Saturday, July 03, 2010

City-state cultures: something I just stumbled across

Looking through my library catalog for material on ancient democracies, I stumbled across a relatively new book by Mogens Herman Hansen, Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State. Hansen is a Danish scholar who for a long time now has been ahead of a major research project meant to systematically investigate the entire phenomenon of Greek polis. The project was designed in part as an antidote to the overwhelming concentration of scholarship on Athens, which city produced almost all of our best sources for city-state life in ancient Greek times. Hansen has produced a number of publications over the years, many of them quite specialized, but Polis is clearly meant as a popular summary of the findings of the project.

This would be a good book if Hansen only discussed the Greek material, but he goes farther. The first section of the book discusses the importance of city-states throughout history, as incubators of many characteristics that we take for granted as modern phenomena:

A general analysis of urbanisation and state formation shows that in world history from antiquity to c.1900 two different types of state have existed: macro-states, with numerous cities included in the territory of each of them, as against regions divided into micro-states each of which consisted of one city and its hinterland. Such a micro-state is what is called a ‘city-state’, and regions divided into city-states form what the Polis Centre has called a ‘city-state culture’. We have succeeded in identifying thirty-seven ‘city-state cultures’, from the Sumerians in Mesopotamia in the third millennium bc to several city-state cultures in West Africa which were only wiped out by the colonial powers a bit over a hundred years ago. In this matter also, nobody has yet tried to get an overall picture of how many and what kind of city-state cultures there have been in the history of the world.

To sum up the results of the researches of the Polis Centre I single out four features. In city-state cultures, including that of ancient Greece, there has been (1) a degree of urbanisation unexampled in major states before the Industrial Revolution, which began in the second half of the eighteenth century; (2) an economy based on trade and centred on the city’s market; (3) a political decision-making process whereby laws and decrees were not always dictated by a monarch, but were often passed by majority votes after a debate in an assembly, which mostly was a selection from among the better-class citizens but sometimes included them all; (4) interaction between city-states, which resulted in the rise of leagues of states and federal states. As a type of state, the federal state grew up within the city-state cultures, and only appeared as a macro-state with the foundation of the USA in 1787–9.
There is no longer any city-state culture remaining; the last of them vanished in c.1900. So it is an irony of history that the social,economic and political organisation that characterised the city-state cultures did not disappear when they disappeared, but came to dominate states and societies in the world we have today. In many important respects modern macro-states are more like the ancient city-state cultures than they are like the ancient macro-states.

I like Hansen's analysis, in so far as I've seen it,but one thing really bothers me. The Polis project identified 37 city-state cultures from around the world, most of them pretty obscure and some rather small. The republican city-states of North India around the time of the Buddha and, later, Alexander the Great, are not included. I think the evidence is incontrovertible that there were plenty of republics in North India in the first millennium BC and even later, and that some even fit the Greek definition of democracy -- Greek writers tell us so. Maybe I should write a note to Hansen. I can't see how he missed the ancient Indian republics and I rather think that he didn't. Why, I wonder, did he exclude them?

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