Oligarchy is a Greek word meaning “rule by the few.” In an oligarchy, some of the free population is excluded from having basic political rights and from holding office. Participation of citizens in government is severely restricted, and control of the government is turned over to a small group of individuals who, because of their birth, wealth, or special abilities, are viewed as best able to control government. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined oligarchy as the rule of the rich. Some political theorists maintain that aristocracy* is a better term for oligarchy.
There were several types of oligarchies in the ancient world. Some oligarchies were actually tyrannies*; others were early forms of federal or representative government. The city of Carthage, on the coast of North Africa, was the largest oligarchy in the Mediterranean region. In the fifth century B.C., its government changed from that of one-man rule to an oligarchy in which a small group of individuals held the power. This group was made up of magistrates (called sufets), generals, and a council of nobles.
Oligarchies existed in most Greek city-states* before the 500s B.C., although they were not then called by that name. In the 500s, some city-states began moving toward democracy. While Athens became the most successful Greek democracy during the 400s B.C., Sparta was the most powerful oligarchy. Sparta was governed by five officials (called ephors) and the gerousia, a council made up of 28 elders and the two Spartan kings. In the mid-400s, the cities of the region of Boeotia, north of Athens, freed themselves from Athenian control and established a type of oligarchic government. Full citizenship in each city was based on the ownership of a specified amount of property. Those who had full citizen rights were organized into four councils. Decisions were passed by all four groups. Each city was divided into wards, or sections, with representation based on population. The citizens of each ward elected a magistrate, council members, soldiers, and jury members. The members of the Boeotian League (as the member cities called themselves) met at the city of Thebes in a council of 660.
At the end of the fifth century B.C., some Athenians revolted against democracy. The regime of the Four Hundred in 411 B.C. proposed a constitution that reflected the ideas of the Boeotian constitution. However, the Four Hundred never consolidated their rule sufficiently to establish a true constitution. They quickly dissolved into a wider, and more democratic, body known as the Five Thousand, which eventually merged back into a democracy. For a brief period, from 404-403 B.C., the Thirty Tyrants established an oligarchy in Athens. In the Hellenistic* period, the distinctions between oligarchy and democracy became even less clear, since even democratic states tended to be governed by the rich. States calling themselves democratic were really oligarchic. (See also Democracy, Greek; Greece, History of; Tyrants, Greek.)
* aristocracy rule by the nobility or privileged upper class
* tyranny rule by one person, usually obtained through unlawful means
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.