Greece believed to be one of the oldest civilizations of the world has seen several rise and fall during the period of Classical Greece dating from 8th century B.C to 146 Century B.C. The Ancient Greek Government was run by the Aristocrats for most of its time and even in other forms of government they were still very influential in the political sphere.
Types of Governments in Ancient Greece
There were mainly four main types of governments in ancient Greece:
- Aristocracy was the most commonly found system of government in which there was a completely different political class known as the aristocrats who monopolized political power excluding the masses.
- Tyranny was the rule by the one who overthrew the ruling order and monopolized political power in his own hands mostly with the support of the masses.
- Democracy was a system of direct rule by the masses through voting and debates, and all the policies decided by the popular assemblies.
- Monarchy was uncommon but it was still present in certain states like Sparta which were ruled by royal families or a single royal king.
Ancient Greek Governments
Aristocracy or oligarchy (Rule of the few)
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.
Tyranny(Rule of the usurper)
In the 7th Century B.C there came a major change in the ancient Greece Government with the emergence of the Middle class. They were the group of people who replaced the aristocrats in several Greek states – cities.
They were not the tyrants in the modern sense but they were usurpers of supreme power, thus known as the same. However, in other states, the middle Classes were wilfully included in the running of the Government by the aristocrats.
All the tyrants were not very successful in sustaining peace in their own states due to constant conflict and snatching of power. However, some were dedicated towards the development of their people.
Some of the tyrants like Cypselus of Corinth, Cleisthenes of Sicyon, Pheidon of Argos, Polycrates of Samos, Pisistratus and Hippias of Athens are well known in the history of Greek for their noble work.
These states were known as Oligarchies which meant Rule by Few. Most successful and prominent among these Oligarchies was Sparta.
Important Oligarchies in ancient Greece were Thebes, Megara, Ephesus.
But the Tyrants had the constant threat from the Aristocracy and Spartans. The last Tyrant Hippias was defeated by the Spartan in 510 B.C. Thus the Spartan became a strong power in the Government of Ancient Greece in 5th Century B.C.
Famous Tyrants included Cleisthenes, Polycrates, Pheidon.
Democracy(Rule by the People)
Until 6th century B.C Greek had only seen aristocracy and Oligarchies. In the second half of 6th Century, the people of Athens formed the first Democratic Governor of the World. The Ancient Greek Government experienced a radical change as the Aristocrats were overthrown and the government was formed by the people.
Ancient Greek democracy was a system of direct democracy in which the people present in the assembly took the decision directly instead of having any representative to vote. The people rotated on a random basis and took part in the popular assemblies where proposals were submitted and the people voted.
The word democracy comes from the Greek word, demos meaning people and Kratos which means power and hence the world literally means that the power of the people. Athenian Ancient Greece Democracy had been established actually as a result of the continuous reorganizations.
It remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right.
Participation was by no means open, but the in-group of participants was constituted with no reference to economic class and they participated on a scale that was truly phenomenal. The public opinion of voters was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres.
The Citizens Assembly was formed to discuss the city policies in Athens. Everyone but the metrics (i.e. Foreigners) and slaves had equal political rights. After Athens, the other states of the Government of ancient Greece also saw the rise of Democracy in late 6th century B.C.
Important Democracies in ancient Greece included Athens, Syracuse, Argos.
Monarchy (Rule of the royalty)
Monarchy in ancient Greece was rare but it did exist especially between 800-200 BC. But it was a bit different than normally thought. Instead of having complete control over all resources and laws, it was more of a democratic or aristocratic type of monarchy.
The kings generally had a council of advisors consisting of intellectual or educated people, the elders of the state or even a hereditary group of aristocrats who advised the kings about their policies. They even sometimes had a popular council of citizens who advised or regulated the powers of the king like in Sparta which had two kings at the same time.
Important monarchies in ancient Greece were Sparta, Corinth, Argos.
Governments in Different periods of Ancient Greece
Mycenaean Greece was divided into several centrally organized states also known as palatial states. They were controlled and ruled from the palaces by a chief known as Wanax who oversaw all aspects including military, religious and judicial matters.
The states were divided into subdivisions ruled by palaces which were controlled by aristocrats. These were known as the palace bureaucracies where almost all revenue sources including land and other religious and political matters were controlled from these palaces.
Almost all the lands belonged to these aristocrats who collected taxes from the people and the peasants worked for these palace lords.
The dark ages were a time in ancient Greek history when civilizations almost collapsed. The Mycenaean civilization collapsed to give way to a pastoral way of life, where people migrated continuously and states were very minimal.
Many aristocrats remained and even some smaller palatial polities where all spheres of life were controlled by the Aristocrats.
The dark ages gave way to the archaic period which has also been called the age of tyrants.
During this phase, small city-states known as Polies came up, which signalled the rise of urbanity reemerging after the dark ages.
The archaic period also saw the rise of autocratic rulers known as tyrants who overthrew the aristocratic order. According to Aristotle, the nobility became extremely oppressive and arrogant which made them frustrated with the corrupt aristocracy. The tyrants with the help of this public support came up to monopolize power in their own hands. The first tyrant was Cypselus who seized the government in Corinth in 655 BC.
These tyrants were mostly aristocrats themselves who became ambitious enough to seize power with public support or military generals who seized power with sheer military power.
The 200 years between the 5th and 4th century BC is when Greek culture reached its peak with great inventions in scientific fields and great intellectual discourses in philosophy, art and literature. It also signaled the rise of democracy in ancient Greece.
When the public became aware of the downsides of tyranny, they wanted more political rights and at this moment a system of direct democracy was established in Athens.
Athens was the most popular state with its ‘egalitarian’ democracy but the period saw even other states sharing atleast some power with the masses. Popular assemblies were established which allowed the public to share certain political power. States like Magara and even Sparta had such assemblies.