. This fearsome formation, or phalanx, was the most powerful fighting force in the ancient world.
Tyrants seize power
No ruler could ignore the power of the citizen-soldiers. In many city-states, unemplloyed farmers and debt ridden artisans joined in revolt against the nobles. Powerful individuals called tyrants, gained control of the government by appealinng to the poor and the discontented for support.
The rule of some city-states passed from one tyrant to the next as competing groups took power. Other cities, however, found new ways of gooverning. Among these city states were two of the most powerful, Athens and Sparta.
Sparta Builds a Military State
Loated in the Soutern part of Greece known as the Peloponnesus, Sparta was nearly cut of from the rest of Greece by the gulf of Corinth. Unlike other city-states, Sparta built a military state.
Sparta Dominates Messinians
While other sity-states founded colonies abroad, Sparta connquered neighboring Messinia around 725 BC and took over the land. The Messinians became helots, peasants forced to stay on the land they worked. Each year, the Spartans demanded half of the helots’ yearly crop. Around 600 BC the messinians, who outnumbered the Spartans eight to one, revolted. The Spartans just barely put down the revolt, and then dedicated themselves to the creation of a strong city-state.
Sparta’s Government and Society
Two groups governed Sparta. An, assembly composed of all free adult males, elected officials and voted on major issues. The second group was the Council of Elders. It proposed laws on which the assembly voted. Five elected officials called ephors carried out the laws that the council passed. These men controlled education and prosecuted court cases. In addition, two Kings ruled over Sparta’s military.
Like its political structure, Sparta’s population was diverse and consisted of several social groups. The first were citizens descended from the original inhabitants of the region. This group included the ruling families who owned the land. A second group, non-citizens but free, worked in commerce and industry. The helots, near the bottom of Spartan society, were a little higher than slaves. Some also served as household servants or worked for the citizen hoplite warriors.
For men, daily life centered around military training. Training was rigorous. At the age of seven, boys left home and moved into army barracks. Wearing no shoes, they marched in light tunics during the day and slept on hard benches at night. trainees gulped down meager meals of coarse black porridge. Such schooling produced tough soldiers.
Spartan girls also led hardy lives. Although they did not receive military training, they ran, wrestled and played sports. Like the boys, they also learned to put service to Sparta above even love of family. As adults, women managed the family estates while their husbands served the polis. Although Spartan women did not have the right to vote, their roles in Spartan society surprised men from other Greek city-states. This was particularlt true in Athens, where citizens expected women to remain out of sight and quietly raise children.
From around 600 until 371 BC, the Spartans had the most powerful army in Greece, but they paid a high price for that position. All forms of individual expression were discouraged. As a result, Spartans did not value the arts and had practically no time for artistic expression. Spartans valued duty, strength, and discipline over individuality, beauty, and freedom.
Athens Builds a Limited Democracy
Located on a rocky hill in Eastern Greece, Athens lay to the North of Sparta. In outlook and values, Athens contrasted sharply with Sparta. An ambassador from Corinth once compared the Spartans to the Athenians in a speech to the Spartan assembly. He told the Spartans that though they had the strongest army in Greece, they were too cautious. He also said that the Spartans lacked imagination and curiosity. Athenians, he said, were always eager to learn new ideas becuase they had been educated to think and act as free people.
Political Developments in Athens
Like other city-states, Athens went through a power struggle between rich and poor. However, Athenians avoided civil war by making timely reforms. Athenian reformers tried to crreate democracy, rule by the people. In Athens, people participated directly in political decision making.
Not everyone in Athens had a part in this new form of political participation. Only free adult males counted as citizens. Women, slaves, and foreigners living in Athens wre excluded from citizenship and had few rights. Slaves formed about one-third of the Athenian population. They worked in mines, farmed fields, and did housework.
In general, Athenian women focused their attention on child rearing, weaving cloth, preparing meals, and managing the household. In addition to having no part in government, women had very little to do with the city’s inntellectual life.