Aristocracy: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:00 What Is an Aristocracy?
  • 1:13 Examples
  • 7:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

In this lesson, you will learn about the aristocracy and explore three different aristocratic societies in Ancient Greece, China, and the United Kingdom.

What is an Aristocracy?

An aristocracy is a form of government where a small group of elites rule. Aristocrats, or the ruling elites, tend to enjoy both social and economic prestige as well as political power. They usually have a specific honorary title, such as Duke, Duchess, Baron, Baroness, etc. In addition, children usually inherit aristocratic status from their parents. In some cases, one can be promoted into the aristocracy through service to a monarch.

Modern students usually associate aristocrats with a monarchy, or a government ruled by a single person. Often this position is hereditary and passes through a family lineage over time. Countless fairy tales and movies feature aristocrats as assistants, friends, and enemies of the royal family; nevertheless, in some places aristocrats ruled without a monarchy. The word aristocracy comes from the Greek phrase 'rule of the best;' however, aristocracy as a form of government has had a variety of problems.

Examples of Aristocracy

Let's look at some examples of aristocracy across different cultures.

Ancient Greece

Aristocracies have been used as a form of government since the earliest days of recorded history. In Ancient Greece, a polis, or a Greek city-state, could be governed by a monarch, an aristocracy, or by a democracy, a form of government where citizens create laws for themselves.

From 621 to 508 B.C.E., Athens, one of the largest city-states in Greece, was governed by a series of aristocratic leaders. Aristocrats seized the property of small landowners and created new harsh laws for citizens. As a result, many Athenian families were exiled and their land mortgaged to wealthy aristocrats. Finally in 594 B.C.E., a poet and member of the aristocracy named Solon began openly campaigning against the unjust behaviors of his fellow aristocrats. He was elected archon, or chief magistrate of the polis. Solon immediately freed those who had been imprisoned for debt and recalled those who had been exiled. He also allowed even the very poorest Greek citizens to vote on the laws of the polis.

Unfortunately, Solon's reforms were removed by the aristocrats who succeeded him as archon. Throughout the history of Athens, we can observe one of the major problems with an aristocracy as a form of government. With a benevolent aristocracy, the people are well cared for and prosperous; however, with a greedy aristocracy in power, the people may lose their homes and property, or their lives.

Shang and Zhou Dynasties in China

In China, we can find another example of an aristocratic society. From 1500 to 1050 B.C.E., the Shang dynasty (a sequence of rulers from the same family), ruled with the help of aristocrats. During the Shang dynasty, the aristocrats owned slaves, many of whom were captured in battle. Chinese slaves and farmers were usually held accountable to the aristocrat who owned them or their land.

In 1050 B.C.E., the Zhou people rose up against the Shang and displaced them as the ruling elites. The Zhou dynasty was highly aristocratic, and each person was placed in a highly specialized ranking. The King was considered to be the highest person in power, followed by rulers of smaller states within China, then by men who served either as military commanders or as civil advisers, and finally by ordinary people like farmers and traders. Generally, your societal status was passed down to you by your father. If your father was lucky enough to be born into power, then you would inherit that power and status. In contrast, if you were born into a farming or trading family, you would never be able to rise in power regardless of your abilities or dreams.

The Zhou dynasty lost power as a result of this rigidly defined society. Many of the Zhou aristocrats who ruled their own districts grew powerful enough to challenge the Zhou ruling family. Each of these aristocrats had their own administrative and military staff, and in 771 B.C.E. the Zhou king was killed in battle by an aristocrat and his army. Although his son inherited the throne, the Zhou ruling family never regained true power. The Zhou aristocrats present another opportunity for understanding a problem surrounding aristocracies. When aristocrats grow too powerful, it can be difficult for even a strong monarch to combat that power.

Bronze from the Shang Dynasty from the Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst Berlin
Bronze from the Shang Dynasty from the Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst Berlin

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