Forms of Government in Ancient Greek

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Ancient Greece was a cluster of poleis, city-states with independent governments. The main objective of these forms was to establish order in administration and governance in their city-state. These poleis shared some similar attributions, like religion and language, with slight variations, but their governing structures were unique to each other. Which types of government did the Greek city-states have? In this article, we will define, compare and contrast monarchy, aristocracy, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy as forms of government in Ancient Greek city-states.

Ancient Greek Government System

There were several different types of government in Ancient Greece. The most common were monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. A monarchy was a form of government where a single ruler had complete control.

  • An aristocracy is a form of government in which a small group of wealthy elites holds power.
  • A democracy is a form of government in which power is evenly distributed among the people.
  • A tyranny is a form of government in which a single ruler has complete control and oppressively uses their power.
  • An oligarchy is a form of government in which a small group of wealthy elites holds power and uses it exclusively.

What types of government existed in the city-states?


Monarchy governing form had a king who ruled over the people. Most of the earliest city-states, like Corinth, followed this form of government. In other famous monarchies like Macedonia and Epeiros, the hereditary ruler shared his power with an assembly.

When did Greek city-states have monarchies?
The Greek city-states had monarchies from around the 8th century BC until democracies replaced them in the 5th century BC. The monarchs were usually the wealthiest and most influential citizens in the city-state and held absolute power.

They were often advised by wealthy citizens known as the oligarchs. The monarchy was eventually replaced by democracy due to the growing power of the middle class and the oligarchs’ declining power.


Aristocrats are people born into the upper class, noble families. It is challenging to distinguish aristocracy from other forms of government. National Geographic Society (2019) states that the Greek aristocracy strove to maintain their city-states’ independence and to unseat any potential tyrants. It was a key reason why city-states were formed instead of a centralized government.

When did Greek city-states have aristocracy?

The Greek city-states initially had aristocracy, as wealthy landowners founded them. The aristocracy controlled the government and made all the decisions. They also owned all the land and had all the power. The other classes were the peasants, who worked the land, and the slaves, who did all the manual labor.


A tyrant was a rebellious person who illegally seized the government with the support of poor people by convincing them to rebel against governing forms like monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy.

For example, around 500 B.C., Cleisthenes rebelled against nobles by organizing people into groups. Peisistratos in Athens, Pheidon in Argos, and Polycrates in Samos are other tyrants in Greek history.

According to Cartwright (2018), “tyranny became the exact opposite of democracy for Athenians, a position that allowed the citizens of Athens to feel a certain superiority.”

When did Greek city-states have Tyranny?

The Greek city-states had tyranny during the period of classical Greece. This was when there was a lot of political turmoil and strife. Many city-states were at war with each other, and tyrants would often take over governments by force.

Tyranny was seen as a way to stability during this chaotic time. Tyrants often ruled with an iron fist, using their power to keep the peace. However, many people also saw tyranny as a form of oppression, and it was eventually overthrown in favor of democracy.


An oligarchy is a governing system in which a group of people has political power. These individuals were chosen based on wealth and land ownership, unlike noble birth in aristocracy or hereditary in the monarchy. In 411 BCE, in Athens, ‘the oligarchy of the 400’ took power out of the hands of the assembly and was superseded by a more moderate oligarchy of 5000.

When did Greek city-states have an oligarchy?

The Greek city-states had oligarchies during the Archaic and Classical periods. In Greece, the oligarchy was often used to prevent tyranny or rule by one person. Athens and Sparta were two of the most well-known oligarchies in Greece.


Democracy, first developed in Athens, is the foundation of modern world politics. In this democratic government, randomly selected citizens made political decisions and laws in their legislative assembly. Every citizen had an unbiased, fair chance to vote and participate in political decision-making.

When did Greek city-states have Democracy?

Ancient Greece is often credited with being the birthplace of democracy. The first known democracy was established in Athens in 508 BC. However, only a tiny portion of the population was allowed to vote. Women, slaves, and foreigners were all excluded from the democratic process. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that all adults in most Western countries were finally granted the right to vote.

What was the first form of government for the Greek city-states?

The first form of government for the Greek city-states was the monarchy. This system was in place because it was believed that the gods had chosen a particular family to rule over the people.

The monarchs were often advised by a group of elders known as the aristocracy. The aristocracy consisted of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the city-state. They had a lot of influence over the monarch, but they didn’t have as much power as the monarch.

Monarchy and tyranny were similar in the sense that one person ruled citizens. And also, in both forms, the general population didn’t participate in the decision-making.

But how did the selection of people for political power distinguish all these forms? Oligarchy, aristocracy, and democracy were identical in how their political power spread among more than one person. Aristotle said, “The oligarchy was a bad type of aristocracy” (Gill, 2020).

The only form of government that allowed citizens to vote and participate in political and legal decision-making was democracy. Democracy prioritized people’s choices, while other types of governments disregarded general public opinion. 

Reference Sources for further reading:

  1. Ancient Greece, World History: Ancient Civilizations
  2. Cartwright, M. (2018, March 20). Ancient Greek GovernmentAncient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from
  3. Gill, N.S. (2020, February 11). 7 Points to Know About Ancient Greek Government. Retrieved from
  4. Greek City-States (March 15, 2019) National Geographic Society

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