To Home Page
To Course Notes Menu

The Archaic Age and the Rise of the Polis
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Suggested Background Reading

The Dark Ages. With the fall of the Mycenaean palaces, Greece entered into the period of decline known as the Dark Ages. Greek myth recalls the turbulent nature of these times in its stories of the woes of the Greek heroes on their return from Troy, but the principal cause of the differences between Bronze Age Greece and the Greece of Homer's day, according to tradition, was the so-called *Dorian Invasion. The Dorians were said to be the descendants of *Heracles (known today by his Latin name, Hercules — a hero celebrated by all Greeks but associated in particular with the Peloponnese). The children of Heracles had been driven from Greece by the evil king Eurystheus (king of Mycenae and Tiryns, who compelled Heracles to undertake his famous labors) but eventually returned to reclaim their patrimony by force. [FN 1] (Some scholars regard the myth of the Dorians as a distant memory of historical invaders who overthrew the Mycenaean civilization.) The Dorians were said to have conquered virtually all of Greece, with the exception of Athens and the islands of the Aegean. The pre-Dorian populations from other parts of Greece were said to have fled eastward, many of them relying on the help of Athens.

If you examine a linguistic map of Greece in the classical period, you can see evidence for just the sort of population shifts recalled by the myth of the Dorians. In the area known as Arcadia (an extremely rugged area in the north-central Peloponnese: see The World of Athens, map 2) and on the island of Cyprus there survived an archaic dialect of Greek very like that on the Linear B tablets. Presumably these isolated backwaters were left undisturbed and so preserved a form of Greek similar to the dialect spoken in the Greece of the Bronze Age. In Northwest Greece (roughly, Phocis, Locris, Aetolia, and Acarnania — on Map 2 of The World of Athens) and the remainder of the Peloponnese, two very closely related dialects were spoken, known respectively as Northwest Greek and Doric. Here we seem to see evidence of the Dorian invaders, who successfully reduced or drove out the pre-Dorian populations and so left their linguistic imprint on the region. (For a Greek of the 5th century, the term "Doric" or "Dorian" was a virtual synonym for "Peloponnesian" and/or "Spartan.") In Boeotia and Thessaly (both of which enjoyed lands quite fertile and easy to work by Greek standards) were found mixed dialects, the result of a Doric admixture being introduced into an older dialect of Greek known as Aeolic. Here, it seems, the invaders met with successful resistance, resulting in a union of the original inhabitants with the Dorian invaders. In Attica and Euboea, however, we find a form of Greek known as Attic, yet another descendant of the Greek of the Bronze Age, which shows no Doric influence. Here the story of Athens' successful resistance of the Dorian invaders seems to be borne out. If you examine the dialects of the Aegean islands and Asia Minor, further confirmation of the myth appears: in northern Asia Minor and the island of Lesbos we find the Aeolic dialect (presumably brought by inhabitants of Thessaly and Boeotia who were fleeing the Dorians); in south-central Asia Minor and the southern islands of the Aegean we find the Ionic dialect, a direct cousin of Attic, presumably brought by people fleeing from Euboea or elsewhere with the help of Athens. (Hence south-central Asia Minor is known as *Ionia: see The World of Athens, map 5.) On Crete, the southernmost islands of the Aegean, and the most southerly part of Asia Minor, however, the Doric dialect predominated.

An alternative explanation would have the Greeks of the 11th to 10th centuries migrating eastward drawn by the abundant resources of Asia Minor and the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Hittite empire and other centers (such as Troy).

[This explanation accounts more readily for the Doric settlements in the south Aegean, which seem to have occurred in tandem with the Aeolic and Ionic migrations further north. On this view the Dorians were less invaders than migratory peoples drawn by the vacuum created by the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization: see, in general, Carl Blegen, The Mycenaean Age: The Trojan War, the Dorian Invasion and other Problems.]

It was the Greek outposts in Asia Minor and the islands that witnessed the beginnings of what was to become classical Greek civilization. These areas were relatively peaceful and settled; more important, they had direct contact with the wealthy, more sophisticated cultures of the east. Inspired by these cross-cultural contacts, the Greek settlements of Asia Minor and the islands saw the birth of Greek art, architecture, religious and mythological traditions, law, philosophy, and poetry, all of which received direct inspiration from the Near East and Egypt. (You will find, for example, that the earliest known Greek poets and philosophers are associated with Asia Minor and the islands. Most prominent of all is Homer, whose poetry is composed in a highly artificial mixed dialect but is predominately Ionic. For Greek art in this period, see The World of Athens 7.66-74.) In the classical period, the Greeks themselves acknowledged the split between the highly refined and cultured "Ionic" Greeks of Asia Minor and the less refined, but more disciplined "Dorians" of the Peloponnese. Athens, situated between the two, lay claim to the best of both traditions, boasting that it combined Ionic grace and sophistication with Doric virility.

See, further, Thomas Martin's essay on The Early Greek Dark Age and Revival in the Near East (Perseus).

To top of this page

The Rise of the Polis and Attendant Socio-Economic Strains. It is not until c. the 9th century that mainland Greece begins to recover from the disruptions of the so-called Dark Ages. It is this period (roughly the 9th to 8th centuries) that sees the rise of that quintessentially Greek institution, the city-state or *polis (plural: poleis). The term city-state is intended to capture the unique features of the Greek polis, which combined elements of both the modern city and the modern independent country. The typical polis consisted of a relatively modest urban center (the polis proper, often built around some form of natural citadel), which controlled the neighboring countryside, with its various towns and villages. (Thus, e.g., Athens controlled an area of some 2,500 sq. km., known as *Attica. To the north, the polis of Thebes dominated Boeotia. Sparta controlled the southwest Peloponnese, and so on.) As opposed to the Mycenaean palaces, which were largely administrative centers and political seats, the polis proper was a true urban center, but it was nothing like the modern city. In this early period, most of the inhabitants made their livelihood by farming or raising livestock in the neighboring countryside. There was little in the way of manufacturing or of today's "service industries" to allow one to make a living "in town." Population density was low [FN 2] and buildings modest. Initially, at least, political and economic power rested firmly with a few powerful landed families.

The two features that most distinguish the Greek polis are its isolation and its fierce independence. Unlike the Romans, the Greeks never mastered the art of political accommodation and union. Although temporary alliances were common, no polis ever succeeded in expanding its power beyond its own relatively meager boundaries for more than a brief period. (Eventually, this leads to the end of Greek independence, since the smaller poleis could not hope to defend themselves against the powerful forces of Macedon and, later, Rome.) Scholars usually attribute this failure to the historical and geographical conditions under which the polis arose. For the most part, Greece is a very rugged country of mountains, dotted here and there with arable plains. It is in these modest plains, isolated from one another by mountain ranges, that the early poleis first arose, usually in areas with access to fresh water (often scarce in Greece, particularly in the summer months) and the sea. Although the Mycenaeans had established a network of roads, few existed in this period, for reasons we will get to in a moment. Most travel and trade was conducted by sea. [Even under the Roman empire, with its sophisticated network of excellent roads, it was less expensive to ship a load of goods from one end of the Mediterranean to the other than to cart it 75 miles inland.] Thus these early communities initially developed in relative isolation from one another. This geographical isolation came to be reinforced by the competitive nature of Greek society. The early poleis, in effect, operated according to the same set of competitive values that drive Homer's heroes. Their constant quest for timê placed them in continual opposition to one another. In fact, Greek history can be viewed as a series of temporary, continually shifting alliances between the various poleis in a constant effort to prevent any one polis from rising to prominence: Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes unite to topple Athens; Athens and Thebes then unite to topple Sparta; then Sparta and Athens unite against Thebes, and so forth. In such a volatile political climate, the last thing that anyone wants is an easy system of land communication, since the same road that gives you easy access to your neighbor will give your neighbor's armies easy access to you.

As the eastern Mediterranean began to recover from the collapse of the Bronze Age, trade began to grow, contacts were reestablished between the various cultures of the region, and the various poleis flourished. As their populations grew and their economies became more diverse, however, the established political, social, and legal mechanisms of the poleis became inadequate: traditions that had sufficed for the simple, relatively small agrarian communities of the Dark Ages simply could not cope with the increasing complexities of the emergent polis. The first problem was increased population (although this theory has been challenged of late). The modest farms of the typical polis could not support a significant "urban" population; moreover, the increased population left many younger sons with no property to inherit (and therefore no means of earning a traditional livelihood), since the family farm was usually passed down to the eldest son and good land was scarce in any case. The second factor to consider is changes in the economy and resultant changes in society. Originally, the economy of the polis was primarily agrarian, as we have seen, and it was to remain so, to a large extent, throughout the Classical period. This meant that, early on, economic and political power was confined to a relatively small number of wealthy landowners who would have served as powerful advisors to the king (in poleis governed by a monarchy) or, elsewhere, as members of the ruling aristocratic oligarchy. In the course of the 8th century, however, various factors began to undermine the authority of these traditional aristocracies. The rise of trade provided an alternate route to wealth and influence. Concomitant with this was the introduction of coinage (c. the mid-7th century) and the transition from the older barter economies to a money economy. Trade also led to the rise (on a very modest scale, by modern standards) of manufacture. Thus individuals could accrue wealth and influence that was not based on land or birth. Moreover, the rise of urban centers undermined the influence of the traditional nobility by severing the local bonds that had tied smaller farmers to the local lord or baron: the polis provided a context in which non-aristocrats could gather to speak with a unified voice. This voice was given added authority by changes in military tactics: in the 7th century armies came to rely more and more on a formation known as the *phalanx — a dense formation of heavily-armored soldiers (known as *hoplites: see The World of Athens, ill. HI 9) who would advance in close-packed ranks, each soldier holding a round shield on his left arm (designed to protect both him and the soldier to his immediate left) and a long thrusting spear in his right hand (see The World of Athens, ill. HI 4; for a general account of warfare in classical Greece, see The World of Athens, chapter 6). Unlike the older tactics, which had involved individuals battling on foot or on horseback, this style of fighting relied upon large numbers of well-drilled citizen-soldiers. The defense of the polis came to rest more on the willing participation of its propertied citizens (known, collectively, as the *demos or "common people") and less on the whim of its traditional aristocracy.

All of these changes led to a loosening of the control wielded by the traditional aristocracies and the rise of various challenges to their authority, both from the demos and from those individuals who had newly risen to prominence through untraditional means. As we will see when we turn to Athens, the radical economic and social changes outlined above meant difficult times for all, but particularly for the poorer classes, and discontent was rampant. A power struggle ensued, with various prominent individuals striving to win political advancement and personal timê. In many poleis, the losers in these struggles incited revolutions, posing as the friends of the demos in the latter's struggles against the traditional political and economic order. When successful, these individuals overthrew the traditional governments and established personal dictatorships. Such a ruler is known as a *tyrannos (plural: tyrannoi). The word gives us the English "tyrant," but the connection is largely misleading. A tyrannos is a ruler who rises to power by posing as a champion of the demos and maintains his position by a combination of popular measures (designed to placate the demos) and various degrees of force (e.g., the banishment of political rivals, the use of hostages kept under house arrest, the maintenance of a personal body guard — all designed, mainly, to keep his aristocratic rivals in line). These tyrannoi were not themselves commoners but quite wealthy men, usually of noble birth, who had resorted to "popular" measures as a means of overcoming their political foes. In 5th and 4th century Athens, with its strongly democratic traditions, it became common to portray the tyrannoi as vicious autocrats ("tyrants" in the modern English sense), but in fact many of them were relatively benign rulers who promoted needed political and economic reforms.

See, further, Thomas Martin's essays on Remaking Greek Civilization and The Archaic Age (Perseus).

To top of this page

Colonization. In order to head off revolution and the rise of a tyrannos, various poleis began to adopt measures designed to ease the social and economic hardships exploited by the tyrannoi in their bid for power. One measure that became increasingly popular, beginning c. 750-725, was the use of colonization. A polis (or a group of poleis) would send out colonists to found a new polis. The colony thus founded would have strong religious and emotional ties to its mother city, but was an independent political entity. This practice served a variety of purposes. First, it eased the pressure of overpopulation. Second, it provided a means of removing the politically or financially disaffected, who could hope for a better lot in their new home. It also provided useful trading outposts, securing important sources of raw materials and various economic opportunities. Finally, colonization opened up the world to the Greeks, introducing them to other peoples and cultures and giving them a new sense of those traditions that bound them to one another, for all of their apparent differences.

The principal areas of colonization were: (1) southern Italy and Sicily; (2) the Black Sea region. Many of the poleis involved in these early efforts at colonization were cities that, in the classical period, were relatively obscure — an indication of just how drastically the economic and political changes entailed in the transition from Dark Age to Archaic Greece affected the fortunes of the various poleis.

(1) Southern Italy and Sicily. [FN 3] The fertile resources of this region attracted intensive colonization, beginning c. the third quarter of the 8th century with the foundation of Cyme (near Naples), a colony of Chalcis, Eretria, and Cyme — neighboring poleis on the island of Euboea. [Originally the colonists settled on the island of Pithecusae, just off the coast of Cyme. They later established the settlements that were to become Puteoli and Naples (originally: "Neapolis" — the "New City").] Colonization in the following years led to the area of southern Italy and eastern Sicily becoming, in effect, an extension of Greece itself, which it was to remain until the rise of Rome in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. Thus this region came to be known (in Latin) as *Magna Graecia or "Great Greece," rather as we today speak of the "greater metropolitan" area of a major city. Settlement was limited by the other two great powers in the region: Carthage (which controlled western Sicily, Sardinia, and the coastal regions of Spain and Africa) and the Etruscans (who dominated northern Italy: today we still refer to the body of water off the west coast of Italy as the Tyrrhenian Sea, "Tyrrhenian" being the Greek for "Etruscan"). The other important Greek settlements in the region were: a) Syracuse (founded by Corinth and for many years one of the most powerful cities in the region), b) Corcyra (another colony of Corinth, off the northwest coast of Greece — a strategic settlement given the nature of Greek shipping [which tended to hug the coast rather than risk the open sea] since Corcyra provided the perfect jumping off point for sailors heading to Italy), c) Sybaris (on the west coast of Italy at the narrowest point of the Italian peninsula, where it controlled the most direct east-west land route through Italy; Sybaris was noted for its wild ways [rather like some towns of the Old West in the United States], to the degree that the adjective "sybaritic" today still denotes a wildly luxuriant and profligate lifestyle), and d) Massilia (modern Marseilles, a colony of Phocis).

The colonies in Magna Graecia played a crucial role in the development of western culture. Through the close contacts between these colonies, on the one hand, and the local Italian populations, the Etruscans and, later, the Romans, on the other, Greek culture (its myths, religious views, alphabet, literary and philosophical traditions, art) came to pervade Italy, leaving a profound imprint on Roman culture and, through the Romans, on the West. (Thus, to pick just one example, Roman mythology is largely Greek mythology in another guise.) In fact, our word "Greek" itself derives from the Romans. The Greeks of the classical period (like Greeks today) referred to themselves as Hellenes (after their name for their homeland, *Hellas). However, a contingent of the colonists at Cyme came from an obscure place known as Graia (an area near Tanagra, just opposite Chalcis and Eretria on the Greek mainland). Somehow the local Italian populations came to refer to the settlers at Cyme as Graii, later transformed into the Latin form Graeci, whence modern English "Greek."

(2) The Black Sea Region. Numerous colonies were established as well along the shores of the Sea of Marmara (where colonization was particularly dense) and the southern and western shores of the Black Sea. The main colonizers were Megara, Miletus, and Chalcis. The most important colony (and one of the earliest) was that of Byzantium (modern Istanbul, founded in 660). Greek myth preserves a number of tales concerning this region (perhaps the distant echoes of stories told by the earliest Greeks to explore the area) in the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, who sail to Colchis (on the far eastern shores of the Black Sea) in search of the Golden Fleece. The adventures of Jason came to be celebrated in epic quite early: several of Odysseus' adventures in the Odyssey seem to be based on tales originally told of Jason.

See, further, Thomas Martin's essay on Early Colonization (Perseus).

To top of this page

Alcaeus. We get interesting glimpses of the turmoil that beset the various city-states in the fragments of the lyric poets Alcaeus and Theognis. (For a general introduction to the lyric poets, see next unit.) Alcaeus is a poet of the late 7th-early 6th century from the city of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos (see Map 2 in The World of Athens). He was an aristocrat whose family got caught up in the political turmoil of Mytilene when the traditional rulers, the unpopular Penthilidae, were toppled. The Penthilidae were replaced by a series of tyrannoi. The first of these, Melanchrus, was overthrown in c. 612-609 B.C. by a coalition of nobles led by Pittacus and supported by Alcaeus' brothers. (Alcaeus himself seems to have been too young to join them at the time.) A war with Athens over the city of Sigeum (near Troy) followed (c. 607 B.C.), in which Alcaeus played a part. At about this time, a new tyrannos, Myrsilus, came to power and ruled for about fifteen years (c. 605-590). Alcaeus and his brothers joined with Pittacus once again, only to see the latter desert their cause and go over to the side of Myrsilus, perhaps even ruling jointly with him for a time. Myrsilus' death in 590 is celebrated by Alcaeus in frg. 332; unfortunately for Alcaeus, Myrsilus' rule was followed by that of Pittacus (c. 590-580), who is said to have introduced a period of peace and prosperity but who won no thanks from Alcaeus for doing so. In the course of these various struggles, Alcaeus and his brothers were exiled on more than one occasion: we get a glimpse of his distress in frg. 130B. Other fragments employ the ship of state metaphor (perhaps original to Alcaeus) to express the confused and uncertain state of affairs in Mytilene (frgs. 6 and 208): here we can perhaps detect a particular reference to the constantly shifting political alliances among the upper classes and the attendant shifts in the balance of power. In general, Alcaeus' career reveals something of the intense competition among the nobility to gain power amid the political and social chaos that attended the rise of the city state. (Cf. the discussion of Alcaeus under The Greek Lyric Poets.)

Theognis. Theognis reveals a different feature of the lot of the traditional nobility. Theognis comes from Megara, between Athens and Corinth, at the northern end of the Saronic Gulf. Theognis' date is subject to dispute: the traditional dates would place his poetic activity in the late 6th and early 5th century; the current tendency is to assign him a date some 50 to 75 years earlier, making him a younger contemporary of Solon. We know relatively little of Theognis' life other than what he tells us, but are fortunate to have a significant amount of his poetry. He is the only one of the lyric poets we will read who is represented by a proper manuscript tradition (see next unit on the lyric poets): what we possess is a lengthy anthology of short poems making up some 1,400 lines, a good number of which are not, however, by Theognis. The genuine poems are clearly marked by the author's aristocratic outlook. Most of them are addressed to a boy named Cyrnus, to whom Theognis holds a relationship that is partially that of mentor, partially that of lover. This relationship was common among the aristocracies of many Greek cities and comprised a form of paideia or education (see The World of Athens 3.21-24): the older lover was expected to pass along to his younger companion the traditional attitudes and values of the nobility or "good men" (*agathoi).

[The adjective agathos (pl. agathoi) has both moral and socio-economic implications: to be agathos is to be "good" — i.e. "upright," "honorable," "successful" — but the term also is used, like our "noble," to denote the members of the traditional aristocracy. In a similar fashion, the term kakos (pl. kakoi) means both "wicked" and "base" or "low born." Theognis' use of these and related terms is indicative of his aristocratic bias.]

Thus in lines 19-30 (which seems intended to introduce the collection as a whole) Theognis announces that to Cyrnus he "will give kindly counsel — the very sort I myself / learned, Cyrnus, from the agathoi while still a child."

Read the Selections from Theognis in the collection of translations of Classical authors.

The poems presented in these selections display Theognis' despair and resentment at the changes that are occurring around him. He sees a society in which financial worth has replaced birth as the qualification for membership among the agathoi, to the detriment of his own standing. He maintains the aristocrat's firm conviction that the traditional nobility are innately superior to the common mob (the kakoi), whom he portrays as nearly sub-human — the prey of mindless passions, incapable of rational thought or reasoned political discourse.


[FN 1] These Dorian descendants of Heracles are often referred to by the Greek term Heraclidae, or "Heraclids." [Return to text]

[FN 2] In 431 B.C., at the height of the Athenian empire, it is estimated that the population of Attica (the territory controlled by Athens, which was the most populous of the city-states) numbered c. 300,000-350,000 people. [Return to text]

[FN 3] For an interesting general article on Greek settlements in southern Italy and Sicily, see National Geographic vol. 186, no. 5 for November of 1994. [Return to text]

Top of Page : Course Notes Page : Home Page

These pages were designed by John Porter.
Last Modified: Wednesday, 11-Nov-2009 23:24:52 CST
Please send queries and comments to