The Police in Ancient Greece



arxaia-policeThe 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 city) and nomos (law).

Therefore, as an institution the police is 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 law).

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 (the 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. 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 police 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.

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.

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