What is Oligarchy

Ancient Greece Oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power rests in the hands of a small or limited number of people. These few people generally belong to the rich and powerful section of the society. The word Ancient Greece Oligarchy has derived from the Greek words oligos, meaning a few and archon, meaning to rule, to govern, to command. Such states are often controlled by a few well-known families who pass their influence from one generation to the next thereby carrying on this legacy.

Ancient sparta oligarchy

Oligarchy in Ancient Greece

The Greeks had a lot of different kinds of governments, owing to the several numbers of independent city-states in ancient Greece, and they each had their own government. In addition to this, people’s ideas and concept with regard to a good government kept changing over time thereby resulting into the incorporation of certain modifications in their present government which led to the change in the entire form of the government. At that time, oligarchies were not as common as monarchies. In fact, immediately after the Dark Ages, between 1000 and 500 BC, most of the city-states in Greece were oligarchies.

When we think about ancient Greece and their political structure the first thing that comes to mind is ‘Democracy’. But democracy was first established in the classical period for the first time in Athens.

Oligarchy was the most common form of government prevalent in ancient Greece where only a small group of people known as the aristocrats, monopolized political power and entry to this group was in most of the time restricted by birth. This group controlled all of the land and people had to work under them with no rights and no say in the policies of the state.

We see an oligarchic system of government right from the Mycenaean period. The practice of a divine monarchy or a single person monopolizing power and acting as king or emperor was looked down upon in ancient Greece. So even when there was a monarchical system like in Sparta or a democratic system like in Megara, oligarchs or aristocrats still had a huge say in the proceedings of the government exerting great influence.

While many have called it the ‘rule of the few’, but it was supported by their famous philosophers like Aristotle and Plato who called it ‘the rule of the best’. They considered it the best way of government in which a special few would be specialized in governance taking the state into well-being as according to them the masses were not capable enough of taking proper decisions and so they despised democratic systems.

Aristotle divided Greek governments into monarchies, oligarchies, tyrannies, and democracies. This classification is being used by most historians to date. Initially, Greece began by having monarchies, followed by oligarchies, and then tyrannies before finally becoming democracies, but at each period there were plenty of city-states using a different system. Apart from this, there were many city-states which never became democracies or tyrannies at all.

Ancient greek Aristotle

Oligarchies in Ancient Greece

Mycenean Greece

The Mycenaean civilization flourished during the bronze age and has been hailed as one of the most advanced ancient civilizations. This civilization was completely controlled by an oligarchic system of government.

The ancient Greek mainland was divided into provinces, which was controlled by an aristocrat from their palaces. These palaces became the centre of administration and governance, also known as palace bureaucracy. These provinces were again subdivided into units which were also controlled by aristocrats.

All of the lands were controlled by these aristocrats who were administered from their palaces and these positions of power were hereditary, with strict restrictions on the entry of common citizens. The people were all subjects to their rule.


Ancient Athens was ruled by kings up to the 9th century BC but in reality, he was just a nominal head in which he stood at the top of a powerful land-owning Aristocracy known as the Eupatridae. It was governed by these aristocrats and all important decisions were taken by these in their meetings at the hill of Areopagus. They appointed a chief city magistrate known as the Archons which function as the executive.

The Athenian has immortalized with their patronage to art, philosophy, music, dramas, etc. They had the backing of famous personalities like Aristotle as the best way of living. They considered a government by the will of the masses is the rule of the mob which have very limited knowledge about politics. But these were biased because of their patronage by the Aristocrats themselves.


Sparta was another aristocracy which had two kings but its Oracle consisting of its elder male citizens exerted great influence. Although it had a popular assembly in which free citizens voiced their opinion, the Oracle exerted great power and was a peculiar form of aristocracy which shared its power with monarchy as well as the free citizens to some extent.

But with the coming of the classical period, many of the city-states started sharing political power with the common public, especially with the rise of hoplite armies which broke the monopoly of the aristocracy in warfare. It was not any egalitarian system but just a less oppressive system than a pure oligarchy where the aristocrats still wielded significant political power.

spartans greek pottery

Oligarchies in other forms

Oligarchy did not only exist in a purely aristocratic form of government. They also existed in other forms in the other political systems.

Monarchies were rarely seen in ancient Greece but in rare cases, they were mostly assisted by a group of elders or a council of intellectual men who exerted great influence on the king. They held great say in the successions and decisions of the king. For example, the spartan monarchy was helped by a council of elders who held great power. These were a sort of oligarchy as their membership was restricted by birth or wealth.

Similarly, in democracies like Megara, entry to the councils was restricted by wealth. They were just like an oligarchy where a few, probably more than the normal oligarchies, took decisions for the people. Athens can be said to be the only state where the common citizens held power although the aristocrats still held great influence on the councils. Sometimes the decisions of the popular councils were vetoed by another council consisting of jurors or intellectual people. In this form, a special group of people decided the extent of popular decision-making.

What is the difference between democracy and oligarchy in ancient Greece?

Oligarchy in ancient Greece was a group of people with special hereditary rights monopolizing political power in their hands, excluding the masses. While democracy was the system of government in which people directly voted for or against proposals and decided the policies of the state. It was a system run directly by the masses.  Oligarchy can be said to be ‘the rule of the few’ while democracy was ‘the rule of the citizens’

Decline of Oligarchy

The oligarchies were actually very exploitative and tyrannical. They controlled land, which was the main means of wealth in those times. The people got frustrated with their corruption.

Sensing the popular idea of the masses, many military generals or even certain aristocrats alone overthrew the oligarchic system with the help of the people or by purely military means, monopolizing political power in their hands.

The archaic period was called the ‘Age of tyrants’, in which several states overthrew their oligarchic order and established tyrants. Especially after the Persian wars, people wanted firm governance and quick decisions which the aristocracy failed to undertake. Many tyrants came up to lead their states during this phase.

But with time, people realized the negative effects of tyranny. The aristocrats came to take up power in a few years. At this stage, people wanted to take power into their hands which led to the establishment of democracy or egalitarian councils in many states.

Another reason for their decline is assumed to be the rise of Hoplites. The aristocrats especially during the Mycenaean period monopolized the battlefields. They went into battle with elaborate armour and chariots which made lightly clad infantry almost useless. War was a very important part of Greek society and these famous battles were glorified by the Greek authors which also gave them a certain prestige in society.

But with the rise of heavily clad infantry known as the hoplites, more and more common citizens, especially wealthy farmers began taking part in wars which ended their monopoly in battles.

It is these hoplite hoplites which became an instrument for the tyrants in many places to overthrow the order. And in many states, aristocrats themselves formed the popular councils to give the people certain political rights sensing the importance of this mass of people taking part in wars as hoplites.

Like in Athens, the Archons had become extremely powerful and sometimes exerted more power than the Eupatridae who were the real political heads earlier. Then Archons like Cleisthenes and Solon recognizing the mood of the people reformed the political system to arrest popular revolution and established the direct democratic system where important policies were taken by voting by the common people.