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The Greek Polis: Sparta Vs. Athens

by J. B.

The Concept of the Polis

The development of the Greek polis--whether a military oligarchy in Sparta or democracy in Athens--allowed citizens to participate in political issues. This concept of the "rule by the people," mainly in Athens, gave the citizens a sense of freedom and harmony. Greeks applied the label "polis" to all of the states, regardless of their political distinctions, because each was a koinonia, a community (Finely 10).

Early Archaic Period

  • weak public authority
  • large families were the strongest in society
  • every city-state consisted of a king, a council and an assembly of adult male citizens
  • tyrants held no office (Hopper 200)


After the Early Archaic Period

After this period, the concept of the polis began to change. The regulation of power changed, along with the rights and duties of the people. The Greeks located the source of authority in the polis. Policy was decided in open discussions. In order to function, the society needed "a sense of community and a genuine willingness on the part of its members to live according to certain traditional rules, . . . to make changes only by open debate and further consensus"(Finely 24).

In order to be a citizen in the polis, one had to be an adult whose ancestors were Greek and from that particular polis. Children, foreigners, and slaves could not be citizens. Citizens had many exclusive rights, including:

  • the right to vote
  • the right to own real property
  • the right to contract a legal marriage with another citizen
  • the right to participate in major cult activities
  • a full share in the decision making process, which meant the full right to influence decisions by speaking in the sovereign body as well as by voting (Finely 27).

... The city-states differed in different regions of ancient Greece. Even though the states kept the concept of the polis, the way in which each was governed differed. Two of the most important city-states were Sparta and Athens. Sparta developed as a war-like polis, while Athens developed as a democratic one.

The Polis Of Sparta

As Hopper stated in The Early Greeks, Sparta "began to develop as a militant polis with a rigid social structure and a government that included an assembly representing all citizens." It had an anti-tyrant policy; the Spartans felt that tyranny was an unstable form of government. Tyranny was replaced by oligarchy, which was the governing of a ruling class (209).

Patterson discusses that the government of Sparta was based on military expansion. After the first Messenian War, the Spartan warriors divided the land among themselves and reduced the Messenians to Helots. The Helots worked the land while the Spartans devoted their time to military service. By 550 BCE Sparta had a mixed constitution. The polis contained:

  • two kings whose power was limited by law. The kings served as high priests and as leaders in war.
  • a Council of Elders, which was consulted before any proposal was put before the Assembly.
  • the Assembly, which held debates and voted on them.
  • the Board of Ephors, which was a group of overseers that consisted of five male citizens that were elected annually by the Assembly. Some of the duties of the ephors were summoning the assembly and initiating the members of the legislature (Patterson).

... Council of Elders, Sparta

by J. B.

The Polis of Athens

In contrast to Sparta, Athens, the largest polis, combined several regions of the peninsula of Attica. It developed a social system in which power was based on wealth rather than aristocratic birth (Greece: The Rise of Athens and Sparta). The king lost all power in the polis of Athens. In the place of the king emerged the Areopagus, which was a council recruited from the former magistrates. The members of the Areopagus were called Archons.

Three important Athenian officials were:

  • Draco,who codified and published the laws in 621 BCE. This act reduced the ability of the tribal aristocratic magistrates to arbitrate the law.
  • In 594 BCE Solon, one the Archons, divided the citizens into four groups based on income from the land and established a Council of 400, which checked the Areopagus. Solon also created a Court of Appeals. All citizens had the power to decide on cases of appeals from the magistrates. In the fifth century BCE, almost all cases came before courts of paid jurors. "Noble magistrates no longer had the power to make legal decisions without appeal"(Patterson).
  • The aristocrat and "Father of Athenian Democracy," Clisthenes, who separated religious ties from political organizations, which further reduced the power of the tribal leaders and nobles. In 508 BCE he divided the Athenians into ten new tribes. The composition of each tribe guaranteed that no one region would dominate. He also increased the role of the Assembly.

    Eight years later, ostracism, banishment from the privileges of society, was introduced. The Assembly voted once a year whether it wanted to ostracize a member, which meant exile him for three years. Another very important group was the Board of Generals. The members of the Board were elected annually by the Assembly. The Board of Generals was the basis of Pericles' power (Patterson).


by J. B.

Pericles is known for extending democracy and reducing the power of the Areopagus in Athens. He states in his famous funeral oration:
. . . The freedom we enjoy extends also to ordinary life; we are not suspicious of one another, and we do not nag our neighbor if he chooses to go his own way. . . . But this freedom does not make us lawless. We are taught to respect the magistrates and the laws, and never to forget that we must protect the injured. And we are also taught to observe those unwritten laws whose sanction lies only in the universal feeling of what is right . . . (qtd. in Popper)

Similarities and Differences

Two direct similarities of Sparta and Athens are the fact that both kept slaves and the citizens obtained many rights, such as voting. Yet, their many differences made possible for the development of two distinct nations. In Athens, the rich as well as the poor enjoyed political responsibility and power. Their governmental patterns strongly influenced Western society. On the other hand, the Spartan oligarchy allowed for the participation of women in government and military. Their goals of military expansion and conquest helped solve the problem of overpopulation and were admired throughout Greece (Finely).

It is evident that the concept of the polis in ancient Greece allowed the citizens to actively participate in the government. Because of Sparta's goals of military expansion and Athen's value of direct democracy, both city-states became two of the most important in Greek history.

Works Cited