7 Points to Know About Ancient Greek Government

You may have heard that ancient Greece invented democracy, but democracy was only one type of government employed by the Greeks, and when it first evolved, many Greeks thought it a bad idea.

In the pre-Classical period, ancient Greece was composed of small geographic units ruled by a local king. Over time, groups of the leading aristocrats replaced the kings. Greek aristocrats were powerful, hereditary noblemen and wealthy landowners whose interests were at odds with the majority of the populace.

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Ancient Greece Had Many Governments

Kameiros ancient city on Rhodes, Greece
Ancient city of Kameiros overlooking the sea in Rhodes, Greece. Adina Tovy/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images

In ancient times, the area that we call Greece was many independent, self-governing city-states. The technical, much-used term for these city-states is poleis (the plural of polis). We're familiar with the governments of the 2 leading poleis, Athens and Sparta.

Poleis joined together voluntarily for protection against the Persians. Athens served as the head [technical term to learn: hegemon] of the Delian League.

The aftermath of the Peloponnesian War eroded the integrity of the poleis, as successive poleis dominated each other. Athens was temporarily forced to give up its democracy.

Then the Macedonians, and later, the Romans incorporated the Greek poleis into their empires, putting an end to the independent polis.

Probably one of the first things learned from history books or classes on ancient Greece is that the Greeks invented democracy. Athens originally had kings, but gradually, by the 5th century B.C., it developed a system that required active, ongoing participation of the citizens. Rule by the demes or people is a literal translation of the word "democracy". While virtually all citizens were allowed to participate in the democracy, citizens did not include:

  • women,
  • children,
  • slaves, or
  • resident aliens, including those from other Greek poleis.

This means that the majority were excluded from the democratic process.

The democratization of Athens was gradual, but the germ of it, the assembly, was part of the other poleis -- even Sparta. More »

The modern world looks at democracy as a matter of electing men and women (in theory our equals, but in practice already powerful people or those we look up to) by voting, perhaps once a year or four. The Classical Athenians might not even recognize such limited participation in the government as democracy.

Democracy is rule by the people, not rule by majority vote, although voting -- quite a lot of it -- was part of the ancient procedure, as was selection by lot. Athenian democracy included appointment of citizens to office and active participation in the running of the country.

Citizens didn't just elect their favorites to represent them. They sat on court cases in very large numbers, perhaps as high as 1500 and as low as 201, voted, by various not necessarily precise methods, including estimation of hands raised, and spoke their minds on everything affecting the community in the assembly [technical term to learn: ecclesia], and they might be selected by lot as one of the equal number of magistrates from each of the tribes to sit on the council [technical term to learn: Boule]. More »

When we think of tyrants, we think of oppressive, autocratic rulers. In ancient Greece, tyrants could be benevolent and supported by the populace, although not usually the aristocrats. However, a tyrant did not gain supreme power by constitutional means; nor was he the hereditary monarch. Tyrants seized power and generally maintained their position by means of mercenaries or soldiers from another polis. Tyrants and oligarchies (the aristocratic rule by the few) were the main forms of government of the Greek poleis after the fall of the kings. More »

Sparta was less interested than Athens in following the will of the people. The people were supposed to be working for the good of the state. However, just as Athens experimented with a novel form of government, so also was Sparta's system unusual. Originally, monarchs ruled Sparta, but over time, Sparta hybridized its government:

  • The kings remained, but there were 2 of them at a time so one could go to war,
  • there were also 5 annually-elected ephors,
  • a council of 28 elders [technical term to learn: Gerousia],
  • and an assembly of the people.

The kings were a monarchical element, the ephors and Gerousia were an oligarchic component, and the assembly was a democratic element. More »

At the time of Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great, the government of Macedonia was monarchical. Macedonia's monarchy was not only hereditary but powerful, unlike Sparta whose kings held circumscribed powers. Although the term may not be accurate, feudal captures the essence of the Macedonian monarchy. With the Macedonian victory over mainland Greece at the Battle of Chaeronea, the Greek poleis ceased to be independent┬ábut were forced to join the Corinthian League. More »

Usually, the types of government relevant to ancient Greece are listed as three: Monarchy, Oligarchy (generally synonymous with rule by the aristocracy), and Democracy. Simplifying, Aristotle divided each into good and bad forms. Democracy in its extreme form is mob rule. Tyrants are a type of monarch, with their own self-serving interests paramount. For Aristotle, oligarchy was a bad type of aristocracy. Oligarchy, which means rule by the few, was rule by and for the wealthy for Aristotle. Aristotle preferred rule by the aristocrats who were, by definition, those who were the best. They would operate to reward merit and in the interests of the state. More »