In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Polis

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • The Origins of the Polis
  • The Archaic Polis
  • The Classical Polis
  • The Post-classical Polis
  • The Hellenistic Polis
  • The Polis in the Roman Empire and Beyond
  • Particular Poleis and Regions
  • Citizens and Noncitizens
  • Civic Organization and Institutions
  • New Cities
  • Law and Punishment
  • Civic Ideology
  • Economics and Finance
  • Religion
  • Social and Cultural Life
  • Disorder and Civil Strife (stasis)
  • The Physical Polis
  • The Imaginary Polis
  • Modern Theoretical Approaches to the Polis
  • The Polis in Later European Culture

Classics Polis
Benjamin Gray
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0223


The polis (plural poleis), or city-state, was the dominant political unit in the ancient Greek world. It was commonly agreed that a polis is a community of citizens organized under a constitution, usually based in an urban center. The polis phenomenon endured throughout Antiquity, from the Archaic period onward. Although Hellenistic monarchies and then the Roman Empire came to dominate the Greek world after the Classical period (from c. 337 BCE onward), poleis remained vital and influential parts of the political landscape, as much recent scholarship on relevant periods has emphasized. At any one time across that span many hundreds of poleis could be found across the Greek world, many of which had very small populations (perhaps only a few thousand adult male citizens, plus their dependents and slaves and some resident foreigners). Much of the evidence for the classical polis (c. 480–337 BCE) derives from the Athenian democracy. The Athenian democracy therefore features prominently in this article. For later periods in particular, however, the range of evidence creates great scope, much still unexplored, for research into the nature and development of the polis across a very wide geographical span, something which this article attempts to bring out. Although this article concentrates on the physical and practical aspects of poleis, attention is also given to studies of the role of the polis as an ideal, metaphor, or framework for thought in Greek philosophy and literature. This article places an overall emphasis on more recent studies, but most of the works cited can be consulted for references to earlier bibliography. In the thematic sections (e.g., on economics and religion), the focus is on works that directly address the relation between the polis and those areas of life. It is stated in the annotations when a work is particularly accessible or valuable for undergraduates, but most of the items that are included can be read with profit by advanced undergraduates and postgraduates.

General Overviews

These volumes provide a wide-ranging overview of the character and development of the Greek polis. Hansen 2006 gives a basic introduction to the ways in which the ancient Greeks conceived of the polis. The papers in Hansen 1993 and Hansen 1997 offer a good introduction to the polis in theory and practice and to the development of the polis in different periods. For the post-classical period, Jones 1940 and Rostovtzeff 1941 still offer wide-ranging and stimulating, and competing, syntheses. The papers collected in Murray and Price 1990, Flensted-Jensen, et al. 2000, and Brock and Hodkinson 2000 offer a good sense of the diversity of forms that the polis could take. All three volumes, especially Brock and Hodkinson 2000, also reveal how it is possible to use the available evidence to look beyond classical Athens in building up a picture of the complexity of the polis phenomenon across the Greek world.

  • Brock, R., and S. Hodkinson, eds. 2000. Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of political organisation and community in ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A stimulating collection of articles about the variety of forms of political organization adopted by Greek communities across the Mediterranean in the Archaic and classical periods. Structures discussed include diverse polis constitutions and political cultures, but also non-polis structures, especially ethnic and federal ones.

  • Flensted-Jensen, P., T. Heine Nielsen, and L. Rubinstein, eds. 2000. Polis and politics: Studies in ancient Greek history presented to Mogens Herman Hansen on his sixtieth birthday, August 20, 2000. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

    This volume collects many useful studies of aspects of the history of Greek civic politics and political institutions as well as some interesting papers challenging orthodox interpretations.

  • Hansen, M. H., ed. 1993. 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. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy.

    The chapters in this volume constitute a useful chronological survey of the development of the polis in different periods. Studies of particular periods or phenomena are accompanied by discussions of Greek ideas about the polis and its relationship with society and the economy.

  • Hansen, M. H., ed. 1997. The polis as an urban centre and political community. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy.

    In this collection of papers, the authors analyze the polis as a physical, urban entity, with an often complex geographical and demographic structure. It includes a range of regional case studies.

  • Hansen, M. H. 2006. Polis: An introduction to the ancient Greek city-state. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An accessible introduction to the institutions and history of the polis, suitable for all students, that gives a sense of the geographical extent of the phenomenon and the variety of its forms. It also offers a useful introduction to questions of civic population and demography.

  • Jones, A. H. M. 1940. The Greek city from Alexander to Justinian. Oxford: Clarendon.

    A classic history of the development and spread of the Greek city after the classical period, with good treatment of social and economic issues and the role of the polis in the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic Near East. Jones often emphasizes decline and crisis in the post-classical polis, in a way now often challenged.

  • Murray, O., and S. R. F. Price. 1990. The Greek city from Homer to Alexander. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A collection of influential and thought-provoking articles about how to interpret the Archaic and classical polis, drawing extensively on anthropology, political theory, and the social sciences.

  • Rostovtzeff, M. I. 1941. The social and economic history of the Hellenistic world. Oxford: Clarendon.

    A classic, wide-ranging survey of the social and economic history of the Hellenistic world (from Alexander to Augustus) across the eastern Mediterranean, that pays much attention to civic life. It often offers a more optimistic view of the post-classical polis than Jones 1940. Scholars have challenged many of its arguments, such as its identification of something like a Hellenistic civic bourgeoisie, but it remains a central work.

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