Greek Cities


Cities are some of the greatest human inventions. They represent histories and manifest political systems, socio-cultural interactions, economic structures, and technological innovations. Typically, cities contain spaces that mold our daily activities; hence, they are equated with progress. It is in cities that the concept of democracy was born. Additionally, the modern civilization can also be traced back to cities. Athens and Sparta are some of the largest and most famous city-states of Ancient Greece. City-states (polis) were the prevailing political, religious, and sociocultural systems among the Greeks between 800 BCE and 300 BCE. To explore Greek city-states, their urban understanding must surpass an economic, social, and political process. In addition, there is a need to consider their physical structures, which define their hierarchy and spatial connectivity. In other words, the persistence of urban forms, irrespective of revolutions and a response to technological innovations, might explain how cities survive the upheavals that occasionally rattle their sociopolitical structures. Observably, geography has a profound influence on the rise of civilizations, cultures, and social political systems. Regarding the ancient Greek cities, their rise was largely influenced by the geography of the region. This paper explores an historical account of Athens as one of the most popular and powerful Greek city-states. In that respect, the paper will highlight its site, situation, internal layout, morphological features, and urban history.

City’s Site

The geographical space of the Ancient Greek civilization evolved significantly during its history. Geographically, of Ancient Greece was situated on the Islands of the Aegean Sea and the land of Greece as well as the parts of Modern Turkey. Actually, the sea and mountains characterized the landscape. It is important to note that the map of Ancient Greece constituted a mosaic of city-states, which were independent. However, ties of military alliance and kinship linked some of them. Geography was a critical factor in the emergence of city-states, largely because the mountainous landscape of the mainland, numerous Greek islands, and the isolated plains were ideal for the formation of small units of governments. The other factor that favored the rise of city-states was the collapse of kingship in the Dark Ages. Ancient Athens covered over 2,900 square kilometers of land. Additionally, sprawled across the Attica plain, ancient Athens was covered by torrents, gorges, springs, and caves.


City’s Situation

City’s situation is geographical term that refers to its relative location. The city center is surrounded by hills, including the Acropolis Hill, Philopappou Hill, and Lycabettus hill among others. Additionally, the city-state was washed by several underground rivers, including Ilissus and Iridanos. These rivers are seasonal, but are filled during winter due to relatively high rainfall. The city-state also experienced a Mediterranean climate, implying that Athens experiences mild winters and hot and dry summers. The city-state was surrounded by Mount Aegaleo, Mount Parnithat, Mt. Hymettus, and Mt. Pentell in East. In addition, the Saronic Gulf extended into the city’s southwest. The proximity of the city-state to the sea induced seafaring. The ancient Athenians depended on the sea transport to travel and trade with its neighboring cities. Since Athens had limited land for agriculture, it relied on the sea transportation to ship foodstuffs and other trade products from foreign cities. Arguably, the city-state’s proximity to the sea and the advancement in the water transportation contributed to the city’s growth and prosperity.

Athens’s mountainous landscape and limited land for agriculture contributed to its quest for expansion. In other words, the city’s quest for enlargement was motivated by the need for land for agriculture and sufficient living space to support the growing population. Consequentially, the Athenians joined with other city-states and villages loyal to the city-state to establish colonies. As of 400 BCE, Athens secured control beyond its initial location to include the islands such as Chios and Lesbos, which would prove to be critical in for wars that ensued. The city’s need to expand resulted in conflicts and rebellions, including the disruptive Peloponnesian War with the Spartans.

City’s Internal Layout

According to Wilson, the organic expansion of Athens resulted in an organic or irregular city plan. In fact, the city’s organic plan was attributed to the fact that Athens was established during the Mycenaean period, which was marked by an organic street plan. Of all the Ancient Greek cities, Athens was the largest and the most famous, owing to its advancement. Most of the public activities took place in the city’s Agora. Agora was the ancient marketplace and city center. It was approximately 400 meters on the north end of the Acropolis. Additionally, its popularity was also enhanced by the magnificence of the city’s public building program, including the Acropolis, the Erechtheum, and the great Temple of Athena. The city walls had security as the chief concern. The great Temple of Athena was one of the most valued religious sites in the city. Known, as the Parthenon, the temple was built atop the Acropolis.

Figure 1 Ancient Athens

The city-state retained its unregulated dynamically developed plan until the end of Ancient Greece. There is limited knowledge about the actual layout of the ancient Athens, but evidence points out that the Acropolis was the initial epicenter of the city-state. For this reason, some of Athens’ main streets radiated from the entrance of the Acropolis as well as from the main roads surrounding it as depicted in Figure 1. These streets radiated through the city and ended at the city’s main gate. In that line, there were some free spaces left between the main roads. One of the most important free spaces that were left between the roads was the Agora (market place). The internal layout changed insignificantly during the Hellenic period. However, during this period, ancient Athens retained its old city borders and the main gates at which the roads from the Acropolis ended. From the perspective of statistical and visual order, organic urban centers viewed in plan take after cell growth and closely aligned to the landscape and natural features. In addition, as an organic city, Athens embodied movement technologies through its routes, similar to spider webs with routes from centers that contain the epicenter of growth. As depicted in Figure 1, the geometry seems irregular, but this does not imply that development was disorderly. In other words, Athens is an apt example of an ancient city with isolated morphological features with slow, irregular and unsystematic architectural growth. Contrastingly, Athens in post-Hellenistic period was relatively planned and depicted a geometry of smooth curves and straight lines.

City’s Major Morphological Features

Urban morphology is a geographical term that refers to the layout, physical form and structure of a city. Therefore, the morphological features of ancient Athens entails its physical form and structures. At the core of ancient Athens stood the Acropolis. Other features included defensive walls, roads radiated from the Acropolis. The integrated transportation system facilitated the movement of both people and goods to and from the city. To note, the geography of the city-state had a profound impact on its morphological features and culture. The climate and mountainous mainland terrain favored urbanization. Additionally, the climate allowed inhabitants to spend sufficient amount of time outside their houses. To that end, it profoundly impacted their culture because they spend most of their time within the city-state. This is evidenced from the fact that they frequently met outside in public forums to discuss public issues. In fact, the theatres ancient Athenians often attended were characteristically roofless amphitheaters. As Greece’s modern capital, Athens is marked by great epochs and ostentatious events both tragic and progressive that constitute its history. Similar to other Ancient Greek cities, Athens possessed some of the features associated with modern day urban environments. These include cross-city trade, division of labor, and high population density. Additionally, Athens was heavily depended on agriculture, which not only ensured food security but also provided employment and products for trade. Agriculture was largely practiced in the outskirts of the city. The connection of the city center to agricultural land remained vital until the modernization of the city in the 20th century.

City’s Urban History

Greek cities are documented to have originated from villages that expanded gradually, or from colonial settlements, or form villages that came together to form a centralized community. According to Cox, Athens was one of the most important cities in the West around the 500 BCE. Similar to other ancient cities, like Sparta, Athens experienced numerous disruptions throughout its outstanding history. At its peak, it is estimated that the city had over 300,000 residents. Majority of these residents lived on the southern slope of the Acropolis. In addition, most of them were foreigners or slaves who had limited political rights and had to pay more taxes than the natives to live in Athens. As of this writing, the city has evolved into a modern metropolitan area, manifesting its rich history. Like virtually all of the Greek metropolitan areas, the population growth in Athens concentrated in the city’s outskirts. Practically, Athens has outgrown its origins, ending up as a modern city with a dense population. Cohabitation with its history is structured in the city’s very foundation of the present modern capital of Greece. Most of the new settlements were planned on an orthogonal grid.

The rise of Athens and its rapid urbanization was also attributed to its military superiority. The defeat of the Persians in early 500 BCE marked the beginning economic and political dominance of the city-state. By overthrowing autocratic tyrants, the city-state devised a democratic system that catalyzed the city’s development through public engagement and creation of largely accepted rules. Typically, trade and political stability as features of modern urbanized environments also characterized Athens after the defeat of the Persians. To protect the city-state and its alliances from the Persian interference, the city-state was organized in a confederacy constituting allies that formed the Delian League. It is also worth noting that Athens remained in charge of the confederacy. The alienation of Sparta in this coalition contributed to the decades-long Peloponnesian War. The subsequent loss to Sparta in this war translated into a loss of Athens political primacy. The resistance to cultural changes contributed to the preservation of the old structural layout. Additionally, financial difficulties also contributed to the preservation of the classical layout of the city.


Athens developed in the plains of Attica, between the Penteli, the Hymettos and the Parnitha Mounts, and near the Saronic Gulf. This geographic location, as well as the mild climate influenced the settlement of people and growth of the city. To understand city-states to their totality, it is important to highlight their layout, morphological features, and urban history. The mountainous terrain and islands separated Greece into independent city-states, including Sparta and Athens. Athens is the native land of the Western civilization and democracy as well as the fountain of modern Olympics. The city’s architecture and planning rose from the ground through numerous developments and disruptions to transform is planning and urbanization journey. Since there was no centralized government, each city-state operated as an independent entity. This organization shaped the socio-political life of each city-state, eventually resulting in alliances and conflicts between the city-state and its neighbors, particularly Sparta.

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