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This paper explores Greek cities’ particular form of territoriality—the widely acknowledged but under-explored fact that each Greek city was a community constituted in relationship to a territory within which only its members were allowed to own land—as a factor shaping Greek archaic history. Scholars working on the “rise of the polis”, whether from a “state” or a “society” perspective (cf. most recently van Wees 2013 and Duplouy 2014), take the existence of fixed civic identities that everyone accepted for granted. However, recent scholarship has de-centered polis communities to emphasize the multiplicity of overlapping group identities that were articulated in the archaic period (Morgan 2003). Why, then, did so many people eventually choose to belong to a polis community as their primary identity? Drawing on recent critical approaches to law that emphasize law’s tendency to presume the existence of the people and things that it puts in relation to each other and its ability to create them in the process (Richardson 2012 and Herzog 2015), I use literary and epigraphical evidence from the archaic period to argue that the development of Greek cities’ territoriality as an idea was instrumental in bringing these civic communities into being, since this territoriality made property rights dependent on permanently identifying as a member of a given community—an identification that provided the basis for all future claims that this community might make on its members.

Although evidence is sparse, we have several indications that the archaic period was formative for the development of Greek cities’ territoriality. Archaic literary and epigraphic material reveals a perception of the landscape in which expanses of land were perceived to belong to definite communities, were the object of conflicts between these communities, and whose dimensions became the subject of much record-keeping (e.g. IC I, ix, 1 and Tyrtaeus 10). The semantic history of chōra and gē, the words used for these territories, and the absence of known Myceneaen precedents for such a territorial conception of political power suggest that this was a recent development in the archaic period. Furthermore, property in land was a steady obsession in archaic legal inscriptions and these texts also often specify rights as belonging to specific groups (e.g. Nomima I, 16 and 21). This evidence not only suggests that the development of Greek cities’ particular territoriality was an important new phenomenon, but texts such as Theognis, ll. 865-68, also reveal that this development was a contested process rather than the simple consequence of the shift from pastoralism to arable farming as de Polignac (1995) suggested. The idea that only Sicyonians, for example, owned land in Sicyonian territory was as much an aspirational claim as the suggestion, often made by archaic poets, that all members of the civic community considered it a good thing to go out and defend the civic chōra. Both these claims undoubtedly shaped the social reality that they purported to describe; and the former, I contend, was crucial in getting people who otherwise might not have cared about being Sicyonian—whether they be members of a regional elite or small farmers in what would become the Sicyonian countryside—to commit to this identity.

Archaic Greek history persistently forces us to question and stretch the limits of our historical imagination; by focusing on the interplay between normative pronouncements and individuals’ self-perception and representation rather than assuming a complete state or its complete absence, my argument here not only explains how people came to be so committed to their cities, an important reason for why Greek cities proved so long-lasting, but also helps us move past the dichotomy between state- and society-centered approaches that pervade current scholarship on the “rise of the polis”. More generally, I hope to have shown that taking terriory seriously when it occurs—the necessary consequence of the recent trend to unthink the territorial nature of ancient states that scholars have tended to assume—holds much potential for thinking through problems in ancient history.