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The Emergence of the City-State

The reasons for the change in Greek politics represented by the gradual emergence of the city-state1 in the Archaic Age remain controversial. An insurmountable difficulty to forming a clear interpretation of this complex process is that the surviving evidence for the change mainly concerns Athens, which was not a typical city-state in significant aspects, as in the large size of its population. Much of what we can say about the reasons for the emergence of the city-state therefore applies solely to Athens. Other city-states certainly emerged under varying conditions and with different results. Nevertheless, it seems possible to draw some general conclusions about the slow process through which city-states began to emerge starting around 750 B.C.

The economic revival of the Archaic Age and the growth in the population of Greece evident by the eighth century B.C. certainly gave momentum to the process. Men who managed to acquire substantial property from success in agriculture or commerce could now demand a greater say in political affairs from the hereditary aristocrats, who claimed status based on their family lines. Theognis of Megara, a sixth-century poet whose verses also reflect earlier conditions, gave voice to the distress of aristocrats at the emergence of new avenues to social and political influence: “... men today prize possessions, and noble men marry into “bad” [that is, non-aristocratic] families and “bad” men into noble families. Riches have mixed up lines of breeding ... and the good breeding of the citizens is becoming obscured.” The increase in population in this era probably came mostly in the ranks of the non-aristocratic poor. Such families raised more children, who could help to farm more land, which had been empty for the taking after the depopulation of the early Dark Age. Like the Zeus of Hesiod's Theogony , who acted in response to the injustice of Kronos2, the growing number of poorer non-aristocrats apparently reacted against what they saw as unacceptable inequity in the leadership of aristocrats, who sometimes acted as if they were petty kings in their local territory and dispensed what seemed “crooked”3 justice to those with less wealth and power. This concern for equity and fairness gave a direction to the social and political pressures created by the growth of the population.

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