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The Rise of Greek City-States Essay

The 8th century BC witnessed Greece’s emergence from the Dark Age and a simultaneous growth in prestige of the Greek cities. These cities would come to dominate political life and regional administration. The Polis, or city-state, perhaps developed first on the Greek coast of Asia Minor, in places such as Smyrna. The situation of the cities, surrounded by non-Greeks, would naturally focus on the urban centers. Such places were walled for defense. On the Greek mainland many of the cities were former Mycenaean strongholds.

Most focused on the citadel, which was the temple area and a place of refuge in times of trouble. However, the polis was more than simply the buildings. It was the citizenship, housing those residing in the town and surrounding countryside. The early development of the classical polis is unclear, but it has been assumed that there was a period of strife between the elite families who were the main landholders, and other social groups such as the peasantry and owners of smaller farms.

The 8th and 7th centuries were a period of changing political structures in which kingship gave way to elected officials. In a number of states, tyrannies were established. These tyrannies tended to encourage the ultimate development of democracy rather than aristocratic rule. The kingship was usually broken down into religious, military and judicial offices. This can be seen particularly in Athens, where the three Archons exercised those functions. Some states, such as Sparta, retained the monarchy, although elected officials frequently tempered with their powers.

In the new system, the city god replaced the king. In a number of cities with Mycenaean traditions, such as Athens, Mycenae itself and Tiryns, the temple was built on the site of the former palace. Even in design these temples harked back to the Mycenaean megaron. At Athens the religious function of the kings was transferred to the archon basileus. The towns increased their importance as the locations where political and economic powers were concentrated, and as centers of the state. As the states formed around the cities, disputes over borders were inevitable.

Of the early wars, the Lelantine war between Chalkis and Eretria in Euboea during the late 8th century was the most significant. Coalitions formed on each side, causing rifts in the overall structure of the centers. Afterward, many Greek sanctuaries became Pan-Hellenic or ethnic centers. In Asia, a confederacy of cities known as the Ionian League had a common cult center in the temple of Poseidon at Mycale. Olympia, the center of worship for Zeus, was a focus for Dorian states. Even prior to the foundation of the Olympic Games this location had Pan-Hellenic prestige, only growing in popularity afterward.

Other temples noted for their oracles, such as those of Zeus at Dodona and of Apollo at Delphi were consulted by all Greek states and by what many have called “barbarians”. With the formation of city-states, as well as the newfound appreciation for the ethnic centers, it seemed that the Greeks were finally emerging from the once bleak Dark Ages. The structure of their new arrangements, both political and personal, became the template for the Polees that formed a new age of Greek life.

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