Reflections on the Ancient Greek Polis: A Look at the Political Structure

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When looking at the Mycenaean age, historians still cannot explain the transformation from Greek war-oriented kingdoms to the polis. There is no history or recollection to explain how or exactly why the Greek polis came into being. One thing for sure, though, is what the Greek polis did for its people. The Greek polis was stabilized by a political structure that can still be seen today.

The overwhelming characteristic of the city-state was its small size; this allowed for a certain amount of experimentation in its political structure. The age of the city-state in Greece is an age of continual experimentation with political structures. This period of experimentation gave the European world most of its available political structures. The small size of the polis allowed for democracy.

Policy making decisions of democracy were relatively easy since there were a small number of free male citizens constituting the body of the polis political unit.

Politically, all the Greek city-states began as monarchies. In their earliest stages, they were ruled by a basileus, or hereditary king. The Greeks living in those city-states, however, soon overthrew their kings in the eighth century BC. A variety of political alternatives were experimented with in place of the basileus: these included oligarchy, tyranny, and democracy.

The most common form of government in the Greek polis was oligarchy, or "rule by a few." The oligarchs were almost always drawn from the noble classes or from the wealthiest citizens of the state, but a variety of oligarchic forms were invented in the eighth century. These include having the members of the oligarchy chosen by lot, having them elected, or rotating the oligarchy among members of...