What Is Aristocracy? Definition and Examples

A painting of a ballroom filled with men in dress uniforms and women in ballgowns
Aristocrats attend a ball at court.

Heritage Images/Getty Images

Aristocracy is a form of government in which the people are ruled by a small, privileged-class of people called aristocrats. While aristocracy is similar to oligarchy in that they place power in the hands of a few people, the two types of government differ in several key ways. Once the most common form of government, elite aristocracies have ruled major countries including the United Kingdom, Russia, and France during their histories.

Key Takeaways: Aristocracy

  • Aristocracy is a form of government in which political power is held by a select few privileged people called aristocrats or nobles.
  • Coming from a Greek word meaning “rule by the best,” aristocrats are considered the most qualified to rule because of their moral and intellectual superiority.
  • Aristocrats typically inherit their titles of nobility, power, and privileges but may also be appointed to the aristocracy by a monarch.
  • For centuries the most common type of government, aristocracy as a system of political power all but vanished after World War I. 

Aristocracy Definition

The term aristocracy comes from the Greek word aristokratia, meaning “rule by the best,” being those individuals considered to be most qualified to govern the society because of their moral and intellectual superiority. The term aristocracy may apply not only to a governmental ruling class but also to the highest social class in a given society. Holding honorary titles, such as Duke, Duchess, Baron, or Baroness, members of the aristocratic class enjoy both political powers as well as social and economic prestige.

The most distinguishing characteristics of both political and social aristocracies are the methods by their elite few members are selected.

Most often, aristocrats inherit their positions, often through centuries of family lineage. This method reflects the ancient but unfounded belief that members of some families are genetically more fit to rule than others. Aristocrats, especially in governmental aristocracies, may be chosen based on their superior intellect and proven leadership ability. Aristocrats may also be selected by favor—the granting of high rank by monarchs to individuals who have served them best. Finally, positions within the aristocracy may be based purely on personal wealth, either earned or inherited. In wealth-based aristocracies, members of the lower economic classes have no chance of attaining political power, no matter how great their intellect or merit.

In modern times, membership in the aristocratic ruling class may be based on heredity, wealth, military or religious status, education, or a combination of similar attributes. In any of these cases, the people of the common classes are not allowed to participate in an aristocratic government, as they are in a representative democracy or a parliamentary monarchy.

Aristocracy vs. Oligarchy

Aristocracy and oligarchy are both forms of government in which the society is ruled by a small group of people. However, there are some key differences. Most significantly, while aristocracy is “rule by the best,” oligarchy is “rule by the few.”

Aristocracies are comprised of individuals considered best fit to rule because of their nobility—a level of moral and intellectual superiority that is assumed to have been genetically passed down through family lines. Oligarchies, on the other hand, are made up of people who are simply more wealthy and powerful than the rest of the population. In the words of Aristotle, “…wherever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few or many, that is an oligarchy.”

Since their position is typically insured through inheritance, aristocrats tend to act in the best interest of society. In contrast, oligarchs, whose status is typically dependent on maintaining their current level of wealth, tend to act out of their economic self-interest. In this manner, oligarchy is often associated with corruption, oppression, and tyranny.

History

Daily life in French history: the aristocracy taking tea.
Daily life in French history: the aristocracy taking tea. Culture Club/Getty Images

First conceived in Ancient Greece by philosopher Aristotle, aristocracy grew to be the predominant form of governmental power throughout Europe. In these medieval aristocracies, the aristocrats were chosen simply because they were considered to be the best suited to rule and lead their particular community. As societies grew larger and more economically diverse during the late Middle Ages (1300-1650 CE), people began to demand more than mere leadership from their ruling classes. In the wake of momentous events like the Hundred Years War, the Italian Renaissance, and the Wars of the Roses, virtues like bravery, nobility, morality, and civility grew more important to an individual’s social status. Eventually, the power and privilege afforded to the aristocracy became reserved for a few upstanding social leaders and military heroes.

The French Revolution in 1789 marked the beginning of the end for the world’s most powerful aristocracies as many of the aristocrats lost their lands and power. During the early 18th century, the prosperity created by the Industrial Revolution in Europe allowed many wealthy businessmen to buy their way into the aristocracy. However, as the middle class began to become more prosperous after the 1830s, more aristocrats lost their dominance over wealth, and thus, their political power.

By the end of the 19th century, aristocracies still maintained precarious political control in Great Britain, Germany, Austria, and Russia. By 1920, however, that control largely evaporated as a result of World War I.

Examples

While social aristocracies still exist in most countries today, they have little if any political influence. Instead, the long-past “golden age” of aristocratic government rule is best typified by the aristocracies of the United Kingdom, Russia, and France.

United Kingdom

While it has lost most of its original monarchial political power, the British aristocracy continues to evolve today as reflected in the history of the British Royal Family.

Now known as the “peerage system,” the British aristocracy dates to the end of the Norman Conquest in 1066, when William the Conqueror— King William I—divided the land into manors overseen by Norman noblemen barons, who often also served as the king’s closest advisers. In the mid-13th century, King Henry III drew the barons together to form the basis for what is today known as the House of Lords or the House of Peers. By the 14th century, the House of Commons, with its elected representatives from the towns and shires, joined the hereditary nobles in the House of Lords to form the British Parliament.

Membership in the British aristocracy continued to be determined by a system of hereditary until the late 1950s when it was replaced by the creation of the current “life peers” system. Appointed by the Crown, life peers are members of the aristocracy whose positions cannot be inherited.

Russia

The Russian aristocracy arose during the 14th century and held offices of power within the monarchial Russian government until the Russian Revolution of 1917.

By the 17th century, the princes, lords, and other nobles of the Russian aristocracy made up the majority of landowners. With this power, they made their Landed army the primary military force of the Russian Empire. In 1722, Czar Peter the Great changed the system of promotion to membership in the aristocracy from one based on ancestral inheritance to one based on the value of actual service provided to the monarchy. By the 1800s, the wealth and thus the influence of the Russian aristocrats had been reduced due to their extravagant lifestyles and poor estate management combined with a series of laws limiting their political power.

All classes of Russian nobility and aristocracy were abolished after the Revolution of 1917. Many descendants of former Russian aristocrats remained in Russia, living as merchants, common citizens, or even peasants, while some people descended from serfs—like Vladimir Lenin’s father—gained formal nobility. Many members of the aristocracy who fled Russia after the Revolution settled in Europe and North America where they established associations dedicated to preserving their cultural heritage.

France

Emerging during the Middle Ages, the nobility of the French aristocracy remained in power until the bloody French Revolution in 1789. While membership in the French aristocracy was mainly inherited, some aristocrats were appointed by the monarchy, bought their titles, or attained membership through marriage.

Members of the French aristocracy enjoyed exclusive rights and privileges, including the right to hunt, to wear a sword, and to own land. Aristocrats were also exempt from paying property taxes. Also, certain religious, civic, and military positions were reserved for aristocrats. In return, aristocrats were expected to honor, serve, and advise the king, and to serve in the military.

After being almost wiped out during the 1789 Revolution, the French aristocracy was restored in 1805 as an elite titled class but with very limited privileges. However, after the Revolution of 1848, all aristocratic privileges were permanently abolished. Hereditary titles with no privileges attached continued to be granted until 1870. Today, the descendants of the historic French aristocrats retain their ancestor’s titles merely as a social custom.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Doyle, William. “Aristocracy: A Very Short Introduction.” Oxford University Press, 2010, ISBN-10: 0199206783.
  • Cannadine, David. “Aspects of Aristocracy.” Yale University Press, 1994, ISBN-10: 0300059817.
  • Robinson, J. “The English Aristocracy: A Beginner's Guide to Their Titles, Rank, and Forms of Address.” CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2014, ISBN-10: 1500465127.
  • Smith, Douglas. “Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy.” Picador, 2013, ISBN-10: 1250037794.
  • Figes, Orlando. “Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia.” Picador, 2003, ISBN-10: 0312421958.
  • L. Ford, Franklin. “Robe and Sword: The Regrouping of the French Aristocracy after Louis XIV.” Harvard University Press, 1953, ISBN-10: 0674774159
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Aristocracy? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/aristocracy-definition-and-examples-5111953. Longley, Robert. (2021, August 17). What Is Aristocracy? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/aristocracy-definition-and-examples-5111953 Longley, Robert. "What Is Aristocracy? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/aristocracy-definition-and-examples-5111953 (accessed October 28, 2021).