Like most of our political terminology, the word “oligarchy” comes from ancient Greek. In this episode, we travel back in time to when the term was first coined (the 5th century BC) and examine the type of political regime it described. We're joined by historian Matt Simonton, author of the award-winning book Classical Greek Oligarchy.

What defines an oligarchy? How do ancient oligarchies compare with modern authoritarian regimes? These are just a few of the questions we discuss in this first of two shows on oligarchy. The next episode is going to be about the institutions of oligarchic regimes, how they maintained their power, and how they tended to break down in the end.

Matt Simonton is associate professor of ancient history at Arizona State University. Stay tuned at the end of the episode for a chance to win an autographed, hardcover edition of his book Classical Greek Oligarchy.

The intro to this episode was provided by host Kate Armstrong of The Exploress, a podcast that time-travels through women's history, era by era, to explore their lives and their world. Check it out on your favorite app or at:

Support us on Patreon:
Or make a one-time donation:

Scholarly works mentioned during the conversation:

The First Democracies: Early Popular Government Outside Athens by Eric W. Robinson (the book is hard to find, but you can read a summary and review of it here)

Democracy Beyond Athens: Popular Government in the Greek Classical Age by Eric W. Robinson

Partial transcript of the introductory section on ancient views about oligarchy:

The ancient understanding of oligarchy was that it was a kind of government in which a small number of elites held inordinate power, and the multitude had hardly any say in public affairs. This is in contrast to a monarchy, which is rule by one, and democracy, which is rule by the many. However, many of the key political thinkers, like Aristotle and Polybius, were at pains to distinguish oligarchy from another kind of elite rule which they called aristocracy.

Aristocracy for them did not mean what it means today. For them it meant a type of government. It was elite rule, just like oligarchy was, but they thought of it as more meritocratic. The few who got to rule, were not the richest members of the community. They were the best, the most educated, or the bravest military leaders.

Why was the distinction between oligarchy and aristocracy important to them? Well, for two reasons. The first is that both Aristotle and Polybius believed that each type of government had a good and a bad version. So the category of one-man-rule could be either good (a monarchy) or bad (a tyranny). Similarly, elite rule could either be well governed (an aristocracy) or oppressive (an oligarchy). And rule by the many could also be either harmonious (a democracy) or chaotic – in the case of mob rule (what Polybius calls an "ochlocracy").

The other reason why some ancient thinkers found the distinction between aristocracy and oligarchy to be important is that they saw all the six types of government just mentioned (monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and mob rule) as being locked in a natural sequence of political evolution.

For example, Polybius thought that an aristocracy will almost inevitably degenerate into an oligarchy. Elite rulers, no matter how meritocratically selected, always eventually become oppressors of the poor. An oligarchy, in turn, eventually gives rise to a democracy when the multitude rise up against their oppressors. And Polybius’ cycle doesn’t end there. Democracy eventually degenerates into the chaos of mob rule, out of which a tyrant emerges, bringing the cycle back to one-man-rule.

So for Polybius (and by the way, Plato had a very similar theory), the distinction between aristocracy and oligarchy – as well as that between monarchy and tyranny – was crucial to his theory because it tied together all forms of government into one long sequence of political evolution and revolution. Now let’s fast-forward and compare this theory to how modern scholars have understood ancient oligarchy.

One the one hand, many scholars have maintained the classification scheme of the ancient thinkers I just mentioned. They distinguish between monarchy and tyranny and between aristocracy and oligarchy etc. However, most of them do not buy the theory that these governmental forms were locked in a sequence. And yet, they do generally agree with a few aspects of the long-term historical narrative that the ancient historians offered, e.g. that there was an age of tyrants before the heyday of democracy, and that many of the democracies of the classical period had been oligarchies previously. So, just as in Plato and Polybius' theory, many scholars have seen oligarchy a prior step on the way to democracy.

Now on to Simonton's book: Classical Greek Oligarchy. Simonton rejects this view that oligarchy preceded democracy. In fact, as he explains in his book, the term "oligarchy" does not appear in the historical record until after many democracies were already established. Moreover, he says, oligarchy should not be seen as a stepping stone on the way to democracy, but rather as a reaction by elite regimes against the threat of democratic revolution.