The definition of the polis, as understood by the Greeks themselves, and as transmitted to us, is far from clear; its origins and archaic development seem to be beyond recovery. We can say a few things with certainty: that it is the central institution of Greek society, and that there could be no politics without the polis. According to Aristotle, it is an entity which is not too large or too small, and other ancient sources have been taken to imply the necessity of the agora. In addition it must be an autonomous entity with surrounding territory (chora). However, it is misleading to think of the polis as a city-state along the lines of the Italian city-states of the Renaissance, for instance, because some possessed a population of no more than 600 citizens.
One of the oldest references to the polis appears in the Iliad [Bk xviii], in Homer's description of the shield of Achilles wrought by Hephaestus. On this shield was represented the world, the earth, the heaven, the sea, the sun, the moon, the constellations, and:
In it likewise he wrought two fair cities of articulate speaking men. In the one... there were marriages and feasts; and they were conducting the brides from their chambers through the city with brilliant torches... and the people were crowded together in an assembly, and there a contest had arisen; for two men contended for the ransom money of a slain man: the one affirmed that he had paid all, appealing to the people; but the other denied, declaring that he had received nothing: and both wished to find an end (of the dispute) before a judge. The people were applauding both, the supporters of either party... the elders sat upon polished stones, in a sacred circle, and (the pleaders) held in their hands the staves of the clear-voiced heralds; with these... they arose, and alternately pleaded their cause.
This passage contains details which appear in classical definitions of the polis: the physical city, the joining together of people, an assembly, the orderly resolution of disputes, appeal to the people and arbitration by a judge. The elders sitting in a sacred circle probably prefigure the council(s) of the polis. The second city appears to be the reverse of the former in its essence: a place of discord and distrust, of war and ambush. Not at all desirable, but a place to be included in a representation of the world.
A description of a polis appears in the Odyssey [bk. vi. 262ff]. It mentions a high wall and gates on each side of the city, stations for ships, a market-place around a temple of Poseidon, "fitted with large stones dug out of the earth". This passage indicates the existence of large conurbations at a relatively early period, but it would be unreasonable to infer from this description of a particular polis that each of the features described are essential features of the polis (i.e., a polis situated far inland cannot have stations for large ships).
Further evidence that the polis was a defined concept in Homeric times is indicated in Bk. vi, 4-10, where the foundation of a colony is described. Men were settled "in Scheria far away from enterprising men... (the Phoenicians); and ... ("godlike Nausithous") drew a wall around the city, and built houses, and made temples for the gods, and divided the plains". This foundation of an "apoikia" is echoed in its details in a passage found in Plato's Laws [745b-e] which describes the just foundation and layout of a polis, "as far as possible in the centre of its chora"; and the division of the whole into twelve parts, after an area has been designated for the principal gods to be called the "acropolis. A wall is to be built around it; "then it is possible to lay out the twelve parts, both in the polis itself and in the chora as a whole", And after the creation of the tribes and their allocation to the twelve gods, and the distribution of the land, the foundation is said to be complete.
Negative evidence for the nature of the polis in Homeric times appears in the account of the Cyclops given by Odysseus [Od. Ix., 106ff] who says that
they have no laws, who, trusting in the immortal gods, neither plant a plant with their hands, nor plough: but all these things unsown, untilled, spring up, wheat and barley, and vines, which bear wine from large clusters...
The real horror of the Cyclops' situation is that "there are neither assemblies for consulting, nor rights". In short the Cyclops live without the principal features of the polis, inhabiting " the summits of lofty moutains in hollow caves", unlike the citizens who live in the plains, "and everyone gives judgement to his children and wives", as opposed to the Greek practice. Finally, we are told that the Cyclops have no care for one another.
In the Works and Days Hesiod too sees the polis as a place where justice should reign and where fair arbitration ought to be obtainable:
When judgements are fair - alike for strangers as for the local folk - and the judges undiverted from what is right, then a polis blooms and the people in it prosper. For such a place Zeus, all seeing, does not ordain the misery of war (recalling the inverted polis on the shield of Achilles), so the young men grow up in the land in peace. Men of justice know nothing of famine or ruin, as they feast upon the produce of their fields: the earth offers them a life of plenty... As for the women, they bring forth sons to match their fathers.
Thus says Hesiod, "their blessings are perpetual: the fertile land yields up its crops - and they never set foot on a ship". By this Hesiod seems to be referring to one of the most probable causes of colonization: shortage of land, or its infertility. But, in common with most Greeks he sees a relation between fact and value, so that bad times for a polis are likely to be the actions of bad citizens:
often a whole polis has suffered because of the evil of one man who is a sinful and wicked schemer: the son of Kronos sends down from heaven a great and universal calamity, famine and plague at the same time, so that the people waste away; no children are born to the women, and oikoi die out; such is the decision of Olympian Zeus*.
Thus, though calamity might seem like sufficient practical reason for the foundation of an "apoikia", this pattern of belief suggests strongly that colonists might be expelled for fear of contagion if they were perceived to be tainted with the evil which had befallen the polis (it seems that colonists were chosen to go by the polis, and it was not up to to the choice of the individual), whether or not the continued presence of the colonists would have prejudiced the survival of the polis in strictly causal terms. In practice this would have been an excellent way of settling old scores and redistributing land, principally in favour of the rich*.
Turning to the archaeological evidence, there exists an inscription from the Cretan city of Dreros, which gives some insight into the structure of a polis in the archaic period*. It tells of a decision made by the polis about the office of "Kosmos" (apparently a chief magistrate), limiting its tenure and laying down specific conditions for the holder of the office (Aristotle claims a parallel significance for Spartan Ephors and the Cretan Kosmi, to which I shall return later). The seventh century Draconian Law on Homicide is the oldest extant Greek law code, and has been used in the past to suggest a drift towards written and therefore public law, at least in some parts of Greece*. However, according to Crawford and Whitehead [op. cit., p65], modern scholars regard the Constitution of Drako as the result of fifth century pamphleteering. Another stele, the Law from Chios, contains "the earliest secure reference to a Boule... of the people", and, it is argued, its power to levy fines and judge appeals (c600-550 B.C.) "attests the growth of the popular element within the state at a relatively early period"*.
Later sources, naturally, are retrospective. Thucydides gives some information on the "synoikismos" of Attica (settling together). In Bk. ii. 15 he says that, from the time of the first kings "down to Theseus (the legendary founder of Athens, whose name is probably related to the verb tithemi, "to set in place") the people of Attica
always lived in (their own) poleis, each one with its own administrative buildings and officials; unless there was some common danger they would not come together in council with the king, but each individual polis would govern itself in accordance with its own decisions.
In this case it is clear that the foundation of the Athenian polis did not involve the inauguration of basic institutions: each polis had its administrative buildings and officials, and took its own decisions. When Theseus came to the throne (as the Athenians wished to believe) he
organised the chora on a proper basis, chiefly by doing away with the multiplicity of poleis and their separate councils and governments; on his scheme there was only one polis... and one seat of decision making and administration.
So the synoikismos of Theseus had nothing to do with the foundation of the polis as an idea, but was instead a particular exemplification of the idea. What was his motive? This was total synoikismos:
everyone was free, just as before, to look after his own affairs, but there was now only one place - Athens - which Theseus allowed them to treat as a polis.
The synoikismos of Theseus was the completion of a unity: the population was not moved, but the political unit was now Attica instead of a multitude of "poleis".
There is a tendency among scholars to conflate synoikismos (interpreted here as the process leading to the creation of the polis) and the development of urbanism. The two are emphatically not the same and to assume that they are does not much illuminate the emergence of the polis. Aristotle's view of the development of the polis [Politics 1, 1252-3] is, on one level an example of this kind of error: his account is warped by a combination of two factors: his view of the world in teleological terms, leading him to postulate an evolution of the polis; and his systematic programme (which surfaces in all of his work) of leading the Greeks to virtue through common sense, which determines the character of that evolution. He sees the polis as the natural outcome of a teleological process which he outlines as follows: first the oikos which is the
natural unit established to meet all man's daily needs... then, when a number of oikia are first united for the satisfaction of something more than day-to-day needs, the result is the village... finally the ultimate partnership, made up of numbers of villages and having already attained the height... of self sufficiency - this is the polis.
I.e., it has become complete. "It has come into being in order, simply that life can go on; but it now exists so as to make that life a good life". Each of its constituent parts (the villages) are seen as leading up to the polis and, "for a process to reach its consummation is only natural".
Aristotle argues that the oikos is built out of two unions: that of male and female and of master and slave, and the latter are joined together out of mutual interest. He explains the relationship between master and slave by saying that intelligence and foresight naturally belong to the ruling element, and the partner with the capacity for physical labour will naturally be subject. Thus kings are explained as the outcome of master and slave within the oikos. The relationships between male and female and master and slave, he argues, are different, except in the case of the barbaroi: "among the barbaroi... female and slave... fill the same position. The reason for this is that the barbaroi possess no naturally ruling element". Hence the Greeks have as much right to rule the barbaroi as their own slaves.
This preposterous argument serves a crucial function, for his argument about the development of the polis makes it virtually indistinguishable from the development of the city, making the development of the polis universal, given the same conditions. Thus the polis ceases to be a uniquely Greek phenomenon. To restore its uniqueness Aristotle has to assert the racial superiority of the Greeks over the barbaroi: only the Greeks can develop the polis, since only they are truly human. Further, Aristotle is forced to deny the obvious, in that his argument implies that no urban developments of the kind described had occurred elsewhere. Not only is this nonsense, but the absurdity is underlined by the fact that in the same book he describes the Carthaginian political system, showing it to parallel closely many aspects of the polis*.
Roebuck, in his article "Some aspects of urbanization in Corinth"* also presents a case for synoikismos: i.e., he attempts to understand the development of the polis there in terms of an evolution (though naturally not a teleological one). Thus he interprets the archaeological remains as marking the development of the synoikismos towards the polis, as if the concept of the polis necessarily bears a fixed relation to its concrete remains. He discusses the relative merits of whether or not the material development of Corinth was the result of agriculture or commerce, and sees the presence of temples and other structures as stages in the upgrading towards the status of polis, confusing the remains with the institutions, which did not necessarily have a parallel evolution. For instance, if the synoikismos of the expanded Athenian polis reflects an actual occurence, and it came into being of a piece as the result of the imposition of an idea, then there was no evolution as such. No people were moved (unless we credit Plutarch's account) and the material remains would hardly reflect the change. Unless it turns up inscriptions and documents, archaeology can tell us little about this kind of change.
If the polis is neither the same thing as a city, nor its material infrastructure, we should decide what it is that the polis could be:
1. A passage from Thucydides makes it quite clear that the polis is not the same as the city, but that it is wherever the citizens are [vii. 77. 4.]. Why the citizens constitute a polis remains to be determined.
2. Is the polis a tribal entity? It certainly involved the tribes but did not depend on particular tribal arrangements, for the polis continued to exist after Cleisthenes' reforms and the breaking up of the old tribes.
3. Is it a place of law under which the citizens live? Yes. However this is not unique to the Greeks: the Carthaginians lived under law, and the Assyrians also (the kings' word was law). Is it written law? No, for the Spartans were accredited as Greeks and the Lycurgan rhetra were specifically unwritten. Yet they lived as citizens of a polis. Certainly according to Hesiod the polis was a place where justice ought to be had (though he was cynical about the likelihood of getting it).
4. Is the polis necessarily democratic? Not in the late archaic and classical sense, though the presence of democratic arrangements did not destroy the polis considered as a physical entity. The polis existed as a concept before the existence of democracy, being mentioned by both Homer and Hesiod. It also existed under oligarchic control.
5. Is the polis an ordered, hierarchical community? Yes, but this does not distinguish it from other cities in antiquity.
6. Is the polis a concept associated with the making of decisions? It is a characteristic of the polis that decisions are made, whatever the character of its rulership. A tyrant decides for his pleasure, an oligarch decides for "the best", and the demos, according to one's inclination, either falls prey to whatever seizes its imagination at the time, or else functions as the voice of the gods; a king, like the oligarchs, decides for the best on account of his supposed proximity to the divine.
7. Does the polis enshrine freedom? Yes, for it is only with freedom that decisions can be made, and therefore, according to Aristotle, virtue acquired [cf. the Nicomachean Ethics, particularly concerning the distinction between voluntary and involuntary acts]. The polis makes men free, and therefore where men are free there is a polis. The corollary of this is that where men can acquire virtue and have honour, they are free. Each of the Greek states has in common - apart from linguistic affinities - a common interest in honour and virtue. They differ from each other in the manner in which honour and virtue are achieved (i.e., the Spartans emphasised narrow military virtues).
8. Is the polis a place where there is specialization of official functions? To some extent, although most of the Greeks prided themselves on the amateur nature of their offices, almost as a guarantee of the purity of their institutions. At any rate, arguments for specialization of functions again blurs the distinction between the development of the polis and the rise of urbanism.
9. Does the polis promote attachment to something beyond the individual - i.e., the polis before the individual and his purely personal obligations? Yes, but pressure in this direction also comes from tribal association and obligation to a king, as well as being a sporadic feature of the development of urbanism.
10. Is assembly a necessary feature of the polis? Judging by the horror at the Cyclops lack of assembly, yes.
It might be argued that what we see in the institution of the polis is a secularization of decision making, the decisions no longer being made in consultation with the divine (through oracle and sacrifice), but now made by the community via the institutions (various councils; the ekklesia). In this respect it might be significant that (as far as I am aware) there were no oracular seats in Attica. However, the secularization argument is probably mistaken: oracles continued to be consulted. Perhaps it would be better to see the citizens functioning as a kind of "college of cardinals" (vox populi, vox dei), so that the style of man's relation to the divine has changed, rather than the connection being attenuated or abandoned altogether. If so, we might expect the carrying over of institutions and titles from an earlier system, i.e., "Kosmos"*, "Basileus"*, "Archon", etc. As Aristotle noted, Kosmos was a title of Cretan officials, and he equated this office with that of the Spartan Ephorate. The Kosmos may originally have had a sacred function: the word signifies order, arrangement, regularity, institution, discipline, and also the world, the universe, and mankind. The text of the inscription from Dreros has been interpreted in secular terms, but the reference to the Kosmos being "useless as long as he lives" might well refer either to a ritual uselessness, or to his being "marked off" from the rest of humanity as a man with a foot in both worlds, the sacred and the profane*. The Spartan Ephors (elected by the assembly of Equals) had responsibilities which included the giving of permission to foreign ambassadors to cross the border into Spartan territory; permission to address the Spartan assembly; they were also responsible for summoning the assembly. They were the essential intermediaries between the Spartans and the outside world, functioning in much the same way as a priest or prophet: as a gate to the other (the etymology of ephor is probably epi horos: i.e., "on the frontier"). Xenophon [Lak. Pol. 13, 1-5] indicates some of the religious associations of the boundaries of the chora.
The polis appears to revolve around two central ideas: that of assembly, and that of judgement (in a wide sense, including "separation" and "balance"). From Plutarch's life of Theseus we can gather that the assemblage was to be as large as possible, whether or not the synoikismos actually took place in this way:
daring yet farther to enlarge the city, he invited all strangers to equal privileges in it: and the words "come hither, all ye people", are said to be the beginning of any proclamation which Theseus ordered.
Plutarch also tells us that:
the nobility (selected by Theseus) were to have the care of religion, to supply the city with magistrates, to explain the laws and to interpret whatever related to the worship of the gods. As to the rest, he balanced the citizens against each other as nearly as possible; the nobles excelling in dignity, the husbandmen in usefulness, and the artificers in number...
(which recalls Plato's remarks about the distribution of equal plots of land: the actual size of the plot depended on its fertility. A good plot would be very small). This view of the polis makes it a moral universe, containing all good things in strict proportion, with all the people of Attica in communion with the king.
A fragment from the beginning of Aristotle's Athenian Constitution [no. 5] also points to the significance of total assemblage for the idea of the polis. He says that the Athenians
were grouped in four tribal divisions in imitation of the seasons of the year, and each of the tribes was divided into three parts, in order that there might be twelve parts in all, like the months of the year, and they were called thirds and brotherhoods; and the arrangement of clans was in groups of thirty to the brotherhood, as the days to the month, and the clan consisted of thirty men.
One can argue that the significance of the assembly of the citizens is that it makes council and judgement possible among the largest number of participants. But there may be a deeper reason behind the desire for the total synoikismos. The reason may be theological, involving the idea of completion. As Aristotle said of the polis, it is an end, and once it is reached it begins to serve an entirely different function, allowing the passage of the citizens from the world of subsistence to the world of the good life, the life of virtue. The polis can do this only because it is complete and has reached the limit of what it is: its completion marks it off from the rest of the world (with which it is contrasted on the shield of Achilles), so that it stands in relation to the world as does a priest or priest-king - of the world, but set apart.
The importance of the polis therefore, given the validity of this argument, was its completeness, so that it stood like a gate between the world of subsistence and a world of possibilities beyond; a place of transaction (hence commerce and the agora), both between man and man, and man and the divine. It served as the intermediary, as the point of exchange (hence the presence of strangers). Its completeness did not depend on particular buildings, institutions, and social arrangements, beyond the assembly and the principle of counsel, and so it was possible for the polis to be wherever the citizens (the free) happened to be.
The real polis, of course, was never like this: the average citizen's liberty and leisure to acquire virtue was never quite what Aristotle had in mind. The history of the polis, and its emergence into history, might be characterized as the struggle to be what it ought to have been, but never was.
 I.e., the aristocracy: decisions were always confirmed by an oracle of Apollo, and the aristocracy had charge of religious matters, and corruption is likely to have been a great temptation. However, to look at this kind of power as corruption is to retroject modern cynicism about political elites: the teleological view of the world equates fact and value, and therefore it follows as the corollary of social position that the judgements of the aristocracy are of a better calibre than the judgements of anyone else.