The Greek Polis is held up as one of the greatest political innovations of all time. Its guarantee of freedom, fair-minded legal institutions, and democratic character are well known to most of us. Like other Greek cultural institutions, the Polis reached its mature form during the fifth century B.C.
But the Polis did not appear out of thin air or develop over a short period of time. It was forged by the heat and hammer of life in ancient Greece – the geography and its isolating influence, the collapse of Mycenae and its aristocratic model, and finally the cultural isolation that existed during the Dark Ages. The heat that finally formed the Polis was population growth. When Greek villages became large enough to be called cities, they were able to support a more complex political system. A new wealthy class wanted the goods to fit their aristocratic lifestyle. Those goods required artisans to produce them. A warrior class developed to protect the Polis from attack – military power from the people and not paid mercenaries of a king. Farming capability expanded as more food was required by a larger population. At the center of it, we see human beings who divided themselves, like they always do, by capability and effort.
As populations grew, the social classes came into conflict. The Greek word Stasis is used to describe this. Out of this conflict a simple political structure was created – not restrictive enough on the wealthy to control them but certainly a structure that attempted to bring basic rights to the lower classes. This political incubator created a system of magistrates, councils, and a people’s assembly. All original ideas. On the judicial side, wise law givers were granted the power to make legal decisions for the community.
Still the class conflict continued. Emigration acted as a safety valve but the land could only support so many. Finally, in the middle of the seventh century, revolutions against the new institutions erupted. The systems that developed could not meet the needs of the people so opportunists seized power and became tyrants. These Greek tyrants were unlike what we commonly think of when we hear the word. These men were not morally corrupt. They were power hungry individuals who took advantage of an available political situation. Many, in fact, were welcomed as men who could achieve through threats and force the aims people did not think they could achieve otherwise. They lasted only a couple of generations but, paradoxically, the tyrants strengthened the future Polis by cleaning out its defects and forcing the people to raise their political conscious to the point of governing themselves.