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The Police in Ancient Greece

police ancient Greece
Screenshot from Builders of Greece, a video game that allows players to construct their ancient Greek polis. Credit: BLUM Entertainment / Strategy Labs / CreativeForge Games

While ancient Greece didn’t have a police force in the same way we think of them today, they did have systems for maintaining order and enforcing laws.

The term “police” used by modern states to describe the body enforcing the law and maintaining order, comes from Middle French police, in turn from Latin politia, which is the Latinization of the Greek politeia standing for “citizenship, administration, civil polity”.

This is derived from the word polis which describes nothing else but the city or more accurately the city-state. In ancient Greece, the word politeia represented all authorities and the force of power mastered by the head of the state (lord) to ensure compliance with what had been voted into force.

The Greek word, however, for police is astynomia, a compound noun consisting of asty (the officialese word for the city) and nomos (law).

Therefore, as an institution, the police are directly linked to the emergence and development of “the city.”

And since the law is quintessential for the survival, prosperity and growth of the city on all possible levels, the police can be said to present the marriage of an actual fact (the development of the city) and a spiritual one (obedience to the law).

Police was unknown in ancient Greece till the 5th century BC

In Ancient Greece, the constitution of the police was unknown until the 5th century BC. Historical evidence shows that from that time on, police authorities began to form and excel, particularly in the city-state of Athens, where publicly owned slaves were used by magistrates as a police force.

A group of 300 Scythian slaves so-called “rod-bearers” was used to guard public meetings to keep order and control the crowds, and also assisted in dealing with criminals, handling prisoners, and making arrests.

They acted on behalf of a group of eleven elected Athenian magistrates “who were responsible for arrests and executions and for some aspects of public order” in the city. Despite being called “archers”, the Scythian police probably did not use bows and arrows.

Ancient Greece police
Archer drawing an arrow from his quiver as he turns to shoot at the enemy. Public Domain

One of Aristophanes’s comedies has a Scythian archer as a character, and he speaks broken Greek with an accent.

Other duties associated with modern policing, such as investigating crimes, were left to the citizens themselves.

From the 5th century BC when the foundations of greatness and prosperity had been laid down for the people of Athens, police authorities were established with their mission being similar to that of modern police authorities.

The main concerns of this first ancient police were order, demeanor, hygiene, protection of morals, Market police, surveillance, supervision of construction, surveillance of foreigners, the prevention of public accidents, etc.

Particularly, there were diverse authorities set up by the state to protect its welfare and citizens. All these separate bodies were monitored and regulated by the Athenian supreme court, the Areopagus.

Police in ancient Sparta

On the other hand, in ancient Sparta, police authorities were not as many and separate as in Athens. The limited social life of the Spartans and the more authoritarian regime included the royal power, the House of the Elders, the Agora, while the true power lay in the hands of the Ephors, a body whose members were elected annually by adult Spartans and were of high esteem.

Among their other duties, the Ephors were in charge of maintaining public order within their city- state and rule as judges in cases brought before them.

Executives of the Ephors’ decisions were the Hippeis, the 300-member selected royal guard of honor. There were separate authorities supervising children, women and agricultural issues.

Similar police authorities are recorded to have been used in other city-states too.

(With information from H. Stamatis’ book,  Greek “Ηistory of the City’s Police”)

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