In ancient Greece, the political system known as oligarchy was utilized by various city-states. Oligarchy, derived from the Greek words “oligoi” meaning “few” and “archein” meaning “to rule,” refers to a form of government where power is held by a small group of individuals.
The Spartan Oligarchy
One prominent example of oligarchy in Ancient Greece can be found in the city-state of Sparta. Sparta was governed by two kings who shared power, along with a council of elders known as the Gerousia.
This council consisted of 28 men over the age of 60, who were elected for life. The Gerousia played a significant role in decision-making and legislation within Spartan society.
Within Sparta’s political structure, another key component was the ephors. The ephors were five elected officials who held executive power and acted as overseers for the kings and other governmental bodies. They had the authority to intervene if they believed any actions or decisions were not in line with Spartan values.
The Athenian Oligarchy
In contrast to Sparta, Athens experimented with different forms of government throughout its history. During certain periods, an oligarchic system was established in Athens.
The Four Hundred
One notable example is the regime known as “The Four Hundred.” In 411 BCE, during the Peloponnesian War, an oligarchic group seized control of Athens with support from Sparta. They established a ruling council consisting of 400 members who were chosen from among their own ranks.
This oligarchic regime aimed to restrict democracy and limit participation in decision-making to a privileged few. However, their rule was short-lived and faced opposition from those who favored democratic governance. In 410 BCE, the Four Hundred were overthrown, and democracy was reinstated in Athens.
The Thirty Tyrants
Another example of oligarchy in Athens can be found during the period known as the “Thirty Tyrants.” In 404 BCE, following Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War, a pro-Spartan group known as the “Thirty” seized power. This oligarchic regime was led by Critias and included other prominent Athenians who collaborated with Sparta.
The Thirty Tyrants ruled with brutality and Targeted those who were perceived as threats to their power. However, their oppressive rule sparked resistance from Athenians who sought to restore democracy. In 403 BCE, an uprising led by Thrasybulus resulted in the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants and the restoration of democratic government in Athens.
Oligarchy found its place among various city-states in ancient Greece, including Sparta and Athens. While Sparta’s oligarchic system remained relatively stable over time, Athens experienced periods of oligarchic rule amidst its predominantly democratic governance. These instances provide insights into the diverse political landscape of ancient Greece and highlight how different systems were employed throughout its history.