Oligarchy in Ancient Greece: Definition, Characteristics & Disadvantages

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  • 0:00 What is an Oligarchy?
  • 0:32 What Did Greek…
  • 2:06 Disadvantages of Greek…
  • 3:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Oligarchies presented a form of compromise for the Ancient Greeks between monarchy and democracy. However, despite being a compromise, oligarchies created problems of their own that neither monarchies nor democracies faced.

What Is an Oligarchy?

In the course of studying history, you've probably encountered many different types of government. These range from democracies, where everyone has a say, to monarchies, where only one person has complete power. But what about when only a few people have power? That form of government, known as an oligarchy, was actually quite common throughout Ancient Greece. As you might expect, however, the lucky few who had power weren't chosen at random, but instead made up the richest, most powerful individuals in the community.

What Did Greek Oligarchies Look Like?

So, who exactly were the richest, most powerful individuals in an Ancient Greek community? Above all else, they were landowners, as this was considered to be the preeminent marker of wealth to the Ancient Greeks. However, how much land, and therefore, how much wealth, differed throughout Greek history.

In the Archaic period, for example, a man was guaranteed status by having enough money to afford upkeep on a horse for use during war. During this period, cavalry was the most important part of a Greek army, and keeping the cavalry happy was crucial to state security. Obviously, as heavily-armored foot soldiers, known as hoplites, became more common, the oligarchy was extended to include them as well.

Land and money alone didn't earn a person a place in the oligarchy, however. You had to be born a citizen of a given city-state in order to be able to take part in government. Opportunities for naturalization were extremely limited, even if a former slave grew wealthy. Also, women were completely excluded; citizenship and, therefore, the opportunity to take part in the oligarchic rule, was for men only.

Also, the word 'few' is a relative term when describing oligarchies in Ancient Greece. Athens, the largest city-state, was ruled by governing bodies of thirty, four hundred, and even five thousand at different points in its history. From our perspective, most Greek governments were indeed oligarchic, as huge segments of the population were limited from participation.

Disadvantages of Greek Oligarchies

One basic problem with an oligarchy is that it's engineered in such a way that only a few people rule over a great many people. That great many people either have to be convinced that it's in their best interest to be ruled or have to be too frightened to revolt.

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