It is commonplace for scholars and academicians to allude to the Greek quest for political solidarity (homonoia) and to the hostility to commerce by saying that the ancient economy was embedded in society. Those who speak of the economy being embedded in society take for granted the distinction between government or state and society; and this distinction, prepared if not explicitly introduced by John Locke, belongs to the world of the modern republic and is inapplicable to the ancient city.

This formulation draws attention the Greek practice of rigidly subordinating those concerns generated by the market to the larger needs of the community. But although this paraphrasing is enlightening to a degree, it masks the true character of the pólis.

In classical Greece, the primary concerns were not social; they were political. The economy was not embedded in the society; the economy and the society were both embedded in the polity. The love of money was not subordinated to the desire for social status; they were alike secondary to the quest for office, for power, and for glory.

The people wielded the power, and they consistituted both state and society wrapped up in one. With only trivial exceptions, the Greek cities had no beaucracies, no magistrates blessed with long tenure, no professional armies. They did not distinguish the governors from the governed; the pólis itself depended on the identity of soldier and civilian. The farmer had the right to own land solely by virtue of his status as a citizen. The differentiation of roles which the distinction between state and society presupposes simply did not exist. In principle, the citizen body was homogeneous.

As a human being, the Greek possessed no rights against the commonwealth; as a citizen, he might demand and be granted certain privileges—but these would be more than outweighed by his duties to the community at large.

In one poem, by Alcaeus of Mytilene contended that "warlike men are a city’s tower of defense. In another, which survives only as paraphrased by later authors, he played variations on the same theme:

Neither stone blocks
Nor ships’ timbers
Nor even the carpenter’s art
Can make a pólis.
But where there are men
Who know how to preserve themselves
There one finds walls and a city as well.

The Hellenes shared the poet’s conviction. They did not in an abstract way of the Deeds of Athens, Corinth, Megara, and Sparta. These were places. They spoke of the real actors; the Athenians, the Corithians, the Megarians, and the Spartans.

There was no Greek state. The ancient Hellenic republic was, as James Madison noted, "a pure democracy… a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person". The pólis was, as the Greeks often remarked, the men. Just as there was no Greek state, so there was no civil society. The city was, as Aristotle argued, a political community (koin nia). It was a Gemeinschaft, not a Gesellschaft.

The pólis was not a conspiracy of self-seeking individuals joined for mutual profit and protection in a temporary legal partnership that was be dissolved when it ceased to suit their interested. The pólis was a moral community of men permanently united as people by a common way of life.

When the Macedonians and their Roman successors destroyed the full independence of the political community, ultimately reducing the pólis to little more than a unit of local administration, politics lost much of its dignity. Politics ceased to be the chief concern for the citizen and something akin to social competition replaced political rivalry.

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Photo: Harmonia and the Serpent. Homonoia was probably closely identified with the Theban goddess-queen Harmonia (Harmony). Image from

Material groked from "Republics Ancient and Modern, Volume I: The Ancient Régime in Classical Greece" by Paul A. Rahe.