Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.2.07

Response to A. Chaniotis' review (BMCR 97.7.16) of M.H. Hansen (ed.), Introduction to an Inventory of Poleis.

Response by M.H. Hansen.

The purpose of this note is not to complain about Chaniotis' evaluation of our publications but to explain some aspects of the CPC research programme which, apparently, have caused some confusion. Chaniotis' reviews in BMCR, first of CPCPapers 1 [1994] (95.12.2) and now of CPCActs 3 [1996] and CPCPapers 3 [1996] (97.7.16) are among the most valuable we have had. Both his appreciative and his critical comments have been taken into account by all collaborators in the CPC, and-apart from thanking him for the reviews-I would like here to make two points, one on the Lex Hafniensis and another one on the CPC's aim to study what the Greeks thought a polis was.

I. My first point concerns what we in the Copenhagen Polis Centre call the "Lex Hafniensis de Civitate." Some readers, including Chaniotis, have apparently been baffled by our use of the term lex. I confess that I have not been careful enough to explain precisely what I meant when I invented the label "Lex Hafniensis," and I take this opportunity to explain it.

Let me begin with quoting Chaniotis' comment. After a section with a basically appreciative description of our own problematisation of the method we use in the Copenhagen Polis Centre he states: "The problems begin only when Hansen declares the common usage of the term polis (a town which is the political center of a polis) to be a law (the "lex Hafniensis de civitate"), thus raising the expectations of absolute consistency. Statements such as the following recur in the CPC volumes: "in the Copenhagen Polis Centre we expect every polis in the political sense to have had an urban centre." and towards the end of the review: "One may disagree in details or be reluctant to accept the working hypotheses and the first general conclusions of the project as "laws" with absolute and unlimited value, but no serious research in Greek history can ignore the publications of the CPC."

My reply is that the "Lex Hafniensis" is not meant to be a law "with absolute and unlimited value" to which there is no exception. The "Lex Hafniensis" is neither a law like Keppler's three laws, nor is it a law in the legal sense of a rule the breaking of which is forbidden and penalised. It is rather an observation of how the Greeks of the late archaic and classical periods used the word polis. But, as every linguist has to admit, in semantics there is no such thing as a law in the strict sense. There is no word in any language which, unfailingly, is used in the senses of either A, or B or C, and invariably denotes X in sense A, Y in sense B, and Z in sense C. Nevertheless it is quite common in linguistics and related disciplines to speak about laws, such as Wheeler's law in phonetics,1 Porson's Law in metrics,2 and Blass's law in rhetoric,3 to mention three examples from the study of ancient Greek. Let me illustrate the point by quoting Porson's Law. It relates to the iambic trimeter as used in early iambics and in tragedy and, in Martin West's formulation, it runs as follows: "when the anceps of the third metron is occupied by a long syllable, this syllable and the one following belong to the same word, unless one of them is a monosyllable." Thus, according to Porson's Law, the beginning of a new word is avoided after the anceps of the third metron when the anceps is long. We expect this law to be respected as strictly as possible, but occasionally our expectations are confounded. West notes that "there are very few exceptions in tragedy, most of them textually suspect." Porson's law is an important observation about the iambic trimeter in tragedy, but not a rule to which there is no exception.

Similarly the "Lex Hafniensis" is an observation about how the Greeks used the word polis and it runs as follows: "in archaic and classical sources the term polis used in the sense of 'own' to denote a named urban centre is not applied to any urban centre but only to a town which was also the political centre of a polis. Thus, the term polis has two different meanings, town and state, but even when it is used in the sense of town its reference, its denotation, seems almost invariably to be what the Greeks called polis in the sense of a koinonia politon politeias and what we call a city-state." (CPCActs 3 [1997] 33).

The formulation of this law is based on examinations of how the term polis is used in Hekataios (CPCPapers 4 [1997] 17-27), Herodotos (CPCActs 3 [1996] 39-54), Thucydides (CPCActs 2 [1995] 39-45), Xenophon (CPCPapers 2 [1995] 83-102), Aineias the Tactician (CPCActs 3 [1996] 29-30), the ten Attic orators (unpublished), Pseudo-Skylax (CPCPapers 3 [1996] 137-67), and in the inscriptions so far studied by the CPC (unpublished). It seems also to fit the few attestations we have in Plato and Aristotle (unpublished), but, of course, it is not a law completely without exceptions. In some five to ten per cent of all cases lack of other sources makes it impossible to determine whether in a given passage the word polis used in its urban sense refers to the urban centre of what was also a polis in the political sense. And in around one per cent of all cases polis used in the urban sense denotes an urban centre which seems not to have been the political centre of a polis. The most obvious exception is Xenophon's use of polis at Vect. 4.50 about the project to build a town in the mining district of Attika, but there are a few others, all discussed in the articles listed above. In some cases there may be an explanation of why polis is used. In other cases we have to admit that the Lex Hafniensis does not apply, we don't know why.

Thus the Lex Hafniensis is "just" an observation of usage, but it is of the utmost importance for our understanding of what the Greeks thought a polis was. On a general level, it shows that the urban and political aspects of the concept of polis were much more closely connected than usually acknowledged in modern research. And in many individual cases the law strongly indicates that settlements which modern historians tend to describe as poleis in the urban sense only, must have been poleis in the political sense as well. For example, when Thucydides at 3.97.2 calls Aigition a polis, the likelihood is that this Aitolian town was also a polis in the political sense. Similarly Helisson which in the recently discovered inscription (SEG 37 340) is called a polis in the urban sense was in all probability a polis in the political sense too. And a considerable number of towns, called polis in classical authors, but often denied the status of polis by modern historians must now, in consequence of the Lex Hafniensis, be placed on the political map of Classical Greece. But-as always in historical research-we can only be around ninety-five per cent sure when a site classification is based on the Lex Hafniensis alone without other evidence.

In his review Chaniotis duly acknowledges that the members of the CPC are aware of the exceptions and that we do not claim that the "Lex Hafniensis" is an unfailing rule. His objection is that, given the exceptions, the Lex Hafniensis is not a law. My reply is that it is a law just like Porson's and Blass's and scores of other "laws" discovered by scholars who have studied the ancient texts. What, perhaps, I ought to have done is from the outset to make it crystal clear what I meant by calling the observation a law. I hope that, by publishing this note, I have made up for the slip.

II. My second point concerns the Polis Centre's aim to focus on what the Greeks thought a polis was. Chaniotis quotes a passage from CPCActs 3 (1996) 7 and has two critical comments which both endorse some views stated by Simon Goldhill in his earlier review in this journal of CPCPapers 2 (1995) where the same programmatic passage is printed on page 45. Thus my reply is in fact to Goldhill rather than to Chaniotis.

The quote from CPCActs 3 (1996) 7 = CPCPapers 2 (1995) 45 and Chaniotis' critical comments run as follows: "One of the main objectives of the CPC is to build up an inventory of every single archaic and classical settlement which is explicitly called polis in contemporary sources. The main purpose of this investigation is to find out what the Greeks thought a polis was, and to compare that with what modern historians think a polis is. The concept of polis found in the sources and in modern historiography ought, of course, to be the same" (p. 7). In a review of an earlier volume of the CPC (Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Stuttgart 1995, BMCR 96.10.11) Simon Goldhill has already raised two reasonable objections to this approach. Firstly, an inventory of the attestations of a word can raise important questions, but it cannot automatically reveal a term's meaning-even less so when the CPC discards all attestations of the term used in a general way, i.e., without reference to a particular site (p.12). Secondly the concept of polis found in the sources-if we assume that there is only one concept-should not necessarily be the same with that found in modern historiography." In this case I can safely plead "not guilty" to the charges.

(a) It is not true that "the CPC discards all attestations of the term used in a general way, i.e., without reference to a particular site" Let me quote just one of the key passages in my contribution to CPCActs 3: "In all literary and epigraphical sources of the archaic and classical periods we collect every attestation of the term polis in order to conduct two different investigations. One of our tasks is to examine how the term polis is used whenever we meet it. Our sources tell us, for example, that a polis waged war, or made peace, or entered into an alliance, or struck coins, or passed a law, or a sentence, or founded a colony, or defrayed expenses, or repaired the walls, and we hear about the territory of a polis, or its roads and water supply, or its altars, or its protecting divinity. The other task is to examine every single attestation of the term polis referring to a named polis such as Korinth, or Melos, or Megalopolis. In the first investigation we must analyse all the passages we have listed, no matter whether they concern a named polis or refer to a polis or the polis in general; and for this investigation a specific law passed by the polis Dreros is just as valuable a source as is a general reference in Aristotle that it is the polis which is responsible for passing laws. Conducting the second investigation we must, of course, restrict ourselves to the attestations which contain an explicit reference to a named polis and ignore all the passages referring to the polis in general."

(b) I do not believe that "an inventory of the attestations of a word ... automatically reveals a term's meaning." On the contrary my view is the same as Goldhill's, i.e., that the inventory is the basis for an analysis of the polis., see, e.g. the first section of our research programme printed in CPCPapers 1 (1994) 10: "a comprehensive inventory of all attested poleis will, we believe, provide us with a much more solid basis for studies of the origin, development and nature of the Greek polis, as well as for a major study of the ancient Greek polis compared with city-states in other cultures and periods."

(c) I do not hold the view that an analysis of what the Greeks thought a polis was is the only valid approach to a study of the polis; or that the concepts used by modern historians in their analysis ought to be the same as those found in the sources. Quite the contrary: on page 46 = CPCActs 3 (1996) 8-9 I write: If we establish and acknowledge a distinction between the ancient concept of polis and the modern historical concept of city-state it follows that we can conduct two different investigations of ancient Greek society which may lead to different conclusions: if we study the city-state and apply the modern historians' understanding of what a city-state is, we get one picture of archaic and classical Hellas. If we go through the written sources and list all settlements that are actually called poleis in contemporary texts we investigate the ancient Greeks' understanding of their own settlement pattern and get a different picture. It would be wrong to say that one of the two pictures is the right one and that the other is misleading; rather, the two pictures are complementary. It is always legitimate to contrast a culture's perception of itself with an outsider's more detached perception of the same culture."

My point in saying that the "the concept of polis found in the sources and in modern historiography ought, of course, to be the same" is a different one, as is explained in CPCPapers 2 (1995) 45-6 = CPCActs 3 (1996) 7-8: if, as many historians do, we use the term polis both about what the ancient Greeks called a polis, and about what historians today think a city-state is, we land ourselves in the predicament that it becomes unclear, not just to the readers, but often to the authors too, whether the reference is to the ancient or the modern concept and what the relation between the two concepts is. A preferable method is, as I suggest, to reserve the term polis for the ancient concept and to use the term city-state whenever we think of the modern historical analysis of this concept. By this strategy we avoid speaking about a polis which was not regarded as a polis by the Greeks themselves, and conversely, we avoid the fallacy of denying the status of polis to a community which the Greeks regarded as a polis but which does not fit the requirements set up by modern historians.  


1. Ch. Bally, Manuel d'accentuation grecque (Bern 1945) 24.  

2. M. L. West, Introduction to Greek Metre (Oxford 1987) 25.  

3. See D. F. McCabe, The Prose-Rythm of Demosthenes (New York 1981) 1.