Greek City States

General Background

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"This is a lecture about Greek city states. It begins with an examination of the influence geography had on Greek politics, by comparing Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia. This is followed by a loose characterization of Greek poleis in general, with specific attention paid to constitutions, colonialism and competition."
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Greek political systems

"By the time of Aristotle (fourth century BC) there were hundreds of Greek democracies. Greece in those times was not a single political entity but rather a collection of some 1,500 separatepoleis or 'cities' scattered round the Mediterranean and Black Sea shores 'like frogs around a pond', as Plato once charmingly put it. Those cities that were not democracies were either oligarchies - where power was in the hands of the few richest citizens - or monarchies, called 'tyrannies' in cases where the sole ruler had usurped power by force rather than inheritance. Of the democracies, the oldest, the most stable, the most long-lived, but also the most radical, was Athens." Read more at

Why did Greece develop city-states?

One major reason why ancient Greece was dominated by small city-states and independent towns, rather than by one all-powerful king, is its geography. The country's mountainous terrain, many isolated valleys, and numerous offshore islands encouraged the formation of many local centers of power, rather than one all-powerful capital.
Another key factor influencing the formation of city-states rather than kingdoms was the Mediterranean. Such a calm and easily navigable sea provided the Greeks with an opportunity to found new colonies in times of crisis and overpopulation. It also appealed to their sense of heroism and adventure. Starting in the 8th century BC, colonies were eventually founded all over the Mediterranean, from Naples in Italy, to Marseilles in France, Cyrene in Northern Africa, Byzantium, close to the Black Sea, and numerous cities all along the western coast of modern-day Turkey. These colonies remained in contact with their mother cities, and acknowledged their 'blood ties' with them, but in most other respects they soon acted independently of them.
A final reason behind the development of city-states was the Greek aristocracy, who acted to prevent any permanent monarchies from forming. They defended the political independence of their cities vigorously. As a result any individual who did manage to take over a city could only hope to do so for a short time as a 'tyrant' rather than a king. (

The Bizarre World of Ancient Greece

Top Documentary Films: The Bizarre World of... par Levrek-Tesin44

Ancient Greece and its Government

Ancient Greece and its Government - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Four forms of government in ancient Greece:

British Museum Background Information

Quiz on Greek Government

Web Links for General Background

Level A

Wikipedia list of types of governments
Timeline of Ancient Greece
Ancient Greek Government
Ancient Greece Political Hierarchy

Ancient Greek Government Hierarchy

Level B

Greek Government:
7 points to know about ancient Greek government:
The Three Major Types of Government in Ancient Greece

Level C

Open Yale Courses: Introduction to Ancient Greek History. Lecture 12, The Persian Wars
Overview: In this lecture, Professor Kagan examines in detail the development, growing pains, and emergence of Athenian democracy. He argues that the tyranny under the Peisistratids led to the development of the idea of self-government among the Athenians, which Cleisthenes used to develop Athens in a more democratic direction. One of the ways Cleisthenes was able to accomplish this was to diminish the power of the aristocracy by reordering and restructuring the tribes and giving greater power to the assembly. Finally, Professor Kagan says a word on the Athenian practice of ostracism as a political tool to protect a fledgling democracy. Video Lecture. If you want to know what happened before and after, a list of all the lectures is here.


Greece Government, Part Two: Oligarchy

Web Links for Oligarchy

Level A

The Thirty Tyrants of Athens
Wikipedia list of types of governments
General background of Oligarchy

Level B


Greece - Cleisthenes and Aristocrats.mp4
Part 1, but a good background.

Athenian Democracy Solon and Cleisthenes

Web Links

Level A

Wikipedia list of types of governments
Good video introduction to the term Aristorcracy:

Level B


Greek Government, Part Four: Democracy

Athenian Democracy - Solon and Cleisthenes

Athenian Democracy Solon and Cleisthenes par KadeVerla
"Although Athens is remembered for creating the first democracy, it took many years and multiple leaders to develop the system we think of today. Learn about who took control, what reforms they made and how the people revolted against the old system."

Building the Ancient City Athens and Rome 1 Athens BBC Documentary 2015
Published on Aug 22, 2015

In the opening episode of the series, Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill takes us on a journey across stunning locations in Greece and Italy to find out how Athens gave birth to the idea of a city run by free citizens 2,500 years ago. Every aspect of daily life from defence to waste disposal was controlled not by a king, but by the Athenians themselves. Ultimately, this radical new system would define a way of life and the Athenians would give it a name. They called it people power, demo-kratia or democracy. On our journey we meet the people who still see ancient Athens as the model for running the great cities of today, including perhaps the ancient capital's greatest champion in our modern one - Boris Johnson.

We discover how the Greeks created the first system of open government, and wrote the first constitution that laid down the rights of Athenian citizens nearly 2,000 years before our Magna Carta. Its creator was born in the 7th century BC, and even more surprisingly, the only surviving ancient copy is found on a papyrus not in Greece or Rome, but hidden away at the British Library in London, and it has never been filmed before. Andrew explains that it was this citizen-centric approach which created institutions that would build a city which was the envy of its day, with public libraries, public law courts, a public water supply and public space. In so doing, Athens would set a benchmark not just for the cities of the Ancient World, but also for those of the present and the future.

Web Links for Democracy

Level A

Wikipedia list of types of governments

Level B

Level C

Democracy debate in Herodotus
From the BBC: Critics and Critiques of Athenian Democracy

The Ancient Greeks: Crucible of Civilization - Episode 1: Revolution (History Documentary)
Published on Jul 5, 2014
The Ancient Greeks: Crucible of Civilization - Episode 1: Revolution (History Documentary)
It was perhaps the most spectacular flourishing of imagination and achievement in recorded history. In the Fourth and Fifth Centuries BC, the Greeks built an empire that stretched across the Mediterranean from Asia to Spain. They laid the foundations of modern science, politics, warfare and philosophy, and produced some of the most breathtaking art and architecture the world has ever seen. This series, narrated by Liam Neeson, recounts the rise, glory, demise and legacy of the empire that marked the dawn of Western civilization. The story of this astonishing civilization is told through the lives of heroes of ancient Greece. The latest advances in computer and television technology rebuild the Acropolis, recreate the Battle of Marathon and restore the grandeur of the Academy, where Socrates, Plato and Aristotle forged the foundation of Western though. The series combines dramatic storytelling, stunning imagery, new research and distinguished scholarship to render classical Greece gloriously alive.
The first part tells the story of the troubled birth of the world's first democracy, ancient Athens, through the life of an Athenian nobleman, Cleisthenes. In the brutal world of the 5th century BC, the Athenians struggle against a series of tyrants and their greatest rival, Sparta, to create a new "society of equals." This documentary makes history entertaining as well as educational. Beautifully photographed, using reenactments, paintings, maps, pottery, metalwork, and "living statues" to take the viewer on a vicarious journey through ancient Greece. Episode one, The Revolution, begins at the dawn of democracy in 508 B.C., with the revolution of the common people against aristocratic rule. The film then travels further back in time to chronicle the key events leading up to the revolution. As the camera roams ancient ruins, the Greek countryside, and old stone roads, the viewer learns that the inhabitants of Greece once lived in mud houses with no sewage and frequently fell prey to disease and warfare. Unable to write, they memorized their works of literature in order to pass them on to the next generation. Over time, their hardship and learning whetted their appetite for freedom. After rule by tyrants of the aristocratic class and a struggle for power, Cleisthenes (570-507 B.C.), himself an aristocrat, sided with the common people of Athens and brought democracy into being. From this beginning, western democracy developed and flourished. All the while during their early maturation into a Mediterranean power, Athens and other city-states had to live with the threat of war from expansionist Sparta as well as the vast Persian Empire. But democracy had taken root, and it proved in the long run to be a greater force than the mightiest of armies. The program closes on the eve of the new society's first great test: invasion by the mighty empire of Persia.


Greece Government, Part Three: Tyranny

Web Links for Tyranny

Level A

Wikipedia list of types of governments
The 30 Tyrants after the Peloponnesian War
The Thirty Tyrants of Athens

Level B

Thirty Tyrants on Wikipedia
"The Dirty Thirty" from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ancient Greece

Level C