A Survey on Political Rights of Individuals under Different Forms of Ancient Greek Government

Pericles Funeral Oration on old Greece 50 drachma (1955) banknote. Famous historical speech of Pericles at the end of first year of the Peloponnesian War. Photo: Shutterstock.

Although not perfect, as no government form ever is, Athenian democracy allowed citizens to have the greatest say in how they were governed, giving them necessary legal and economic protections to do so. One can see why modern scholars define Athens as having a ‘radical’ democracy, as actions such as changing the surnames of citizens to incorporate the name of their deme, having a highly complex jury selection system, and even paying individuals for public service, were all radical ideas when compared to the oligarchic systems of other city-states and kingdoms such as Macedonia.

By Christo Pretorius

It’s hard to miss the stark warnings from a variety of sources about the dangers of populist leaders and how democracy is currently on decline around the world (Freedom House, 2024; Netherlands Helsinki Committee, 2022; Pengelly, 2022). It would perhaps surprise many that, what we consider to be current contemporary issues are not necessarily new, and we can draw from the past a rich collection of political discourse and historical conflict. 

The term "Democracy" originates from the Ancient Greek world, derived from the Greek words demos, meaning ‘people,’ and kratos, meaning ‘rule’ (Kofi, 2015). In the Classical Period of Ancient Greek history, various city-states adopted different forms of government, often influenced by local and foreign circumstances. By the 4th Century, there was a general consensus on three main types of political systems: autocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. As the Greek statesman Aeschines pointed out, "Autocracies and oligarchies are administered according to the tempers of their lords, but democratic states according to established laws" (Aeschines, 1.4). Similarly, Aristotle writes his views on the different systems: ‘…The deviations from these are as follows: from kingship, tyranny; From aristocracy, oligarchy; from constitutional government, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy, which looks to the interests of the ruler; oligarchy looks to the interests of the wealthy; and democracy to the interests of the poor: none of these looks to the common good of the people as a whole’ (Aristotle, Pol., 1279b4). 

This passage raises an interesting question that is worth exploring – what political rights did the average person have under these different systems of government? For the purpose of this article, three aspects closely related to political freedoms will be investigated: Political participation, legal equality, and social mobility. Political participation ties into the ideas of freedom of speech, and the means for individuals to make changes to the way they are governed; Social mobility would indicate whether individuals have the ability to achieve a greater political status within the state; Legal equality would allow us to use the rule of law as a measure of political freedom. 

For optimal analysis, this article is divided into two parts. The first part will contextualize the three different government systems, drawing from case examples within the Ancient Aegean. This will be particularly helpful for readers who might not be familiar with Ancient Greece. The second part of this article will then do a cross-comparative study focusing on the three afore mentioned factors, before a conclusion can be made on which system allowed for the greatest amount of individual choice and freedom in the public sphere. The risk with doing an analysis such as this is the danger of over generalization. As such, to the extent that the sources allow, each political system will have a case study state, all found within the same period of time – namely democratic Athens, monarchical Macedonia, and the oligarchic Boeotian Confederation. 

Athenian Democracy 

Ancient Athens has provided modern scholars a wealth of archaeological and literary sources that allow us to better understand how a highly developed ‘radical’ democratic system in the ancient world functioned (Leppin, 2013). Chief among these sources is Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians, a late 4th century work detailing the history and development of city-state’s political system (Aristotle, Const. Ath.). The Athenian government consisted of three primary institutions which were supported by numerous smaller ones of lesser importance (Blackwell, 2003). As a result of the reforms of the Athenian statesman Pericles in the 5th century, most of the political power in the state was given to what was known as the ‘Assembly of the Demos.’ This institution consisted of Athenian males over the age of 18 and gave every participant the right to discuss and vote on decrees that pertained to every aspect of Athenian life (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 27.1/41.2; Dem. 15.1). In the sources we have examples where we can see the Assembly voting on everything from whether or not to go to war (Dem. 15.4), to the laws governing the proper qualifications of ferry-boat captains (Aeschin. 3.158). In theory this institution represented the core of Athenian democracy. 

‘The Council of 500’ is the second of the three main institutions, and represented the full-time government of Athens (Blackwell, 2003). It was made up of 500 citizens, 50 from each of the ten tribes, or demes, delineated by the Athenian lawmaker Cleisthenes in the 6th century (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 21.3). Importantly, these demes were created to encourage a new political social group where individuals were not designated by family names, but officially used their deme as a surname both in public and private life (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 21.4/28.3). Upon reaching the age of eighteen, Athenian male citizens were enrolled on a deme list, and had the opportunity to participate for one year as a member of the Council. From Aristotle it is inferred that there was an expectation for individuals to serve at least once in their lifetime, and provisions were in place that prohibited individuals from serving on the Council more than twice (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 42.1/43.2/62.3). 

The final institution discussed is the People’s Court. This was the primary judicial body in Ancient Athens and had elaborate mechanisms to ensure complete randomness in juror selection for both civic and domestic cases (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 64-69). The jurors themselves were selected from Athenian citizens over the age of 30 and had the requirement that they not be in debt or disenfranchised (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 63.3). Most courts consisted of 500 jurors, but when the need arose, two courts could be combined to have 1,000 jurors, with the most serious cases being brought before the maximum of 1,500 (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 68). 

On the surface level, one can make the assessment that Athenian democracy strove to involve nearly all Athenian male citizens within every aspect of civic life, with different checks and balance mechanisms in place to ensure an element of randomness in both judicial and political office selection.

Hellenistic Kingship 

While Athenian Democracy boasted a high level of citizen participation, kingship represented its polar opposite. Macedonian kingship, and similar authoritarian regimes in the successor states to Alexander the Great’s short -lived empire, are the best examples of these autocratic states. Arthur Eckstein (2009: 249) highlights that ruler legitimacy in these kingdoms relied heavily on conquest and military governance, with institutions that reflected this fact. A royal court acted as the central hub for governance headed by the king himself and his philoi, or ‘friends,’ who would manage both the military and administrative affairs of the state (Eckstein, 2009: 250). These philoi seemed to have been from minor noble houses, high-ranking military officials or experts drawn from within the kingdom or abroad (Weber, 2009: 86). Within this court culture, a web of personal relationships maintained a balance of power between the philoi and the monarch. Gregor Weber (2009: 87) demonstrates in his article that during the reign of King Philip II, he had virtually monopolized all power within the court without much opposition, employing ‘each man according to his abilities, as the occasion demanded.’ 

In relation to Macedonia’s legal system, there are very few sources that we can use to construct a clear picture of their judicial institutions. In Plutarch’s account on the life of Alexander we find him mention: ‘[Alexander] would spend the day in hunting, or administering justice, or arranging his military affairs, or reading’ (Plut. Alex. 23.2). The Roman historian Quntius Curtius Rufus highlights: ‘In accordance with the ancient custom of the Macedonians, the king conducted the inquiry into criminal cases, and the army passed judgement – in time of peace it was a duty of the common people – and the power of the king availed to nothing’ (Curt. 6.8.25). Modern historian Joseph Roisman (2012: 133) presents that, as a result of the lack of sources, modern scholarship on the topic is divided into two camps – with one using examples from Alexander’s life, such as Plutarch, as evidence of the Macedonian king’s role as the supreme legal authority within the state, whilst others draw from Rufus’ account that while kings acted as judges, they would still heed the verdict of an assembly. 

Oligarchy in Ancient Greece 

Unlike Democracy and Autocracy which has been subject to extensive investigation by scholars, ancient oligarchic regimes have not received the same amount of attention due to the scarcity of sources and the greater interest in the alternatives. Of the work that has been written on oligarchies, the primary focus of debate has been defining the line which separates a democracy from an oligarchy (Simonton, 2017; Leppin, 2013). 

Aristotle indicates to us that oligarchies share similarities to democracies, as they are ruled by the majority, but a key difference is that a democracy can be defined where the ‘free are sovereign,’ and in an oligarchy ‘when the rich and more well born are few and sovereign’ (Aristot. Pol. 4.1290b). He continues to say that these oligarchic states are democratic in nature, and thus share the similar institutions with democratic states, but ‘may be administered in an oligarchic fashion’ (Aristot. Pol. 4.1295a). 

The Oxyrhynchus Historian’s Boeotian Constitution supports Aristotle’s claims and gives us a rare glimpse into the political institutions of an oligarchic system. Boeotia consisted of ten sovereign states, or eleven district wards, that each contributed individuals to the central government – The Boule (Council) (Oxyrhynchus Historian, Boeotian Constitution XI.2-4). In the text it is mentioned that each city had a local government which consisted of four smaller boulai. Decisions were passed unanimously, and only landed individuals with a certain undisclosed amount of land could partake in these councils. Unlike the Athenian government, the Boeotian Confederation’s central government did not pay individuals for participation in civic life, but rather the text highlights that ‘The wards provided the magistrates in this way, and together with each [magistrate] they supplied sixty members of the central Boule and paid their expenses themselves.’

Matthew Simonton (2013: 82-83), who has provided the most comprehensive study of oligarchies in the last few years, comments that the Boeotian system of local governance displays an ‘anxiety’ of the oligarchs that larger meetings could result in a ‘mob mentality,’ and thus by rotating oligarchs in and out, ‘the oligarchs figured out a way to be active citizens all of the time… while avoiding the problem of large, chaotic meetings’ that one finds in democracies. 

An important aspect within oligarchic regimes was the need for the elite to regulate each other’s political influence and power, lest the one group, family or individual becomes too powerful and assumes autocratic control. Thus, the adoption of democratic institutions with checks and balances helped oligarchs regulate each other. Hartmut Leppin (2013: 202)highlights that one thesis on Greek oligarchies is that they were ‘mostly restrictive democracies, with a variously limited citizen body.’ 

Although we do not have concrete evidence for how an oligarchic legal system worked, one prominent theory is that oligarchs empowered officials to settle disputes for them. Xenophon indicates this in his Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, where the Spartans employed Ephors as independent judges that could settle legal disputes by enforcing fines, stripping individuals from serving as a magistrate, and even have the authority to imprison individuals (Xen. Const. Lac. 8). However, Xenophon later comments that these ephors do not allow elected officials to rule however they want as they do in other cities, which contradicts Leppin’s findings by making them unique to Sparta (Xen. Const. Lac. 10.3). 

When it came to the relationship between the ruling oligarchs and the ordinary person, the oligarchs had a higher legal standing within the state, yet Simonton (2013:120) provides ample evidence to suggest that regulations were put in place to limit the power oligarchs had by imposing higher fines in some areas on an oligarch, should they abuse their position against the common person. Of course, in practice, the adherence to these regulations varied, and there are some examples of oligarchic regimes collapsing due to the abuse of legal authority – a lesson for other Greek city-states on why oligarchic power had to be controlled for the survival of their authority, best summarized by Isocrates as: ‘oligarchies as well as the others—have the longest life when they best serve the masses’ (Isocrates, 2.16).

Political Agency 

Turning to the comparative analysis of the three discussed political systems, ordinary individuals had little to no say over how they were ruled within Macedonia and/or other Hellenistic kingdoms, that is, unless they managed to usurp the throne through military means. Becoming one of the king’s philoi was the only way one could gain some form of political agency, but unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how much political freedom these philoi actually had, since the sources do not indicate whether or not Macedonia could be considered a constitutional monarchy or an outright autocracy (King, 2010). Weber (2009: 88-89) presents an interesting argument that the interdependence between king and the aristocracy meant that mutual cooperation was necessary, and thus competing interests had to be balanced between the king himself, and the groups that would form within the court from likeminded nobles seeking to push their agenda (See also Plut. Alex. 47). 

We do know greater political agency was afforded to individuals within democratic and oligarchic city-states, yet restrictions still applied. Notably, it was universal across all city-states that women were not permitted to partake in public life (Katz, 1992). Slaves were another group without political agency, who had little to no rights at all within any state (Cuffel, 1966). Therefore, political life was dominated by men. Within oligarchies these men were either wealthy, fulfilled some legal requirement, owned land, or some combination of these three factors. 

Whereas in Athens, participation in public life was based on citizenship and age. Aristotle gives us a clearer insight into how these different citizenship statuses apply, highlighting that in some oligarchies foreigners were permitted to partake in politics, as the only excluding factor was not being wealthy and owning land. In democracies citizen-women bore citizen-children, and in some instances this citizenship status would pass onto a child even if the father was a slave (Aristot. Pol. 3.1278a). 

At the time of Aristotle’s work, he mentions that foreigners, known as metics in Athens, were excluded from political affairs due to lack of citizenship, but James Watson (2010) makes a compelling argument that in practice the granting of citizenship to metics was not as clear cut. In his article, he proposes that the granting of citizenship status depended on the demes themselves when creating their citizenship lists, with some taking a hardline anti-immigrant stance, whilst others granted citizenship to metics up until the mid-5th century. This date coincides with the citizenship reforms of the prominent Athenian stateman Pericles, changing the laws so that citizenship was only conferred to children whose mother and father both were Athenians (Aristot. Const. Ath. 26.3). Unique to Athens was payment for public duties, which was also introduced in the mid-5th century, and allowed those living further away from the city, and with lesser financial means, to participate in all the democratic institutions (Aristot. Const. Ath. 62.2; Podes, 1993: 499). 

Of the three systems, Athens actively attempted to involve the greatest number of individuals to participate within civic life, and although the system was exclusively dominated by free men of Athenian birth, they had a much greater say in how they were governed compared to individuals found in oligarchies and Macedonia.

Social Mobility 

In this article, social mobility ties into the concept of achieving greater political agency and examines the barriers that existed in each separate government form. Democratic Athens once again afforded the greatest amount of political agency to the largest amount of people, especially when considering the existence of the Assembly, which allowed citizens from various economic backgrounds to partake in politics. The only real barrier to participation was monetary reasons, but we see a clear attempt to solve this problem with the aforementioned payment for attendance to the Assembly – which was increased over time from one obol to three (Aristot. Const. Ath. 41.3). 

The Macedonian kingdom offered little to no real means for political advancement within its autocratic system, rather it was the whim of the king that decided whether you would be permitted to the court. In seeking to tie his conquered territories closer to his kingdom, Philip displays the willingness to incorporate foreigners into his court, a trend that would be followed by Alexander during his conquest of Persia (Polyb. 8.10; Arr. An. 3.16.41). The aristocratic class themselves were drawn from local and foreign nobles and leaders. Service in the military would allow another avenue for individuals to get closer to the court, but ultimately there would only ever be one king. Unfortunately, it is once again hard to comment on Greek oligarchies without drawing from multiple sources. In theory, individuals could be drawn into the oligarchic class through any number of means depending on the system of election in place. Andrew Alwine (2018) preformed a cross-oligarchic survey and found that in many ways oligarchic systems of election resembled democratic systems – which is perhaps unsurprising given that previously it was highlighted that many of these oligarchies share close characteristics with democratic states. The drawing of lots, a small electorate council that weighs the ‘virtues’ of individuals, and having a polis-wide election where citizens write down the names of three men ‘regarded in all respects as the best’, are but some of the ways that oligarchic regimes maintained their number and power (Alwine, 2018: 248-251).

Legal Systems 

Although we cannot be certain of the characteristics of the Macedonian legal system, we do know that the king played a large role. We can assume that in a means to maintain a balance of power and the status quo, kings would attempt to be fair in judgement, lest it would disrupt their ability to effectively rule. An anecdote from Plutarch supports this, as Philip II fell asleep during his judgement of one Machaetas, who proceeded to appeal the judgement to the king because of the unfair trial (Plut. Moral. 178-179). Although the verdict wasn’t changed, Philip decided to pay the fine, thus maintaining the authority of his judgement, but acting ‘morally’ in the dispensing of justice. Similarly, Plutarch also reports that Alexander fined his friends whom he caught gambling illegally, a minor but important example that Macedonian kings had to dispense perceived justice in a fair manner (Plut. Moral. 181d). 

Fair and unbiased justice was just as important in oligarchies, particularly considering their precarious political position. Although Alwine (2018) is critical of applying Sparta’s ephors to other city-states, he does argue that oligarchies either had top-down regulations, often with the oligarchic class regulating itself, or had an external judge to settle legal disputes. Prolonged civil strife within the oligarchic class nearly always threatened to break out into civil wars, and thus strong legal regulations were needed to prevent not only oligarchs from abusing each other, but also the demos themselves. Simonton (2017) demonstrates exactly this in chapter 6 of his book, highlighting the need to uphold a strong legal system between the oligarchic class and the demos, and an even stronger legal system between oligarchs, lest the entire system collapses into a democracy. 

Contrasting this, the Athenian legal system didn’t rely on an independent or controlled judiciary, rather they relied on an extensive and complicated system built on randomness and a large number or judge-jurors. Aristotle goes into extensive detail on how legal procedures took place in Athens, but from it we can see three important factors: A large number of citizens make up what we could equate to a modern-day jury, who would all pass verdict on the case anonymously; Jurors, randomly selected after a complicated process, did not know which case they would sit in on until the same day; The jurors were all paid a salary (Aristot. Const. Ath.). These systems all allowed for an unbiased, and hopefully fair trial that was difficult to tamper with. 


Of the three government forms looked at, Athenian democracy appears to give the greatest political freedoms to its citizens. Although not perfect, as no government form ever is, Athenian democracy allowed citizens to have the greatest say in how they were governed, giving them necessary legal and economic protections to do so. One can see why modern scholars define Athens as having a ‘radical’ democracy, as actions such as changing the surnames of citizens to incorporate the name of their deme, having a highly complex jury selection system, and even paying individuals for public service, were all radical ideas when compared to the oligarchic systems of other city-states and kingdoms such as Macedonia. 


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