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Acropolis of Athens, a noted polis of classical Greece.
Ancient Alexandria in c. 30 BC, a polis of Hellenistic Egypt.
Theatre of ancient Syracuse, a classical polis.

Polis (/ˈpɒlɨs/; πόλις, Ancient Greek: [pólis]), plural poleis (/ˈpɒlz/, πόλεις [póleːs]), literally means city in Greek. It could also mean citizenship and body of citizens. In modern historiography "polis" is normally used to indicate the ancient Greek city-states, like Classical Athens and its contemporaries, so polis is often translated as "city-state".

Ancient Greek city-states, which developed during the Archaic period, the ancestor of city, state and citizenship, and persisted (though with decreasing influence) well into Roman times, when the equivalent Latin word was civitas, also meaning "citizenhood", while municipium applied to a non-sovereign local entity. The term city-state which originated in English (alongside the German Stadtstaat) does not fully translate the Greek term. The poleis were not like other primordial ancient city-states like Tyre or Sidon, which were ruled by a king or a small oligarchy, but rather a political entity ruled by its body of citizens. The traditional view of archaeologists, that the appearance of urbanization at excavation sites could be read as a sufficient index for the development of a polis was criticised by François Polignac in 1984[1][a] and has not been taken for granted in recent decades: the polis of Sparta for example was established in a network of villages. The term polis, which in archaic Greece meant city, changed with the development of the governance center in the city to indicate state (which included its surrounding villages), and finally with the emergence of a citizenship notion between the land owners it came to describe the entire body of citizens. The ancient Greeks did not always refer to Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and other poleis as such; they often spoke instead of the Athenians, Lacedaemonians, Thebans and so on. The body of citizens came to be the most important meaning of the term polis in ancient Greece as a polis.

The Greek term which specifically meant the totality of urban buildings and spaces is ἄστυ (pronounced [ásty]).

The polis in Ancient Greek philosophy[edit]

Plato analyses the polis in The Republic, whose Greek title Πολιτεία (Politeia) itself derives from the word polis. The best form of government of the polis for Plato is the one that leads to the common good. The philosopher king is the best ruler because, as a philosopher, he is acquainted with the Form of the Good. In Plato's analogy of the ship of state, the philosopher king steers the polis, as if it were a ship, in the best direction.

Books II-IV of The Republic are concerned with Plato addressing the make-up of an ideal Polis. In The Republic, Socrates is concerned with the two underlying principles of any society. It states these two underlying principles are mutual needs and differences in aptitude. Starting from these two principles, Socrates deals with the economic structure of an ideal Polis. According to Plato, there are five main economic classes of any Polis which are, producers, merchants, sailors/ship-owners, retail traders, and wage earners. Along with the two principles and five economic classes, there are four virtues. The four virtues of a, “just city” include, wisdom, change, moderation, and justice. With all of these principles, classes, and virtues, it was believed that a “just city” (Polis) would exist.


Mason, Andrew S. Plato. Durham: Acumen, 2010. Print. Plato. The Republic. Print.

Archaic and classical polis[edit]

Basic and indicating elements are:

  • Self-governance, autonomy and independence (city-state)
  • Agora: the social hub and financial marketplace, on and around a centrally located large open space
  • Acropolis: the citadel, inside which a temple had replaced the erstwhile Mycenaean anáktoron (palace) or mégaron (hall)
  • Greek urban planning and architecture, public, religious, and private (see Hippodamian plan)
  • Temples, altars and sacred precincts: one or more are dedicated to the poliouchos, the patron deity of the city; each polis kept its own particular festivals and customs (Political religion, as opposed to the individualized religion of the later antiquity). Priests and priestesses, although often drawn from certain families by tradition, did not form a separate collegiality or class: they were ordinary citizens who, on certain occasions, were called to perform certain functions.
  • Gymnasia
  • Theatres
  • Walls: used for protection from invaders
  • Coins: minted by the city, and bearing its symbols
  • Colonies being founded by the oikistes of the metropolis
  • Political life: it revolved around the sovereign Ekklesia (the assembly of all adult male citizens for deliberation and voting), the standing boule and other civic or judicial councils, the archons and other officials or magistrates elected either by vote or by lot, clubs, etc., and sometimes punctuated by stasis (civil strife between parties, factions or socioeconomic classes, e.g., aristocrats, oligarchs, democrats, tyrants, the wealthy, the poor, large, or small landowners, etc.) They practised direct democracy.
  • Publication of state functions: laws, decrees and major fiscal accounts were published, and criminal and civil trials were also held in public
  • Synoecism, conurbation: Absorption of nearby villages and countryside, and the incorporation of their tribes into the substructure of the polis. Many of a polis' citizens would have lived in the suburbs or countryside. The Greeks did not regard the polis as a territorial grouping so much as a religious and political association: while the polis would control territory and colonies beyond the city itself, the polis would not simply consist of a geographical area. Most cities were composed of several tribes or phylai, which were in turn composed of phratries (common-ancestry lineages), and finally génea (extended families)
  • Social classes and citizenship: Dwellers in the polis were generally divided into four types of inhabitants, with status typically determined by birth:
    • Citizens with full legal and political rights, i.e.,  free adult men born legitimately of citizen parents. They had the right to vote, be elected into office, bear arms, and the obligation to serve when at war.
    • Citizens without formal political rights, but full legal rights: the citizens' female relatives and underage children, whose political rights and interests were represented, and property held in trust, by their adult male relatives.
    • Citizens of other poleis who chose to reside elsewhere (the metics, μέτοικοι, métoikoi, literally "transdwellers"): though free-born and possessing full rights in their place of origin, had full legal rights but no political rights in their place of residence. Metics could not vote, could not be elected to office, could not bear arms and could not serve in war. They otherwise had full personal and property rights, albeit subject to taxation.
    • Slaves: chattel in full possession of their owner, and with no privileges other what their owner would grant (or revoke) at will.

Hellenistic and Roman[edit]

During the Hellenistic period, which marks the decline of the classical polis, the following cities remained independent: Sparta until 195 BC after the War against Nabis. Achaean League is the last example of original Greek city-state federations (dissolved after the Battle of Corinth (146 BC)). The Cretan city-states continue to be independent (except Itanus and Arsinoe, which lay under Ptolemaic influence) until the conquest of Crete in 69 BC by Rome. The cities of Magna Graecia, with the notable examples of Syracuse and Tarentum, were conquered by Rome in late 3rd century BC. There are also some cities with recurring independence like Samos, Priene, Miletus, and Athens.[2] A remarkable example of a city-state which flourished during this era is Rhodes through its merchant navy,[3] until 43 BC and the Roman conquest.

The Hellenistic colonies and cities of the era, retain some basic characteristics of a polis, except: the status of independence (city-state) and the political life. There is a self-governance (like the new Macedonian title politarch) but under a ruler and king. The political life of the classical era is now transformed to an individualized religious and philosophical view of life (see Hellenistic philosophy and religion) The demographic decline forced the cities to abolish the status of metic and bestow citizenship; in 228 BC Miletus enfranchised over 1000 Cretans.[4] Dyme sold its citizenship for one talent, payable in two installments. The foreign residents in a city are now called paroikoi. In an age when most political establishments in Asia are kingdoms, the Chrysaorian League in Caria was a Hellenistic polis federation.

During the Roman era, some cities were granted the status of a polis, free city, self-governed under the Roman Empire.[5] The last institution commemorating the old Greek poleis was the Panhellenion established by Hadrian.

Derived words[edit]

Derivatives of polis are common in many modern European languages. This is indicative of the influence of the polis-centred Hellenic world view. Derivative words in English include policy, polity, police, and politics. In Greek, words deriving from polis include politēs and politismos, whose exact equivalents in Latin, Romance and other European languages, respectively civis (citizen), civilisatio (civilization) etc. are similarly derived.

A number of words end in the word "-polis". Most refer to a special kind of city and/or state. Examples include:

Other refer to part of a city or a group of cities, such as:


Polis, Cyprus[edit]

Located on the north-west coast of Cyprus is the town of Polis, or Polis Chrysochous (Greek: Πόλις Χρυσοχούς), situated within the Paphos District and on the edge of the Akamas peninsula. During the Cypro-Classical period, Polis became one of the most important ancient Cypriot city-kingdoms on the island, with important commercial relations with the eastern Aegean Islands, Attica, and Corinth. The town is also well known due to its mythological history, including the site of the "Baths of Aphrodite".

Other cities[edit]

The names of several other towns and cities in Europe and the Middle East have contained the suffix "-polis" since antiquity; or currently feature modernized spellings, such as "-pol". Notable examples include:

The names of other cities were also given the suffix "-polis" after antiquity, either referring to ancient names or simply unrelated:

Some cities have also been given nicknames ending with the suffix "-polis", usually referring to their characteristics:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ An attempt to dissociate urbanization from state formation was undertaken by Morris, I (1991), "The early polis as city and state", in Rich, J; Wallace-Hadrill, A, City and Country in the Ancient World, London, pp. 27–40 


  1. ^ Polignac, François (1984), La naissance de la cité grecque (in French), Paris .
  2. ^ Dmitriev, Sviatoslav (2005), City government in Hellenistic and Roman Asia minor, p. 68, ISBN 0-19-517042-3 .
  3. ^ Wilson, Nigel Guy (2006), Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, p. 627, ISBN 978-0-415-97334-2 .
  4. ^ Milet I, 3, pp. 33–8 .[clarification needed]
  5. ^ Howgego, Christopher; Heuchert, Volhker; Burnett, Andrew (2007), Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces, p. 158, ISBN 0-19-923784-0 .

Further reading[edit]

  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Hansen, Mogens Herman (2006), Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State (hardcover), Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-920849-2 ; paperback, ISBN 0-19-920850-6.
  • Hansen, Mogens Herman, ed. (the 250th anniversary of The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, July 1–4, 1992), "The Ancient Greek City-State", Acts (Symposium), Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 1 (67), Copenhagen: The Copenhagen Polis Centre  .
  • Hansen, Mogens Herman, ed. (August 24–27, 1994), "Sources for The Ancient Greek City-State", Acts (symposium), Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 2 (72), Copenhagen: The Copenhagen Polis Centre .
  • Hansen, Mogens Herman, ed. (August 23–26, 1995), "Introduction to an Inventory of Poleis", Acts (symposium), Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk- filosofiske Meddelelser 3 (74), Copenhagen: The Copenhagen Polis Centre .
  • ——— (August 29–31, 1996), "The Polis as an Urban Centre and as a Political Community", Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre (symposium), Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 4 (75), Copenhagen .
  • Hansen, Mogens Herman, ed. (January 9, 1998), "Polis and City-State. An Ancient Concept and its Modern Equivalent", Acts (symposium), Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 5 (76), Copenhagen: The Copenhagen Polis Centre .
  • Hansen, Mogens Herman, ed. (January 7–10, 2004), "The imaginary polis. Symposium", Acts, Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 7 (91), Copenhagen: The Copenhagen Polis Centre .
  • Mogens Herman Hansen & Kurt Raaflaub (edd), Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 2, Stuttgart: Steiner 1995 (Historia Einzelschriften 95)
  • Mogens Herman Hansen & Kurt Raaflaub (edd), More Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 3, Stuttgart: Steiner 1996 (Historia Einzelschriften 108)
  • The Copenhagen Polis Center
  • Berent Moshe. "Greece: The Stateless Polis (11th-4th Centuries B.C.)". In Grinin L. E. et al. (eds.) The Early State, Its Alternatives and Analogues (pp. 364–387). Volgograd, Uchitel, 2004 The early State, Its Alternatives and Analogues ISBN 9785705705474
  • Vliet, E. van der Polis. The Problem of Statehood. Social Evolution & History 4(2), September 2005 (pp. 120–150) Polis. The Problem of Statehood