Greek Polis

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The Polis

"The polis was a complex hierarchical society built around the notion of citizenship. It was made up of hundreds or even thousands of independent peasant households… All citizens had a share in the polis..." (Morris) Originally, the polis referred to a defensible area to which farmers of a particular area could retreat in the event of an attack. This defensible hill became known as an acropolis. The Acropolis in Athens is one example. Over time, towns grew around these defensible areas, and developed into the polis. The poleis were situated well inland to avoid raids by sea. With time, the agora, or marketplace, began to appear within the polis. The agora was not only a marketplace but the heart of Greek intellectual life and discourse. The word polis means city, but it was much more than that to the Greek citizen. It was the central focus of a citizen's political, religious, cultural, and civil life. Since poleis were so isolated from each other by mountains, they became largely self-sufficient communities.

In determining what a polis was and what its goals were, one can turn to Aristotle's idea of a polis: "It is clear, therefore, that a polis is not an association for residence on a common site, or for the sake of preventing mutual injustice and easing exchange. These are indeed conditions which must be present before a polis can exist; but the presence of all these conditions is not enough, in itself, to constitute a polis. What constitutes a polis is an association of households and clans in a good life, for the sake of attaining a perfect and self-sufficing existence." Aristotle says that the polis exists "for the sake of a good life." (Aristotle) The polis did not exist just because people lived in the same physical vicinity and had to have some sort of government. The polis was dedicated to the pursuit of a "good life." This good life was conceived of in terms of the people having a say in the laws that governed them as well as the polis assisting them with a strong connection to the gods. There were many institutions within the Greek polis. Two institutions that aided "the good life" were religion and government. Religion was a notable institution of a Greek polis. The object of polis religion was practical. Its most important function was to guarantee the good will of the gods and thereby the survival of the city. The religion of the polis was a collection of cults and rituals specific to each polis. Each polis had its own practices and spiritual emphases, as was defined by the polis. Although the different poleis worshipped the same gods, what differed was the precise expression of the cult. (The main Greek gods were the twelve Olympians, Zeus, his wife Hera, Poseidon, Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, and Hestia. Other important deities included Hebe, Helios, Hades, Dionysus, Persephone and Heracles. Clearly, the ancient Greeks had a large pool of gods to choose to worship.) Each Greek state had its own calendar of festivals, its own gods and goddesses, spirits, and mythology. In addition, there were the cults and legends of its heroes and of the ancestors of its families. Clearly, no two Greek poleis had the exact same religious practices. To emphasize the different practices of each polis, one could only take part in the religious ceremonies of their own polis. If one visited the sacra of another polis, they could only participate as a xenos, or foreigner. Greeks of different poleis did come together for religious reasons, however. Athletic contests in honor of the gods especially emphasized the Greeks' unity as a people. Of course, the most famous of these were the Olympic Games held every four years in honor of the god Zeus. During these games a truce was called between all Greek poleis, allowing Greeks to travel in peace to the games, even through hostile states. Festivals celebrating the gods also brought polis...
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