Aristocracy was a term used to define a system of rule of a small group of people In Rome, the Republic consisted of an aristocracy as well as consuls, a senate, and a tribal assembly. The Republic ended with the death of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BC. Later, aristocracies primarily consisted of an elite aristocratic class, privileged by birth and often by wealth.
Since the French Revolution, aristocracy has generally been contrasted with democracy, in which all citizens hold some form of political power. However, this distinction is often oversimplified.
In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes an Ancient Greek Aristocracy as a commonwealth in which the representative of the people is an assembly part. Simply put, a government when only a certain part of the general public can represent the public.Modern depictions of Aristocracy regard it not as a legitimate Aristocracy (rule by the best) but rather as a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy). This would basically adhere to Karl Marx’s principle of the haves ruling over the have-nots due to money giving them the ability to dominate.
What is Aristocracy?
An aristocracy is a form of government where a small group of people known as aristocrats are the sole custodian of political power. These aristocrats enjoy special privileges in the society and economy, and their authority generally comes from birth as these posts are mostly hereditary.
It can be individual aristocrats enjoying political power in a particular region or it can be a group of aristocrats controlling the politics of a certain place together which can also be called an oligarchy.
What did Aristocracy mean in Ancient Greece?
The term was derived from the Greek word aristocrat, meaning “rule of the best”. The concept evolved in Ancient Greece, whereby a council of famous citizens was commonly used and contrasted with “direct monarchy” in which an individual king held the power. The Ancient Greeks did not like the concept of monarchy, and as their democratic system fell, the aristocracy was upheld.
Although Aristocracy in Ancient Greece was proclaimed by famous Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle as the rule of the best. But in reality, it was the rule of a few where a group of people controlled its politics excluding the masses.
Throughout the Mycenaean period, aristocracy dominated the Greek lands and even up to the classical period most of Greece was under oligarchy except Athens which became a democracy. Entry to this aristocracy was forbidden by birth and they considered themselves as the best of the population, gaining undue privileges in society and economy. They controlled huge lands which were maintained by a huge force of slaves and most of their gains where reaped by these small groups of people.
Aristocracy in Mycenaean Greece
During the bronze age, the Mycenaean civilization flourished in Greece. The Mycenaeans were controlled by palace bureaucracies in which the entire lands were divided into sub-units governed by palaces under Aristocrats. All political power and lands were under the jurisdiction of these aristocrats as the masses were not considered fit to rule.
Aristocracy in ancient Greece city-states
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.
Difference between Aristocracy, Tyrants and Democracy
The main three types of political systems in Ancient Greece were aristocracy, democracy and tyranny with an additional monarchy in certain places.
While aristocracies were a special group of hereditary people ruling the state, tyranny was a system in which a single ruler came up to rule in generally an illegal way.
In most cases, ambitious aristocrats came up with popular support to overturn the oligarchic system to rule alone. They differed from a monarchy in the sense that they did not have any legitimate moral or divine backing to justify their rule other than brute power and popular support.
While Democracy in ancient Greece was a system in which the entire free male population came up to rule their own affairs through popular assemblies in which all the decisions regarding the policies of the state were taken by a direct voting system in assemblies.
So Aristocracy can be described as the rule of few, Tyranny as the rule of one and Democracy as the rule of the people.
Decline and transformation of the Aristocratic system
The people of ancient Greece became frustrated with the corrupt practices of the aristocrats with time. In many states, sensing this popular sentiment against the aristocrats led to the rise of tyrants with popular support.
After the Persian wars, people recognized the limitations of Tyrants and the need to take part in the process of policy-making. It caused the rise of egalitarian councils in many states, especially in Athens.
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.
So the aristocracy and grievances against the system lead to the establishment of democracy.
So as we see the system of Aristocracy was not all doom as it facilitated the Great Greek dramas, philosophy, and art. It was also with the help of these aristocrats that the concept of democracy came up in ancient Athens.