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Forms of Government in Ancient Greek City-States

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. 

What types of government existed in the city-states?


Monarchy governing form had a king who ruled over the people (Torres,2018). Most of the earliest city-states followed this form of government like Corinth. In other famous monarchies like Macedonia and Epeiros, the hereditary ruler shared his power with an assembly (Cartwright, 2018).


Aristocrats are a group of 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.


A tyrant was a rebellious person who seized the government illegally with the support of poor people by convincing them to rebel against governing forms like monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy. For example, Cleisthenes rebelled against nobles by organizing people into groups around 500 B.C. Peisistratos in Athens, Pheidon in Argos, and Polycrates in Samos are a few 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.”


An oligarchy is a governing system where a group of people had political power. These individuals were chosen based on their wealth and land ownership, unlike noble birth in aristocracy or hereditary in the monarchy. Cartwright (2018) stated that in 411 BCE in Athens, ‘the oligarchy of the 400’ took power out of the hands of the assembly and were themselves superseded by a more moderate oligarchy of 5000.


First developed in Athens, democracy is the foundation of modern world politics as we know it. In this democratic government, randomly selected citizens made political decisions and made laws in their legislative assembly. Every citizen had an unbiased, fair chance to vote and partake in political decision making (Torres,2018).

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 the selection of people for political power distinguished all these forms. Oligarchy, aristocracy, and democracy were identical in the way that their political power spread among more than one person. According to Aristotle, “the oligarchy was a bad type of aristocracy”(Gill,2020). The only form of government to allow citizens to vote and partake in political and legal decision making was democracy. Democracy prioritized peoples’ choices while other types of governments disregarded the 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


Anthropology, Archaeology, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, Civics