An essay on the rise of the Greek polis was my assignment for ancient history. Despite taking this essay to my university's writing lab, I received an 83. What you see below is the graded essay. The writing lab has stalled out in it's ability to help me, so I'm posting it here. Please read it and let me know what I need to work on. It's long, but you don have to read the whole thing. According to my professor, my biggest issue is my introduction and thesis statement. Helping me with my intro and thesis is more than enough feedback, and it would be a lot. Thanks. )
Around 1,200 B.C.E, the Mycenaean civilization began to show drastic signs of decline. By 1,100 B.C.E it was in ruins. The causes of their decline are not completely known, but historians attribute it to climate change and invaders called the Dorians. The Mycenaean palaces were destroyed, their system of writing gone. Their art and way of life virtually disappeared from mainland Greece; long-distance trading was a thing of the past. This era is known as the Dark Age. As the dust settled, the Dorians mixed with what was left of the Mycenaean's, and evolved into what we understand to be the people of archaic Greece. There is one benefit that can be gained from the Dorian invasion: the collapse of the Mycenaean's gave the Greeks the opportunity to develop a uniquely Greek institution, the polis.
Life after the Dark Ages was harsh for the Greeks. As they struggled to eke out an existence as pastoralists food shortages were common place. The Greek population declined to such an extent that by 1,000 B.C.E it was one-third of what it was in 1,300 B.C. After the fall of the Mycenaean's, the people left behind were unable to recognize themselves as a distinct cultural group. All forms of an organized culture such as writing, trading, art, architecture, disappeared. The Greeks no longer depicted exotic people or animals in their ceramics . This is evidence that economies were localized and less diverse. They eventually settled into migration and built mobile dwellings on hills and in isolated valleys. The Greeks, however, are an enterprising and forward looking people. The isolation of the period would propel small villages to unite and form a homogenous social group.
The polis emerged when scattered villages came together to form small agricultural communities. This was a pivotal moment for the Greeks, because it showed they recognized a common identity. Eventually, a localized economy transformed into a barter system where people applied their individual specialty to buy the things they needed. Farmers, for example, grew crops such as grains, vegetables, and olives. In turn, they were able to make wine and olive oil, and barter their wares to those who specialized in ceramics, which were used to store surplus. As the Greeks developed a more sophisticated economy, it became more diverse. Easy access to the sea enabled them to establish trading hubs and networks throughout the Mediterranean. They carried olive oil, wine, silver, and marble abroad. Traders returned with grains, metals, and ideas that they incorporated into their polis. Once again they depicted people and animals in their art. By 750 B.C, the population of Greece had grown to such an extent over 1,000 poleis dotted the Mediterranean. Greeks built streets, marketplaces, temples, shrines, shops, houses, and public buildings, and more importantly, the agora. Each poleis had their own unique identity, particular tensions, and evolved in isolation from each other resulting in a fierce independence.
Despite the varying differences in the Greek poleis, they all developed many common features. The fundamental idea behind the polis was that all male citizens held equal political rights and citizenship based on the amount of land that they owned. In this way, the Greek farmer began to demand a larger voice in government as many realized autonomy through owning a family farm. Most of the people lived within the city rather than the country side. Most polies developed fortified walls except for Sparta. All went through various political systems - tyranny, oligarchy, democracy - and in all forms of government a small number of wealthy aristocrats dominated the politics. Eventually, an increase in population led to land shortage further increasing tensions between the rich and poor.
As the population grew in Greece, overcrowding led to an insufficient amount of land to support the people. Even the tradition of dividing land equally among male heirs caused problems. Hesiod states in his Works and Days that only one son should support his father's house in order to increase the wealth in the home. Futher proving the intense pressure the Greeks experienced as they outgrew the lands capacity to provide for them. In Plato's book the Laws he refers to the need for colonization as the solution to solve the problem of overpopulation by stating that many Greeks were too numerous for the means of subsistence in their countries . Rugged mountains and other polis meant internal colonization on the mainland was not an option. Eventually, the need for land forced the Greeks to settled across the Mediterranean. Many poleis experienced overcrowding, but as they developed in isolation from each other, they reached their own unique solutions for overcoming the problem.
Most colonized abroad, but Athens and Sparta came up with atypical solutions. Sparta alleviated population pressure by invading Messina and enslaving its inhabitants. These slaves were made to work the fields to provide for the population. The slaves were called Helots, and they vastly outnumbered the Spartans. A Spartan named Lycurgus enacted brutal laws that required all citizens to fully dedicate themselves to the polis. At age seven Spartan boys were taken from their families to undergo intense military training until the age of thirty. Women were also required to dedicate themselves to the polis. Women had to build their bodies through exercise so that they strong Spartan male heirs for the phalanx. The purpose of the laws was to train citizens to became soldiers in the event of a slave revolt or external threat.
Athens, on the other hand, neither conquered or colonized to alleviate the pressures of overpopulation. In the seventh century, land shortages caused farms to fail. This led many to borrow from the rich. If citizens could not pay their loans they were used as debt slaves until such a time they had paid off their debt. This led to tensions between the rich and poor. Solon alleviated this tension by first eliminating debt slavery. If the basis of the polis is characterized by equal political rights, then all citizens must be free. Dehumanizing Athenians through debt slavery or labor exploitation could no longer be tolerated. Henceforth, loans could not be attached to the body. All debts were cancelled, and he redistributed land more fairly. He also established the council of four-hundred. He divided the Athenians into four social classes based on land ownership: Pentecosiomedimnoi, the hippeis, the zeugites, and the thetes. Solon also instituted several economic reforms and trading networks to alleviate the problem with food production due to overpopulation and land shortage. He banned grain export, and ordered an increase in production of olives and vines suitable for Athenian soil. These were then traded for imported grain. So, here encouraged the production of olives, wines, and exports of grain.
In 508 B.C.E., Cleisthenes futher set Athens on the path to democracy by passing a serious of reforms that gave more power to the people in turn for volunteering to fight in the phalanx. He broke up the four old tribes that were the source of aristocratic power, and divided Attica in thirty units called Trittyes. Each Trittyes constituted a different part of Athens - coastal, inland, urban - which put all Athenians, regardless of social status, in to the same unit. In this way, it was difficult for the aristocracy to regain power. Cleisthenes also created to council of five hundred to replace Solon's council of four hundred. The council of five hundred changed every year through election by lot; fifty men over the age of thirty from each of the ten tribes served at least twice.
The Polis was the foundation and support for Greek life all across the Mediterranean. It represents thousands of independent city-stats that developed widely different identities based on their circumstances and geographic isolation. All are uniquely in common in that they developed from small agricultural communities as they came to recognize a common Greek identity and kinship. As each polis developed a shared identity, there existed a constant fierce ideal of independence and separateness from each other.
The nature of the poleis all across the Mediterranean went through several political systems - tyranny, oligarchy, democracy - with a small aristocratic ruling class dictating laws that not only kept them in power, but kept them wealthy. Many aristocrats in Athens, for example, used debt slavery as a means of generating wealth as the normal method of doing so through land was no longer a viable option. Many poleis solve the problem of overpopulation by colonizing abroad. Sparta and Athens chose different solutions that eventually changed the nature of their polis.
Sparta resolved population pressures through slavery. Athens responding by instituting a variety of social and economic reforms that spurred economic growth, and empowered the citizens in matters of state. Solon cancelled all debts, prohibited loads to be attached to the body, and redistributed land. He also increased trade and exports. Following the reforms of Solon, Cleisthenes empowered the people even more by creating the Trittyes. Each Trittyes which put all Athenians in to the same unit whether they were rich or poor. Cleisthenes also created to council of five hundred to replace Solon's council of four hundred. The council of five hundred changed every year through election by lot; fifty men over the age of thirty from each of the ten tribes served at least twice. Regardless of the attitude toward each other, the Greeks chose to create a system that established equality amongst themselves. In this way, the polis represents an idea more than it does a concrete place.