Forms of government varied widely across the Greek lands in the roughly two millennia in which the ancient Greeks stood in the forefront of the march of Western civilization. Modern scholars generally conclude that Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean kingdoms were ruled by kings, supported by leading well-to-do aristocrats. These large-scale monarchies disappeared with the collapse of Bronze Age society in the twelfth century B.C.; and in the Dark Age that followed, government in Greece seems to have been smaller-scale and more local in nature. Each village had a leader called a basileus. Although this is sometimes translated as “king,” a more accurate description would be “chief” or “headman” of a town or small region. Such a leader likely met with a few advisers and assistants in a council (boule) to decide policy for the whole community. These men probably also submitted their decisions to an assembly of the fighting men, who gave their approval.
A major development in the evolution of government in Greece occurred in the early Archaic Age, when the land's many isolated communities rapidly grew into full-blown city-states. The Greeks called the city-state the polis (plural, poleis). Various poleis developed differing local governments and traditions. In most of these states, power passed from the hands of local chieftains to ruling councils composed of several community leaders (at first exclusively aristocrats). This form of government is known as oligarchy, from a Greek word meaning “rule of the few.” Some states, most notably Corinth, kept their oligarchic councils for several centuries. In contrast, many other Greek poleis tried new forms of government. One of these was tyranny. Common in the late 600s and throughout the 500s B.C., it was typified by an ambitious man who acquired dictatorial power by gaining the support of the common people against the ruling aristocrats. A number of tyrants at first enjoyed widespread popularity, initiated large building projects, and supported the arts.
However, tyranny as a governmental form did not last long in Greece. Most tyrants, along with most oligarchic councils, were steadily replaced by representative citizen bodies, mainly assemblies, that sought to assume governing authority themselves. Leading this trend toward more democratic government was Athens. There, in 594 B.C., the aristocrats and common people, who were on the brink of civil war, called on a prominent citizen named Solon to create a compromise. He instituted a system in which the local assembly had more authority and nonaristocrats were better able to climb the social and political ladder.
Following this trend toward more popular control of government, Athens launched the world's first true democracy in about the year 508 B.C. The Assembly's powers were greatly expanded. In addition to directly electing some public officials, it had the sovereign authority to declare war, make peace, create commercial alliances, grant citizenship, found colonies, allocate public funds for construction and other Page 155 | Top of Articleprojects, and decide foreign policy. The existing Council (the Boule), which prepared the agenda for the Assembly, was increased from four hundred to five hundred members. The members of the Assembly debated and voted on the legislative bills prepared by the Council and could add amendments to a bill or send it back to the Council to be reframed. The Council also saw to it that the Assembly's directives were carried out by overseeing subcommittees (boards of councilors). These boards closely supervised the archons, public officials who actually ran the city on a day-to-day basis.
Athens's open democracy inspired other Greeks, who instituted similar democratic governments in the years that followed. One glaring exception was Sparta, which had two kings who ruled jointly. They were not all-powerful monarchs, however, as a group of five elected citizens, called ephors (“overseers”), outranked them in all but military and religious affairs. There was also an assembly of fighting men and a council (the gerousia, or “elders”) that prepared its agenda. The exact balance of powers between these various governmental branches is still uncertain and is often disputed by scholars.
Although democracy, and to a lesser extent oligarchy and Sparta's unique system, remained in place in some Greek states into the Hellenistic Age, that era was dominated by several large kingdoms set up by the successors of Alexander the Great. These kingdoms featured absolute monarchies, with kings and royal courts. At least in these places, therefore, government in Greece had come full circle by reverting to the form that had dominated the area in the Bronze Age.
SEE ALSO: Athens; citizenship; laws and justice; polis