The Greek world of Aristotle’s time was made up of small city-states, each with its own autonomous government. The city-state consisted of slaves, noncitizen manual laborers, children, women, aliens, and citizens. The citizens were adult males, most of whom had been born to citizen parents. The citizens governed the city, while the slaves, laborers, and women did all the work to provide the necessary food, shelter, and equipment. Because they were freed from the necessity of meeting day-to-day needs, citizens enjoyed a great deal of freedom and luxury. The leisure they enjoyed was highly valued and made possible one of the greatest periods of intellectual energy in human history. That this system was exploitative is hardly debatable, but it also produced an incredible array of philosophy, drama, art, and architecture. Aristotle’s students were young citizens whose tuition was meant to prepare them for a life of civic duty.
There were few enough citizens that everyone in a given city would at least recognize, if not know, one another, and all citizens were expected to take part in public office. Unlike our modern system of representative democracy, where we simply elect officials to speak for us, all Greek citizens were expected to voice their own opinions in large deliberative and judicial assemblies. There was a strong bond of kinship created in citizenship, as the same people lived together, governed together, served in the army together, and enjoyed leisure time together.
The age of the city-state came to a close within Aristotle’s lifetime, however, due to the efforts of his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great. Alexander came to power in the northern kingdom of Macedonia and within a decade had established one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. When Alexander died, Greece once more became fragmented, but the fierce independence of the city-states was a thing of the past. Greek culture was on the decline, and within a few hundred years, it would be swallowed up by the burgeoning Roman Empire.