<< Back to Lessons Index

7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 12 - Rise of Greek City-States

What will we be learning in this unit?
  • How did geography influence the Greek city-state?
  • What kinds of government did the Greek city-state develop?

 Geography of the Greek Homeland
  • Greece is part of the Balkan peninsula, which extends southward into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Mountains divide the peninsula into isolated valleys. Beyond the rugged coast, hundreds of rocky islands spread toward the horizon.
  • The Greeks who farmed the valleys or settled on the scattered islands did not create a large empire such as that of the Egyptians or Persians. Instead, they built many small city-states, cut off from one another by mountains or water. Each included a city and its surrounding countryside. Greeks fiercely defended the independence of their tiny city-states. Endless rivalry led to frequent wars.

 Geography of the Greek Homeland
  • While mountains divided Greeks, the seas were a vital link to the world outside. With its hundreds of bays, the Greek coastline provided safe harbors for ships. The Greeks became skilled sailors, carrying cargoes of olive oil, wine, and marble around the eastern Mediterranean. They returned not only with grains and metals but also with ideas, which they adapted to their own needs. For example, the Greeks expanded the Phoenician alphabet. The resulting Greek alphabet became the basis for all western alphabets.
  • By 750 b.c., rapid population growth was forcing many Greeks to leave their own overcrowded valleys. With fertile land limited, the Greeks expanded overseas. Gradually, a scattering of Greek colonies took root all around the Mediterranean from Spain to Egypt. Wherever they traveled, Greek settlers and traders carried their ideas and culture.

Governing the City-States
  • As their world expanded after 750 b.c., the Greeks evolved a unique version of the city-state, which they called the polis.Typically, the city itself was built on two levels. On a hilltop stood the acropolis, or high city, with its great marble temples dedicated to different gods and goddesses. On flatter ground below lay the walled main city with its marketplace, theater, public buildings, and homes. 
  • The population of each city-state was fairly small, which helped citizens share a sense of responsibility for its triumphs and defeats. In the warm climate of Greece, free men spent much time outdoors in the marketplace, debating issues that affected their lives. The whole community joined in festivals honoring the city's special god or goddess.

Governing the City-States
  • Between 750 b.c. and 500 b.c., Greeks evolved different forms of government. At first, the ruler of the polis, like those in the river valley empires, was a king. A government in which a king or queen exercises central power is a monarchy. Slowly, though, power shifted to a class of noble landowners. They were also the military defenders of the city-states, because only they could afford bronze weapons and chariots. At first these nobles defended the king. In time, they won power for themselves. The result was an aristocracy, or rule by a landholding elite. 
  • As trade expanded, a new middle class of wealthy merchants, farmers, and artisans emerged in some cities. They challenged the landowning nobles for power and came to dominate some city-states. The result was a form of government called an oligarchy. In an oligarchy, power is in the hands of a small, powerful elite, usually from the business class.

Governing the City-States
  • Changes in military technology increased the power of the middle class. By about 650 b.c., iron weapons replaced bronze ones. Since iron was cheaper, ordinary citizens could afford iron helmets, shields, and swords. Meanwhile, a new method of fighting emerged. The phalanx was a massive formation of heavily armed foot soldiers. It required long hours of drill. Shared training created a strong sense of unity among citizen-soldiers. 
  • By putting the defense of the city-state in the hands of ordinary citizens, the phalanx reduced class differences. The new type of warfare, however, led the two most influential city-states to develop very different ways of life. While Sparta stressed military virtues and stern discipline, Athens glorified the individual and extended political rights to more citizens.