Ancient History

Language Selection

Breadcrumb Navigation


DFG Priority Programme "The Hellenistic Polis as a Living Space" (concluded)

Urban Structures and Civic Identity between Continuity and Change

Coordination: Prof. Dr. M. Zimmermann

Concluded on 30.04.2012.

Since its beginnings in the Archaic period the polis was a fundamental component of Greek culture. The polis was a particular type of community organisation enabling the maximum of self-governance, consensus and stability by means of a range of political, social and religious institutions. Typically this was expressed in the form of a specific civic identity and an associated urban layout. The 4th century BCE and especially the Hellenistic period have often been considered as a period of decline, during which the formerly thriving Classical polis lost many of its characteristics as new systems of power and changing political contexts developed. The transformation of the institutions of the polis and also the visible changes in its urban layout have been interpreted as evidence for this supposed decline.

The wealth of new polis foundations and the enormous expansion of Greek urbanism in the Hellenistic period, however, belie this thesis. The strength and perseverance of the central political institutions, such as the council, the assembly, the gymnasium and the theatre, are equally strong arguments for the vitality of the Hellenistic polis as are the architectural and urban developments that were associated with the institutional changes. Consensus and participation, as well as a strong sense of citizenry, continued to be the basis for the combined urban and political development of the polis which remained relatively unaffected by the monarchical structures that emerged in the Hellenistic period. The polis as a model of community structure did not lose its attraction despite the loss of its autonomy and despite the radically altered political circumstances. It is therefore of central importance for the understanding of ancient Greek civilisation to investigate what forms of adaptation led to the lasting success of the polis under fundamentally different conditions.

This co-operative research project seeks to examine the changing variables that enabled the polis to continue to function effectively in the Hellenistic period. It starts from the assumption that the complexity and vitality of the polis can only be appreciated when the interrelated socio-political situation and urban structures are analysed together. Instead of the previously commonly accepted view that the civic communities and urban centres were essentially static, they will be regarded as developing dynamically in response to the changing conditions under which consensus was sought with respect to the new external framework of power. With the help of selected examples, the dialectical processes of change in social structure and behaviour as well as in ideas and in perceptions and the consequent transformation of political and sacred space will be investigated. This will offer the opportunity to propose a fundamentally new understanding of the mutually interdependent relationship between the various factors, which will serve as a paradigm for future research.

The diverse types of community structure and urban form can only be understood adequately when the ancient textual traditions, the spatial arrangements and the evidence of the monuments are brought into a dialogue that takes into consideration the latest methods of research and the analytical expertise of different specialised fields of classical scholarship. A series of closely connected historical and archaeological research projects are proposed in order to reach a new understanding of the factors that affected the Hellenistic polis which in turn may help to explain why the polis remained such a strong focus of monarchical politics.

This project seeks to integrate existing research institutions in a new and innovative way. The co-ordination and networking of the archaeological and historical projects will be based on the comparability of their aims and objectives on the one hand and the diversity of their approaches on the other. The results obtained from epigraphical work on particular groups of texts, from the study of individual monuments, from archaeological excavations and from field surveys (including the investigation of non-urban settlements) will be examined and evaluated in conjunction with the information derived from legal, political and social historical research. The constellation of diverse historical and archaeological methods ensured by the involvement of different specialists will provide the broad range of perspectives that is necessary to understand the complexity and dynamics of the development of the Hellenistic polis in all its facets.


  • Audio CD "Die griechische Polis: Stadt und Bürgergemeinde" (Fachbereich Alte Geschichte) uni auditorium, 62 Min. [Audiobook] (Audio CD), Komplett Media 2008.
  • A. Matthaei; M. Zimmermann (Hgg.), Stadtbilder im Hellenismus, Die hellenistische Polis als Lebensform 1, Berlin 2009.