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The Emergence of the Greek Polis

There is a great deal of controversy surrounding the question of why Greek communities became poleis. Some historians and political analysts found it inevitable. Aristotle, in fact, claimed that the polis was the natural situation for mankind. He defined humans as "beings who by nature live in a polis" (Politics 1253a2-3). However, the polis was a unique Greek invention and far from inevitable. The specific geography and history of Greece allowed its conception.

The polis consisted of the city and its surrounding lands and communities. The whole area was an individual unit with self-rule. Unlike the Mycenaean cities of Greek's past, where the powerless poor answered to the powerful aristocracy and the godlike king, every citizen was at least equal under the law. Citizenship was limited to natives, and only male adult citizens could exercise the vote, but power was distributed more widely than in any previous political system.

The polis was most efficient if it was small, since large groups were hard to coordinate as a decision-making body. Greek political theorists judged that 5 to 10,000 citizens was the ideal size of a Greek polis. In such a sized community, most citizens could at least recognize by face most other citizens.

Greek geography helped keep communities small. Covered with mountains and inlets, it provided many natural barriers that isolated neighboring communities. This isolation both limited the size of most poleis and made large-scale empire difficult, so most communities could control their own destiny.

The fall of Mycenaean power and Greece's dark age also provided a nurturing environment for developing poleis. The sudden disappearance of political structure provided a vacuum of power that was filled by the leaders of local communities. Each city became master of its own destiny. Over the course of the Dark Age, kingship vanished, and power was deposited in the hands of the nobles. As the fighting power of the Greek hoplite grew, rich men without distinguished lineage could claim importance in the defence of their community, and power began to be spread even further. As the aristocracy declined in power, the formerly powerless took part in government.

Since so much of the early development of the polis is lost to history, much of the above is speculation. Still, it is clear that the absence of central authority, paired with the individualistic nature of Greek communities, led to the emergence of the polis.

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