In voice in the government, a system

In this lesson, you will explore several forms of government that could be found in ancient Greece. Then, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Governments of Ancient Greece

You may read this lesson and think, ‘Wait, governments of ancient Greece? Governments? How many governments could ancient Greece have?’The answer is: several. You see, ancient Greece was not one single kingdom or empire but rather a series of cities with their own independent governments called city-states. Although each city-state spoke Greek and shared a similar religion, each had its own unique identity and formed its own style of government. From there, the city-states changed and altered their political systems to fit their own needs.

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Forms of Government in Greece

The first governments of most city-states were monarchies, where a king ruled over the people.

These soon led to another form of government called an oligarchy, where a few people held all of the political power. In a monarchy, a single person controlled the government, but in an oligarchy, a group of people dominated politics. Oligarchies were common in many ancient Greek city-states.

Sparta: Dual-Monarchy

One city-state, Sparta, was not content doing things the same way as everyone else. Sparta was like that. Instead of an oligarchy or monarchy, Sparta had a dual-monarchy, where two kings ruled together. Sparta was also unique because its government was less concerned with the rights of the people and more concerned with perfecting their military.

On the other hand, Sparta was very practical with its citizenship laws and all citizens received equal rights, including women. This was pretty unique for the time period.

Athens: Democracy

Of all the city-states, Athens may have had the greatest impact on politics. Athens developed a system where every citizen voted on laws and had a voice in the government, a system called democracy.

Sound familiar? Democracy is the foundation of many modern governments.Democracy was first developed in Athens around 508 BC by the statesman Cleisthenes after the city-state overthrew the tyrant Hippias. The Athenian system of democracy was characterized by two distinct features. First, citizens were randomly selected to hold government offices. This meant that not only the elites could hold power, like in an oligarchy, but rather that any single person could help run the city-state. By keeping the process random, the Athenians ensured that there was no bias against citizens who were poor or unpopular.

The other trait of Athenian democracy was a legislative assembly, a gathering to make new laws, where every Athenian citizen had the right to speak and to vote. This was a major moment in world history since, for the first time, every citizen was equally represented in government and no one group could control the city-state. Still, it was not a perfect system, and only citizens, or free males, could vote and speak in the assembly.

Women and slaves were exempt from the rights of citizenship for many more centuries.

Lesson Summary

Ancient Greece was not a single government. Instead, it was composed of dozens of cities that each formed their own independent governments called city-states. Most of these city-states originally had a system of government called a monarchy, where a single person ruled the city-state.

Over time, many city-states changed to a new government style in which several people controlled the state, called an oligarchy.The powerful city-state Sparta had its own unique system of government called a dual-monarchy, with two kings that ruled together. The government with the longest-lasting legacy was Athens, which invented the system where every citizen has a voice in government, called a democracy.

Athenian democracy had two defining traits: government officials were randomly selected, and all citizens could vote and speak in the legislative assembly to make new laws. For one culture, that’s a lot of governments.

Learning Outcomes

After finishing the lesson, you should be able to:

  • Understand that there were a variety of different governments in Ancient Greece’s city-states
  • Explain what monarchies, oligarchies, and dual-monarchies are
  • Discuss how democracy worked in Ancient Greece

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