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For other uses, see Synoecism (disambiguation).
File:Nicopolis synoecism.svg
"Communities participant in the synoecism of Nikopolis and the boundaries of the territory."

Synoecism or synecism (/sɨˈnsɪzəm/ si-NEE-siz-əm; Ancient Greek: συνοικισμóς, sunoikismos, Ancient Greek: [syːnɔi̯kismós]), also spelled synoikism (/sɨˈnɔɪkɪzəm/ si-NOY-kiz-əm), was originally the amalgamation of villages in Ancient Greece into poleis, or city-states. Etymologically the word means "dwelling together (syn) in the same house (oikos)." Subsequently any act of civic union between polities of any size was described by the word synoikismos. The closest analogy today is the incorporation of a city; in fact, "incorporation" is often used to translate synoikismos, in addition to the Latinized synoecism. Synoecism is opposed to Greek dioecism (διοικισμóς, dioikismos), the creation of independent communities within the territory of a polis.

Synoecism is the result of a few major factors, mainly an increase in population density of adjacent settlements, with an incorporation proposed for economic, political or ideological advantages, such as the synoecism of the communities of Attica into Athens, or by imposition of a ruling power, such as the synoecism of Messenia into the newly built city of Messene. A dioecism was undertaken for similar reasons, such as the settling of new and independent communities within territory of Constantinople abandoned due to a contraction of population, or the contraction of Thessaloniki out of its former neighborhoods outside the city walls due to the occupation of the countryside by the Turks.[1]

A conqueror might break up a polis for various reasons. For example, as part of the settlement of the Third Sacred War in 346 BC, the Amphictyonic League was commissioned to destroy 21 or 22 cities of Phocis, many of which had already been burned. They chose the method of dioecism, returning the poleis to their constituent kōmai, or villages. The city fortifications were then dismantled. This relatively mild destruction was reversed by Athens and Thebes several years later. They were sympathetic to Phocis but their hands had been legally tied. The cities were re-synoecized. The larger states assisted Phocis to rebuild the fortifications.[2]

Characteristics of a synoecism

Greek and Roman synoecism

The Greek word synoecism is applied by scholarship beyond the limits of the Greek world to all of Europe, which universally practiced it, although not under that name. Any binding union of villages conducted in a definite act of incorporation with all due oaths, sacrifices and other ceremonial invocation of the gods and heroes was a synoecism. The Romans and other Italians used it as anciently as the Greeks; however, the Greek language is slightly more conducive to the formation of an abstract noun in this case. The infinitive, synoikidzein, is in the imperfective aspect, meaning literally "to live continuously in the same house." This meaning is not the single act of union. In order to make it into one, the Greeks formed an abstract noun from the perfective aspect, converted from the imperfective by the aorist tense marker -s-: synoikis-mos. The Roman verb for the same event is already in the perfective aspect: condere, literally "to accomplish the single act of putting together." The Romans used an adjectival construction not conducive to the formation of an English noun, as in the name of Titus Livius' work on Roman history, Ab urbe condita, literally "from the city founded," meaning "from the foundation of the city." That foundation was a formal, ceremonial act uniting formerly distinct villages, a synoecism in every way.

Institution of a commonwealth

Although there were differences between Greek and Roman synoecisms they all had the same general features. Before the union the future population of the commonwealth was distributed to smaller settlements not obligated to each other in any way, or at least not by the contract that was to create the new state. A settlement or bloc of settlements might belong to some other state, from which they were being transferred. Some of the types of settlement incorporated by the Romans were the prefecture (praefectura), a non-autonomous village administered by a prefect; the oppidum, a fortified, autonomous town; the castellum, a small fortified place under or previously under the jurisdiction of the army; the forum, a marketplace; the conciliabulum, a meeting place; the vicus, a small settlement placed on a strictly private basis with no government; the canabae, or settlement of dependents in the vicinity of a base; the pagus, a rural village; the gens, a tribal canton; the saltus, a settlement of coloni (farmers) on a large estate, part of which they were renting or leasing from the conductor, the manager; and the colonia, a settlement of colonists from Rome.[3]

Interplay between "demos" and "polis"

In early Greece, ancient society was split between the "demos" (δῆμοι, κῶμαι; meaning the "country people" or the "country villages") and the "asty" (ἄστυ) or "polis" (πόλις); the seat of the princely (nobility, the gentry, the aristocracy), the sacerdotal and military families. The distinction between the "polis" and the "demos" was of great political importance in the ancient states. There was much antagonism between these two bodies, the country and city; and where commerce and trade became the dominant cultural and ideological force, it collected many men together promoting larger towns and democracy. In the city states of Classical Greece, synoecism occurred when the "demos" combined with, usually by force, and submerged the "politiea" to form one political union.[4]

In democratic states

For Athens, the villages of Attica combined with the asty of Athens proper. The "polis" and the "demos" became identical in Athens and the later word was used by preference to signify the whole community. It was the wealthy and populous cities of the Greeks in the Ionian territory that popular government was first established.[5] This is how the word "democracy" was formed and its form of government. This synoecism was one of the primary causes of the kyklos in ancient Hellas.

This principle is witnessed in the history of Mantineia. In the fifth century, after its synoecism, it became a democracy; in the fourth century, it was again split apart (dioikismos), and an oligarchy was formed. Later on, more political upheaval caused another synoecism, thus creating another democracy.[4] This occurred in the other Arcadian towns of Tegea and Heraia.

In oligarchical states

States not under democratic government used the word "polis" in their public documents to signify the sovereign power. The Doric states of Crete and Sparta kept the "polis" separate from the "demos". As late as the second century of the common era, Cretan towns continued to use the word "polis" to denote themselves. The Spartan community, however, deviating from this usage of the word, calls itself "damos" (δᾶμoς) in ancient laws, because it never thought of opposing itself as a body to the Perioeci.[5]

Müller states: "In oligarchical states, as in Elis, the people in later times remained almost constantly in the country; and it frequently happened that grandfathers and grandchildren had never seen the town: there were also country courts of justice, and other regulations intended to make up for the advantages of a city life. Where the courts of justice were at a distance, and there was no inducement to mechanical industry and internal commerce (see the term banausos), the ancient habits of life continued much longer in existence."[5]


In the history of ancient Greece, this term refers to the political process by which a group of villages and settlements are synchronized to form a polis. In the poleis, the synoikistes was the person who, according to local tradition, performed the synoikismos, either through his personal influence or by conquest, and subsequently was worshipped as a demi-god. The most notable synoikistes was the mythic or legendary Theseus, who liberated Attica from Cretan hegemony and gave independency back to Greece under leadership of Athens.

Synoecism is the name of an ancient Cretan archaeological site on the western fringes of Troullos. Artifacts found at the site include a terracotta bull figurine, a bronze statuette and Late Minoan I pottery.

See also


  1. ^ Bakirtyis, Charalambos (2004) [2003], "The Urban Continuity and Size of Late Byzantine Thessalonike", in Talbot, Alice-Mary, Dumbarton Oaks, Papers, No. 57: Symposium on Late Byzantine Thessaloniki (PDF) (extract), Washington, DC: Trustees for Harvard University, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, pp. 40–41, 64, retrieved 2007-04-03 
  2. ^ Oulhen, Jacques (2004), "Phokis", in Hansen, Mogens Herman; Nielsen, Thomas Heine, An inventory of archaic and classical poleis, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 400–1 
  3. ^ Abbott & Johnson 1926, pp. 10–20.
  4. ^ a b Rahe, Paul A (1994). "20". Republics Ancient and Modern. I. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press. p. 323. 
  5. ^ a b c Müller, Karl Otfried; Tufnell, Henry; Lewis, George Cornewall (1839). The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race. 2 (2nd ed.). John Murray. pp. 72, 72–3. 


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