The English word “politics” comes from the Greek word for city-state, “polis”

The English word “politics” comes from the Greek word for city-state, “polis”

Government and Politics in Ancient Greece

For the Greeks, the city-state was essentially a community of citizens making decisions together about matters of communal concern. This is why the Greeks never referred to the name of a city – “Athens”, for example – but always to its citizens – “the Athenians”.

Citizens were the free members of the community who had been born to native families (those who had lived in the city-state for generations). From the earliest days of the city-states the adult male citizens would regularly meet together in public assembly to decide matters of importance for the state. This was made possible by the fact that most city-states would have no more than a few thousand such citizens.

In contrast to political developments in Mesopotamian city-states, more than two thousand years before, kings early on lost most of their power in Greek city-state, and in many cases vanished altogether. From that time onwards these city-states were republics rather than kingdoms.

In all the states, a small group of aristocrats initially had a controlling position. They formed a small council of men who frequently met to discuss public matters in depth – something that a large assembly of several thousand citizens could not do.


Many citizens’ assembly gained more and more power, however, and in the fifth century BC many states were full-blown democracies(the word “democracy” is based on the Greek word for common people, “demos”.)

Athens was by far the largest and most famous of these democracies, and we know a great deal about how Athenian democracy worked. The citizens not only met in a full assembly, but chose (by lot) some of their members to form a much smaller council, which discussed public matters more fully before laying them before the full assembly. Public officials were also chosen by lot (except military commanders, who were elected). All citizens were liable to be selected for public office or membership of the governing council, and would serve for a year. In this way, office-holding was constantly rotating, and the majority of citizens gained some direct experience of government.

Public finances and administration

Taxation seems not to have been highly developed by the Greeks. Taxes were levied in times of emergency; otherwise, government was supported financially by duties on goods being bought and sold, or on property.

In fact, Greek government was not expensive by later standards. There was no bureaucracy to speak of. Some cities kept public slaves for various tasks (rudimentary police force, or a small corps of public scribes, for example), but their numbers were very small. Public officials and soldiers were largely unpaid, serving their cities voluntarily (Athens was an exception, paying citizens for undertaking public duties; but it was an exceptionally wealthy city). Moreover, the wealthy were expected not only to serve as magistrates or generals, but to contribute funds from their own pockets for the upkeep of warships, theaters and other public assets.

We know surprisingly little about Greek law. No law codes have survived, except in small fragments; enough has survived, however, tell us that the Greek city-states wrote down their laws on stone tablets and set them up in public places (presumably the open space known as the Agora). Greek histories tell us much the same ting when dealing with such famous law givers as the Athenian Solon.

Each polis had its own law code. We know most about the legal system of Athens, as in most things. Here, there were many courts, each trying different kinds of case. Very serious crimes against the state came before the entire assembly of citizens. Capital punishment was inflicted for blasphemy, treason and murder – the method differing for each crime but including beheading, poisoning and stoning. For other serious crimes, including manslaughter, exile was a common punishment. For lesser crimes, fines or confiscation of property were used.