While many people associate ancient Greece with the origin of democracy, it was home to many types of government. One person ruled in monarchies and tyrannies. A small group of people ruled in aristocracies and oligarchies. Rule by all citizens through voting took place in democracies. In general, Greek government evolved from single rule to small group rule to rule by the people. But because each city-state in ancient Greece possessed its own government, some of these types existed simultaneously.
Rule by One: The Monarchy
Beginning with the Mycenaeans around 2,000 B.C., Greek city-states were ruled by monarchies. A monarchy was rule by one king, and his power was hereditary. Monarchs had complete power, and citizens had no say in their government. By 1,200 B.C., the Mycenaean rule in Greece collapsed. With that collapse the use of monarchy as a form of government in ancient Greece began to fade. By 700 B.C., there were no monarchies left in any of the Greek city-states.
Rule by a Few
As monarchies died out, they were replaced by aristocracies. In an aristocracy, a small group of noblemen led the government. Over time, the aristocracy became an oligarchy when rich citizens not of noble birth were also allowed to participate. Like monarchies, oligarchies did not offer citizens a say in their government. Oligarchies could also be just as corrupt and harsh. After 400 B.C., the oligarchy became less common as a form of government. Sparta was one of the last city-states with a successful oligarchy.
Rule by One: The Tyranny
Tyrannies emerged in ancient Greece around 600 B.C. and were especially widespread in the fifth century B.C. Tyranny was a response to corrupt governments that treated citizens harshly. A tyrant, usually a former soldier, would gain the support of the middle class by promising them better lives under his rule. The tyrant would use that support to overthrow the current government and seize power. Tyrants often kept their promises and did make improvements to the city-state while in power.
Rule by All
Around 500 B.C., democracy emerged in Greece. Most of what is known about ancient Greek democracy comes from Athens. Democracy allowed citizens to participate in their government through voting. Only males born in the city-state were considered citizens though; women could not vote. The government consisted of an assembly of 500 men that determined issues, however, all citizens were allowed to attend assembly meetings, vote and serve on the assembly. There were no elections. Instead, assembly members were chosen yearly by lottery so everyone would have a chance to serve.
- Teacher's Curriculum Institute: Four Forms of Government in Ancient Greece
- The British Museum: Forms of Government -- Democracy, Oligarchy and Tyranny
- The British Museum: Athens
- Fordham University Ancient History Sourcebook: Herodotus -- The Persians Reject Democracy/Darius' State
- Museum Tusculanum Press: Oligarchy and Oligarchs in Ancient Greece
- BBC Primary History: Ancient Greeks -- Athens
- The Getty Iris: Voting with the Ancient Greeks
- Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images