Lewis Mumford

The Greek Polis




This is an extract from Chapter V (Emergence of the Polis) of Lewis Mumford’s, The City in History. In these passages Mumford points out some of the negative aspects that characterized, at least in part, Greek civilizations: the belittling of business and industry, the disparagement of manual work, the dishonesty in trading. These factors were responsible for the decadence of the Greek Polis and seem still to be, after so many centuries, the cause of recurrent crises and never ending stagnation.



Business and industry were, unfortunately, outside the pale of Greek education or paideia: indeed, as Herodotus noted, the Greeks ‘hold in less honour than their other citizens those who learn any art . . . but deem such to be noble as abstain from handicrafts’. This contrasted with the spirit of Solon's age, when ‘according to Plutarch, a ‘ “work was a shame to none”, nor was a distinction made with respect to trade, but the merchant’s was a noble calling’. Except in the commercial cities of Ionia, which had thrown off the aristocratic customs of Homeric Greece, and no longer equated the highest goods of life with those derived from the hunt and war, the Greek citizens rejected trade as a possible mode of the good life. Thieving and cheating, if we may judge from Homer, were not incompatible with the aristocratic virtues: but plain dealing, on the basis of value given and received, was treated as more ignoble than one-sided expropriation by forceful means. The Corinthians alone were sufficiently proud of their success as merchants to be exempt from this prejudice. This de-moralized money-making paved the way for other forms of demoralization.

The Greek contempt for trade was self-defeating: the good faith and reciprocity needed in all forms of long-distance commerce, dependent upon credit, never spread from business to politics; indeed, just the opposite happened, for Athens turned herself into a ruthless exploiter of the helpless, and the systematic enemy of her economic rivals, at a moment when her own growth of population demanded a widening of the whole field of joint effort for the common good. In building up her empire, Athens used the strong-arm methods of the nobility, with an extra twist of civilized brutality, in order to claim exclusively as her own the surplus that should have enriched. all of Hellas.

In his biographic sketch of Pericles, Plutarch attempted to defend the public-works policy of that statesman, in much the same terms as people later defended that of Napoleon III and Haussmann. Since the city was provided with ‘all things necessary for the war, they could convert the overplus of its wealth to such undertakings as would hereafter, when completed, give them eternal honour, and for the present, while in process, freely supply all the inhabitants with plenty’. He dwelt on the varied materials that went into the temple - stone, brass, ivory, gold, ebony, cypress wood - the various trades that fashioned them, the activities of merchants and mariners, who conveyed them, not to speak of ‘cartwrights, cattle breeders, wagoners, rope-makers, flax workers, shoemakers, leather-dressers, roadmakers, miners’. Thus, he concluded, ‘the occasion and services of the public works distributed plenty through every age and condition’.

All this, of course, was pyramid-building, both in the Egyptian and later Keynesian sense of the words - if they were not interchangeable, indeed, from the beginning. And it says something for the moral decency of a large body of Athenian citizens that, despite the hugeness and far-reachingness of this bribe - continuous employment! an expanding economy! we never had it so good! - no part of his policy was more bitterly criticized in the popular assemblies. Pericles' enemies pointed out that Athens had besmirched its reputation by financing this huge programme through removing from the Isle of Delos the common treasury of the Greeks, and appropriating it for the advantage of Athens alone. Compared with this kind of one-sided expropriation, even the sharpest kind of trading had moral advantages. Not adept at federation or representative government, not skilled like Miletus and Rhodes in colonization, Athens sought to monopolize both economic and cultural advantages, instead of using her vast talents in etherializing them and widely distributing them. No wonder coarse-minded Sparta had Delphi on its side.

As the number of foreign traders grew in proportion to the financial prosperity of the polis, the number of inhabitants who had no direct stake in its life grew along with it. These were the people who, if they sought education, would get it for a fee, quickly, from those wandering scholars, the Sophists: teachers whose chief sin was that they professed to be able to teach in a few short lessons, for pay, what the Hellenic city, with all its  institutions cooperating, actually took a whole lifetime to give to its citizens.

Even when the Greek city became a ‘democracy’, therefore, its citizens were a class apart, a ‘dominant minority’. The greater the economic activities of the expanding fifth-century metropolis became, the more surely the gap between the citizens and the non-citizens widened. The imported handicraft workers, no less than the merchants, might come from lands unused to self-government and unable to value the freedom and autonomy of the polis: Aristophanes even mentions Egyptian bricklayers. They might be ‘free’, but they could not assume active citizenship.

Many of the citizens of Athens lacked the means to live the leisured aristocratic life that their constitution presupposed. In order to get the leisure needed for performing his functions as legislator and juror, the Athenian citizen was forced to demand public support from the treasury for the period of his office. When Pericles introduced pay for such services, the old landed families, living on rent and estate-grown products, regarded this pay as little better than a dole or a bribe; but what was really scandalous was that it made the citizenry dependent for their freedom upon the enslavement of weaker communities.

Trade remained for the Greek citizen an unwelcome intruder in the ideal polis: it contrasted with both the aristocratic and the agricu1tural way of life. That animus was carried over to Romans like Cicero who, in De Civitate, railed against those that were tempted far from home by ‘soaring hopes and dreams’ of commercial profit; indeed he attributed the downfall of Corinth and Carthage to their ‘lust for trafficking’ and the scattering and dispersion of their citizens. Meanwhile, the men of business became increasingly indifferent to the form of government, so long as it permitted them to carry on their enterprises and make profits. This indifference must have exercised an insidious influence over those who still sought to practise self-government. Economic power, though it may be hidden, cannot be ignored. By the end of the fourth century, the economic centre of gravity had shifted decisively from land to commerce; from the old frugal self-contained oligarchy to canny traders, parading their gains, with whom an absolute ruler could do business.

The foreign trader in the fifth-century Greek economy played a part not dissimilar to that which the Jew played in the Christian economy of the medieval town: he was needed but not wanted. The best estimate of the population of the Greek city that scholars can make today reveals the weakness of this narrowed form of citizen participation. Athens at its height, according to Wycherley, had 40,000 full-fledged citizens (male), possibly 150,000 free people (metics, women, and children), and perhaps 100,000 slaves. The proportions are probably correct though the numbers are almost surely too high. In other words, less than one in seven of its inhabitants were citizens, with all the privileges of citizenship; and even among these citizens, a growing proportion were craftsmen and tradesmen who lacked the sense of public obligation that the landed families, not unlike the English landed gentry, encouraged among their members. The political leaders who followed Pericles were, successively, a hemp dealer, a sheep dealer, a leather dealer, and a sausage dealer: men without either the pride of the old aristocracy or the educated competence of the new maritime commercial class.

The failure to moralize trade and bring its goods, under suitable restraint, into the province of the good life, was perhaps as serious a source of the Hellenic disintegration as the spread of slavery or the failure to cope with the successive assaults of swollen empires. Almost from the moment of creating the polis, the Greek had never been able to rectify his image of a noble, leisured life as essentially that pursued by the Homeric aristocracy. This image left out the trader, the banker, the handworker, the shopkeeper, all in fact who were needed to produce the economic surplus by other means than naked exploitation and robbery. Without that surplus, neither leisure nor democracy could flourish.

By failing to turn the businessman into a citizen, the Greek eventually turned the citizen into something worse than a businessman: first the insolent conqueror and exploiter, then the subservient subject, the cringing pedagogue, the cadger and bootlicker, the refined parasite, whose name became a byword of contempt among the Romans, much as they admired and copied the Classic Greeks.

Yet if the commercial functions of the agora multiplied from the seventh century on, this does not necessarily mean that the political activities of the city ceased to take place there. The prime mark of democratization, in cities whose descendants demanded a wider distribution of political power, was the disappearance of the original palace, such as that which King Erectheus had built at Athens on the Acropolis.

This separation of political power from religious power was a turning point in the Hellenic city. And it is significant that the Town Hall, as one may translate prytaneion, kept on the modest scale of the later Greek cities some of the original features of both palace and temple: it was still treated as the home of the king, and the sacred fire, dedicated to Hestia, was kept burning there. Here, too, was the place where foreign emissaries would be entertained or where a state banquet would be held. Naturally, the earliest documents on political and civil matters were kept in the prytaneion. Often the Council House (bouleuterion), a fairly big place where citizens served in mass, would remain in or near the agora.

This mixture of functions, characteristic though it was of the Hellenic city, seems to have disturbed the tidy classifying mind of Aristotle: he advocated the building of a separate political agora, well insulated by space from the commercial agora, not merely to segregate the political functions formally, but to keep non-citizens out, even as chance spectators.

Various Greek cities made an effort to apply democracy to government on a large scale; and their efforts should be as instructive to our age as they were to the authors of the Federalist Papers. For the Greeks attempted to bring back to the complex organization of the city the sense of direct citizen responsibility and participation that had existed in village government. The Ephebic Oath of Athens expressed with no little beauty that periodic effort at civic dedication. On the theory that all citizens were equal, they distributed the lower offices by lot, and rotated them annually or for shorter periods, for service in the town council or jury duty. Since the major consultation and judgement was done by people who addressed each other directly, face to face, eloquence became a major instrument of politics, and the ability to sway an audience became more important for political leadership than the ability to do a job. Those who did their job too well, like Themistocles or Aristides, were often suspect.

Nothing like a skilled civil service or an independent judiciary could spring up under these conditions. The Town Council, as W. Warde Fowler pointed out, was simply a large committee of the whole people, elected afresh every year; and it in turn prepared all the business for the still larger Ecclesia, or mass assembly. Functions that required practical or professional skill, the control of the army, the management of finance, the building and maintenance of docks, were entrusted to boards, somewhat the way in which the United States Senate entrusts these duties to standing committees.

This system was effective in undermining the influence of the landed families with their unfortunate habit of utilizing public power for family advancement. But it was equally a conspiracy against the aristocracy of talent; for it was only by accident that those with special abilities were placed in positions that utilized them; and even if they proved their merit, the odds were against their remaining in office. As a result, the demotion or exile of their more able leaders was one of the chronic weaknesses of Athenian politics. Even Pericles himself was not exempt from the popular tendency to offer up the leader as a scapegoat when things went wrong. The trial of Socrates reveals the same animus against those whose abilities awakened the opposition of envious and spiteful mediocrity.

As the population of the city increased, and as the complexities of economic and political life increased with it, the limitations of democracy as an exclusive system of government were likewise revealed. Pure democracy requires the intimacy of face-to-face meeting, possible only in small numbers; plus the traditional restraints and orderly procedures. Even Plato recognized the advantages of such closeness, for in The Laws he observed: ‘There is no greater good in a state than that the citizens should be known to each other.’ In large numbers democracy is obviously unworkable, except in the limited sense of a popular referendum. Now as the population of the Hellenic city grew, not merely was there a growing proportion of non-voters to voters, but even the small body of privileged citizens became too big and lost direct contact with each other. As a result, clubs, parties, factions developed, all of which limited the direct influence of one mind on another.


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