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A polis (πόλις, pronunciation [pó], ['pɒl.ɪs] in English)-- plural: poleis (πόλεις, pronunciation [pól.eːs], ['pɒl.eɪz] in English) --is a city, a city-state and also citizenship and body of citizens. When used to describe Classical Athensmarker and its contemporaries, polis is often translated as "city-state."

The word originates from the 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 Tyremarker or Sidonmarker, 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 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 didn't refer to Athensmarker, Spartamarker, Thebesmarker and other poleis as such; they rather spoke 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.

The Ancient Greek term which specifically meant the totality of urban buildings and spaces was ἄστυ (IPA: ásty).

Archaic and Classical polis

Basic and indicating elements are:
  • Self-governance, autonomy and independence (city-state)
  • Agora (social and economical market place)
  • Acropolis citadel, which now bears a temple instead of the Mycenaean palace.
  • Greek urban planning and architecture (see Hippodamian plan)
  • Greek temples , one or more are dedicated to the poliouchos 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)
  • Gymnasium
  • Greek theatre building
  • Coins minted by the city, which bear its own symbols.
  • Colonies being founded by the oikistes of the metropolis
  • Political life, boule council, Greek clubs, Stasis civil strife between aristocrats, oligarchs, democrats and tyrants.
  • Synoecism , conurbation. Absorption of villages 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, and finally gentes.
  • Social classes and citizenship Metics (resident foreigners) and slave lay outside this organization. Birth typically determined citizenship. Polis was frequently divided into three types of inhabitants. The first, and highest, “group” of inhabitants are citizens with political rights. Then there are the citizens without political rights. Lastly there are the non-citizens.

Hellenistic and Roman

During the Hellenistic period, which marks the decline of the classical polis, the following cities remained independent: Spartamarker 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 ) . The Cretanmarker 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 Syracusemarker and Tarentum, were conquered by Rome in late 3rd century BC. There are also some cities with recurring independence like Samosmarker,Prienemarker, Miletusmarker and Athens. A remarkable example of a city-state which flourished during this era is Rhodesmarker through its merchant navy, 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 Miletusmarker enfranchised over 1000 Cretans. (Milet, I, 3, 33-8.) Dyme sold its citizenship for one talent, payable in two instalments. The foreign residents in a city are now called paroikoi. In an age, when most of the establishments in Asia are kingdoms, an interesting example of a Hellenistic cities federation is the Chrysaorian League in Caria.

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

Derived words

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. Some examples are:

Other refer to part of a city or a group of cities, such as:
  • Acropolis, 'high city' — upper part of a polis, often citadel and/or site of major temple(s).
  • Decapolis, a group of ten cities
  • Dodecapolis, a group of twelve cities
  • Pentapolis, a group of five cities
  • Tripolis, a group of three cities, retained in the names of a Tripolimarker in Libyamarker and a namesake in Lebanon


Polis, Cyprus

Located on the north-west coast of Cyprusmarker is the town of Polismarker, or Polis Chrysochous ( ), situated within the Paphos Districtmarker 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, Atticamarker and Corinthmarker. The town is also well known due to its mythological history, including the site of the "Baths of Aphrodite".

Other cities

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:


  1. Polignac, La naissance de la cité grecque (Paris 1984). An attempt to dissociate urbanization from state formation was undertaken by I. Morris, "The early polis as city and state" in J. Rich and A. Wallace-Hadrill, eds., City and Country in the Ancient World (London 1991) pp 27-40.
  2. City government in Hellenistic and Roman Asia minor By Sviatoslav Dmitriev Page 68 ISBN 0195170423 (2005)
  3. Encyclopedia of ancient Greece By Nigel Guy Wilson Page 627 ISBN 9780415973342 (2006)
  4. Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces By Christopher Howgego, Volhker Heuchert, Andrew Burnett Page 158 ISBN 0199237840 (2007)

Further reading

  • Hansen, Mogens Herman. Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-19-920849-2; paperback, ISBN 0-19-920850-6).
  • Mogens Herman Hansen (ed), The Ancient Greek City-State. Symposium on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, July, 1-4 1992. [Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre vol. 1], Copenhagen 1993 (Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 67)
  • Mogens Herman Hansen (ed), Sources for The Ancient Greek City-State. Symposium August, 24-27 1994. Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre vol. 2, Copenhagen 1995 (Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk- filosofiske Meddelelser 72)
  • Mogens Herman Hansen (ed), Introduction to an Inventory of Poleis. Symosium August, 23-26 1995. Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre vol. 3, Copenhagen 1996 (Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk- filosofiske Meddelelser 74)
  • Mogens Herman Hansen, The Polis as an Urban Centre and as a Political Community. Symposium August, 29-31 1996. Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre vol. 4, Copenhagen 1997 (Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk- filosofiske Meddelelser 75)
  • Mogens Herman Hansen (ed), Polis and City-State. An Ancient Concept and its Modern Equivalent. Symposium, January 9, 1998. Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre vol. 5, Copenhagen 1998 (Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 76)
  • Mogens Herman Hansen (ed), The imaginary polis. Symposium, January 7-10, 2004. Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre vol. 7, Copenhagen 2005 (Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 91)
  • 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 M. Greece: The Stateless Polis (11-4 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
  • Vliet, E. van der Polis. The Problem of Statehood. Social Evolution & History 4(2), September 2005 (pp. 120-150) Polis. The Problem of Statehood

See also

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