Urban life in ancient Greece developed after 800 B.C. with the rise of political units called city-states*. Although each city-state, or polis, included villages and farmland, its cultural, economic, and political center was the Greek city. Compared to modern cities, most Greek cities were small, containing 5,000 or fewer people. Even Athens, the most populous Greek city, never held more than 250,000 to 300,000 inhabitants during ancient times. However, despite their small size, Greek cities played a major role in shaping Greek culture.

Origins of the Greek City. The city was not a Greek invention. Earlier civilizations of the Near East had established large cities thousands of years before Greek civilization arose. Like these earlier cities, Greek cities usually sprang up in river valleys and along the seacoast. Such locations offered good land for farming and access to transportation routes, which made contact and trade with other cultures easier. Historians are unsure exactly when the first Greek cities appeared, but by the 700s B.C., the basic pattern of city life in Greece had begun to take shape.

At the same time, several Greek cities began to establish colonies in Sicily, Italy, Africa, and the Black Sea region. The city that sent out colonists was referred to as the metropolis (mother city). Greek colonies in Asia Minor soon came into contact with civilizations of the Near East, such as Assyria and Babylonia. Trade with these civilizations brought the Greeks knowledge of new arts and sciences and helped advance Greek culture. It is quite likely that contact with these civilizations also influenced the design and layout of Greek cities.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

City Design and Planning. Defense was a main concern of the ancient Greeks who collected in the towns and cities. The earliest communities formed around a fortified hilltop, called an acropolis, where the residents could take shelter if they were attacked. The acropolis contained shrines to the city’s chief gods and other important buildings. Over time, as the cities grew, the Greeks often built protective walls around the larger settlement areas, but the residents could still retreat to the acropolis as a second line of defense.

While the oldest cities, such as Athens, grew haphazardly into a tangled maze of streets, the Greeks eventually adopted careful city planning. Like the peoples of the Near East, they began laying out their cities in a gridlike pattern in which the streets ran at right angles to each other. One advantage of this simple pattern, which the Romans would later use, was the ability to plan and build new cities quickly. This was especially important for colonists preparing to organize, house, and defend their new communities against any unfriendly neighbors.

The planned Greek city was typically laid out in blocks that were divided by wide avenues as well as by narrower streets. The original plan might feature three or four avenues running in a north-south direction, intersected by three or four more running in an east-west direction. Several smaller streets ran between the avenues. Each block contained two rows of houses, set back-to-back, often separated by a narrow alley. This formed the core of the city’s grid pattern.

Housing and Living Conditions. Most of what remains today of ancient Greek cities are magnificent halls and temples made of gleaming marble. While many public buildings were indeed beautifully designed and constructed, the typical Greek home was simple. Houses were made of mud bricks and were small, measuring about 30 to 35 feet on each side. Built to be more useful than impressive, they probably were not even whitewashed to make them more attractive. Some houses were pleasant or even luxurious inside, but even these would have looked plain on the outside.

By modern standards, the residential areas of most Greek cities were crowded and dirty. There was no running water, garbage pickup, or sewage system. The water supply usually remained uncovered and frequently became contaminated. By contrast, later Roman cities were much more sanitary, since the Romans took great care to provide clean water and dispose of their sewage. Greek streets were narrow, with rows of identical, mud-brown houses. There were few parks or open squares except for one large central commons, the agora.

The Agora. The heart of the Greek city was the agora, which means “gathering place.” Citizens gathered in this large public area to conduct their daily business and to socialize. The agora served as the marketplace as well as the hub of political activity and government. The most important temples and religious shrines were usually located there as well. The agora was so vital to Greek city life that the Greek historian Pausanius questioned whether a city without an agora could be considered a true city.

In early times, the agora was simply a large open area. As cities developed, the Greeks refined the space with their most splendid architecture. They designed grand stoas, which were long colonnaded* porches that ran along one or more sides of the open plaza. Around the agora stood elegant temples, government buildings, fountains, statues, baths, and monuments. In a later era, the Romans invested similar grandeur and importance in the public area called the forum, their version of the agora.

Public Life in Greek Cities. The contrast between the magnificence of the agora and the dreariness of the residential areas reflects the importance of public life over private life in ancient Greece. Because slaves did most of the heavy work in Greek cities, most of the citizens enjoyed much leisure time. Intellectual, cultural, and social activities were very important to most city dwellers and usually occupied their spare time. Theaters, gymnasiums, stadiums, and other facilities that emphasized large group activities were all considered essential to a city.

Of course, not all public life was fun and entertainment. Along with the privileges of living in the city came certain obligations. Citizens were usually required to participate in city government, and the armies of most cities consisted of citizens as well. It was the involvement of the citizens in public affairs that accounted for much of the strength and vitality of the Greek city. (See also Archaeology of Ancient Sites; Architecture, Greek; Cities, Roman; Colonies, Greek; Forum; Household Furnishings; Houses; Markets; Slavery; Social Life, Greek; Trade, Greek; Waterworks.)


Very few of the residents of most Greek cities were actually citizens with full rights under the law. In Athens, for example, only adult males whose parents were both Athenians were eligible for citizenship. Before 451 b.c, no woman could be a citizen, regardless of her birth. Citizenship was occasionally granted for outstanding service to the city, but this was rare. Of the 250,000 or so residents of Athens in 431 B.C., only about 45,000 were counted as citizens. Slaves made up a large portion of the population of every Greek city. Some historians estimate that at least half of the residents of Athens were slaves.

* colonnade series of regularly spaced columns, usually supporting a roof

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