The Polis

The centuries following the reign of Alexander were difficult, but it is not true that the polis and its culture died in the early Hellenistic period. The polis did, however, change. Already in the fourth century B.C., under the pressure of social and economic changes, the belief in the ability of the average citizen to play a decisive role in the government of his city had declined. Increasingly, specialists such as the Athenian financial experts Euboulus and Lycurgus and professional soldiers and their mercenary commanders--such as the Athenian Iphicrates and Memnon of Rhodes--tended to displace the amateur magistrates, generals, and citizen levies of the classical poleis . In the new political configuration of the third and later centuries this trend intensified. No longer significant militarily or politically in a world of great and not-so-great kingdoms, the poleis had to struggle to maintain a precarious independence in the face of continual efforts by the various kingdoms to subdue them or use them as pawns in their own diplomatic and military struggles. As time went on, democratic governments became little more than facades behind which aristocratic oligarchies governed, often with the tacit or open support of one or another of the great powers.

This bleak picture is, however, only part of the story. The political life of the polis narrowed and became harsher, but it did survive. Numerous inscriptions from all over Aegean Greece attest to the vigor and creativity of poleis and to the patriotism of individuals who were still willing to risk fortune and sometimes even life for the welfare of their polis and the reward of a decree of thanks passed by its assembly. For the first time in Greek history peaceful settlement of international disputes through arbitration became almost routine, while the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues managed for a time to overcome the particularism of the polis and build powerful federal states before both were crushed by Rome. Far from dying, the polis remained a vital part of Greek life until the last vestige of self-government disappeared in the great crises of late antiquity that mark the beginning of the Middle Ages throughout the Mediterranean basin.

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