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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Politeia (πολιτεία) is an Ancient Greek word with no single English translation. Derived from the word polis ("city-state"), it is an important term in Ancient Greek political thought, especially that of Plato and Aristotle.


English translations of the Ancient Greek word

According to Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon a meaning of politeia is "the conditions and rights of the citizen, or citizenship", analogous to the Latin civitas.

In the works of Ancient Greek philosophers, the principal meaning of politeia appears to be: "how a polis is run; constitution". A politeia differs from modern written constitutions in two respects: first, not all Greek states put their laws in writing; more importantly, the Greeks did not normally distinguish between ordinary and constitutional legislation. If a certain body had the power to change the laws, it had the power to change the laws controlling its own power and membership - even to abolish itself and set up a new governing body.

The phrases system of government, state organisation, form of government, and, more recently, régime have also been used to translate politeia. Régime has drawbacks: it is ambiguous where politeia is not, since a change of régime can mean a change of governors under the same form of government. It has a negative tone in English, which politeia does not in Greek. It is also a loan-word; and in that regard, has no advantage over simply adopting politeia itself.

Some translators thus use a different term for this second meaning of politeia. Most common is the vague term polity. Specific translations of this second meaning as constitutional democracy or republic are at least anachronistic, and in most instances contentious and/or inaccurate. Some translators feel it is incorrect to translate the same word in different ways, arguing that the ambiguity must have been deliberate and that it is impossible to always know which way the word should be rendered.

Politeia in the work of the authors of Antiquity

Plato and Cicero

Politeia is the original title of the book by Plato now commonly known in English as The Republic. Cicero translated politeia as res publica (see also: De re publica), from which the modern word republic comes. Note that the meanings the ancient Romans attached to res publica were also multiple and only partially overlapping with the Greek politeia, and further that few of the multiple meanings of politeia or res publica are much of an equivalent to republic as it is understood in modern political science.


In the Constitution of the Athenians (Athenaion Politeia), Aristotle uses politeia for eleven states of the Athenian government up to his own time, from the absolute monarchy of Ionia and the tyranny of the Thirty to the democratic Assembly and selection by lot of Pericles's time and his own. He may have added that the absolute monarchy of Ion was "less political" than that of Theseus or the later constitutions, but the text is doubtful.

In his Politics, Aristotle clearly uses politeia both as above and also in a more restricted sense. Exactly what this sense is, and whether Aristotle is using it in a consistent manner, have both been long debated. By careful choice of quotation, all of the following can be defended:

  • A specific form of government. Aristotle classified constitutions on two grounds: how many citizens had a voice in making the laws; and whether they did so considering the good of all citizens, or only their own. Along with monarchy and aristocracy politeia is one of the three virtuous forms of government. While monarchy is the rule by one, and aristocracy by the few, politeia is rule by the many.
  • A constitution that does not fit into this sixfold classification, because it has features of more than one of them: the constitutions of Carthage, Sparta, and [at least one of the cities of] Crete.
  • A constitution which mixes oligarchy and democracy (terms which, as used by Aristotle, refer to vicious kinds of constitutions).
  • A constitution in which the hoplites governed. This is more restrictive than the Athens of Aristotle's time. Athens was a naval power, and many citizens were allowed to vote, and served the state well in war, who could not afford massive metal armor.

In Book III of his Politics (1279a), Aristotle seems to indicate that, in principle, politeia refers generically to any form of government or constitution, although he uses the word also to call a particular form of government: “When the citizens at large govern for the public good, it is called by the name common to all governments (politeion), government (politeia)”.

Why Aristotle uses the same term to refer to at least two distinct ideas has confused readers for millennia. For instance, later Aristotle refers to the ideal politeia as one using a mixed government. But it is uncertain whether he is referring to governments in general or to a specific form.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Politeia" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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