The City and the Democratic Ideal

François Hartog on how urban living has coincided with the advocacy of popular rule from Plato through to Machiavelli, Rousseau and 20th-century sociologists.

The Greek city will continue to be present at the base of our political existence for as long as the word ‘political’ is on our lips (Hannah Arendt)

'City', the word, comes to us from the Latin (civitas), but the city as an entity was an ancient Greek invention under the name of polis. Almost all our political vocabulary, from 'political' on, is rooted therefore in the ancient Greek city, and it was within that very special cultural context that democracy, another Greek political invention, was born.

Historically the polis as a new and original political state-form emerged within the Greek world in the course of the eighth century BC. Several factors made its development and spread possible, including a demographic revolution, an extension of settled agriculture, and an increase in the number of landed proprietors. polis designated a politically independent community, possessing a properly political territory, within the confines of which peasant proprietors for the first time ever – and indeed for the last time before the modern era – gained recognition as full citizens. The development of the polis was inextricably linked, moreover, to a vast movement of colonisation embracing most of the Mediterranean littoral as well as the Black Sea.

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