Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.46

Mogens Herman Hansen (ed.), The Return of the Polis. The Use and Meanings of the Word polis in Archaic and Classical Sources. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 8. Historia Einzelschriften, 198.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.  Pp. 276.  ISBN 978-3-515-09054-4.  €58.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jacek Rzepka, Warsaw University (
Word count: 1343 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Return of the Polis reunites the Copenhagen Polis Centre's (henceforth CPC) scholars led by Mogens Herman Hansen. It is pointless to introduce the Centre and its work to careful readers of BMCR1 -- it is enough to say that Hansen and the CPC team have produced the standard treatments on the polis for our generation ranging from the monumental An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis (henceforth IACP)2 to the short Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State.3 The present work is to some degree a selection of the CPC's most typical studies, i.e. it analyses how classical historians or geographers used the word polis. It consists of ten articles already published, supplemented by four new texts. Of the new articles three (examining use of the term polis by philosophers, Aeneas the Tactician, and poets) were added in order to make the picture emerging from the study of historians and geographers more complete and to collect examples of the word polis used in the sense of hinterland or territory (67-72). I think that it is a reviewer's duty to concentrate on the new papers, although I am not going to miss the opportunity to comment briefly on some of old texts.

The book opens with an introduction and two articles by Hansen developing the Copenhagen definition of polis (that the Greeks called polis such a town only which was also a community of citizens, and such a community of citizens which was also an urban center) reprinted from earlier CPC publications. Papers focusing on these two meanings of the word polis are followed by a new contribution, in which Hansen studies another sense of the word polis, i.e. a territory of the polis-state or a hinterland of the polis-town. He indicates the importance of the urban centre for the polis state by concluding that the toponym was often used synonymously with the collective form of the city's ethnic to designate the polis in the political sense (p. 71-2). I believe that to make this section more complete the author should pay some attention to the country names (like Attike, Megaris, Oropia or Lakonike), and survey their use in a political sense -- it might have provided an interesting comparison to the collected material (for example, the political and territorial use of the names Myanias and Hypnias describing the hinterland of petty cities of Myania and Hypnia in West Lokris, as used in IG IX 1 (2nd ed.) 3, 748). Admittedly, such names and their use were studied by some contributors to IACP (e.g. Sparte and Lakonike by Graham Shipley on p. 570-1). Hansen himself does not consider the problem in his excellent IACS entry on Attika (p. 624-6), but it certainly deserves attention, since it was the territory/hinterland names like Attika or Lakonia that provided purely political terms like λακωνίζειν or ἀττικίζειν.

Papers focusing on particular authors (historians mainly: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and fragmentary historians), literary genres (like poetry or rhetoric) or types of sources (inscriptions) cannot be scrutinized here at length, for each chapter consists of a more or less complete selection of instances, on which the word polis was used in a particular author or type of source. The special focus is the use of the term polis in a political sense. However, whereas authors are able to distinguish among many physical understandings of polis (acropolis, town, territory), they do not consider the question whether in a political sense the word polis really means more or less the same. It is surprising especially in the case of inscriptions (studied by three CPC scholars), where on numerous occasions understanding polis as assembly can be considered.4

Old case-studies are reprinted in a slightly changed form. Studies of Hekataios' and fragmentary historians' use of the word polis are almost the same as those published a few years ago. Chapters on Herodotus and Thucydides combine two already published essays. Thus, a paper on Thucydides is a mixture of Appendix I to Hansen's study of Boiotian poleis in CPC Acts 2 and considerations taken from A survey of the use of the word polis in Archaic and Classical sources published in CPC 5, giving fresh insight into the old ideas. One should note, however, that the single-author studies remain too mechanical. As an illustration I would mention the West Lokrian vicinity called Polis, which Thucydides classifies verbatim as a village (Thuc. 3.102.1), a subdivision of the polis of Hyaians. Hansen omits Polis from his dossier (in D. Rousset's chapter on West Lokris in IACP Thucydides is taken literally). Although I would never enforce this as a definite truth, I believe it is worth asking if this very Thucydidean classification of the site is not ironical. Like many other uncertain poleis in Thucydides, Lokrian Polis belonged to the area of North-Western Greece,5 which the Athenian historian describes in the Archeology with a lot of contempt as backward.

New case-studies differ considerably as far as the weight of findings is concerned. As remarked by Hansen himself, the material drawn from philosophers is especially fruitless, since "in almost all cases polis signifies the political community, not the town". Thus, one can hardly apply the CPC methodology to more than 2000 attestations of the word polis in philosophical works. Also poetry, though poets used the word in diverse senses, cannot be very helpful, since the language of this genre is often invented. Hansen notes also that most attestations refer to the mythical past. He closes this short chapter with a quote from Pollux, who warns that poets use polis synonymously with chora. Though not stated explicitly by the author, it corresponds well with Hansen's earlier considerations on polis as territory or hinterland. Much more interesting data can be found in Aeneas the Tactician, who seems often to combine many different meanings of the word polis in one passage (e.g. Chios at 11.4; Abdera at 19.9-10). Thus Aeneas seems to be an important author for the CPC re-enforcing the Copenhagen definition of polis.

In sum, this book forms a convenient recollection of the "Copenhagen" chapters of the CPC and of CPC methodology. The coverage of book is nearly complete for the classical epoch, for, according to the principles of CPC, post-classical evidence is not taken into consideration. We should note, however, that a vast majority of entries on individual cities in IACP would not exist without information from the post-classical age. Certainly, the reviewed volume, when compared with the final outcome of CPC's project, shows that the extension of the CPC's work to Hellenistic and Roman Greece or two other forms of civic organization in Greece would be a welcome event in classical scholarship.

The book is carefully edited. Its index of geographical names makes a work of this kind particularly useful. I think that The Return of the Polis, being a collection of typical CPC approaches to various types of evidence, will serve for many as a reference work and a companion volume of IACP. The role of a reference tool, I dare to predict for this book, would require, however, hardcover, and not Steiner's usual papercover. Such a format is especially problematic for libraries.


M.H. Hansen, Introduction 9

M.H. Hansen, Was Every polis Town the Centre of a polis State? [CPCPapers 5:173-215] 13

M.H. Hansen, Was Every polis State Centred on a polis Town? [CPCPapers 7:131-47] 52

M.H. Hansen, Polis Used in the Sense of Hinterland or Territory 67

P. Flensted-Jensen, M.H. Hansen and T.H. Nielsen, Inscriptions [CPCPapers 5:161-72] 73

M.H. Hansen, Hekataios [CPCPapers 4: 17-27] 92

M.H.Hansen, Herodotos [CPCActs3: 39-54; CPCPapers5: 205-8] 104

M.H. Hansen, Thucydides [CPCActs 2: 39-45; CPCPapers 5: 208-10] 135

T.H. Nielsen and M.H. Hansen, Xenophon [CPCPapers 2: 83-102; 5:133-40; 5:213-14] 156

M.H. Hansen and T.H. Nielsen, Fragments of Historians [CPCPapers 5: 141-50] 175

M.H. Hansen, The Attic Orators [CPCPapers 5: 151-60] 192

P. Flensted-Jensen and M.H. Hansen, Pseudo-Skylax [CPCPapers 3: 137-67] 204

M.H. Hansen, Aineias the Tactician 243

M.H. Hansen, Philosophers 246

M.H. Hansen, Poets 253

Index of Geographical Names.


1.   See: BMCR 1995.12.2 (Chaniotis on CPC Papers 1); BMCR 1996.10.11 (Goldhill on CPC Papers 2); BMCR 1997.07.16 (Chaniotis on CPC Acts 3 and CPC Papers 3); BMCR 1998.11.25 (Rydberg-Cox on CPC Papers 4); BMCR 2000.12.06 (Gorman on CPC Papers 5); BMCR 2002.04.17 (Morgan on CPC Acts 5); BMCR 2004.03.14 (Dillon on CPC Papers 6); BMCR 2004.04.03 (Hoelkeskamp on A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Culture and A Comparative Study of Six City-State Cultures). Also works closely related to CPS activity like e.g. Hansen's The Shotgun Method: The Demography of the Ancient Greek City-State Culture were reviewed in BMCR 2007.04.58 (by P. Hunt).
2.   Reviewed by F. Naerebout in BMCR 2005.02.29.
3.   Reviewed by M. Schmidt in BMCR 2008.01.41.
4.   Admittedly, today historians seem reluctant to understand polis in a decree's enactment formula as assembly, see e.g. the reservations of P.J. Rhodes and D.M. Lewis, The Decrees of the Greek States (Oxford 1997) 7 and 537 in this respect.
5.   Of seven uncertain cases listed in Hansen's article, three are from this neglected area of Greece (Aigition, discussed on pp. 146-7; Chalkis and Sollion, discussed on p. 146; and three Dorian poleis: Boion, Erineos, Kytenion, discussed on pp. 149-150).

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