Illustration of how the Polis was the center of Athenian Life Essay

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The word Polis (poh-lis) referred to the city-state, to the fortress, and to the people as a whole.  Greek city-states often grew up around forts on the hills or mountaintops for their protection. These city-states were independent states (a nation of its own) that controlled a limited amount of farmland surrounding the territory .The Greek city states were small of which the ideal size was a population of about 5,000 male citizens, who were the only people counted in official records.

Of all the polis, Athens had the largest population, reaching to about 35,000 male citizens in the middle of the fifth century B.C. Because of its small size, the people (citizens) had the opportunity to interact closely with each other.  When there is no war, Athenian life revolved around the state[1].

This paper will illustrate how the polis was the center of Athenian life. The illustration will be derived from examples of the political and cultural activities of its citizens.

Like most Greek city-states, the Athenians developed political units that were centrally based on a single city (Athens). Athenians were the first people in history to lead the establishment of a government in which free citizens ruled themselves. This type of government was called democracy meaning rule by the people.[2] Previously, Athens was ruled by powerful noble officials known as archons who tended to favor the upper class of Athens but because of lower class Athenian protests, the leadership was transferred to Solon in 594 B.C.

Solon was a statesman, poet and merchant who was widely regarded as wise and just. Solon made political reforms that decreased the power of the nobles. He divided Athenian citizens into four classes based on wealth, not on noble birth. This gave the merchants a voice in the government, for citizens in the three highest classes could hold public office and later all male citizens were expected to serve in the government.[3]

About 510, Athens was ruled by Cleisthenes. After consulting with the Assembly he reformed the political system by dividing Athens into ten areas called demes.[4] To safeguard the new democratic government, Cleisthenes started a new practice. Once a year the Athenians voted out a person who they suspect will become a tyrant leader.  If 6,000 votes were cast against a particular person, he was forced to leave Athens for ten years. Because votes were written on a piece of broken pottery called an ostrakon, this practice became known as ostracism. Few people actually were ostracized but the custom gave citizens more power.

Pericles, who ruled Athens in 460 B.C., increased the participation of Athenians in politics. He opened government jobs to all classes and government officials were paid salaries so that even poor citizens could serve as officials.  Citizens were given the freedom to criticize leading generals or statesmen without being punished. The duties of government were performed by ordinary citizens.

They took care of the public buildings, kept the waterfront safe for ships, and watched over the citys food supply. They served in the army and rowed ships in the navy. Rather than being elected, officials were chosen by lot (a process similar to having ones name picked out of a hat). They held office for one year and could not hold the same position again. This gave every male citizen a chance to serve the community.[5] In fact, the Athenian political system of allotment made it possible for every male citizen to be liable for executive government duties.

The number of Athenian citizens was small enough for them to govern themselves in a direct democracy. There was no need to elect representatives as most modern democracies do. About forty times a year all citizens met in the Assembly (supreme-decision making body in Athens) in an open area on a hill called The Pnyx. The Assembly meetings were opened for every male citizen over the age of 18.[6] There they debated, voted all matters of domestic and foreign policy and made the laws. They themselves decided whether to sign a trade treaty, build a navy, or make peace.

Although every male Athenian had the right to attend, due to limited space and other practical reasons, not all of them were able to attend every meeting. With a total male population of 30,000, the Phynx can only accommodate 6,000 of them. Nevertheless, Assembly meetings were events that most Athenians look forward to.

Usually Assembly meetings were scheduled just after dawn, delayed only when citizens and presiding officials were late. It is significant to note that any citizen, whether he held a public office or nor, had the right to speak or voice his opinions before thousands of his fellow Athenians. Before or after the speech, each citizen was expected to openly show their support or disagreement for it was assumed that each Athenian citizen could think intelligently about community affairs.[7]
           C. Participation in the Council (Boulª)

The Athenian Council was composed of 500 members. These members were chosen by lot from 50 citizens of the 10 Athenian tribes.  Any male with an age over 30 had the opportunity to serve in the Council although not all are required to do so. Usually eligible males in each deme (local municipalities) would volunteer themselves and 50 of them were selected by lots to serve in the Council.  Athenian citizens are allowed to serve twice in the Council.

Unlike the Assembly, the Council met everyday, except for festival days and certain other forbidden days, in the Agora. If there was an Assembly meeting, the council would meet in the afternoon for normally Assembly meetings end at noon. The Councils primary responsibilities include the preparation of an agenda for the Assembly, drafting of bills and the supervision of the public officials.[8] The Council would give an account of its actions and activities before the Assembly (meaning before all the Athenian males) at the end of its year of service.

What was interesting about the Council was that their activity was supervised daily by each different member of the Athenian tribes. In other words, through the casting of lots a new chairman was elected every day and was entrusted with the keys to the temples that kept the state funds, records and state seal. The daily change of Council leadership   means that the reins of the Athenian government were in the hands of a different Athenian citizen every day of the year.[9] This was a remarkable way of managing political affairs where competency and efficiency does not make one hold on to a government position.

Women and slaves in Athens were excluded from government service however. But in spite of that they found other things to do in Athens like raising the family and participating in festivals. [10]

Because of their democratic form of government, every accused Athenian were tried in the Athenian courts. Every year 6,000 mostly poor Athenian citizens were chosen by lot to serve in the jury. They were not forced to serve in this function but voluntarily put themselves forward because of the prospect of receiving salary. The Athenians were eager juries who would show up in the courts early in the morning for daily sessions.

The numbers of juries needed for that day were selected with the use of a complicated allotment machine. The allotment process takes two steps, first to select the juries and second to select the court rooms where they will be assigned.  Because allotment occurs daily, there was a constant change of juror for all cases. The reason for this complicated behavior was to prevent the occurrence of bribery. There was no way of knowing in advance whether a certain juror will serve that day and if he does what case he will be assigned.

As mentioned earlier the court system was run by non-professionals. There were no professionally trained judges and lawyers to rely upon. Unlike today, public prosecutions in ancient Athens were not represented by assigned district attorney to serve as prosecutor and there was no lawyer assigned for the defendant.  In private cases, both the accuse and the plaintiff defended themselves. Final decision for court cases was obtained after the jury (without discussing with each other) voted. Private prosecution only last 9 ½ hours while private ones took about only two hours. Justice was rather quick for the Athenians. [11]

The Athenians love to educate themselves. There were so many things that they wanted to know and learn. That is why they produced great philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The Athenians discussed their ideas in the Agora or marketplace daily.[12] There they argue, discuss or scrutinize some new knowledge

 The Athenians considered education necessary for good citizenship. Boys were enrolled in private schools or taught at home by tutors, often educated slaves. They learned reading, arithmetic, and the works of Homer and other great poets. Young men studied public speaking, geometry, astronomy and poetry and were encouraged to discuss their ideas about politics and questions of right and wrong.

The Athenians were very fond of the athletics. All schools of Athens had physical education as part of their curriculum. An Athenian philosophy was that an ideal citizen is a product of exercise and morality.   There were many athletic events in and around Athens that the Athenians look forward to.

The underlying purpose of   all the sacrifices of self-discipline and learning were for each Athenians to be hailed     worthy of Athens and to bring honor to its name especially by winning in the Athletic games against other Greek-states.

Athens was the cultural center of Greece. The Athenians believed that a mans life was empty if he failed to use his mind and develop his talents. Because of that philosophy the Athenians made extraordinary achievements in art, literature, science and philosophy. In these fields, they set standards for later Western civilization. Because they placed high value on individual excellence, Athenian cultural heritage continue to awe and inspire modern men.

Athenian poets and playwrights wrote enduring masterpieces. Poetry played an important part in expressing the Athenian view of life. Their poems vividly showed people striving to live up to standards of courage and honor. Poems were also written to honor victors in athletic games and heroes killed in battle, which of course encouraged the Athenians to refine further their talents and win victories for Athens.

Plays were popular entertainment for all Athenians.  The Athenian ruler Pisistratus sponsored the first drama festivals in 534 B.C Because. Greece had a mild climate, the dramas were performed outdoors, in a large theater built into the side of a hill. The theater held as many as 20,000 people. Opening day was a public holiday. The poor were given money to buy seats, and prisoners were even released from jail to watch the performances. Many people brought food, for performances often lasted from sunrise to sunset.[13] As in some modern theaters, audiences in ancient Athens sat in half-circle around a circular area where the actors, dancers, and musicians performed. Athenian playwrights also wrote comedies that made fun of Athenian politicians, generals, philosophers and other playwrights.

Also Athenian artists and architects created simple and beautiful styles that continue to serve as models. The style of Greek architectural style had been used in thousands of public buildings in the United States and Europe.

Athenians were firm believers of gods and goddesses which they honored in shared community rituals and festivals. Processions, music, animal sacrifice and communal dining were participated by all Athenians. Athenian arts not only express the Athenian love for what is beautiful but also to honor their gods by building shrines and temples for them around Athens. [14]An example is the pillared temples on the Acropolis, a hill in the center of Athens.

The largest is the Parthenon, the temple of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The Parthenon seems to have grown out of the rocky hillside in the center of the city. It is simple, but perfectly proportioned, built of white marbles. It originally held a 40-foot-tall ivory and gold statue of Athena. Athenians also made statues of their gods and goddesses. These gods and goddesses were pictured in the form of beautiful human beings, for that was the way the Greeks imagined them

Athenian life revolved around the city-state (polis) of Athens. Its small size and democratic form of government had enabled the citizens to actively participate in all of its affairs and to ensure its stability.  They collectively participated in the management of the state with all male being given the opportunity to lead their communities. Their rich culture boasts of famous philosophers, beautifully designed shrines and temples and religious fervor with gods and goddesses that are as famous as Athens itself. It is clear to see that with the time and devotion that they had given to their political and cultural life within the walls of Athens, the city was an important part of their lives.


Athenian Life. Brooklyn College Classic Homepage 2008 .Retrieved February 1, 2008 from

Lang, Mabel L. The Athenian Citizen. Princeton, New Jersey: American School of Classical Studies at Athens,1960.

Parker, Robert. Athenian Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Perry, Marvin. A History of the World. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1988.

Stockton, David. The Classical Athenian Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

[1] Marvin Perry, History of the World, New York: Houghton-Mifflin, p. 69

[2] David Stockton The Classical Athenian Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 1.


[3]  Marvin Perry, A History of the World ( New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1988), 71-80.

[4] David Stockton, The Classical Athenian Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 57

[4]  Perry, 73.

[6] Mabel Lang, The Athenian Citizen (New Jersey: American Classical Studies at Athens), 3-4.

[7] Athenian Life, available from Brooklyn College Classic Homepage, 2008 from

[8] Mabel Lang, The Athenian Citizen (New Jersey: American Classical Studies at Athens), 10.

[9] Athenian Life, available from Brooklyn College Classic Homepage, 2008 from

[10] Marvin Perry, A History of the World ( New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1988), 75.

[11]   Athenian Life, available from Brooklyn College Classic Homepage, 2008 from

[12]  Mabel Lang, The Athenian Citizen (New Jersey: American Classical Studies at Athens), 67.

[13] Marvin Perry, A History of the World ( New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1988), 82-86.

[14] Robert Parker , Athenian Religion ( Oxford: Clarendon Press ), 67-80.

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