The Ancient Greek City-State

Reference Map of Attica, showing Thermopylae.
Reference Map of Attica, showing Thermopylae. Perry-Castañeda LibraryMap CollectionHistorical Atlas by William R. Shepherd


The polis (plural, poleis) was the ancient Greek city-state. The word politics comes from this Greek word.

In the ancient world, the polis was a nucleus, the central urban area that could also have controlled the surrounding countryside. (The word polis could also refer to the city's body of citizens.)  This surrounding countryside (chora or ge) could also be considered part of the polis. Hansen and Nielsen say there were around 1500 archaic and classical Greek poleis. The region formed by a cluster of poleis, bound geographically and ethnically, was an ethnos (pl. ethne)

Pseudo-Aristotle [Economica I.2] defines the Greek polis as "an assemblage of houses, lands, and property sufficient to enable the inhabitants to lead a civilized life" [Pounds]. It was often a lowland, agricultural central area surrounded by protective hills. It may have started as numerous separate villages that banded together when its mass became large enough to be almost self-sustaining.

The polis of Athens was the urban center of Attica; Thebes of Boeotia; Sparta of the southwestern Peloponnese, etc. At least 343 poleis belonged, at some point, to the Delian League, according to Pounds. Hansen and Nielsen provide a list with member poleis from the regions of Lakonia, the Saronic Gulf (to the west of Corinth), Euboia, the Aegean, Macedonia, Mygdonia, Bisaltia, Chalkidike, Thrace, Pontus, the Pronpontos, Lesbos, Aiolis, Ionia, Karia, Lykia, Rhodes, Pamphyli, Kilikia, and poleis from unlocated regions.

It is common to consider the Greek polis ended at the Battle of Chaironeia, in 338 B.C, but An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis argues that this is based on the assumption that the polis required autonomy and that was not the case. Citizens continued to run their city's business even into the Roman period.

Also Known As: city-state

Examples: The polis of Athens, the largest of the Greek poleis, was the birthplace of democracy. Aristotle saw the household "oikos" as the basic social unit of the polis, according to J. Roy.

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  • An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis, edited by Mogens Herman Hansen and Thomas Heine Nielsen, (Oxford University Press: 2004).
  • An Historical Geography of Europe 450 B.C.-A.D. 1330; by Norman John Greville Pounds. American Council of Learned Societies. Cambridge University Press 1973.
  • "'Polis' and 'Oikos' in Classical Athens," by J. Roy; Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Apr., 1999), pp. 1-18, citing Aristotle's Politics 1253B 1-14.