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Ancient and modern

Sorry, Rory Stewart, but you don't understand the Greeks

The MP wants 'a thousand little city states'. But he clearly doesn't know what that would mean...

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

In last week’s Spectator, Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith, was reported to be proposing that we should create in Britain ‘1,000 little city states, and give power right down to all the bright, energetic people everywhere who just feel superfluous’. What did they teach him at Eton?

The ancient Greek city-state (polis, source of our ‘politics’, etc.) was certainly ‘little’. There were at any one time about 1,000 of them dotted round the Mediterranean, most consisting of a city plus its surrounding countryside; and because of the nature of the terrain and the limited resources it could command, the average polis was c. 5,000 strong. The explanation of Athens’ power is that it was the largest of all poleis (pl.), with a population in the 5th century bc of perhaps 430,000, of whom c. 60,000 were citizens. Plato calculated the ideal size at 5,040; Aristotle thought in terms of ‘the largest population within easy view of each other consistent with the needs of a self-sufficient life’.

And that is the point: there was no Greek government telling poleis what to do, let alone any concept of a bureaucratic state apparatus. The Greek world consisted of self-sufficient, independent, autonomous poleis, each run by its own citizens in whatever way they chose, with its own laws, customs, rituals, coinage (etc), each prepared to fight any other polis that threatened its territory, or to unite with it — or anyone else — if self-interest or necessity decreed. In the Persian Wars (490–479 bc), for example, more Greeks fought on the Persian side than on the Greek; only c. 30 poleis actually opposed Persia.

Clearly, Mr Stewart cannot have city-states in mind. If he did, he would be out of a job: Parliament would no longer exist. So he would be in no position to ‘give power’ to anyone, however ‘bright’ or ‘energetic’, because in a city-state, power was contested and held directly by involved, participating (male) citizens, not controlled by the parties of a strong, centralising state.

Back to the history books, Mr Stewart.

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