The Role of Government and Culture on Innovation in Greek City-States

By Josh Loeffler

Last Updated: 2/23/03

A simple analysis of the culture, structure and technologies of Greek city-states reveals the fact that culture plays a vital role in the development of technologies. More specifically, an analysis of the government of Greek city-states demonstrates the very influential role of culture upon technological development. The democratic form of government first seen in Greece is reflected in the structure of the city-states. The basis for this form of government, which is more sensitive to the needs of the people, can also be seen in some of the more traditional types of technological development. Water supply fits the more traditional definition of technology, shows a concern for public well being, and is apparent in the Greek city-state. Analysis of the Greek city-state is further strengthened by comparison to Sparta. This opposing city was built into a much different culture, and as a result, was structured quite differently and produced different technologies. While it is certain that more than simply culture and form of government influence technological innovation, the evidence highlighting these factors' contributions is ample. Culture influences and is influenced by the form of government in a given region. This government and culture then influence the manner in which the environment in treated, and the innovations that occur.

In his chapter on Greece, Colin Chant writes: "The system of cities was also shaped by fundamental political changes" (p. 57). This statement leads into a discussion of the rise of democracy in Greek city-states. An elected assembly wielded the authority in these city-states. Chant states, "Although the development of participatory modes of government might well be seen as a product of enlightened Greek culture, the influence of the Aegean environment must also be considered" (p.57). This assertion deserves some attention, as it insinuates that macro-level forces could be more responsible for governmental evolution than micro-level changes. The statement also walks the fine line concerning the innate political nature of individuals.

In his article "The Pentagon's New Map," Thomas Barnett explains that one must be very careful with this type of thinking, as it is a definite generalization to say that something is inherent in a people making them govern themselves in a certain manner. It is a small step from this type of thinking to the statement "those people will never be like us" (Barnett, p.174). Barnett goes on to explain that it was once thought that there was something innate in Russians and Slavs that prohibited them from accepting capitalism and democracy (Barnett, p.174). It is obvious that this assertion was proven wrong, and that the assertion made by Chant must be looked at carefully. It can and has been argued that people have certain qualities leading to certain forms of government, but this argument cannot be dogmatically accepted as it has flaws that have been shown.

What does seem much more apparent is the line of thought in Chant's work that shows a direct link between city structure and culture. The planned Greek city-states were generally designed in grid fashion. This type of design has been argued to be "an inherently more democratic form of plan, involving a more equal division of land, when compared with early royal cities, in which a jumble of poor dwellings on the periphery contrasted with substantial higher-class dwellings near the center" (Chant, p.62). Instead of the poor and rich being separated by region or through the size of dwelling, the different social classes coexisted in the Greek city-states, as "there was little segregation of the rich and the poor" (Chant, p.64). This type of living arrangement seems to be a technology that is certainly developed in part by a democratic culture that places greater value on every individual.

The structure of the Greek city-state cannot be conclusively linked solely to the democratic culture of the time. Religion played a large part in the city-state, as all buildings were dedicated to the gods. However, these buildings were secular in function, which was quite different from most cities in other regions (Chant, p.63). City-states were also designed so that warfare could be carried out with great ease. The earliest Greek cities were built on easily defendable hills, so as to make warfare easier. These factors make it clear that some consideration for war and religion went into the planning of a city (Chant, p.60). However, the democratic government must be considered as a contributing factor to the structure of the city-state. The evidence points strongly to government's influence.

Comparison to the city of Sparta shows the role of government in the structuring of a city. Whereas the Greek city-states were founded in a culture that promoted democracy and depended heavily upon trade, Sparta was almost the exact opposite. Spartan culture was closed, militaristic, and based on agriculture. While the Greek city-state of Athens had large public buildings, a huge population that accounted for the surrounding areas, and bustling industry in the city limits, Sparta had almost no industry, public buildings, and a small population within city limits (Chant, p.65). The disparity that exists between the two cultures that produced these vastly different cities strengthens the argument detailing government's role with innovation.

The grid design and the actual structuring of a city can be viewed as a form of technology, but one can follow a more traditional definition and find that the role of government is still prominent. A classic supporting example is the Greek system of water supply. Democracy implies a "greater responsiveness on the part of governments to the requirements of the populace" (Chant, p.58). The Greeks designed complex systems of water supply and management, in response to democratic beliefs in the value of humans, according to Chant (p.72). This is not without merit, although this belief can be refuted. It is necessary for every city to have a water supply, allowing for the argument that the belief in water supply and sanitation was nothing unique to democratic culture or Greek city-states. However, the existence of such literature as "About airs, waters, and locations" which details the healthiest street designs implies that the Greek democratic culture was influential in the innovating this technology (Chant, p.73).

This review of the Greek city-state seems to provide ample evidence supporting the notion that the governmental aspect of culture is a large influence on innovations of technologies. Without the democratic mindset, the Greek city-states would probably look far different than they actually did. The grid design and maintenance of water supply and sanitation seem linked to the democratic belief system. A different type of government could have resulted in the construction of a city much like Sparta. The innovations cannot be linked exclusively to the democratic form of government, as religion and warfare most definitely played a part in construction. However, evidence is rather strong that the city-state looked and developed in the manner it did because government played some role in that development.

Additional Works Cited
Thomas P.M. Barnett "The Pentagon's New Map" Esquire Vol. 139 (March 2003) pp.174-179, 227-228.