Government of Ancient Greece – Greek democracy and tyranny

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Golden mask of Agamemnon, from Mycenae, Greece (1500 BC). Government of ancient Greece

Government of ancient Greece: the Mask of Agamemnon, from Mycenae, Greece (1500 BC). Now in Athens

Ancient Greece had a lot of different kinds of governments, because there were many different city-states in ancient Greece. Each city-state had their own government. People‘s ideas about what made a good government changed over time, too.

Aristotle and the government of Ancient Greece

The Greek philosopher Aristotle divided ancient Greek government into monarchies, oligarchies, tyrannies and democracies, and most historians still use these same categories. Most city-states in Greece started out by having monarchies, then oligarchies, then tyrannies and then democracies, but at each period ancient Greek government included plenty of city-states using a different system. There were many city-states which never did become democracies or tyrannies at all.

Bronze Age kings

In the Late Bronze Age (the Mycenean period), between about 2000 and 1200 BC, all Greek city-states seem to have been monarchies, ruled by kings. Homer’s Iliad, and Greek mythology in general, shows us a whole series of kings like Agamemnon and Theseus, and some of their palaces have survived for archaeologists to dig up.

After the Dark Age, though, only a few Greek city-states still had kings. Sparta is the most famous of these, though actually Sparta had two kings, usually brothers or cousins, at the same time. One would stay home and the other go off to fight wars.

Iron Age oligarchies and tyrants

In the Iron Age, the government of ancient Greece moved away from kings. Instead, oligarchies ruled most Greek city-states in the Archaic period. An oligarchy is a group of aristocrats (rich men) who tell everyone else what to do. Then in the 600s and 500s BC tyrants took over a lot of Greek city-states. A tyrant was usually one of the aristocrats who got power over the others by getting the support of the poor people. Tyrants ruled alone, kind of like kings, but without any legal right to rule.

Classical Greece: Democracy

Potsherd used to vote for Themistocles (can you see his name written on it?)

Government of ancient Greece: Potsherd used to vote for Themistocles (can you see his name written on it?)

In 510 BC, the city-state of Athens created the first democratic government, and soon other Greek city-states imitated them. City-states that weren’t Greek, like Carthage and Rome, also experimented with giving the poor people more power in the late 500s BC. But Athenian democracy did not really give power to everyone. Most of the people in Athens couldn’t vote – no women, no slaves, no foreigners (even Greeks from other city-states), no children. And also, Athens at this time had an empire, ruling over many other Greek city-states, and none of those people living in the other city-states could vote either. Of course it is a lot easier to have a democratic government when you are only deciding what other people should do. Athenians didn’t even have to charge themselves any taxes!

(And many Greek city-states kept oligarchic government, or tyrannies, or monarchies, through this whole time.)

Did we answer your questions about the government of Ancient Greece? Read more about democracy in Classical Athens. Or ask your questions in the comments!

Learn by doing: design your own perfect government
More about Ancient Greek government
Or about oligarchy
More about tyrants
More about Athenian democracy

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Greek government:

Oxford First Ancient History, by Roy Burrell and Peter Connolly (1997). Lively interviews and pictures make the ancient Mediterranean come to life. For teens.

Cleisthenes: Founder of Athenian Democracy, by Sarah Parton (2002). A biography of the founder of Athenian democracy.

Athenian Democracy, by A.H.M. Jones (reprinted 1986). One of the great social historians of the 20th century, though this isn’t easy going.

Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization and Community in Ancient Greece, a collection of essays edited by Roger Brock and Stephen Hodkinson (2003). Each chapter presents a different kind of Greek government: oligarchies, tyrannies, monarchies, and so on. By specialists, for specialists.

Rome, the Greek World, and the East: Government, Society, and Culture in the Roman Empire, by Fergus Millar, Hannah M. Cotton, and Guy Rogers (2004). Millar is an expert on Roman government. This book deals with how the Romans governed in Greece.

Ottoman Centuries, by Lord Kinross (1979). A short introduction to Ottoman government, for the non-specialist. It’s a little out of date, so it doesn’t consider the role of Islam, or the role of women, as much as it might have.

More about Greek government
Ancient Greece home

By | 2018-01-05T16:34:11+00:00 July 6th, 2017|Government, Greeks|57 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Government of Ancient Greece – Greek democracy and tyranny. Study Guides, July 6, 2017. Web. February 22, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
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 Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. gavin February 16, 2018 at 7:12 am - Reply


  2. qwertywerty February 15, 2018 at 2:30 pm - Reply

    thanks this helped a lot

  3. thomas February 14, 2018 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    i need help with this. What is the name of the first greeks in peloponnesus

  4. SomeDude1OO February 12, 2018 at 9:32 am - Reply

    Thanks for the help Carr!

  5. BroBob February 12, 2018 at 7:11 am - Reply

    i need help with summit 6

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 12, 2018 at 9:55 pm

      Sorry, but that’s not a question? I don’t know what summit 6 is.

  6. bryant February 6, 2018 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    i need help with a question

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 6, 2018 at 4:19 pm

      What’s the question?

  7. jhgvc February 6, 2018 at 8:30 am - Reply

    this did not help at all

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 6, 2018 at 8:57 am

      Sorry to hear it! If you ask your question here, I’ll try to answer it.

  8. Victor February 6, 2018 at 8:01 am - Reply

    Hi. Im my name is Victor and this was super helpful for my test. /(^_^)/

  9. sarah February 5, 2018 at 11:04 am - Reply

    the time set is way to early i literly posted at 1:00pm

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 5, 2018 at 2:05 pm

      It’s probably a time zone issue, but I guess it doesn’t matter very much when the timestamp is.

  10. sarah February 5, 2018 at 11:01 am - Reply

    this was so cool more knollege

  11. jeff January 29, 2018 at 7:34 pm - Reply

    how did the Athens created the greek government

  12. mick January 26, 2018 at 12:20 pm - Reply

    a lot of add´s so enjoying

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 27, 2018 at 12:07 am

      Sorry! The advertising pays for the site, but we’re working on a paid version.

  13. Friko January 26, 2018 at 9:39 am - Reply

    Why is Ancient Greece so interesting?

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 26, 2018 at 9:43 am

      Mostly, I think, because it’s the earliest civilization that has left us a lot of writing where we can really see people as individuals and what they were thinking (or at least what Greek people wanted us to think they were thinking). So we feel like we know the Greeks, like they were our friends.

  14. Friko January 25, 2018 at 7:38 am - Reply

    Hi, i have a question

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 25, 2018 at 10:24 am

      What is your question, Friko?

  15. ben January 18, 2018 at 10:17 am - Reply

    thanks alot
    karen carr

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 18, 2018 at 11:55 am

      You’re welcome!

  16. corbin January 16, 2018 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    this website is great for people but might be complicated for people who are new to this and i got distracted from the add but besides ll that is good keep on going

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 17, 2018 at 5:12 pm

      Thanks! If you have any suggestions to make navigation easier, please let us know! We’re working on a paid version that wouldn’t have any ads.

  17. alex January 12, 2018 at 9:46 am - Reply

    thank you this helped so much

  18. alex January 12, 2018 at 9:40 am - Reply

    thank you this helped me a lot.

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 12, 2018 at 9:44 am


  19. Kiernan January 9, 2018 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    Thank you. This article helped alot.

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 9, 2018 at 10:57 pm

      Delighted to hear it!

  20. ItzJackYT January 9, 2018 at 7:57 am - Reply

    So exactly what places used tyranny?

  21. jose January 9, 2018 at 6:35 am - Reply

    who was the ruler who instituted democracy in Athens?

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 9, 2018 at 11:00 pm

      He’s not exactly a ruler, but you’re probably thinking of Cleisthenes? See my answer to an earlier comment.

  22. jose January 8, 2018 at 11:48 am - Reply

    i would need help

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 8, 2018 at 1:35 pm

      Hi Jose! I’d be happy to help. What is your question? What do you need to know?

  23. armando tobias from shidler January 5, 2018 at 9:57 am - Reply

    where was the ruler who instituted democracy in athens?

  24. armando tobias from shidler January 5, 2018 at 9:46 am - Reply

    i need help

  25. armando January 5, 2018 at 9:39 am - Reply

    i was kidding it didnt help

  26. armando January 4, 2018 at 11:49 am - Reply

    this didnt help alot but it helped a little bit

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 4, 2018 at 2:58 pm

      Well, I’m glad we could help a little bit!

  27. ggggg January 2, 2018 at 7:31 am - Reply


    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 2, 2018 at 8:54 am

      hi yourself! thanks for stopping by!

  28. Eliana December 26, 2017 at 7:52 pm - Reply

    I wanted to know if you could answer the questions of how the greeks were able to move towards democracy and the importance of reforms that helped Athens become more democratic

  29. Anessa December 19, 2017 at 9:09 am - Reply

    thanks this helped

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr December 19, 2017 at 2:37 pm

      Wonderful! I’m happy to hear it.

  30. g December 14, 2017 at 10:54 am - Reply

    not really helpful

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr December 14, 2017 at 10:59 am

      What were you looking for? I’d be happy to answer your questions.

  31. Grace December 13, 2017 at 9:02 am - Reply

    THIS DIDN’T HELP AT ALL!!!! Thanks for nothing!

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr December 13, 2017 at 9:57 am

      Sorry to hear it! What were you trying to find out? Maybe I can answer your question.

  32. Hoppy December 13, 2017 at 7:43 am - Reply

    UMMMMMM a lot of ads. I got distracted multiple times.

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr December 13, 2017 at 9:59 am

      Sorry! We do have to pay the costs of the site somehow. We’re working on an ad-free paid version though.

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