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Polis (Greek πόλις): Greek word for city state.

Personification of a city state: the goddess of Berytus wears a mural crown.

In the Archaic Period, many Greek villages clustered and became real towns (poleis, sg. polis); it is called synoikismos, which may be translated as "living together". The process is also documented in Etruria and on Cyprus, and it is possible that Phoenician models were an example. In any case, there are important similarities:

By the end of the Archaic Age, the old elites in the Greek poleis had gradually been replaced by nouveaux riches. New cities had been created: the colonies were called apoikia (if it was a real city) or emporion (if it was a trade center), while the founder city would be called metropolis, "mother city".

Although the towns claimed independence, they were often part of larger confederations like the Peloponnesian League, the Boeotian League, and - after the Persian Wars - the Delian League. In Italy, one may think of the Latin League. Religious confederations were called amphictyonies. The Greek philosophers considered the city state to be the perfect place for human life; Aristotle famously defined humans as those animals that dwell in cities, implying that an interest in government (i.e., politics) was only natural.

In the course of the fourth century, new collaborations were created, like the grant of mutual citizenship between two cities. In the Hellenistic Age, when large kingdoms became the main political actors, we also witness the rise of the Aetolian League and the Achaean League, which can be regarded as federations (as opposed to confederations). Newly founded cities received atractive names like Hierapolis, Megalopolis, Callipolis (holy city, big city, beautiful city) or were named after their founder (Alexandria, Seleucia...)

When Rome became master of the Mediterranean, people were seen as citizens of their own town, with Rome as their shared, second hometown. The Romans discerned municipalities (with titles like civitas, municipium, oppidum) and cities with full Roman rights (the coloniae).

This page was created in 2020; last modified on 12 October 2020.

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