The Decline of the Athenian Polis Essay

History of Civilizations 09 March 2009 The Decline of the Athenian Polis “Only a polis could have a victor in the pan-Hellenic games; only a polis could designated a citizen of a neighboring city as its proxenos; only a polis could designated a theorodokis; only a polis could declare war or make peace or join a federation or become a member of a federal state; only a polis could strike coins…” (Hansen, 52). The polis was the Greek city-state for excellence and the most successful and enduring political institution in the history of western civilization.

Greeks perceived the polis as the appropriate political and geographic context for the good life, as well as the center of social, economic, religious, and cultural life. Following Aristotle, the polis “comes into existence for the sake of mere life; but it exists for the sake of (purpose! ) the good life”. The 5th and 4th century was the time in which the Greek polis decline. The fall of the Athenian polis was an unnoticeable and very long-drawn process. The polis did not disappeared in its material form, but its characteristics, ideals and spirits changed and transform contrary to its true essence.

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Many causes destroyed the polis. The war, the commercials trades and the individualism were the more important. Independence is regarded as the most important characteristic of a city-state like the polis, and the city-state lost their independence at the beginning of the Hellenistic period. Losing their independence and “autonomy” signifies that they lost their identity as polis, they manners and customs. The powers of the polis disappeared when Macedon became a major power under Philip II. The hegemonial polis of the type of Athens disappeared.

According to Hansen, the Greek view of the polis was that it was a community of citizens as to their political institutions: “A polis was a self governing community. But self government does not necessarily imply independence”. (Polis, 49) Along the Hellenistic and Roman imperial period, the concept of autonomy changed it’s meaning: it not longer implied full independence, but simply self-government. Kitto states, “The continuous war virtually meant the end of the city-state as a creative force” (The Greeks, 367). Throughout the 5th century Greece moves forward to news ways of thinking and living as a result of the environmental conditions.

The politic history of Greece during this century is confusing and depressing. During this time Greeks wasted their energy fighting between them, and left the way open to Macedon to come in and take over. With this, the classic and old Greece has ended. The life has a new completely different meaning from the former. The war triggered a self-destructive cycle. The hostility between individual poleis and the Macedon kingdom invasion affected the diplomacy at that time. The collapse of such a politic system had to have an explanation. Greece was materially and spiritually exhausted as a result of the nonstop periods of wars.

Things could not continue as they were; the city-state didn’t provide a comfortable lifestyle any longer. The problems of the polis were not externally, but internally as well, while was loosing its power. Athens seemed to be in some politics lethargy, citizens felt indifferent and about politics. People were interested in new things, not in the polis anymore. It was not about that the Peloponnesian war have left Athens exhausted. It was about a change in their idiosyncrasy. The citizens changed their tempered permanently. They had a different attitude towards their existence.

They were focusing more in the individual essence rather than common-welfare. It can be perceived by dramatics changes on arts, philosophy and life. The sculpture, as an example, begun to be introspective, they stopped expressing all the ideal and collective. Art started to focused on rationalism, rather than the simply exaltation of the human anatomy. Consequently, dramatic arts also based their meaning regarding day life experience. The cosmopolis started to replace the polis. The citizens were interested on their own issues more than the polis.

Nevertheless, poor people tended to look the polis as a benefit source. The figures that directed the Assembly were not responsible for the state anymore. The separation of the civil and military powers was a reality. The generals were now professional soldiers, who often served foreign powers as mercenary commanders as well as serving their own polis. This break was not appealing for the unity of the polis. It was a cleavage in the responsibility of the members to their community that weakened the sense of community without producing visibly common welfare.

Many farmers left their peaceful style of living to become mercenaries and traders in the polis. Warfare became professional and expensive if its compare with the previous lifestyle. They should rise up the taxes to support this new style of warfare put increasing burdens in the farmer hoplites who started to decline economically, military and politically. The autonomy system of the city was falling down. The polis was in a disintegrating process. Aristotle said “so from all this it is evident that the polis exists by natural processes, and that it is natural for man to live in a polis.

Anyone who has no polis, not by accident but by reason of his own nature, must be subhuman – or else superhuman! Any such man must be a lover of war…” He also states that humans are beings who by nature live in a polis. (Politics, 39) The polis was made for the enthusiast. The vision of the polis was that citizens have should play a role inside the polis. The polis supposed to be the mirror of their citizen. The citizens have to participate and be part of the polis. They were the polis. The philosophy and polis lifestyle felt a great respect for life as a totality, and displeasure for the specialization.

The conception of the polis made for the enthusiast means simplicity. Why? Because all the roles that citizens could perform on polis were easy to learn and to play. The occidental man tends to evolve, and this progress in their idiosyncrasy destroyed the polis. The polis had specifics physical characteristics and dimensions: extremely small and so its population. Plato considered in The Republic that the ideal polis should have a population of 5,000 households, and Aristotle felt that in a polis each citizen should know the others by sight.

Politics, a word that incidentally derives from the Greek word polis, supposed to be face-to-face in these small communities to be more effective. Kitto describes life in the Greek polis as follows, “… the polis every Greek knew; there it was, complete, before his eyes. He could see the fields which gave it its sustenance – or did not, if the crops failed; he could see how agriculture, trade and industry dovetailed into one another; he knew the frontiers, where they were strong and where weak; if any malcontents were planning a coup, it was difficult for them to conceal the fact.

The entire life of the polis, and the relation between its parts, were much easier to grasp, because of the small scale of things… Public affairs had an immediacy and a concreteness which they cannot possibly have for us” (The Greeks, 73). During the 5th century people in Athens started to spread around the polis and the city reach up a population of 350,000 citizens. The development of the city disturbed the natural order established by Plato. At sort point, the citizens could no longer satisfy conomically, and that meant that they had spread and to go elsewhere in order to live and subsist. The natives left the polis and the outsiders came to fulfill the spaces and to settle down. They brought new customs and the more populated was the city; the less meaningful and real was the polis. The polis used to produce their supplies to subsist. The autarchy, self-sufficiency is the most important law of the city. At practice they pretended to abolish the commerce. They were convinced that the polis was the only base for a decent and civilize life.

Such structure only could worked if they handle their issues with extremely wise and discipline. The polis also supposed to be enough strong to keep the order and control of the city without interfering with the private life of the citizens. The cities were obligated to practice the autarchy. At the beginning all of these requirements were obey, but then the explorations in the Mediterranean and the commerce growth distorted the order of the polis. Many wars arouse as a consequence of the commercials rivalries. Greece started to depend on wine and oil exportation, and cereal importation.

The new organization of the polis was unable to coexist with the old ideals of the city-state system. The Greeks also had become deeply disillusioned and demoralized. They lost their faith on traditional virtues like justice, fortitude, mildness and prudence. At the end of the 5th century no one knew to behave and orient their mind and conscience. People felt like those virtues were old-fashioned and boring. This is the reason why poets stop writing about virtue. The philosophers started investigating into new directions and this is how many of the moral ideals were corrupted.

Their thoughts about tradition and customs were ruined. Socrates and Plato wanted to establish virtue into an indestructible logic base, to convert it into something unbeatable and undisputable. They wanted to conceptualize virtue to in this way be understood and learned. Universal principles of truth – Plato’s Ideas and Forms – were rejected in favor of individual traits. Socrates also questioned and criticized traditional moral and truth. With the sophist the education becomes specialized. The focused education does not have a natural place inside the polis.

The decline of polis was the result of going beyond the natural boundaries and limits of the polis (Kitto, 356). The polis fall and left behind the real meaning of what a polis should be. As Finley said, this decline could not be avoided or remedied. This fall was part of the natural cycle life. Many were the attempts to save the polis, but its destruction was what they accomplished. Works Cited Aristotle. The Politics. Ed. Trevor J. Saunders. London: Penguin Books. Butler, Chris. “He Decline & fall of the Greek Polis (431-336 BCE). Flow of History. 2007. 15 Feb. 2009 . Craword, Michael H. , and David Whitehead. Archaic and Classical Greece: a selection of ancient sources in translation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. Finley, M. I. The Ancient Greeks. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. Hansen, Mogens Herman. Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2006. Kitto, H. D. F. The Greeks. Buenos Aires: EUDEBA, 1980. Plato. The Republic. Ed. G. R. F. Ferrari. Trans. Tom Griffith. 2000th ed. Ser. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.


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