The Greeks left a strong foundation of cultural, social, and political values that has been drawn on by almost every Western people since. That being said, the increasingly nationalizing tendencies of our own republican government, and the increasingly international form government is taking in modern Europe, have caused many to wonder why Greece never achieved this same kind of political union. Why remain several small poleis instead of becoming a single great, civilized nation, especially since military threats later absorbed these communities, first into the Macedonian kingdom and later into the Roman Empire?
To answer this question, one must first understand that the Greeks held some drastically different views on the concept of politics than most of us do today. The Greek word polis has no direct English equivalent. Because of this, we have attempted to render it in a number of ways, most commonly as ‘city-state.’ But this not only falls short of the full potential of its meaning, it also introduces some false connotations that were not meant by the Greeks themselves.
Kitto identifies this rendering of the word, “a bad translation, because the normal polis was not much like a city, and was very much more than a state” (64). He goes on to catalogue the various uses of the word in order to demonstrate its many shades of meaning: citadel, town, the market town, people, state, and cultural life (Kitto 68-75). For this reason, Kitto states that polis, “may mean as much as ‘the whole communal life of the people, political, cultural, moral’ – even ‘economic’,” while also retaining certain religious connotations (75). In short then, the polis is the Greek ‘community’ and often serves as a metonymy for the various aspects of the community’s wellbeing.
This more holistic view of ‘the city’ had natural implications for their view of citizenship, which meant much more than mere residence. Many a Greek lived within a city while never enjoying the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. In most Greek communities, citizenship was a birthright bestowed on male children born to a father who was a citizen and a mother who was a free woman. Other members of the community (at least at Athens) included metics (or ‘resident aliens’), women and slaves (owned by individuals in Athens and by the community in Sparta) who each enjoyed limited freedoms but were denied any political participation (Freeman 226-228). As Freeman continues, “Citizenship was thus a privilege and a closely guarded one,” but it also had its duties (228). In Athens a citizen was expected to participate in religious festivals, attend the Assembly, and fight the community’s battles as a hoplite (Freeman 226; Martin 82-83). In Sparta, a citizen was expected to not only fulfill these responsibilities, but also to provide enough food to support his military-style common mess (Greek sussition), and failure to do so meant a loss of membership in both the mess and the citizen body (Martin 77-78).
Taken together, a uniquely Greek concept of political unity begins to take shape. Greeks did not form ‘states;’ they formed ‘communities.’ Citizens were not residents; they were participants in the life and affairs of their community. Note the intimacy implied by the word itself: community. Such a sense is difficult to imagine in today’s modern world (though the same connection can still be seen in our words ‘city’ and ‘citizen’). The United States has over 300 million citizens. Cities have populations numbering in the several hundreds of thousands and even millions.
To the Greeks, however, political unity meant the opportunity to participate in a shared cultural, religious and economic environment. Such is the reason why Plato, when he set forth his vision for the ideal community, set the optimal size of the body politic at 5,000 and why Aristotle believed that “each citizen should be able to know all the others by sight” (though the total population, including women, children, metics, and slaves could approach as many as 50,000; Kitto 65-66). True community, then, is directly proportional to familiarity; the greater the familiarity, the greater the sense of community; and when this familiarity is lost, so is one’s sense of community.
This concept of political unity is further demonstrated by other social relationships enjoyed between citizens. In Athens, the community was not divided into wards, quarters, or boroughs but into demes, a word that simply means ‘peoples’ and implies a sense of common identification among its members (Martin 87-88). Unanimity was further maintained through voluntary associations, “some purely religious,” others related to “particular trades” or aristocratic families, and even through a sundry of rancorous drinking clubs (Freeman 226). As Freeman continues, “The Athenian citizen was thus given identity through a range of shared activities which went well beyond his involvement in the Assembly” (Freeman 226).
And though the Spartans chose activities that appear quite different on the surface (a rigorous martial upbringing, and the above-mentioned common messes) the intent was much the same. However, Spartan unanimity also came at a high moral cost, being reinforced from within through the perversion called pederasty, and from without by the systematic enslavement of their outlying neighbors. It was because of this misplaced emphasis on male unity that the Greeks “created outsiders such as barbarians, both free and slave, and, within the city, women and non-citizens in order to strengthen the identity of the citizen group” (Freeman 226).
Though later in our series we’ll have another opportunity to address Sparta’s neighbors, pederasty deserves special comment before we move on. Pederasty was a form of ritualized pedophilia that typically included a young man as the active partner and a younger boy as the passive one. Though each community had its own twists on this practice, in general the boys “were chosen to be the special favorites of males older than themselves to build bonds of affection, including physical love, for others” (Martin 78, 79). Thankfully, the Apostle Paul condemns the practice, along with other forms of homosexuality, in two ‘vice lists’ in the New Testament (1Co 6:9-11; Rom 1:24-27). So while Greek views on civics are generally ‘higher’ than our own, this was not so in every place on every issue.
To the Greeks, politics meant much more than participating in the political processes of the state; it emphasized the individual civic responsibilities owed to others as a trust and privilege held in common with one’s family and neighbors. It is in this vein of thought that Aristotle states so memorably that, “Man is a political animal,” by which he means that, “‘Man is a creature who lives in a polis’; and what he goes on to demonstrate, in his Politics, is that the polis is the only framework within which man can fully realize his spiritual, moral and intellectual capacities” (Kitto 78). The polis, then, is, in the words of Cartledge, a ‘citizen-state’ (56).
We can hopefully see now why the problem of Greek unity may not be in the Greeks themselves but in the way we have formed our questions concerning the goals of their culture and its effects on their political organization. The Greeks did not ‘succeed’ in the modern conception of ‘political unity’ precisely because it is a modern conception that the Greeks neither imagined nor desired. And though certain Greek views on identity and sexuality fail to measure up to the standard of the biblical witness, we have also failed to live up to their cultural legacy concerning their views on cities and citizenship.