The Efficiency of Different Forms of Government in Ancient Greece and their History and Impact

As primitive societies develop their way to become complex communities, larger populations demand more sophisticated government systems. There was no exception in Ancient Greece. Though many government forms were adopted by poleis according to their different needs, a few, such as democracy and oligarchy, became predominant.

Plato’s five regimes

The philosopher Plato divided Ancient Greek government forms into five groups, in descending order of moral goodness:

The Aristocracy, literally excellent-power, where a sole ruler, a philosopher-king presides over a realm and is assisted by such aristocratic and bureaucratic systems as deemed necessary.

200px-Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377


The Timocracy, literally honour-power, where an honour or wealth based elite presides over a realm in harmony.

The Oligarchy, literally few-rule, where an elite, closely resembling that in a timocracy, rules a realm.

The Democracy, literally people-power, bordering on anarchy, where a government rules with only popular support.

The Anarchy, literally no-power, where there is no government, law or order.


The democracy specifies a system where representatives elected by the people, or more specifically, adult male citizens of a polis. Thukydides tells us that the barren Attic landscape gave birth to democracy just as the fertile Peloponnesian terrain allowed the growth of an agrarian oligarchy. Modernity tends to favour such a system because of our own usage. It should, however, be made clear that it was by no means regarded as an ethically superior system to other available government forms. In fact, most historiographers from Thukydides to Ammianus Marcellinus regarded it as dangerous, with many opportunities for demagogues to control a state for their own good, and force politicians to sacrifice the national interest in favour of the support of that most dangerous and violent creature --- the mob.

However, it is effective in preventing one person holding too much power, and acts as a safeguard against incompetence and corruption among its officials. On the contrary, it has been argued that an established ruling dynasty would be more familiar in gubernatorial rule with those being ruled and that officials and generals who change positions often reduces their ability to preserve long-term policy, a fault too often highlighted in contemporary politics. A democracy relies on the wisdom of its people, which is seldom guaranteed. Thukydides’ history reveals how internal discord caused by politicians such as Kleon and Alkibiades can weaken a great state. In addition, everybody can have somebody else to blame for rash policies, and this often gives campaigning generals great pressure to at least win token victories and not withdraw, as demonstrated by the Sicilian campaign. The Athenian General Phrynikus argued that democracy at least keeps the wealthy in check, but it could be argued that those in a position of wealth would be better suited to positions of power for their ability to reach such positions or to influence alien states with bribery from their own coffers or family prestige than paupers of no resource or background. It should be noted however, that democracy promotes talent among politicians and gave rise to great statesmen such as Perikles and Themistokles.



Generally, 3 men, Solon, Kleisthenes and Ephialtes, are considered responsible for setting the foundation of the Athenian constitution and system of jurisprudence. The voting public, as expected, excludes women, metics, slaves, freedmen, citizens who have not completed military training and citizens whose rights are suspended due to crimes or debts. While the archon’s power gradually increased and the popular assemblies, i.e. the council of 500 and the Ecclesia, gradually lost power, Athens maintained a delicate balance between government by the elite, and government by the voting public. This finally culminated in the oligarchic coup of 410, when Alkibiades and Pisander installed an oligarchy. Athenian democracy would continue in a steady decline through Roman rule and even into the early Byzantine era.


The oligarchy is a system where an elite, selected because of family backgrounds, wealth or ability. Such

200px-Lycurgus bas-relief in the U S House of Representatives chamber

Lycurgus, Lawgiver

systems often developed out of need for security, where a quasi-feudal status of elite, defined by military service, not dissimilar to medieval knighthood, develops to a standard where this elite also took over the civil governance of a state. There are obvious disadvantages to this system, such as the lack of representation for differing sections and levels of society, and a disparity between higher and lower classes. Oligarchy inevitably protects the rights of a conservative warrior-caste, and state which adopts this system is by necessity forced to wage war endlessly in order to prevent unrest on the part of the nobles, and rebellion of the people, for peace reveals the faults of the rulers.

In Sparta, the law-giver Lycurgus created a set of reforms which changed the polis forever during the 8th century BC. His laws set the basis for later institutions which allowed Sparta to have military might in Classical Greece. His most famous, or infamous, law was the agoge, which detailed that healthy 7-year-old boys be taken for rigorous, and cruel, military training. His syssitia, which forced men to eat in common mess halls, gave rise to the sense of being soldiers in an army,

“a piece of the continent, a part of the main”

(No Man Is An Island, John Donne)

even in peace. He also created laws prohibiting over-decoration and embellishment, and though Thukydides tells us that Spartan generals are as avaricious as other commanders campaigning, he respected the degree of moderation shown by Spartans in the private sphere.


Most past societies favoured monarchy, sometimes aided with oligarchic (feudal France and HRE), bureaucratic (Imperial China or Byzantium) or democratic (Witenagemot/Late Roman Senate) elements. However, Ancient Greece seems to be an exception: though most states started off as absolute monarchies (ruler bore the title basileus, not to be confused with the Byzantine usage for Roman Emperor) in mainstream Greek state, i.e. excluding Macedon, Thrace, Crete, Sicily and other semi-barbaric nations, it seems to have died out altogether by the late 6th century BC. Sparta did preserve a dual kingship system though much power was given to the ephors, who had the right to throw kings into prison, though it was by no means a fool proof system, as in the case of Pausanias. Monarchs provide a strong hand with which to guide a nation, but this system, like modern left and right wing dictatorships, is fundamentally based on a morally upright ruler. Monarchy also has the potential to cause much strife in wars of succession, as so often highlighted by the 18th century European Wars of Absolutism. Though a benefit is longer-termed policies, the overturning of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise’s policies by his debauched and slothful brother and successor Alexander is an example of how succession once again weakens the monarchic foundation.

Despotism and Tyranny

Tyranny is a form of government (not to be confused with the later Byzantine court title) is a variation on the


Hiero II of Syracuse

theme of monarchy, the difference being that a monarch rules by set laws and customs, whilst a tyrant or despot rules by his own will and caprice and gains power through illegitimate means. Aristotle even going so far as saying tyrants rule without law, look to their own interests and use extreme and cruel tactics. Many Ancient Greek states were tyrannies or despotates. It is generally considered a corrupted form of monarchy; it has also been remarked that it is difficult to find old tyrants, indicating that they generally do not last long. Arguably, tyranny is the worst of the four predominant government systems in Ancient Greece, often going both against the popular view and the national interest; yet many tyrants worked to the good of their cities, such as Hiero of Syracuse and Cypselus of Corinth.

Government in Barbarian States

Far from the bustling metropoleis of Attica and the Peloponnese, many quasi-Hellenic and semi-barbaric states such as Macedon, Aetolia, Crete and Thrace often clings on to traditional tribal leadership, also being more prone to monarchy than mainstream Greek city-states. Most Greek poleis not only despise these semi-barbaric nations’ customs but also their government-systems: Thukydides expressed Athenian reluctance to accept these systems even in the direst of situations after the failed campaign in Sicily. What is interesting, however, that these backward states survived after the fall of Athens and Sparta, such as in the forms of the Macedonian Empire and the Aetolian League; this can only be partially explained by their lack of participation in disastrous civil wars between other Greek states, though we should not credit their government systems with their survival; another reason could be extra demand on their natural resources: whereas the Attic silver mines were easily replaced by those in Armenia and Pontus, even in the 11th century, Anna Komnena tells us that a regiment in her father’s army was deliberately mounted on Thessalian horses.


Thessalian Horsemen

Civil Strife Caused by Differences in Government Ideals

Civil strife in allied poleis caused by conflict between democratic and oligarchic parties was an important phenomenon during the Peloponnesian War. The primary example given was the polis of Corcyra (known from the late high medieval period as Corfu), which was credited as one of the causes for the Peloponnesian Wars. The oligarchs represent the pro-Spartan faction and the democrats represent the pro-Athenian faction. However, the clashes are almost purely for personal gain, instigated by Spartans and Athenians, and as pointed out by the Athenian General Phrynikus, who was initially opposed to Alkibiades and Pisander’s plan for Athens to become an oligarchy, saying that it will neither secure the loyalty of allied oligarchic poleis nor pacify hostile oligarchic poleis.

Racial Difference and Government Ideals

The Hellenic race was further sub-divided into 2 main groups, Ionians, from Mycenaeans, and Dorians; other groups including Aeolian, Lydian, Phrygian, Boeotian, Thracian, Macedonian and Cretan (Minoan) also existed. In addition, races of other origin such as the Persians, Sicels and Phoenicians also interfered in Greek affairs. Generally, Ionians were democrats and Dorians oligarchs, but this was more because of their respective leaders, Athens and Sparta.

Financial Administration

Ancient Greece boasted a vibrant economy, fuelled by trading between its poleis. Most city states encouraged trading, notably Corinth, planted as it were on the Isthmus, controlling trade and communications between Attica and the Peloponnese. An exception, however, was Sparta: its leadership regarded trade, and to an extent all foreign affairs, as dangerous and able to unsettle internal affairs.


Athenian silver coins, mined in the nearby silver mines, used commonly by Athenian society

The Spartan argument regarding Athenian democracy and trade, and by association wealth, was as following:

“Wealth [is] the prime cause and creator of vice”;

(Gerald of Wales, the Journey Through Wales)


“We’ve got money in plenty, and with it comes care,

We always want what is more than our share”

“However great our wealth may wax,

It seems too little, still something lacks.”

(Horace, Satires)

democracy developed from trading cities; trading brings wealth; therefore, democracy causes vice.

However, most oligarchies did trade as other poleis and function “normally” in their financial administration. Though arguably Athens prospered on its Attic silver mines, there is not enough justification for Athenian democracy in fact sprung forth from trading.

Military Governance

Here is one field the oligarchs can, arguably, claim to be superior. There are several factors which makes oligarchic military administration more effective than the democratic:

· Longer command times; in democracies, generals are often changed over in terms and generals often want to achieve short-term victories to glorify themselves; where Athens had dozens of commanders taking command in Attica in rapid succession during the Peloponnesian Wars, for example, the Spartan King Agis remained in charge for the whole duration, from the first invasion to the fortification of Decelea.

· Unified command; where Athenian generals sharing a command argue over policy, Spartan generals have more chance to head in a single direction; where Athenians Alkibiades, Nikias and Demosthenes argued over policy, the Spartan commander Gylippus controlled the whole army of Sparta and its allies in the Sicilian Campaign.

· Lack of choice; military service is the only way Spartan youths have for distinguishing themselves, in consequence, intelligent young men are more inclined to take commands in Sparta than in Athens, and more encouraged to acts of bravery, such as the commands of Brasidas, who scored astonishing victories over numerically superior Athenian and allied forces.

· Military elite; the oligarchs were formed because of their suitability to wage war, and a tradition of fighting increases experience and the morale of soldiers.

· More lenient punishment; Athenian generals were always reluctant to withdraw from doomed campaigns, e.g. Nikias, because of fear of punishment; Spartan generals have less to fear because of family connections.

In Perspective --- Impact and Later Views

It is fitting that we should, before pronouncing our own judgement of affairs, to reference what our predecessors thought. Every great state has a government and it is inevitable that much ink is spilt on this subject; Ancient Greece left us the legacy of Western Civilisation, and Greek thought would grow to drive out all other cultures in Europe, as reflected in the triumph of iconodule over iconoclast.

Horace wrote this line in regards to Greek culture and thought:

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit

(Conquered Greece its fiercest victor captured)

Roman oligarchy taught Romans to like all oligarchs, as we are taught, by republicanism to cherish all democracy. The degree that Romans were immersed in Greek learning was so great that Quintilian, the rhetor, indicated that Greek was learnt before Latin among aristocrats, though this was viewed as “un-Roman” by some, such as Cato; it was also so that Greek would, in Byzantium, finally take the reins of government in place of Latin.

Roman authors reveal much in their writings, and their preferment for Sparta, and in consequence oligarchy, was obvious. For example, the historian Polybios wrote of the Punic comeback when the Roman consul Regulus threatened to storm Carthage as a direct result of the importation of a certain Spartan of the officer class to train the citizen militia of Carthage. In addition, the Roman triple acies was a development on the Macedonian phalanx, which in turn came from the Spartan hoplite formation.

Rome was continued through the Middle Ages. Medieval writers would clearly continue the oligarchic tradition, especially in light of punishment if they promoted popular government. And while Greeks (Greek Orthodox Byzantines) and Latins (Roman Catholic Franks) were mutually unfriendly at best, the Latins would still, as they became more sophisticated, find time to appreciate the legacy of Greeks. They viewed Greek culture, for a long time, however, as inferior to the chivalric tradition of the West, and their more scientific ways of warfare and wish to avoid bloodshed as dishonourable in comparison to Western ideals, illustrated by the various chansons and treatises on gaming and fighting, such as by Christine de Pizan, of the fighting, jousting, hunting Western knight. And Byzantines would view the upstart Westerners as unhygienic, uncivilised and dishonourable, acting with the suspicion of the ignorant. In all of this, both sides thought of the Ancient Greek democracy as idealised, extreme and unpractical; renaissance Byzantine scholars would visit Sparta because of their preference for Spartan oligarchy, to the libertine and slothful Athenian democracy.

However, the opinion was not all one-sided: the actions of the Anatolian landed aristocracy forced Byzantine Emperors from Basil I to Michael V to reduce their rights and distribute their lands to the peasants who provide active military service in war time, instituting the backbone of early and high Byzantine armies. In the maritime republics such as Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi, too, whilst their government was oligarchic at its core, they always wanted to be seen as representing the people, with complex institutions not dissimilar to those in use in Classical Athens.


We have taken many perspectives in our examination of the Classical Greek systems of government; we have looked at how they reacted to changing times, how they interacted, how they operated the economy, how they fought and came to conflict, how they differed in history, impact and ideal… in this protracted struggle between democracy and oligarchy, we need to clarify our priorities. Personally, I would write for monarchy and bureaucracy, but we should look at what the Ancient Greeks really needed to have. Classicism demands balance: a strong arm is a good thing, but more importantly, divided power maintains the balance, the key to classical thought; war is waged only to obtain peace, and the benefits coming with it, and we should not see war as an independent sphere, but rather as a continuation of domestic policy, to quote Clausewitz. Though both sides of the argument give us advantages, we should not examine these governments with modern eyes. Athenian democracy is seen as the shining example of Classical society, but perhaps it is only the illusion of our modern mind-set. It is not the parsimonious and frugal Spartans who have shaped the world we live in: it is Athenian Democracy that ignited renaissances and propelled world progress.

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