“Political Systems of Ancient Greek and Spartan City-States” – Tales from the Classroom

Author’s note – here’s an essay I wrote last year for a class on ancient civilizations and their political systems.  That week we were learning about Ancient Greece and its volatile relationship (or lack thereof) with Sparta.  If you’re dying to read something of more substance than cryptic, depressing poetry, and you have a tolerance for nonfiction, you’re in luck.  Hopefully enough time has passed between hanging in that paper and posting it here that my professor can’t retroactively accuse me of plagiarizing myself. 😛



The exclusive democracy of Athens and the military-oriented oligarchy of Sparta are noted as great influencers of several of our modern political systems.  There existed, however, several other political systems that, while less influential on our present-day political progress, thrived for centuries throughout the multitude of old Grecian poleis (city-states).  This paper analyzes and compares the political systems of monarchy, aristocracy, and tyranny with democracy and oligarchy as they occurred in Ancient Greece.



In the context of politics, the Greek prefix demos in the words democracy / demokratia refers to the body of citizens. (Cartwright 2013)  The Athenian democracy is hailed a predecessor of modern democracy (Brand n.d.), as it enabled all citizens of Athens to govern the country together as equals.  A revolutionary proposal for its time, the Athenian democracy was a step up its previous oligarchy (specifically aristocracy) system, where governing power was vested in a single group of aristocrats; and significantly more diverse than a monarchy (or tyranny), where power would be held by a single ruler.

See, however, the fine print at the bottom of the parchment: only adult males with Athenian parents qualified for Athenian citizenship; women, foreigners, and slaves that lived in Athens did not, and were thus excluded from this “glorious” democracy. (Brand n.d.) A true democracy would include all demos (people).  Not unlike an oligarchy, political power in Athens was held by an exclusive group within Athenian common society, namely those among the demos (people) who qualified to have the rights and privileges of demos (citizens).  It was not until the end of the disastrous Peloponnesian Wars, however, that Athens would become what is universally agreed to be an oligarchy once more.


Oligarchy and Aristocracy

A political system where political power is wielded by a single group of likeminded individuals, ranging from small in numbers to great and formidable, oligarchies were incredibly common throughout ancient Grecian poleis. (Cartwright 2013)  This political system is unlike a monarchy/tyranny, where a single monarch has all political power, or a democracy, where a city-state is ruled by its own common people (or in Athens’ case, a fragment of the common people who qualified for citizenship).  Megara and Thebes were said to be poleis with oligarchy systems. (Cartwright 2013)  Although Sparta had two kings, this polis was primarily influenced by a Gerousia (Elders’ Council) of military veterans over the age of sixty, and five Ephors (or magistrates), who were elected annually. (Brand n.d.)

In the archaeic period (800-500 BCE), prior to its democratic reform, Athens’ governing powers were in the hands of a few aristocratic landowners (Brand n.d.).  An oligarchy government where political power is vested solely in the hands of the wealthy is thus known as an aristocracy.  Following the Peloponnesian Wars of 431 BCE and 404 BCE, Athens’ great democracy was once more reduced to an oligarchy – this oligarchy, however, was dominated by the working class of Athenian society, who were led to feel disenfranchised by their weakening democratic government by propagandists. (Brand n.d.)


Monarchy and Tyranny

A monarchy is a political system which is governed by a single king.  In a true monarchy, the rulership is passed down to his heirs.  This kind of system can be internationally throughout the world’s history.  Macedonia and Epeiros were poleis known to be monarchies where the ruler shared a small portion of his power with an assembly.  Sparta was ruled in theory by two monarchs, but their power was not absolute; they were controlled by the Ephors, who were in turn elected by the Gerousia, which consisted of military veterans.

On the other hand, a tyranny is kind of monarchy where the king comes into power in an “unconstitutional manner,” (Cartwright 2013) such as murdering the previous ruler.  Following the Peloponnesian Wars and the revolution of the people which resulted in an oligarchy, the weakened polis of Athens was conquered by the infamous Alexander the Great.  Alexander ruled his conquered poleis as a king; Athens’ political system became a tyranny, because the ruling monarch Alexander did not inherit the throne by way of lineage, but seized power by way of conquest.



Democrats, oligarchs, power-hungry aristocrats, and monarchs (hereditary and tyrannical alike) continue to rise and fall throughout the history of our world.  A study of Ancient Greece’s many city-states reveals the many forms of political systems that arose with varying levels of success throughout the ages.  Some poleis are known for thriving under one system, while others, like Athens, shifted from aristocratic oligarchy (aristocracy) to democracy, then back to an oligarchy system, only to fall under the tyrannical monarchy (tyranny) of Alexander the Great.  With each city-state operating under its own form of self-governance, each of the aforementioned political systems has made its mark in Ancient Greece.




Brand. P. J. (n.d.). Athens and Sparta: Democracy vs. dictatorship.

Cartwright, M. (2013, March 17). Greek government. Retrieved from http://www.ancient.eu/Greek_Government/


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