What methods and institutions do oligarchic regimes use to maintain their power? How do they fend off the threat of democratic revolution? What happened to the many oligarchies of the ancient Mediterranean?

All of these questions and more are explored in this second of two episodes with historian Matt Simonton, author of Classical Greek Oligarchy.

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Scholarly works mentioned during the conversation:

Democracy: A Life, by Paul Cartledge

Partial transcript of the prologue:

Welcome back to this second of two episodes on classical Greek oligarchy. In part 1, we discussed several competing definitions of oligarchy and traced the origin of the term back to the 5th century BC in Greece, when it was first coined to describe a new wave of authoritarian regimes that were diametrically opposed to democracy. In this episode, we're going to talk about the institutions through which oligarch's maintained their grip on power, the ideological struggle between oligarchs and democrats, and the eventual fate of the ancient oligarchic polis.

Just a brief recap: last time our guest, Matt Simonton, dealt some blows to the standard account historians give of oligarchy in the ancient world. The standard account, if you remember, is that oligarchy was a stepping-stone in the political evolution of city-states on the way to democracy.

The idea is that all the city-states of the ancient mediterranean started off as kingdoms in the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Then, in the 7th and 6th centuries BC a bunch of them moved away from monarchical rule and established what later thinkers would call aristocracies and oligarchies. That is, they transitioned from one-man rule to the rule of a few. And then in around 500 BC, you finally get the onslaught of democratic regimes. And this marks the beginning of the Classical Period.

Simonton challenges this traditional view by pointing out that the term “oligarchy” was not coined until after democracies already existed. While Plato and Aristotle later used the term “oligarchy” to refer to elite regimes that had existed centuries earlier, Simonton finds this to be misleading. The oligarchic regimes that Plato and Aristotle knew first hand, he claims, were different in important ways from the elite regimes of the archaic, i.e. pre-classical period. And the key difference was that, unlike the elite regimes of old, when democracy hadn't yet been invented, the classical greek oligarchies faced the constant threat of democratic revolution. And so they had to innovate new institutions that helped them maintain control and prevent the virus of democracy from infecting their populace. It was these institutions that, for Simonton, defined what the Greeks called oligarchia.

Here's another way to think of this that might be easier to visualize. Imagine the Mediterranean Sea, its vast coastline dotted with over a thousand city-states. At around 500 BC, a few of these poleis become democracies and, soon after that, this new political system starts to go viral across the entire polis ecosystem. Within decades, you get democracies popping up all the way from southern Italy to Asia minor. That means that as an ancient greek, no matter what city-state you were in, there would almost certainly be a democracy within fifty miles of your polis. So you can see why a lot of elite regimes would start to freak out about the possibility of their own population seeing what's happening around them and wanting to form a democracy themselves. According to Simonton's theory, this is the context in which oligarchy arises. Right after the spread of democracy, oligarchy starts to go viral as a reaction to the wave of democratic revolutions.

One final thing before we turn to the interview. Later on in the discussion, you'll hear us get into a debate about Cleisthenes. For those who don’t know, Cleisthenes was the lawgiver credited with establishing democracy in Athens.

The story goes that Athens had been ruled by tyrants for half a century, during which time Cleisthenes, an Athenian aristocrat who opposed the regime, spent decades in exile trying to get support to overthrow the tyranny at Athens. Whether it was thanks to his scheming or not, the Spartans eventually invaded Athens and deposed the tyrant, hoping to set up a pro-Spartan puppet regime under a dude named Isagoras. But Cleisthenes rallied the common people and, with their support, enacted an extensive and sophisticated reform package that provided a blueprint for citizen cooperation on an unprecedented scale. Thus Athenian democracy was born.

Now that we've gotten the preliminaries out of the way, here is part 2 of my conversation with Matt Simonton, taking off right after the final point made in the previous episode, which was that oligarchies arose in opposition to the spread of democracy.