What Is the Definition of Oligarchy in Ancient Greece?

An oligarchy is a form of government where power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of individuals. In Ancient Greece, the term ‘oligarchy’ was used to describe a ruling system that was prevalent in several city-states, including Sparta and Athens.

The word ‘oligarchy’ itself comes from the Greek words ‘oligos,’ meaning ‘few,’ and ‘arkhein,’ meaning ‘to rule. ‘

The Characteristics of Oligarchy

In an oligarchic system, political power and influence are restricted to a select few, typically members of the aristocracy or wealthy elite. These individuals often hold key positions within the government, such as council members or advisors. They use their wealth and social status to maintain their authority and control over the state.

  • Concentration of Power: Oligarchies are characterized by a concentration of power in the hands of a few individuals or families. These individuals often inherit their positions of authority.
  • Lack of Political Participation: Oligarchies tend to limit political participation to a privileged few.

    Ordinary citizens have little or no say in decision-making processes.

  • Wealth and Influence: Wealth plays a crucial role in oligarchic systems. The rich elite use their financial resources to gain influence and maintain control over political affairs.
  • Corruption and Nepotism: Oligarchies are prone to corruption and nepotism since those in power can manipulate laws and regulations to serve their own interests.

Oligarchy in Sparta

Sparta, one of the most well-known city-states in Ancient Greece, is often cited as an example of an oligarchic society. The Spartan government was controlled by two kings, both of whom came from the hereditary royal families. These kings served as the religious and military leaders of Sparta.

Below the kings, there was a council of elders known as the Gerousia. This council consisted of 28 men over the age of 60, who were selected for life. They assisted the kings in making important decisions and had significant influence over political matters.

In addition to the Gerousia, there was also an assembly called the APella. However, even though it included all Spartan citizens, its power was limited. It could only accept or reject proposals put forth by the Gerousia and kings.

Oligarchy in Athens

Athens, another prominent city-state in Ancient Greece, also experienced periods of oligarchic rule. During times when democracy was temporarily suspended or weakened, power would be concentrated among a select few individuals.

One notable example is the rule of the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. This oligarchic regime was established by Sparta and lasted for approximately eight months. The Thirty Tyrants acted ruthlessly, executing political opponents and confiscating property to maintain their grip on power.

In Conclusion

Oligarchy in Ancient Greece referred to a system where power was held by a small group of privileged individuals who often belonged to the aristocracy or wealthy elite. While oligarchies varied from city-state to city-state, they shared common characteristics like concentration of power, limited political participation, and corruption.

Understanding oligarchy in Ancient Greece helps us comprehend how different forms of government shaped societies and influenced historical events during that time period.