Democratic Technologies in the Greek City-State

Carolyn Whipple

Photo Courtesy of:

            Cultural change and technological advancement frequently go hand in hand, but it is often difficult to determine which is the cause and which is the effect.  In Ancient Greece, the rise of the city-state exemplifies this ambiguity.  The Greek city-states, most famously Athens, are well known for being the site of the birth of democracy, but was it the development of the city-state that brought about democracy, or was it the cultural shift to a democratic society that caused the development of the city-state?  In an effort to find some answers to this question, it is important to examine the influences on the building of the city-state: religious aspects, governmental evolution, community values, and the introduction of the idea of human rights, technological abilities, and environmental factors. 
            Prior to the rise of the city-state, Greek civilization was ruled by a small aristocracy, composed mostly of farmers who had met with success (Chant).  It was a change in warfare techniques that brought about their fall from power.  The rise of the phalanx – tightly formed packs of foot soldiers armed with weapons of bronze and steel – brought about the evolution from a more aristocratic way of fighting to a “more egalitarian mode of warfare, prefiguring the rise of the polis, or democratic city-state of Classical Greece” (Chant).  Though this new warfare style contributed to the rise of the polis, it was not the only cause of the fall of the aristocracy and the rise of democracy.
            Successful trade and industry led to population growth, which in turn, led to something akin to urban sprawl.  Satellite urban areas sprung up around “parent cities” and thus formed the city-state, or polis.  These city-states were ruled far differently than most prior civilizations had been.  Rather than an autocratic or aristocratic rule, the citizens – or at least the men – elected their leaders.  There was a social hierarchy based on wealth.  Religion, though still a major component of Greek life, and a major influence of technology and culture, became less of an influence in the political sphere; “laws and political decisions were no longer presented as unchallengeable divine commands” (Chant).  This type of urban living and governing brought about a wide array of new technologies in architecture, sanitation, water use, and fortification.
            There were two main factors taken into consideration when deciding on where to build a city: the advice of an oracle, and the location of a spring.  The religious aspect of this decision-making process is a clear example of a society’s culture influencing its technology.  The Greeks were not necessarily searching for a locale best suited to city-building with minimal impact on the natural environment; working under “the idea that suitable environments should be, as far as possible, be made to conform to a human plan…a shift from the technologies through which prehistoric humans adapted to the natural environment, to the more ambitious, environmentally aggressive projects of antiquity” (Chant).  This shaping of the environment to human needs, rather than shaping human needs to the environment required many new technologies in building, water supply, and fortification. 
            A city was centered around the agora – an open public space, often a market place – and the buildings and structures attached to the agora, such as spaces for assembly, temples, law courts, theaters, gymnasia, stadiums, colonnaded public markets, and enclosed shopping areas.  It is important to note that all public buildings were dedicated to the gods and each contained shrines, thus preserving the religious element in every type of architecture.  The agora itself was the site of the public bathing houses; technological marvels all on their own. 
            The baths were important to Greek culture, as they were a place of socializing, a necessary result of the emphasis on physical activity (as seen by the presence of gymnasia and stadiums, as well as the manifestation on a public commitment to sanitation).  These baths used a remarkable water circulation and heating system, technologies created by the need to serve the public and maintain a sanitary lifestyle. 
            The residential aspect of the Greek cities represented a complete shift in culture.  City-dwellers in ancient Greece lived in apartments with shared walls and equal square-footage – residencies akin to communist workers’ flats in Eastern Europe and The former Soviet Union.  A shift to a more egalitarian, democratic, communal lifestyle was the cause of this new style of housing.
            Indisputable proof that Greek culture was heavily influential on its technology lies in the construction techniques used for temples.  Though not practical buildings, they were the peak of architecture in the Greek city.  Often incorporating large stone columns and high, heavy, pitched roofs, these structures required large pieces of stone and sturdy timber, which had to be transported across the rocky hills of the Greek peninsula.  The transport of these materials alone brought about new technologies.  The construction of a building fit for a God was no easy task.  The construction of such massive, impressive structures brought about tools such as the crane, the concept of hollowing the stone beams to make them easier to lift, and a profusion of internal and external columns to support the weight of the roof (Chant).  In short, the building of a structure that had no practical use was one of the most involved, advanced, and difficult construction endeavors pursued by the Greeks.
            Greek cities were designed with a democratic and egalitarian society in mind.  The water supply and sanitation systems speak volumes about the devotion to basic human rights.  The presence of public structures, often devoted to cultural stimulation and democratic governing tell of a society committed to serving its people.  The gridding and equal distribution of living space is a sign of an egalitarian lifestyle.  Democracy, equality, and, to an extent, religious equality were all shaping factors in the development of the technologies used in the building of the Greek city-state.    

References: Chant, Colin. "Chapter 2: Greece" in Pre-industrial Cities and Technology. Routledge Press, 1999, pp. 48-80.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 3/7/08