16 September 2015
#History of World Civilization, Day Sixteen
Describe the nature and functioning of the polis. What were its positive and negative consequences?
Polis is the term used for the typical settlement built by the Greek civilization. Grecian government was organized at the local level into sovereign city-states. The polis was usually ruled by a proto-democratic assembly of its adult male citizens. A typical polis would consist of a walled city with a citadel, marketplace, temples, and other public buildings. Citizenship was reckoned by birth, and only adult males enjoyed full voting and legal rights. A polis was more than simply the area enclosed by the city walls, and included both the surrounding area (suburbs) and any colonies established by the citizens of that polis, however geographically distant they may have been. The independent nature of the polis made direct democracy possible, and the polis generally reflected the will of the majority of its citizens. Being autonomous, however, each polis was only as strong as its body of citizen soldiers to defend itself, which left it open to conquest by more powerful and ambitious neighbors and foreign invaders. Poleis occasionally allied themselves together for mutual defense, but the independent spirit of the populace made such alliances difficult and prone to squabbles. Some poleis vied for control of their regions, and at various times Sparta, Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and others were each the dominant force in the Greek peninsula.
Compare and contrast the Greek city-states of Sparta and Athens.
Sparta and Athens were both powerful city-states on the Greek peninsula, and both had their time in the sun dominating Greek culture. That is about where the comparison ends, as the politics, people, and philosophy of the two poleis were quite different. They were allies in the fight against the invading Persians, but their mutual ambitions to control the Greek mainland eventually came to blows in the Peloponnesean War of the late fifth century BC.
Spartan life was ascetic and militaristic, so much so that even in modern times, “spartan” means basic, minimal, devoid of luxury, etc. All men trained for war from age seven, and even women underwent a physical training regimen. All citizens, men and women, were trained to be disciplined and strong, and women enjoyed rights in Sparta seen nowhere else in the classical world. Spartan training was harsh, even brutal. Soldiers were intentionally given short rations to keep them hungry and encourage them to “be resourceful” (steal).
If Sparta was the hyper-militant survivalist with anger management issues, Athens was the laid back, freethinking hippie. Athens was the center of culture, the arts, education, and philosophy in the classical world. Athens took its name from its mythological patron goddess, Athena, the Greek goddess of many things to do with wisdom, knowledge, art, philosophy, etc. Athens was the birthplace of Western Civilization and political democracy. Almost all of the most revered Greek philosophers, historians, poets, and physicians were from Athens. Its access to the sea led to the development of a powerful navy, and a thriving, prosperous trade network. Despite the emphasis on education and philosophy, Athens boasted a formidable army, equipped similarly to the Spartans, and an even more powerful navy, while the nearly landlocked Sparta had almost none.
Why did the Greeks establish colonies throughout the Mediterranean world? Describe the significance of Greek colonization.
One of the foremost reasons for Greek colonization was overcrowding. The rocky, mountainous Greek peninsula made agriculture difficult, with the notable exception of grapes and olives, which do not provide a diet sufficient to support a large population. Greeks quickly discovered that other civilizations had plenty of grain to trade for their coveted wine and olive oil, and colonies facilitated this trade network.
There was no concerted, coordinated effort at Greek colonization. Rather, individual, autonomous poleis would send off members to establish trade outposts, retaining the culture and character of, and loyalty to, their mother poleis. As the Greeks fanned out, rarely venturing very far inland but dotting every available coastline with colonies, they carried their culture, philosophy, and religion with them, interacting with trading parties from all over the known world. Greece seems to be one of the most cohesive cultures of the ancient world. Their diaspora was as far-reaching and omni-directional as any previous civilization, yet their colonies remained identifiabely Grecian. While other civilizations intermarried with the native peoples upon whom they encroached, creating new, hybrid cultures, the Greeks heavily influenced their new lands, leaving the imprint we still call “Western Civilization” everywhere they went.