The Effect of the City-State on Greek Urban Planning and Urban Technologies

Max Katz-Balmes

Every community around the world, both past and present, has had or still has a unique culture, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular… group, place, or time.” And the people of each culture, whether due to their geographical setting, their beliefs and values, their demographics, etc., have created, used, or adapted technologies to better serve their needs. One such group of people, the Ancient Greeks, developed some of the most famous technologies in human history. This paper will focus on the emergence of the Greek city-state in the first millennium BCE, and how Hellenistic city-state culture, including its democratic commitments and religious concepts, gave rise to Hippodamian urban planning and urban technologies that facilitated town development and profoundly altered the concept city building.

Around 1050 BCE, following the collapse of the once powerful and literate Mycenaean civilization, the territory of Greece began to struggle through a period of time known as the Dark Age. The Dark Age (1050-800 BCE) was characterized by a lack of writing, a discontinuation of Mycenaean culture, and a decline in population (primarily due to migration). Throughout the Dark Age, most Greeks resided in small, rural, farming communities ruled by tribal chieftains. Over time, these chiefdoms gave way to agricultural aristocracies led by the most successful farmers and in turn, between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE, the authority and control of the agrarian aristocracy was itself diminished (Chant 57).

In his 1980 book, Archaic Greece, archaeologist Anthony Snodgrass argued that a shift in military strategy between 700 and 650 BCE could explain the collapse of the agrarian aristocracy. Before this period, wars were fought by aristocratic soldiers, who rode into battle on horseback. However, during the 7th century BCE, fighting became centered on better-armed phalanx of foot soldiers, or hoplites (Snodgrass 100). Snodgrass reasoned that the shift from small scale, individualistic fighting to larger scale, more strategically oriented warfare involving people from lower social classes reduced the power of the ruling elite (who were no longer the only ones armed) and facilitated a more egalitarian conduct of warfare. Snodgrass wrote that this more equitable mode of fighting paved the way for the rise of the polis, the democratic Classical Greek city-state (103).

Many scholars agree with Snodgrass’ theory regarding the shift from agrarian to city-state life in Greece. However, others have questioned whether the military transition occurred, and some, such as historian Colin Chant, argue that even if Snodgrass’ theory hold true, it is “hardly sufficient to explain the rise of the democratic polis” (57). Chant writes, instead, that increased Greek participation in Mediterranean trade undermined the economic power of the aristocracy. During the 9th and 8th centuries BCE, there was an outward movement of Greek settlers in search of arable land. This migration extended the Greek trading network, which in turn led to the expansion of cities well positioned on the Mediterranean and other trading routes (Curtis 23).

In time, these growing Mediterranean city-states new developed forms of government. For instance, instead of hereditary rule, leaders were elected through democratic committees and processes. In addition, the idea of the polis was itself a very new model. Before this era, physical settlements and cities, astu, had existed. But, the concept of the polis “transcended that of the physical city” (Chant 57). City-states often included vast amounts of land surrounding the physical city, in addition to the city itself. The concept of the city-state, therefore, not only changed the political landscape of Greece, but also blurred the lines between rural and urban. However, beyond profound political and social changes, the rise of the polis led to new urban technologies and developments, many of which have influenced city building and urban planning through present day.

The first hard evidence of any Greek “town-planning” theory is often traced to the philosopher Hippodamus, who lived in the 5th century BCE. Hippodamus is regarded by many to be the first city planner and is widely credited to be the inventor of the orthogonal, or “grid,” layout utilized by large cities such as Chicago or Phoenix, today. However, while men as powerful as Aristotle have referred to Hippodamus as the “invent[or of] the planning of towns,” archaeological evidence from earlier Greek cities indicates that Hippodamus was not the first to use a grid-like model (50).

No matter the inventor of the orthogonal concept, use of the grid spread across many Greek city-states throughout the first millennium BCE. However, as Chant writes, “the grid was no merely neutral device: it embodied notions of land use and occupational separation, and presupposed central organization, and co-operation in the building of housing blocks with party walls and shared drainage” (62). Greek culture, and in particular democratic culture, heavily influenced the development of the grid. The grid was inherently more egalitarian than monarchical cities of previous eras. In these early royal cities, upper class residences dominated the center of the city, while poorer people resided in inferior conditions on the peripheries (Chant 62). However, the grid led to a more equal distribution of land and encouraged more diverse and equitable communities. Communities were now separated more by purpose (residential, religious, commercial, etc.), rather than by class, although it would be foolish to claim that socioeconomic segregation became obsolete. This more egalitarian form of city building reflected the shift to democracy that had taken place in many city-states across Greece.

While the developing democratic culture of Greece greatly impacted the urban planning of the era, another cultural phenomenon, religion, also had a profound effect on city building. For instance, when founding a city, “an oracle would be consulted, and sacrifices and prayers would proceed the actual laying out” (Chant 62). In addition, in Hippodamian planning, land was allotted for three uses: public, private, and religious, although not in equal parts (Burns 421). Finally, much of the grid would be centered around temples and other spiritual buildings, demonstrating the still powerful influence of Greek religion on city building (Chant 63).

But, although religious considerations undoubtedly affected an early planned city’s layout and origins, most scholars believe that city building was primarily based on practicality and influenced more by democracy and economic interests than by religion. In fact, renowned architectural historian J.B. Ward-Perkins writes that, “except for religious buildings, the reasons [behind the design of Greek cities]… were severely practical” (40). Religion still played an important role in all facets of Greek life, but in many cases it had taken a backseat to more practical considerations. For example, the grid was very practical for the expanding Greek city, as its regular dimensions allowed for efficient construction, gradual filling in, and, in certain cases, easy expansion (Chant 62).

On the whole, Greek urban planning, with its democratic, practical, and religious influences, was a technology shaper rather than a technology itself. A staunch commitment to Hippodamian planning, even in rocky terrain, forced Greek architects and builders to improve construction technology and become proficient at building platforms, terracing, landscaping, and “multi-storey porticoes to connect different levels” of cities (Chant 70). Additionally, the planned nature of early Greek cities led to the development of advanced networks of aqueducts and underground drainage systems (Chant 71). Even if the city building itself is not considered a technology, “the idea that suitable environments should… be made to conform to a human plan is consonant with a shift from the technologies through which prehistoric humans adapted to the natural environment, to the more ambitious, environmentally aggressive projects of antiquity” (Chant 65). Chant argues that the Greeks began to modify their environment to fit their human needs rather than working to accommodate the environment.

But, while Chant is correct in that city building was an intense modification of the natural environment and perhaps deserving of its own classification, it seems that earlier technologies could also be described as altering environments “to conform to a human plan.” For instance, the domestication of draught animals thousands of years prior to Greek city building could be seen as a modification of the natural environment for a human plan (agriculture), rather than a passive adaptation to the natural environment.

Yet, city planning in Greece stemming from cultural changes around the turn of the first millennium BCE did have massive implications – on technological developments, on quality of life, and on humans’ interaction with the natural and built environment. The development of the polis led to the towns centered more around the concepts of efficiency and democracy, rather than on inequality. In addition, the evolution of the Greek city paved the way for crucial innovations and technological improvements, such as underground water transportation systems and advanced construction practices. Many of the planning theories and planning developments from Hippodamian times are still in practice today, demonstrating the prolonged importance, influence, and practicality of democracy, the polis, and other elements of Greek culture on city building and related technologies.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Politics. Trans. Trevor J. Saunders. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995. Print.

Burns, Alfred. “Hippodamus and the Planned City.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 25.4 (1976): 414-28. Web.

Chant, Colin. Pre-industrial Cities and Technology. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

“Culture.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2016.

Curtis, Glenn E. Greece, A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Division, 1995. Print.

Snodgrass, Anthony M. Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment. London: J.M. Dent, 1980. Print.

Ward-Perkins, J. B. Cities of Ancient Greece and Italy; Planning in Classical Antiquity. New York: G. Braziller, 1974. Print.

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