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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(plural, poleis), the city-state, a special form of socioeconomic and political organization typical of ancient Greece and Italy. The polis consisted of the territory occupied by the city proper and the surrounding farming settlements (choroi). Poleis sprang up as a result of the struggle against the vestiges of the clan system and in consequence of the growth of commodity-money relations, the differentiation of crafts and farming as specialized forms of labor, and the exacerbation of the social struggle of the communal farmers and the merchant and artisan strata against the clan aristocracy.

The economic base of the polis was an ancient form of land-ownership, a contradictory, dual form that combined state (communal) ownership and private ownership, the latter usually conditioned by the former (see K. Marx in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 46, part 1, p. 471). Only a full-fledged hereditary citizen of the polis (commune) had the right to private ownership of land. In addition to full-fledged citizens, the polis was populated by metics, perioeci, and freedmen—free but not fully enfranchised residents, usually artisans and merchants— and by slaves, who lacked all rights. The polis secured the right of full-fledged citizens to own land and slaves and looked after the economic welfare of its citizens. Accordingly, its foreign and domestic policies were aimed at restoring small- and medium-scale landownership. This was achieved by various means, including agrarian reforms and the founding of colonies and cleruches (military farming settlements established in subjugated or allied states). The polis introduced the performance of liturgies (a state obligation borne by prosperous citizens and metics) and the distribution of money for public entertainments and payments for performing naval and state service. The popular militia was composed of all citizens of the polis from 17–18 to 60 years of age. The wealthy and middle strata of society served as knights and heavily armed infantry (hoplites), and the poorer strata as lightly armed warriors. The unique character of relationships within the polis gave rise to a polis ideology and a polis patriotism.

Despite the diversity displayed by the poleis, their political structure had a certain uniformity. The state apparatus consisted of a popular assembly of full-fledged male citizens—the Apella or Ecclesia; a council—the Gerousia, Areopagus, Boule, or Senate; and various elected officials—magistrates. The assembly— the most democratic administrative body—was characteristic of all poleis, exemplifying the citizens’ right to govern the state. Depending on the political influence acquired by the merchant and artisan strata and communal farmers in their struggle against the clan aristocracy, the polis was either oligarchic, as in the case of Sparta, or democratic, as in the case of Athens. With respect to economic relationships, the difference between poleis was determined by the role of the chora, that is, by the relationships between farming, on the one hand, and crafts and trade on the other. Thus, Sparta was a typical agricultural polis, and Corinth, which had an insignificant chora, was a typical commercial and artisan polis.

With the establishment of the slaveholding system, the polis became a form of slaveholding state. However, the growth of private property and exploitation of slave labor led to the ruin of the majority of communal farmers, to the breakdown of the ancient form of ownership, and, consequently, to a crisis of the polis. In Greece, where the polis flourished in the fifth century B.C., this crisis took place at the beginning of the fourth century B.C. In Rome, where the city-states achieved their greatest development between the fifth and third centuries B.C., the crisis took place between the third and first centuries B.C.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.