What is the Ancient Greek Government?

Types of Government in Ancient Greece

Throughout the centuries, Ancient Greece witnessed various governments and systems of rule. This happened because the people of Ancient Greece were never settled on the answer to the fundamental question, “who should rule and how?”

Unable to settle on an answer to the question, governments in the Greek world took on diverse forms. Across different Greek city-states and centuries, power was expressed in other forms of rule. Even in the same city, such as Athens, the type of government could change quickly.

Fortunately, historians can learn a lot about the different governments of Ancient Greece because it was common for Greek scribes to write down the history of their city. For example, it is possible to piece together a complete account of the city of Athens from over 150 surviving political speeches and 20 000 inscriptions.

Greek Democracy Facts

The modern word, democracy, is taken from the Greek language. It means ‘demos,’ which refers to the entire citizen population. This form of government was not widespread throughout every Greek city-state, but it was incredibly influential in places such as Athens, Argos, Syracuse, and Rhodes. Athens is, however, the state that we know the most about.

The assembly of Athens (a gathering of all citizens who were allowed to vote) would gather on Pynx hill. This was a unique meeting place for Athens. The assembly was held at least once a month and could accommodate 6000 citizens. Any male citizen over 18 was allowed to speak during this assembly and vote on important matters for the city.

The ‘citizens’ of Athens made up about 10/20% of the city’s total population, and of these people, it is thought that only around 3000/6000 actively participated in politics. During this time, critics of Democracy, such as Thucydides and Aristophanes, pointed out that an excellent public speaker or popular leader could easily sway the¬†demos.

Greek Monarchy Facts

In the Greek world, monarchies were rare and were challenging to separate from the rule of a tyrant. The most famous monarchies were Macedonia, Epeiros, and Sparta. In Macedonia and Epeiros, the monarch’s power was absolute, save for a ‘puppet’ assembly, with few legal rights.

Sparta is most famous for its system of two kings! Although not absolute monarchs, they held great power during the war. During peacetime, the kings were kept in check by an assembly of city elders known as the ephors.

This assembly of city elders held certain powers during peacetime; they could even put a king on trial or exile them!

Greek Oligarchy Facts

A Greek Oligarchy is a system of government in which a select group of people, sometimes tiny in number, ruled over a city or land.

Oligarchies were likely the most common form of city-state government in Ancient Greece and often occurred to restore order and peace after democracy had failed in a city. Unfortunately, not much is known about this rule despite being a common occurrence.

We know that an oligarchy of 400 citizens ruled in Athens during the 4th century BCE, a reaction to the breakdown of democracy in the city. Also, in 404 BCE, an oligarchy of ‘The Thirty Tyrants’ in Athens was a ruthless regime!

Greek Tyrant Facts

Tyrants were the most feared of Ancient Greek rulers. They ruled without assistance or management and often took their power by killing their predecessor.

Although, Greek tyrants were not seen as evil rulers (as the word signifies today). Tyrant meant that the rule looked after their interests instead of the people.

Syracuse, in Sicily, was ruled by a tyrant for several generations in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE.

In Athens, they felt that tyranny was the exact opposite of democracy because democracy had allowed the citizens of Athens to feel a certain level of superiority.

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