5.2 The Greek City-States

The Mediterranean and Aegean seas were as central to the development of Greek civilization as the Nile was to the Egyptians. The ancient Greeks absorbed many ideas and beliefs from the older civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. At the same time, they developed their own ways that different greatly from those of the river valley empires. In particular, the Greeks developed new ideas about how best to govern a society.

Photo of ancient ruins on wooded hilltops, with the Parthenon on the highest hill.

The ancient Parthenon temple crowns the Acropolis (or “highest city” in Greek) in present-day Athens.


  • Understand how geography influenced the Greek city-states.
  • Explain how democracy and other forms of government developed in Ancient Greece.
  • Describe the influence of Ancient Greek concepts related to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
  • Identify the culture and values shared by Ancient Greeks.
  • Summarize how the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars affected Greece.

Key Terms

  • polis
  • acropolis
  • citizen
  • monarchy
  • aristocracy
  • oligarchy
  • phalanx
  • Sparta
  • Athens
  • democracy
  • tyrant
  • legislature
  • alliance
  • Pericles
  • direct democracy
  • stipend
  • jury
  • ostracism

Geography Shapes Greek City-States

As you have read, geography helped to shape the early river valley civilizations. There, strong rulers organized irrigation works that helped farmers produce food surpluses needed to support large cities. A very different set of geographic conditions influenced the rise of Ancient Greek civilization.

Landscape Forms Political Borders

Greece is part of the Balkan peninsula, which extends southward into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Mountains divide the peninsula into isolated valleys. Beyond the rugged coast, hundreds of rocky islands spread toward the horizon.

The Greeks who farmed the valleys or settled on the scattered islands did not create a large empire such as that of the Egyptians or Persians. Instead, they built many small city-states, cut off from one another by mountains or water. Each included a city and its surrounding countryside. Greeks felt strong loyalty to their city-states and fiercely defended their independence. Endless rivalry led to frequent wars between the city-states—and in time, to the conquest of Greece by outsiders.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments