The peoples of ancient Greece shared a common language, religion, and culture, yet they were separated into numerous independent political units (which often were at odds, and sometimes even at war, with each other).  These city-states, called poleis*, were political entities consisting of a city and its surrounding territory.

The geography of Greece provides some clues as to why the political structure developed in this way.

Travel and communication between settlement areas were not easy.  Greece has many mountain ranges, and travel by land can be difficult.  Only about one-fifth of the land is suitable for habitation and farming, and much of that exists as pockets of fertile land that are isolated from each other.  The first ancient communities were attracted to these areas but thus grew independently of each other.

Also, much of Greece is peninsular.  Large irregular areas of land, including many islands, are surrounded and separated by the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.  Although travel on the sea was convenient, and numerous natural harbors dot the rugged coastlines, these often have restricted access to the interior of the country.

Communications and the sharing of ideas improved as the land became more settled.  However, many self-governing communities were already firmly rooted, and as their populations grew, so did competition between them. Some grew larger and more powerful at the expense of others; these came to dominate greater areas of land and the smaller communities within them.

The more powerful centers developed into independent poleis.  As a political unit, the polis comprised not just the city itself but the surrounding territory as well, including small towns and villages.  The countryside was dotted with farms, which provided goods primarily for the rural and city dwellers of its own polis, but also for trade with other poleis.  The Greeks made no legal distinction between the country-dweller and the urbanite. All belonged to the polis.

A Brief Visit to an Ancient Greek Town
In Classical* times, a visitor approaching a Greek town, probably by mule, might first recognize the town's acropolis* from afar.  Fortified by massive stone walls, the acropolis of a town may also be home to the most important temples for the town's favorite Olympian deity. (The most famous acropolis is the one in Athens, on which stands the well-known temple of Athena called the Parthenon.)  Impressive features in the natural landscape -- hill-tops, caves, and freshwater springs-- hold special meaning for the ancient Greeks, and such places are often selected for building sacred precincts.

Upon nearing the town, our visitor is likely to pass cemeteries, or individual tombs, strung out along the roadsides.  The town itself may be loosely surrounded by well-built walls that connect to those of the acropolis on the heights above.  The visitor will enter the town gate and, in all likelihood, follow a main road directly to the bustling town center, the agora.

The agora* is the most essential ingredient of an ancient Greek town.  There is no word in the English language that exactly translates "agora,"  but it is the place where nearly all aspects of public life are carried out -- the supreme meeting place and heart of a polis.  Here people came to shop, do business, worship, or simply socialize.

Strolling through the agora, our visitor will certainly spot the bouleterion*, the building where the town council meets.  At least one stoa* will be encountered, and probably more: these long hall-like buildings with open colonnades on one side are the most common type of building in an agora.  They offer shelter from rain and sun, and, in addition to being meeting places, house shops, market-stalls, offices, and storerooms.

Religious shrines can be found anywhere and everywhere in a Greek town, and temples, elegant buildings with their porches and surrounding colonnades, are a common sight especially in the agora.  A fountain-house will be sought out on a hot day, but our visitor will not suffer too much because shade trees have been planted along the thoroughfares.  Everywhere there are statues of heroes, gods, and ordinary (but important) people, to catch the eye and inspire reflection.

The visitor may need to ask how to get to the gymnasion* and the stadion*, which are located wherever the terrain is suitable, often at the outskirts of town.  There the young men of the town received their education both in intellectual matters and in athletics.

An open theater also will be found where the landscape is suitable. The best spot is a natural hollow for the central “stage,” enclosed by slopes where spectator seating can be arranged. Dramatic performances are seen here for entertainment, but its size may also make the theater the preferred spot for larger town gatherings.

Our ancient visitor may feel no need to explore the residential districts that make up the greatest portion of the town around the agora.  They will seem ordinary and all too familiar, with narrow streets and alleys fronted by modest private homes huddled together, with little or none of the grandeur displayed in the more public areas.

Before leaving, our visitor may find it wise to seek out the temple or sanctuary of the town's favored deity, whether high on the acropolis or elsewhere, and there make an offering -- perhaps some fruit, cakes, or wine -- at the temple altar.  Here, protection for the journey ahead can be asked of the patron god and guardian of the polis.

??   There is a type of building that is not seen in a Classical Greek town that in some other contemporary civilizations dominates the town.  The absence or presence of such a building reflects something about the political organization of the community.  What is the building type?  What does it indicate about the town's form of government?

??   Which of the following types of buildings or features exist in your town?  Which exist in a similar form or with a similar purpose but with a different name?

  • cemetery
  • acropolis
  • defensive walls
  • bouleterion
  • stoa
  • temple
  • shrine
  • fountain house
  • statues of heroes, gods, and ordinary (but important) people
  • gymnasion
  • stadion
  • open-air theater
  • ??   If some do not exist in your town, why do you think that might be?  Think about each one individually and what circumstances then and now might make the difference.
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