Ancient Greek History

All About the Oligarchy of Ancient Greece

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When most people think about the structure of government in Ancient Greece, they may believe that it was a democracy, or that Ancient Greece was broken up by city-states. To some extent, these things are true. However, democracy wasn’t developed until much later on in Ancient Greece and it also took some time for the city-states to actually develop. After the Greek Dark Ages, the population in that region scattered and the city-states arose sometime after that.

Before Ancient Greece developed into the governments that existed later on, most of the areas were structured as oligarchies. Although we know that there is a period of time where the oligarchies were extremely common in Ancient Greece, not much is known about them, especially early on. Some oligarchies, however, have been well documented. Here’s more information about the oligarchies as they pertained to Ancient Greece”

About the Oligarchy of Ancient Greece

Webster’s Dictionary defines an oligarchy as, “a government in which a small group exercises control.” The root of the word, oligarchy, comes from a Greek word meaning, “few.” In Ancient Greece, oligarchies were especially common as early as 800 B.C. and in some places, like the city-state of Athens, the oligarchical system remained for much longer. In Ancient Greece, may city-states remained as oligarchies even longer than Athens did. Note that oligarchy simply means “ruled by a few” and that it shouldn’t be confused with a monarchy, since many of the city-states had kings or a tyranny, which is a system of government where one individual rules. In Ancient Athens, which is a classic example of an oligarchy, the top government positions were only held by the elite class, or the aristocracy. The city-states of Megara and Thebes were other city-states who were known to have an oligarchy.

Athenian Oligarchy and the Development of Democracy

The Ancient Greeks are credited for giving the world democracy, but really it’s the Ancient Athenians that we specifically have to thank. As mentioned above, Athens was one of the more well known of the oligarchies and once the general population became tired of being ruled by only a small minority of its citizens, they revolted. From this revolution, the democracy came into being. This revolution and the development of the new system of government occurred around 500 B.C. The eventual democratic system required that the eligible citizens vote on any decision that the population needed to make. For example, before building the Athenian navy, the politicians who advocated for it needed to convince the voters that building the navy was in the city-state’s best interest. The politicians were also voted in by the public.

As you can see, the oligarchy was a fairly common form of government in Ancient Greece. One of the most popularly known oligarchies existed in Athens and in the surrounding region of Attica. However, this oligarchy had a violent, dramatic ending that helped develop democracy, which is a novel system of government that we still embrace today.


Wikipedia – Oligarchy

Wikipedia – Athenian democracy

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