Map 1. Greece & the Aegean World



The polis is the Greek version of the city-state, and the network of more than 1,000 poleis constitutes the largest city-state culture in world history, both geographically and demographically. (Mogens Herman Hansen, Polis, 146)

The principal aim of this short book (a breviarium not an epitome) is to provide a fairly painless and highly stimulating introduction to the complex, diverse, and challenging subject of the history of ancient Greek civilization, without being either simplistic or bland. I understand Greek history and civilization in very broad ethnic and chronological senses, from the first documented use of the Greek language in about 1400 BCE at Cnossos down to the foundation of the (post-Ancient, as I see it here) Byzantine empire based on Constantinople (formerly Byzantion) in about CE 330.

To make some sense of such a huge world (from the Black Sea to Spain) and such a vast expanse of time, within the scope of a short volume, I have written the book around eleven major Greek cities, the histories of which can be variously used to illuminate what I take to be the most important and informative Hellenic themes: politics, trade, travel, slavery, gender, religion, philosophy, historiography, and the role of prominent individuals, among others. In the process of exposition I shall pay due attention also to how the (any) history of ancient Greece is constructed: that is, to what the nature of the available evidence—contemporary or non-contemporary, written or non-written, and so forth—is; and how professional scholars and other writers have used, or could or should best use, that evidence.

If called to specify ‘Ancient Greece’ further, I would analyse it as a civilization of cities. The English word ‘civilization’ is derived ultimately from Latin civitas, community, from which comes also our ‘city’. But the Romans were not the first to develop a civilization of cities, a ‘citification’ of culture. There the Greeks, along with the Etruscans in Italy and the Phoenicians of modern Lebanon, preceded them. Indeed, on a looser definition of ‘city’ it is possible to trace the origins of civilization in the sense of citification as far back as the third or fourth millennium BCE, to the ‘interriverine’ civilizations of lower and upper Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). But here I wish to give ‘city’ a qualitative as well as quantitative connotation, implying a type of self-governing geopolitical space combining town and country in a dynamic symbiosis.

Today it is estimated that on some definition of ‘city’ more than half the world’s population live in one. Indeed, a few mega-cities—Tokyo, New York—have a GDP similar in size to that of whole countries (Spain, Canada) …In my ancient Greek world, in the sharpest possible contrast, as many as 90 per cent of the population may have lived regularly and normally in the countryside as opposed to any space that may properly be labelled urban. Put it the other way round: not all Greeks by any means lived in cities; even in the heavily urbanized Athens of the later fifth century most Athenians still lived in the countryside, as Thucydides relates. And yet—and this explains my decision to work with and through eleven Greek cities—the characteristic, defining mode of Hellenic social coexistence was, for ten out of the fourteen or so centuries covered here, what the Greeks called a polis. As Aristotle famously stipulated in his Politics (‘Matters relating to the polis’), man—humankind—is a ‘political animal’, in the precise sense of a living organism designed by its nature to fulfil its potential within and only within the polis political framework.

Actually, polis is one of the most frequently attested nouns in ancient Greek, ranking 39th in a list of the 2,000 most common Greek words, ahead of such nouns as anêr (man in the gender sense) and theos (god). It could have as many as four different meanings, of which two—city (qua urban central space) and state—are the most important for us. For what counts for my project is that, even though a majority lived in towns or villages (in the khôra or countryside) rather than cities or urban centres, the free adult male citizens, the event-making movers and shakers of ancient Hellenism, were full sharing members of political communities also called polis—for which the best translation into English is ‘citizen-state’. And it was in the urban centre, the city in its narrower political sense, that collective self-government found decisive expression. It is from the ancient Greek polis in that sense that we derive ‘politics’ and its cognates, and it was this feature of Greek civilization, which spawned such key terms as aristocracy, oligarchy, tyranny and—last but by no means least—democracy, that gives ancient Greece much of its enduring and current salience.

It is important to be clear from the outset that there never was anything like an ancient equivalent of a nation-state of ‘Greece’, but only, as we shall see, a network of Greek cities and other kinds of settlements bound together by a sense of common culture expressed importantly through what we would call religious means. Herodotus, Greece’s and the world’s first historian properly so-called, placed the following definition of ‘Greekness’ in the mouths of his Athenian speakers, addressing the Spartans, their allies, at a crucial moment of the decisive conflict between Greeks and ‘barbarian’ (non-Greek) Persians during the winter of 480/479 BCE:

…it would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greek people, with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods together, and with whom we also share the same way of life.

(Histories, Book 8, chapter 144, in the translation of Andrea Purvis)

The words are invented by Herodotus, and they imply an agreed unity that was only very rarely realized in common political as opposed to cultural action. The telling absence of any reference to political unity in this persuasive definition of a ‘pan-Hellenic’ (all-Greek) identity speaks loudly. Indeed, it is arguable that it was precisely the absence of a nation-state or, to put that positively, the highly individualistic nature of the Greek polis, that gives Greek civilization its unique identity. Just why the different Greekpoleisemerged, or were created, and how they differed from earlier cities, will be tackled more specifically in the particular chapters that follow.

At any one time during the last half of the first millennium BCE and the first three centuries CE about 1,000 or so separate entities existed that could claim the appellation of polis. We know this and can state it with confidence, thanks to the decade-long researches of the ‘Copenhagen Polis Centre’ directed inimitably by Mogens Herman Hansen. The choice of just eleven out of those 1,000 required the judgement of Rhadamanthys (son of Zeus and Europa, brother of Minos: see Chapter 2). Various factors and motives came into play. I wanted to include an island city—either a city on a Greek island or a city that was also the sole polis of a Greek island; I ended up with Cnossos on the island of Crete. I wanted the major regional divisions of the Aegean Greek heartland or Hellenic core area to be represented: hence three cities of the ‘island of Pelops’ or Peloponnese (Mycenae, Argos and Sparta), two from Central Greece (Athens and Thebes), one from ‘East Greece’, that is the western littoral of Anatolia or ‘Asia Minor’ as it used to be known (Miletus), and one spanning east and west, the Eurasian city of Byzantion (later Constantinople, now Istanbul). Next, it was vital that the Greek ‘colonial’ diaspora be represented properly—hence the selection of Massalia, now Marseilles (founded from an East Greek city), Syracuse (founded from a Peloponnesian city), and Byzantion (founded from a central Greek city); actually, they were not really ‘colonies’ in our sense (the Greek apoikia simply meant ‘home from home’), but the terminology is conventional. Finally, I needed a representative of the new, post-Classical ‘Hellenistic’ world created by Alexander the Great’s conquests and celebrated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by my favourite modern Greek poet, C. P. Cavafy—so, what better choice could there be than Cavafy’s own native city, Alexandria in Egypt, founded for sure (as a number of other ‘Alexandrias’ were not certainly) by Alexander himself?

Of course, I have my regrets, as will my readers no doubt: why none from mainland Greece north of Thebes (Protagoras’s and Democritus’s Abdera, for instance)? or from the Black Sea region (Olbia, say), or from north Africa west of Alexandria, in today’s Libya (Cyrene is the obvious candidate)? Why not other (different) ones from the Peloponnese—Corinth, perhaps, or Messene or Megalopolis? The list could be extended, and there were various reasons for my exclusions—above all, lack of good or at least good and fairly continuous contemporary authentic evidence. But at least one of the above cities, Corinth, does get its day in the sun, as the founding city of Syracuse; and I shall hope to compensate for at least some others of these enforced absences and silences in stimulatingly alternative ways.

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