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Citizenship and the City-state

A polis was independent of its neighbors and had political unity among its settlements. Together the members of these settlements made up a community of citizens comprising a political state, and it was this partnership among citizens1 that represented the distinctive political characteristic of the polis. Only men had the rights of political participation, but women still counted as citizens of the community legally, socially, and religiously. The Greeks may have been influenced in the organization of the polis by their contacts with the Near East, where the city-monarchies of Cyprus and the states of Phoenicia, situated on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, provided possible precedents. The distinctiveness of citizenship as an organizing concept was that it assumed in theory certain basic levels of legal equality2, essentially the expectation of equal treatment under the law, with the exception that different regulations could apply to women in certain areas of life such as acceptable sexual behavior and the control of property. But the general legal equality that the polis provided was not dependent on a citizen's wealth. Since pronounced social differentiation between rich and poor had characterized the history of the ancient Near East and Greece of the Mycenaean Age and had once again become common in Greece by the late Dark Age, it is remarkable that a notion of some sort of legal equality, no matter how incomplete it may have been in practice, came to serve as the basis for the reorganization of Greek society in the Archaic Age. The polis based on citizenship remained the preeminent form of political and social organization in Greece from the time of its earliest appearance about 750 B.C. until the beginning of the Roman Empire eight centuries later. The other most common new form of political organization in Greece was the ethnos 3 (“league” or “federation”), a flexible form of association over a broad territory which was itself sometimes composed of city-states.

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  • Cross-references in notes to this page (1):
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, The Archaic Age
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