Farmers and Thinkers

Between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C. there appeared the polis, the Greek city-state, an elusive entity which nurtured and defined ideals still central to Western European views of all that is "civilized." How did the Greeks, up until then an unimportant and generally poor folk on the margins of Mediterranean society, manage this miracle? V.D. Hanson's The Other Greeks, a book that is both excellent and deeply flawed, presents an explanation for the rise of the polis that is as old as Aristotle's Politics (a work Hanson uses effectively) but which has faded from contemporary discussion. Hanson argues that it was the farmer—the small farmer—who made the polis.

The polis was not just the city—Athens, say, or Thebes. It was the city and the surrounding countryside. Since citizenship depended on a property qualification, the majority of the voting citizens in Greek poleis were farmers— not city-dwellers at all. Such farmers manned the hoplite phalanx, the extraordinarily successful infantry formation that, for most of these three centuries, marginalized both cavalry (the aristocrats) and light-armed fighters (the poor) in land-based war. They provided their own armor; in many poleis they elected their own generals (Xenophon's Anabasis is a manual on how to lead an army that votes). Thus, political egalitarianism...

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