Five main forms of government existed in ancient Greece over the several thousand years of its history. The distinguishing factor among them was whether they depended on a strong central authority or on shared authority. Monarchy



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The Governments of the Ancient Greeks
Five main forms of government existed in ancient Greece over the several thousand years of its history. The distinguishing factor among them was whether they depended on a strong central authority or on shared authority. Monarchy (rule by a king) and tyranny (rule by one powerful aristocrat) belong in the first category, oligarchy (rule by small group of people), aristocracy (rule by the noble class or by the richest men) and democracy (rule by the masses) in the second.

Monarchs governed the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Sometimes called “princes” to indicate that they ruled a limited local territory instead of a widespread kingdom, these rulers combined political and religious functions. In addition to controlling defense, economics, and law, they also oversaw the worship of the gods. The rulers surrounded themselves with many servants and officials in their palace complexes. The monarchs lived more luxurious lives than their subjects because they controlled the surpluses produced by farmers and craft workers. The monarchs instituted minutely detailed accounting systems to keep track of everything under their control.


Tyrants were sole rulers who took over city-states, established dynasties for their families. The most long-lived tyrannies existed in Corinth and city-states on Sicily, but even these tended to last no more than a couple of generations. The masses generally supported tyranny because tyrants benefited them with public employment, but the rich hated the system because it cost them power and money.

In city-states with an oligarchy, government was shared by a limited group of people (oligoi). Some oligarchic city-states had only a handful of leaders sharing authority; others had several hundred. Some city-states had an aristocracy (rule by the best, the aristoi), a type of oligarchy in which leaders were selected only from privileged families. The justification for oligarchy was that pure equality for citizens was morally inequitable because people were not the same. The idea was that some were more capable, more devoted, and more intelligent and thus deserved to rule the masses. The most famous oligarchic city-state was Sparta. It had a dual kingship and an assembly composed of all free men over 30, referred to as “equals,” but neither the kings nor the equals came to hold real power. The 28-member Council of Elders and five elected officials held the reins of government, drafting laws that the assembly was expected to approve without debate.

Democracy gave an equal vote to every man who was liable for military service. In the most famous democracy, Athens, this included every freeborn male over 18 years old. Athenian democracy shared authority by choosing most government officials from the citizenry through a lottery and imposing term limits. Only the most sensitive positions in military and financial affairs were filled by election. It became expected that every freeman would participate in public service, so education became widespread in the city. The famous academies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle developed under the Athenian government.


  1. What were the five forms of government for Ancient Greece?

  2. What obligations did the Greek “princes” have over their kingdoms?

  3. Why were tyrannies not long lasting types of governments?

  4. What is an oligarchy?

  5. Why did some governments support an oligarchy?

  6. Who was eligible to vote in the democracy of Ancient Athens?


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