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. Some had kings, some had elected councils, some had councils that inherited power, and some had councils they chose by lottery. 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. A monarchy is when a king or queen (or in Sparta two kings) rules the city-state. An oligarchy is when a council of rich people inherits power from their parents. (Oligarchy means “the rule of the few.” A tyranny is when one of those oligarchs seizes power and rules illegally. And a democracy is when the people elect representatives, or choose them using a lottery system.
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 that never did become democracies or tyrannies at all.
Bronze Age kings
In the Late Bronze Age (the Mycenaean 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. People started to feel that having a king was a little old-fashioned. Instead, oligarchies ruled most Greek city-states in the Archaic period. Both Athens and Thebes had oligarchies at this time. 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. A tyrant was like a Mafia boss: he had power, and he had the support of the people. The tyrant’s power was informal, and often violent. On the other hand, to get the support of the people, tyrants often did help people. Sometimes they redistributed land, or forgave people’s debts, for example.
Classical Greece: Democracy
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.
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!
But not all Greek city-states became democracies. Many Greek city-states, like Sparta, kept oligarchic government, or tyrannies, or monarchies, through this whole time. Thebes only became a democracy in the 300s BC)
What did Greek government do?
Whatever kind of government you had, ancient Greek governments all had pretty much the same responsibilities. The most important thing was to organize an army that could defend the city-state against invasions. Greek governments also negotiated treaties and trade agreements with other Greek cities, and with the Scythians, the Persians, the Egyptians, Carthage, and the Etruscans in Italy. It built port facilities so that ships could dock there.
Inside the city, the government ran a police force to keep the peace. Most of the police were enslaved men, often from Scythia. They didn’t have prisons, but the government took charge of executing criminals, exiling them, or whipping them. The government collected taxes and tolls. It built temples and ran religious festivals so the city could stay on the good side of the gods. Greek city governments built public water fountains and drains to keep stormwater out of the streets. Ancient Greek government was not generally involved in health care or in schools.
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
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More about Athenian democracy
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.