Ancient Greek City States

Ancient Greece was not a unified empire or civilization. There were many peoples who lived in Greek territory.

They were divided into separate and powerful city-states. These were important and large cities that controlled sections of land throughout the region.

Each one had a different government, military, and laws with some similarities.

For example, only free male citizens had legal rights and rich nobles always controlled the government and military.

Sometimes the city-states traded with one another, and they often were at war.

There were dozens of city-states, but the most significant ones were Athens, Sparta, and Thebes.

Athens – The Intellectuals

Athens was in a region called Attica and was known for its mental and cultural developments. Its people often became philosophers, scholars, and artists.

Athens was the creator of the first known democracy in the world where all male citizens could vote in the government.

It also created Greek theater and was seen by the other city-states as the best example of Greek culture.

Athens also had a powerful navy and controlled the trade on the Mediterranean Sea for many years.

Its ships went as far as Egypt and brought back luxuries like silver and gold.

Athens often fought with another city-state called Sparta for power.

Both wanted to control all of ancient Greece and had lots of citizens, slaves, and warriors.

Athens managed to stay in charge until the great Peloponnesian War, when all of the city-states chose sides. Athens lost to Sparta and had to give up its navy.

Sparta – The Warriors

Everyone feared Sparta, the most powerful city-state in the Peloponnese. While Athens focused on the mind, Sparta focused on the body.

Its people were warriors and spent most of their time training, fighting, and going to war.

Even the women exercised and worked in the gym to be healthy and strong.

The Spartans had more slaves than any other city-state that did regular work like farming.

The slaves gave the Spartans time to train as fighters.

The Spartans lived a bleak existence with few luxuries. They believed that luxuries made a person weak and they wanted to be strong and powerful.

They had a large army and navy and fought with the other city-states all the time.

The Spartan enemy was Athens. For centuries, the two city-states fought.

Eventually, the Spartans won and forced Athens to give up their navy and wealth.

However, the other city-states got tired of being bullied by Sparta and started to fight back.

Sparta struggled to keep control of ancient Greece afterwards.

Thebes – The Rivals

Thebes was hated by the other city-states. Thebes was a constant rival of Sparta and Athens for power in the Peloponnese, or the middle and southern part of mainland Greece.

When the ancient Greeks were at war with the Persians, Thebes decided to side with the enemy.

The city’s decision came after the Spartans and Thebes lost at the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Greeks couldn’t keep the Persians out of Greece and Thebes didn’t want to lose.

However, Greece won the war. The city-states took power away from Thebes as punishment.

Thebes and Sparta remained allies and together worked to decrease the power of Athens.

During the Peloponnesian War, Thebes was an ally of Sparta. Once the war ended, Thebes grew tired of listening to Sparta and decided to stop being allies.

For hundreds of years, Thebes would continue to switch sides.

Thebes couldn’t decide whether it wanted to work with Athens or Sparta, the two biggest powers in ancient Greece.

The other city-states wrote angrily about Thebes and said they couldn’t be trusted.

Most of the stories from ancient Greece make fun of Thebes.

Facts about the City-States

  • Sparta only buried people with marked headstones if they died in battle or while giving birth
  • Athens still exists today and is the capital of Greece
  • Greeks didn’t think of themselves as “Greek” but instead as citizens of the city-states
  • Rhodes was a city-state that formed in 408 BCE and built the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World
  • Most of the city-states were ruled by a king or a council of a few rich men
  • The city-states didn’t form an empire until the short rule of Alexander the Great
  • Each city-state had a separate deity that ruled it
  • Other important city-states were Argos, Megara, Corinth, and Delphi
  • There were 31 city-states

Questions and Answers

Who had rights in all of the city-states?

Free Greek men

How long did Spartan men live in the barracks?

From 7-30

Why did no one like Thebes?

They always switched sides

Which city-state invented democracy?


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