Government and Society in Ancient Greece

Greeks organized themselves by forming city-states and set up different systems of governance to run those states, with democracy as the most popular. 


Athens - the capital city of Ancient Greece
Athens – the capital city of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece was a combination of city-states. Cities of different sizes had developed, and independent governance systems were set up in those states, thus giving rise to city-states. 

They were smaller than modern-day nation-states, primarily based on the idea of ‘nation’– a large body of people united by common history, culture, descent, or language, inhabiting a particular territory. 

There grew to be over 1,000 city-states in ancient Greece. Still, the main were Athína (Athens), Spárti (Sparta), Kórinthos (Corinth), Thíva (Thebes), Siracusa (Syracuse), Égina (Aegina), Ródos (Rhodes), Árgos, Erétria, and Elis.

Much of ancient Greek history revolves around the interaction between these City-states–friendly or hostile. Athens and Sparta were the two largest city-states that frequently clashed. 

In every city-state, there was an urban center and the surrounding countryside. The urban centers had walls for protection and public space such as temples and government offices. Such public space used to be situated on the top of a hill and was called an acropolis. The famous Parthenon of Athens is an acropolis.

System of Governance

A portrait depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration - Athenian democracy
A portrait depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration – Athenian democracy

Each city-state naturally needed to have its governance system. 

There was a great diversity in the system of governance in city-states of ancient Greece, with differing thoughts and preferences of the dwellers.

Governance systems in ancient Greece can be broadly divided into 4 categories: Monarchy, Tyranny, Oligarchy, and Democracy. 


In the year 507 BCE, the Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced a system that he called demokratia, or “rule by the people” (from demos, “the saw people,” and Kratos, or “power”). 

Other Greek city-states such as Argos, Syracuse, Rhodes, and Erythrai followed the footprints of Athen to establish ‘democracy’ as a system of governance. Still, Athenian democracy is more documented and is often discussed. 

Athenian democracy was direct, different from the representative democracy widely practiced today. Democracy in Athens comprised of three separate institutions: 

the ekklesia–a sovereign governing body that made laws and decided the foreign policy

the boule–an assembly of representatives from the ten Athenian tribes

And the dikasteria, the popular courts in which citizens discussed cases before a group of judges selected by lottery. 

All the citizens were automatically members of ekklesia, and they could vote on all the laws. They did have officials to run the government–in the form of boule. The number of members in the boule was 500.

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Most of these officials were chosen by a lottery and had a year tenure. At least, in theory, every citizen had a chance to be a member of the governing council or boule

However, not everyone who lived in Athens was deemed a citizen. Men who had completed their military training were the citizens of Athens.

Women, foreigners, and slaves were not considered citizens in ancient Athens. Everyone who was a citizen could participate as part of the assembly. 


It was the rule by an individual based on inheritance. The states of Macedonia and Epeiros were noticeable monarchies of ancient Greece.

However, the monarchs were not all-powerful. They often shared power with an assembly. Sparta had a system of two kings along with an assembly.

The Spartan kings would assume a higher degree of power during times of crisis, such as a war. Spartan kings were put on trial and exiled.


Tyranny was ruled by an individual who had seized power by unconstitutional means. 

The city-state of Syracuse is known for its tyrants, such as Dionysios, who came to power in 405 BCE, and his son Dionysios II, who took over in 367 BCE.

Although the rise of tyrants was based on unconstitutional means, they were not necessarily evil or violent as we understand the term in modern days. Peisistratos was a tyrant of Athens who paved the way to establish democracy. 


Oligarchy was the rule by a select group of individuals. It was the most prominent form of government in the city-states of ancient Greece. 

Megara and Thebes are known for having oligarchy as their system of governance. Sometimes the fall of democracy gave rise to oligarchies.

In 411 BCE, a select group of 400 men seized power from the Athenian Assembly. It was then replaced by a slightly larger group of 5000 men. 

Athens had an oligarchic rule of 30 men in 404 BCE after losing Sicily. 


Portrait of two women of Ancient Greek Society
Portrait of two women of Ancient Greek Society

Ancient Greek society’s social hierarchy, religion, art, and education are crucial in understanding how the Greeks organized themselves socially.  


Although the ancient city-state of Athens is considered to be a democracy, the definition of ‘citizen’ back then is not acceptable today.

Athens considering only military-trained men to be the citizens is a significator of a patriarchal society where might was the right. The social role of women was limited to the household. 

Athenian society was a class-based society with four classes. People born in Athens, especially men, represented the highest strata of Athenian society. This upper class was at the center of Athenian life.

They were prominent in every field of Athenian society, from the government to education and philosophy. 

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Athenian democracy was not so free as we imagine today when talking about ‘democracy.’ It had slaves who constituted the lowest strata of Athenian society. Slaves made up much of the working force of the city-state.

They were used for menial tasks in the households. They had no authority and rights at all.

Athens was a trading hub of ancient Greece. So, it had traders from far and wide. Although these traders were considered free, they weren’t given the same status as the upper class. However, they were considered to be the middle class of Athens. 

The lower class of people was just one step above the slaves. Many of them were the ones that were freed from slavery. 

However, the social hierarchy was different from other ancient Greek city-states. Sparta had only three classes: citizens, slaves, and craftsmen or traders. In Syracuse and Sámos, society was divided into only two classes: oligarchs and common people.

Religion and Culture

A portrait depicting religious status of Ancient Greece
A portrait depicting the religious status of Ancient Greece

Greece was a polytheistic society. Human-like figures with some connection with the forces of nature—that’s how Greek gods can be portrayed. 

Although numerous gods were worshiped in ancient Greece, there’s a set of twelve gods and goddesses revered the most–known as the Olympians. 

The twelve Olympian gods and goddesses include Hera, Demeter, Zeus, Titan Poseidon, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, Hestia, and Dionysius. 

Zeus was the main god of ancient Greece. He was the ruler of the gods, and his consort was Hera. Poseidon was the God of the sea, while Goddess Demeter was the goddess of the harvest.

Ancient Greece’s most significant literary works, namely The Iliad and The Odyssey, are all about the gods. 

Temples dedicated to different gods and goddesses, animal sacrifices, and city festivals were the remarkable features of ancient Greek religious life. The ancient Olympic Games, organized every four years, were dedicated to the king of the gods, Zeus. 

Greek religion in its developed form lasted at least a thousand years, from the time of Homer (probably 9th or 8th century BCE) to the reign of the emperor Julian (4th century CE). 

Rational criticism of Greek religion began in the late 6th century BCE. This created space for the development of philosophy in ancient Greece and paved the way for questioning myths in pursuit of truth. 

Greek gods were associated with different city-states, such as Aphrodite with Corinth and Helios with Rhodes. 

Art and Architecture

An image of The Erechtheum, Acropolis, Athens, Greece
An image of The Erechtheum, Acropolis, Athens, Greece

Ancient Greek art and architecture were invented between 900 BCE and 30 BCE. The use of geometry in art is a notable feature of Greek art. 

The Greeks created the two major genres of drama, comedy, and tragedy. The drama was an essential part of the Greek lifestyle.

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Spacious Epidaurus, Pergamon, Delos, and Delphi theatres have survived the ages to tell us how important theatrical art was in ancient Greece.

The theatrical culture of ancient Greece primarily guides the modern-day movie industry. 

The architectural wonders of ancient Greece have inspired modern ones. The Parthenon is an excellent example of pillared architecture from ancient Greece that has been mimicked in the modern era. 

Sculpture was another popular form of art in ancient Greece. Earlier Greek sculptures seem raw, but the 5th and 4th century BCE were designed to represent the human body more realistically.

The nudity of male sculptures was a unique feature of ancient Greek art. 

Pottery and painting were also popular ways of artistic expression in ancient Greece.


Ancient Greek script encrypted in a stone
Ancient Greek script encrypted in a stone

The type of education received by an individual in ancient Greece depended on the gender and social class of the individual. The most important thing girls learned was managing the household. 

In most Greek states, children, especially boys, were trained in music, art, literature, science, math, and politics to become good citizens in the future. 

However, education was very different in Sparta than it was in the other ancient Greek city-states. In Sparta, the focus of education was to produce a powerful army.

Spartan boys were separated from their families at seven and were trained to become soldiers. Even girls were taught things like athletics and dancing since they would become mothers of soldiers one day. 

Besides, debate and discussion were an important part of Greek society and education. This gave rise to diverse fields of inquiry. 

That is why most disciplines trace their origin back to ancient Greece. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are significant figures of ancient Greek thought, influencing modern thinking and education.

Plato founded The Academy in Athens as a place for study and inquiry, which formed the basis of consequent Greek education. 


The democracy of Athens has reached the modern era with a lot of modification after two millennia and has become the most prominent form of governance globally.

Nation-states have replaced city-states of the region where Greek civilization flourished. Social hierarchies still exist in one form or another and are usually challenged. However, slavery is not taken normally like in ancient Greece. 

Women have better status. They can vote in much of the world and are considered equal to men, at least in theory. Art and architecture have become much more sophisticated, but they still inspire Greek wonders. 

The once-Polytheistic world monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam Education are diverse, probably with inspiration from ancient Greece. 

Some of the things have remained while much has changed. However, Greece has not lost its relevance. 

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