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The Characteristics of the City-state (Polis)

Polis, from which we derive our term “politics,” is usually translated as “city-state” to emphasize its difference from what we today normally think of as a city. As in many earlier states in the ancient Near East, the polis included not just an urban center, often protected by stout walls in later centuries, but also countryside for some miles around with its various small settlements. Members of the polis, then, lived both in the town at its center and also in the villages scattered around its territory.1 Presiding over the polis as protector and patron was a particular god, as, for example, Athena at Athens2. Different communities could chose the same deity as their protector; Sparta, Athens' chief rival3 in the Classical period, also had Athena as its patron god4. The members of a polis constituted a religious association obliged to honor the state's patron deity as well as the community's other gods. The community expressed official homage and respect to the gods through its cults, which were regular sets of public religious activities overseen by citizens serving as priests and priestesses and paid for at public expense. The central ritual of a city-state's cults was the sacrifice5 of animals to demonstrate to the gods as divine protectors the respect and piety of the members of the polis.

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