Government 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. 

As they were the first ones to implement a self-rule system in government, they influenced and impacted numerous other civilizations and governments of different nations.

For instance, the ancient Greece government played a vital role in impacting the formation of the government of the United States.

Ancient Greek had four major types of governments: tyranny, monarchy, democracy, and oligarchy.

This article discusses in detail the system of government of ancient Greece.

City-states

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. 

Ancient Greece then had over 1,000 city-states that included majors city-states as Thíva (Thebes), Athína (Athens), Siracusa (Syracuse), Árgos, Spárti (Sparta), Égina (Aegina), Elis, Kórinthos (Corinth), Erétria, and Ródos (Rhodes).

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 was 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. 

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

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

Democracy

One of the Athenian leaders came up with a new system termed demokratia, meaning ruled by the people, in 507 B.C.

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, and the Athenian democracy consisted of 3 major separate institutes:

firstly, the ekklesia, which was the sovereign body that governed, made laws and decided the foreign policy

secondly, the boule, which was the assembly that comprised 10 Athenian tribal representatives

The third and final one, the dikasteria, was a court meant for the citizens to discuss their cases before any group of judges was selected through a lottery.

All the citizens were automatically members of ekklesia and 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.

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.

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

Monarchy

It was the rule by an individual based on inheritance, and the most noticeable monarchies were the states of Epeiros and Macedonia and Epeiros.

However, the monarchs were not all-powerful as they had to share their powers with the council or the assembly.

The city-state of Sparta had a system of having an assembly and two kings simultaneously.

The Spartan kings would assume a higher degree of power during times of crisis, such as a war, where they would be exiled if found guilty of anything during a trial.

Tyranny

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

The city-state of Syracuse is known for its tyrants, Dionysios and his son Dionysios II. Dionysios began ruling the city-state from 405 B.C.E until it was taken over by his son in 367 B.C.E.

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

Oligarchy, a particular system of government, was ruled especially by a group of people who were selected through votes. 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.

A selected group of 400 men seized power from the Athenian Assembly in 411 B.C.E. and was replaced by a slightly larger group of 5000 men. 

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Athens had an oligarchic rule of 30 men around 404 B.C.E. after losing Sicily. 

Conclusion

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.

The first ever government to have self-rule was the governance of Ancient Greece, which inspired numerous other civilizations and empires to follow some or most of it.

 

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