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Ancient Greek City-States: Internal Organization and Governance

The key provisions of political ideas formulated in ancient Greek and Roman civilizations were constantly developed by subsequent generations. The main unifying principle is that the structural component of both Greek and Roman civilization was the civil community. In Greece this structure of the community was called “Polis”, in Rome, it was defined by the term “Civitas”. The development of Greek society from the patriarchal structures and proto-states of the Homeric era to classical slavery and the ancient democracy reveals some consistency in the development of political life and the change of the forms of organization of the city-states.

The Greek Polis-The most common definition of Greek Polis is a city-state. Greek polices were generally composed of two main parts: the urban center and the surrounding agricultural area called Khora in Greek. The fact that this civilization is urban brings it closer to modern Western civilization. The usual typical Greek policy covered an area of approximately 100-200 square kilometers (Hall, 1998, p. 35). The desired size of the polis was mentioned also by Aristotle- “You cannot make a city of ten men, and if there are a hundred thousand it is a city no longer”. The territory of Athens and Sparta was bigger in comparison with others. The geographical and political isolation of the Polis-they were in the mainland and on the Islands-and an extensive division of labor made it dependent on the export of handcrafts, the import of grain and slaves, and in general, Greek and international marine trade. The sea played a significant role in the life of the ancient Polis. It provided a connection with the outside world, with other polis, colonies, and Eastern countries. The sea and sea trade connected all the city-states in a single Polis system, created an open Greek and Mediterranean political culture and civilization.

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When it comes to internal organization, the ancient Polis was a closed state, beyond which there were not only slaves but also foreigners, even natives of other Greek Polis. For the citizens themselves, the Polis was a kind of political prototype with its own forms of governmental structure, traditions, customs, and laws specific to each of them (Kitto, 1957, p. 78). Polis replaced land and community collectives collapsed under the influence of private property, with a civil and political community. Great differences in economic life, the severity of political oppositions, the historical heritage itself were the reason for the huge diversity of the internal structure of these city-states. But the absolute predominance in the Polis world was of various republican forms such as aristocracy, democracy, oligarchy, plutocracy, etc.

In many Greek city-states, the final establishment of the democratic system was regulated by the usurpation of power by individual rulers-tyrants, usually with an aristocratic background. They commonly used their power to weaken the old aristocratic and patriarchal orders and to protect the interests of the general population of the Polis. Such regimes of personal power, called tyranny, were established in Miletus, Ephesus, Corinth, Athens, Megara and contributed to the establishment of private property and the elimination of the privileges of the aristocracy, the formation of democracy as a system of state, most reflecting the common interests of the civil and political community.

Athens and Sparta: Similarities and Difference-By the VI-V centuries BCE, two of the largest and most militarily strong city-states, Athens and Sparta, were specially mentioned among several hundred ancient Greek policies. The whole subsequent history of the statehood of Ancient Greece can be explained under the sign of the opposition of these two policies. In Athens private property, slavery, market relations were fully developed, a civil community was formed, linking its members with all the differences in their property and political interests into a single integral whole. In other words, ancient democracy reached its peak and became, as evidenced by subsequent history, a huge authoritative force in Athens. However, it was only a limited democracy. In contrast to Athens, Sparta is known in history as a model of an aristocratic military camp state, which in order to suppress the huge mass of the slave population (helots) artificially controlled the development of private property and ineffectively tried to maintain equality among the Spartans (Brand, p. 11). Thus, the rivalry between Athens and Sparta resulted in a kind of competition between two different civil and political communities in Greece. In the history of ancient Greek statehood, the conflict between the two “Polis superpowers” pulled the entire Greek world into a bloody Peloponnesian war, which resulted in the weakening of the Polis system and the fall of democratic institutions. In the end, both Athens and Sparta obeyed to the Macedonian monarchy.

As in all Greek city-states, the most important authority in Athens and Sparta was the People's Assembly. In Sparta it was called “paella”, and in Athens- “ekklesia”. The General Assembly had a wide range of responsibilities. The authorization of the state laws, the declaration about the war and peace, the election of political and military representatives were among the main responsibilities of the Assembly. In Sparta, however, apella played a less significant role than the Athenian Assembly. The members of the apellas did not have the right to discuss policies and laws, but could only accept or reject them, while in Athens the most important task of the People's Assembly was to discuss and approve the state budget. The Assembly in Athens met regularly and at a fixed time, its work was systematic and well-organized. In Sparta, the meetings of apella were arranged occasionally and only by the decision of the officials. In Athens, everyone had the right to submit their bill for discussion and every proposal had to be considered. In Sparta, this was the privilege of the members of the Council of Gerousia and Ephors. The Council of 500 and the Areopagus also played an enormous role in the system of state democracy in Athens. In general, if in Athens, the National Assembly was the body communicating the interests of the majority of Athenian citizens not only formally but also actually, apella supported the interests of the highest social standing.


Based on the characteristics of both city-states, it can be concluded that Athens was an initial model of democracy. The important decisions were made based on the General Assembly of citizens, the main positions were held collegially, and courts were generally elected by the majority. Sparta, on the contrary, established ubiquitously oligarchic regimes with the power of the richest few. Additionally, the Spartans emphasized their equality; the land was in the collective ownership of all citizens and was given to each of the families only for use together with the helots who cultivated it. The civil collective of Sparta was a community of warriors who trained endurance from childhood and constantly maintained their fight capability. Among these two models of governance, the less valuable, to me, is Spartan, since it was military-based and tolerated only warriors, expelling even artists and scientists. It can be said that in Sparta government was oligarchy with some features of a monarchy- rule by two kings until they died, democracy- through the election of the council, and aristocracy -rule by the superior class. When comparing oligarchy and democracy in both cases it was the power of the few, just the composition of the minority was different. Therefore, I think that the reason for the end of the ancient Greek state, in particular, Athens, which became the ideal of a democratic state based on the autonomy of the private owner as a full member of the civil community, is not only slavery but the internal weakness of the Polis system of the state, despite its democratic structure. This device, associated with previously mentioned territorial and political parameters, did not have any room for political development and for further progressive evolution

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