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The Greek Polis

The ancient Greece in the Archaic period (800 BCE – 480 BCE) has established a new kind of social and political entity, the polis or the city-state. They were the centers of artistic, political, and commercial activity. The Polis of Sparta was a forerunner of oligarchy characterized by equal division of property among citizens. The Polis of Athens’ political democracy widened the definition of a citizen with the inclusion of people outside of the nobler classes, and peasants were given access to government as well as the wealthy. (J.B. 1)

Polis is distinctly characterized by its small size. This characteristic allowed experimentation in its political structure and democracy, which was always relevant to a small portion of the population consisting of free, adult, male citizens, small enough to form efficient policy decisions. Polis is important in the evolution of European political structures by the word “political”, which etymologically means “of or relating to the polis.” (Hooker 1)

The core concept of its justice system was the insonomia, or “equality before the law.” This concept was not always achieved and its establishment was only after periods of conflict and tyranny. (King 3)Yet, its development contributed to the modern notions of justice from the foundations laid by leaders like Pericles, Solon, and Cleisthenes in building the Greek democracy.

The economy of Greek poleis’ was based on slave labor, as believed that slaves are suited for their servitude. Non-citizens and foreign merchants do not have basic social privileges as having positions or owning a house or a piece of land. Public life in the polis was an exclusively male dominated sphere. Oikos or household is the fundamental unit of the private life. Only men have the right to participate in the government as they were in charge of the oikos, where women were confined. Women who married at a young age lived in small, crowded houses and were not allowed to go to school. Only the hetaerae, or courtesans were given access to education, but their knowledge were expected only to be used to serve men. This misogyny is manifested in Greek cultural achievements particularly in the arts where male prowess is glorified along with hostility toward women. (King 4) Contemporary ideas about literature, poetry, drama, and architecture were brainchild of artists born from these city-states.


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