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The Three Major Types of Government in Ancient Greece

written by: ContessaD • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 8/2/2012

Each Ancient Greek type of government was developed to meet the demands of a particular period of time. In times of war and turmoil, a strong ruler had the advantage. A powerful king or a tyrant, for instance, was most useful during times of threat of a foreign invader.

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    Much Change and Experimentation

    Ancient Greece was composed of several self-governing city-states. Hence, Ancient Greece had types of government which varied in each major Greek settlement. Each form of governance evolved independently. With much experimentation, there were developments and constant change in the forms of government. According to some scholars, the absence of a central government paved the way for foreign invaders to later dominate Greece. The Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, classified Greek governments into four forms: monarchy, oligarchy, tyranny, and democracy.

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    The Rule of the Kings

    The monarchial form of government was the dominant system among city-states in Greece during the Late Bronze Age (2000–1200 BC). The exploits of these kings, such as Theseus and Agamemnon, were celebrated in the epics told by the Greek poet Homer.

    Monarchy was favored in some city-states as exemplified by Sparta which was ruled by two kings. This two-man rule provided a check and balance in this particular system of Spartan government. This system was also effective when there was an external threat to the state. One king would go to war while the other stayed to govern.

    Sparta, in addition, had an Appella or Demos, a people’s assembly with monthly meetings. To qualify in this assembly, a Greek citizen had to be male and at least thirty-years-old. The concept of the Appella was that the people had a voice in governance.

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    The Oligarchs and the Tyrants

    Oligarchy was the dominant system of government in Ancient Greece during the Archaic Period from 750 to 500 BC. Rule in most Greek city-states at those times was vested with a few, rich individuals. The term oligarchy was derived from the Greek word oliga which means few, explaining in essence this system of government. These community leaders divided the functions of government among themselves. They considered themselves as the best men among all those in the city-state. They asserted their power by using their wealth.

    In-fighting among the oligarchs led to the development of tyranny, another Ancient Greek type of government. A tyrant usually emerged from among the oligarchs by enlisting the support of the poor or common people in a city-state. Tyrants exercised the powers much like those of a king in a monarchy, although they had no royal blood.

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    The Rule of the People

    Even as several city states still preferred monarchy, tyranny, or oligarchy, the roots of democracy flourished in Ancient Greece around 510. The first democratic system of government was created in Athens, a type of governance that was adopted by other city- states in and out of Greece. Rome and Carthage were two non-Greek states which favored democracy.

    People (demos) power (kratos) was the essence of democracy. As an ancient type of Greece government, however, this was not so- strictly speaking. In Athens for instance, political participation was accorded exclusively to those citizens who owned land or property. Women and slaves were excluded, and so were Greeks from other city-states living in Athens.

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