Greek poleis (the plural of polis) had several characteristics in common. Physically, most poleis were small, with Athens and Sparta being the exceptions. Most had a place for citizens to assemble and a center in which religious worship was performed. These areas were usually on high, defensible ground and were used as a place of refuge during an attack. This place was usually called an acropolis, which means “high polis”. Most poleis had an agora, or marketplace, that was the center of communal life. In each polis there was usually a temple dedicated to the god or gods who protected the city.
Though there were a great variety of political structures found in the various poleis, there were more or less similar political characteristics when it came to citizenship and participation in public life of citizens. To be a citizen in a Greek polis was extremely important. There was a strong bond between the polis and its citizens, and the polis was the center of a citizen’s life. Citizenship usually was given to adult men and landowners and was descendant; that is, citizens needed to show descent from at least one parent who was a citizen, and in some cases, both parents. Of all the residents of a polis, citizens had the most rights, which included voting, owning land, holding public office and speaking for themselves in court. But, along with these rights came responsibilities. Citizens were expected to provide military service in time of war and to actively participate in the government of the polis.