International Relations

The Greek City-States System 800BC – 322 BC

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Written by Tadese Faforiji


Unlike the international system of the Chou dynasty which developed in isolation, the Greek city-state system was an international system whose boundary traversed the Greek peninsula, though the major interaction occurred in this region. The major emphasis was on the relations among the city-states, the poleis (singular, polis) until the “conquest of the peninsula by Phillip of Macedonia in the 4th century”. Because of the activities of the Greek merchants and travelers, the relations reached as far as India, the shores of the Baltic, Spain, and north of the African coast.

Map, the ancient Greek. cr: Britannica

Notably, as earlier stated, the major interaction occurred in the Greek peninsula.  Commercial relations were held with various tribes, including the Persians, the Arabs, the Phoenicians, and others. Summarily, the geographical boundaries of the system were complex and diverse, because of the activities of the Greek travelers (and explorers), and merchants.

Political Units

Before the peninsula’s fall, the major form of the political unit was the polis, otherwise called city-state. The polis system was also a culture (of identification). The non-Greek tribes were regarded as barbarous tribes. Athens, Acragas, Corinth, Crissa, Sparta were examples of the Greek poleis. There were different sorts of forms of administrations in the system, ranging from “priest-kings ruling over tribal organization, small oligarchies of the rich, and military tyrannies to free elected governments.

If the forms of governments are to be examined in contemporary perspectives, the system had several forms of governments: oligarchy, democracy, monarchy, autocracy, and others. The differences among the poleis were not only limited to the system of government, but also in population, advancement, influence, topographical situations, commercial advancement, and others. What bound the city-states together was the ideology surrounding the use of polis. The overall dealings in the system were based on the polis question; that is if an individual was from the Greek polis or not. Non-Greek was regarded as barbarians (just like the pariah states in the contemporary international system).

“Acragas, Athens, and Syracuse had male population of roughly 25,000, while Siris had few thousands of inhabitants”. Athens and Sparta were the most influential poleis in the Greek peninsula. This was because of the Athens commercial activities, and the counterpart Sparta’s military capability. At a time in the system, the system was polarized between the Athens and Sparta poleis.

There were other significant states in the system; the military colonies, tributary states, and non-military colonies. The military colonies also known as cleruchy oversaw the territories of the city-states, especially the boundaries and waterways. The non-military colonies were states that made (needed military) provisions to the military states, and some of these states were established by Athens as a result of overpopulation in the poleis. Lastly, the tributary states were colonies established by Athens, when it dominated the affairs of the Hellenic League.


The structure of the city-state system was diffuse. Just like the contemporary international system, the structure of the system had different developments over time. The interest of poleis dictated the influence of relations; there were several wars over territories. The power was stratified between Athens, Sparta, Acragas, Corinth, Argus, and Thebes.

These states dominated the affairs of the smaller political units. The system was polarized between Athens and Sparta when the threats of the Persians were unbearable. During the heydays of the Persian threats, the Hellenic League was established by Sparta and Athens. The league ambushed, and later, fought the Persian Wars of 492BC – 477 BC. When Athens started to dominate the affairs of the league, Sparta established a rival organization, the Peloponnesian League to counterattack the Athenian advances.

In 431BC both rival leagues fought. The Peloponnesian Wars of 431BC involved the two most significant military blocs in the Greek peninsula. Therefore the system was polarized between Athens and Sparta. The Athenian empire had many loyal territories that supported it in the war because of its commercial advancement in the region.

Acronym; ASACAT, Rhodes, Miletus, Carcyra, and other units in the east of Aegean and Northwestern Greece were loyal tributary states to Athens. And also the states of Ellis, Arcadia, and Corinth were under the Peloponnesian League of Sparta. And finally, neutral status was condoned, just like the non-alignment that emerged in the contemporary international system during the Cold War. 

By the mid-5th century, the stratification of power and influence had replaced the old order of diffusion and egalitarianism. The military ability and commercial capability became the central element through which the power of the state was ranked. Athens, as at that period, was the most significant political unit in the system because of its commercial and military influence in other territories.

Forms of Interaction

The relations among the units were little trade activities between the poleis. Trade was a major form of interaction among the poleis. During the 5th century, the need to get military supplies facilitated quick development in commerce among the political units. Greek merchants and travelers reached as far as India, Africa, and even parts of Europe.

Another form of interaction was the religious festivals. For amphictyonies, for an instance, maintained the religion, and also made possible the organization of common festivals and sacrifices. Treatise and truce were established at Olympia and Delphi religious centers. Therefore, religion was the major central element that unified the city-states.

War also was a significant pattern in which the poleis took to relate to one another. War was mostly fought over religious issues. When Crissa (of the Peloponnesian League) destroyed Apollo’s temple at Delphi, it led to war between Crissa and Athens. State quickly recourse to war to attain its objective, if diplomatic engagements failed. There were common wars over strategic waterways. The Athens state also used force to punish erring states if their activities were against the commercial interest of Athens.

Another notable form of interaction in the system was diplomatic relations. Because of the indecisive nature of war, the Greek city-states used diplomacy to sorts out their respective interests. There were open and public diplomacy, the use of ambassadorial plenipotentiaries, the establishment of treaties and truce, the use of embassy, and lastly, observation of diplomatic immunity. Oratorical skill was seen as a potential everyone citizen must possess. And notably, during wartime, the diplomatic immunities were duly observed.

The Rules

The customs regulated the diplomatic relations and warfare’s conduct. Relations were based on the recognition of equality and independence of states, clearly stated processes for war declaration, provision of asylum, and citizenship conferment. There was also the use of the office of arbitration and conciliation for the first time. The poleis engaged neutral third parties in diplomatic discourse to sort out differences. Arbitration was often used to settle boundary disputes, debts conflicts and to sort unclear and bogus treaties.

However, the city-state system came to an end after facing several attacks from Macedonia. Just like how the Chou Dynasty became obsolete after the attack from the Chin empire of the Han dynasty, the Greek city-states became archaic, obsolete and a yesterday’s development with the later development in the Persian region.

Citation: Faforiji Tadese. The Greek City-States System 800BC – 322 BC. 15-09-2021. Tadexprof. Retrieved from–322-bc/

Read more

  1. The Greek Diplomacy. Britannica. Availablle at
  2. The Greek City-States in the Fifth Century BCE. SpringerLink. Available at
  3. Foreign Relations of Greece. Wikipedia. Available at
  4. The Key Aspects of Ancient Greek Diplomacy. Reserchgate. (PDF). Available at

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About the author

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Tadese Faforiji

I am Tadese Faforiji, a history student of the prestigious Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State- 21st-century University, properly called. I am a blogger and an avid writer.

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