What is oligarchy? Rule of the few

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Two men fight on an Athenian black-figure vase

Aristocrats fighting on an Athenian vase from the 500s BC

Definition of oligarchy

Oligarchy means the rule of the few, and those few are generally the people who are richer and more powerful than the others, what you might call the aristocrats or the nobles.

These are not always men: just as monarchies have both kings and queens, women sometimes appear in councils of aristocrats, and even when they are not members, they are often there telling their husbands or their sons what to do.

What is a monarchy?

So oligarchies are generally bad for the poor, but they are pretty good for women, at least for rich women from powerful families.

Women in ancient Greece
Lots more Ancient Greece articles

How does oligarchic government work?

Usually the way an oligarchy works is that there is a group of people who are in charge, somehow. Sometimes they may be elected, and sometimes they are born into their position, and at other times you might have to have a certain amount of money or land in order to be in the council.

The history of money

White man dressed as a Roman soldier

Need a Halloween costume? Show you love history and go as a Roman soldier! Or click here for many more cool costumes!

Then this group of people meets every so often – every week or every month – to decide important questions, and to appoint somebody to deal with things. Like they might decide that it should be illegal to steal, and then they would appoint one of the nobles to be a judge, and decide if people were guilty of stealing, and decide what to do with them if they were.

When and where did people have oligarchies?

Oligarchies were not as common as monarchies in the ancient world. Right after the Dark Ages, most of the city-states in Greece were oligarchies, between about 1000 and about 500 BC. Athens was an oligarchy, and so were Thebes and Corinth. The Etruscans were also oligarchic. The Roman Republic, which started around 500 BC, was in some ways an oligarchy too. All of these systems effectively prevented women from getting political power.

Life in Archaic Athens
What was Thebes like?
How about Corinth?
Read about the Etruscans
And the Roman Republic

In the Middle Ages, after the death of Matilda of Canossa, the cities of northern Italy became independent. They had to develop their own systems of government. Some of them – Genoa, Florence, Venice – were ruled by groups of rich people. Some were more like democracies, but others were more oligarchic. Like the ancient oligarchies, these medieval ones were mostly run by men, even though before the oligarchies, Italy had been under the control of a woman. Outside of Europe, oligarchies have always been rare – and women have often had more power because of it.

Medieval Genoa
Medieval Florence
The Republic of Venice

One weakness of an oligarchy is that the men involved are always competing with each other to see who can get more power. Often one of these men figures out that if he gets the poor people on his side – which is the same thing as getting control of the army – he can use the army to defeat his rivals and get all the power for himself. He promises the poor people that he will forgive debts and redistribute land if they support him. If that works, then what you have is a tyranny.

Why do people fall into debt?
More about tyranny

Learn by doing: Some people call the United States an oligarchy today, and others say it’s a democracy. What do you think? Is the U.S. an oligarchy?

More about tyranny

Bibliography and further reading about oligarchy:

More about Republics
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By |2018-10-02T09:36:25+00:00June 29th, 2017|Government|35 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is oligarchy? Rule of the few. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 29, 2017. Web. December 10, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. Lilly mosia April 12, 2018 at 1:12 pm - Reply


  2. Ashlyn March 25, 2018 at 3:12 pm - Reply

    What rights do people have?

    • Karen Carr March 25, 2018 at 11:46 pm

      The concept of natural rights really comes later than Greek oligarchies, I think. Their legal rights depended on their status: enslaved people had few rights, while rich men had many.

  3. Grady March 19, 2018 at 10:39 am - Reply

    Do you know any more info about the vase? (I.e. who it was made by etc)

  4. heavyn March 5, 2018 at 10:34 am - Reply

    this is too hard

    • Karen Carr March 5, 2018 at 10:41 pm

      I’d be happy to answer your questions if you want to ask them here.

  5. Europe February 8, 2018 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    why do people do Oligarchy?

    • Karen Carr February 8, 2018 at 10:51 pm

      Well, rich people like oligarchy because then they get to tell everybody else what to do. Often these rich people are the heads of big clans (like the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet), lots of cousins and second cousins and friends, so that each member of the council has a lot of followers that support him (or her). These people like having the head of their clan speak for them in the government.

  6. TINA February 8, 2018 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    Karen Carr did you make this website by your self? Because its really good!!!!

    • Karen Carr February 8, 2018 at 10:48 pm

      I did do it by myself, but it took a long time and a lot of work. I’m glad you like it!

  7. jelly February 1, 2018 at 10:52 pm - Reply

    how is it different from monarchy

    • Karen Carr February 2, 2018 at 10:33 pm

      Monarchy is rule by one person, like monogamy is being married to only one person (“mono” means “one” in Greek). Oligarchy is rule by a few people (usually rich people), because “oligo” means “a few” in Greek).

  8. Allen January 17, 2018 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    What year did oligarchy start?

    • Karen Carr January 17, 2018 at 5:07 pm

      Oligarchy is just a few rich men ruling a town; that’s a pretty simple idea that has been with us as long as there have been towns, so since at least 5000 BC or so. In Greece, though, the main period of oligarchy got started in the Archaic period, around 1000-900 BC: before that most city-states had kings.

    • Henry November 12, 2018 at 9:00 am

      I dont think so. A rich oligarchy would be a plutocracy. Not every Oligarchy is rich. For all we know, some might even be poor! It does not matter. They can also rule a business, with the idea of CEO, CFO, etc etc. So an oligarchy can not only rule a nation. And it does not HAVE to be rich.

    • Karen Carr November 12, 2018 at 10:34 am

      All of your quibbles, Henry, seem to me to be covered by words like “usually” in the article. Yes, there could theoretically be exceptions, but we don’t actually use the word “oligarchy” in the ways you suggest in English: there are no real examples where we call something an oligarchy of poor people, or within a non-governmental organization.

  9. Brooke January 10, 2018 at 8:27 am - Reply

    Who is the ruler/rulers of the Oligarchy?

    • Karen Carr January 10, 2018 at 8:33 am

      An oligarchy is a group of rich people (usually men, though it can include women) who rule a country or a city-state. There’s no one person in charge, and of course over time the rich people get old and retire and their children or relatives join the council instead. If you’re asking about Archaic Athens, we do know the names of some of these rich council members, but it’s not really important who they are.

  10. Naomi December 5, 2017 at 10:09 am - Reply

    This is a really good website, I love it

    • Karen Carr December 5, 2017 at 10:29 am

      Thank you! That really brightened up my day!

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