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OLIGA´RCHIA (ὀλιγαρχία), the government of a few, is a term the application of which by writers on political science is less wide than its etymological signification might have warranted. (See Plb. 6.4; Arist. Pol. 4.4, p. 1290, from whom we learn that some writers used Oligarchia as a generic name, including Aristocratia as one of its species.) It is shown elsewhere [ARISTOCRATIA] under what conditions the limitation of political power to a portion of the community was regarded as a proper and regular constitution (ὀρθὴ πολιτεία), whose guiding principle was the common good, not the private interest of those in power (Arist. Pol. 3.6, p. 1279; 4.2, p. 1289). The term Oligarchia was applied to that perversion (παρέκβασις) of an Aristocratia into which the latter passed when, owing to the rise of the demus [DEMOCRATIA] and the vanishing of those substantial grounds of pre-eminence which rendered an Aristocratia not unjust, the rule of the dominant portion of the community ceased to be the exponent of the general interests of the state, and became the ascendency of a faction, whose efforts were directed chiefly towards their own aggrandisement and the maintenance of their own power and privileges (Arist. Eth. Nicom. 8.12; Plb. 6.8.4). The preservation of power under such cir-cumstances of course depended chiefly upon the possession of superior wealth and the other appliances of wealth which were its concomitants. Thus it came to be regarded as essentially characteristic of an oligarchy, that the main distinction between the dominant faction and the subject portion of the community was the possession of greater wealth on the part of the former. (Arist. Pol. 4.4, p. 1290 b, δῆμος μέν ἐστιν ὅταν οἱ ἐλεύθεροι κύριοι ὦσιν, ὀλιγαρχία δὲ δ̔́ταν οἱ πλούσιοι. A little further on he says: ὀλιγαρχίαι δὲ ὅταν οἱ πλούσισι καὶ εὐγενέστεροι, ὀλίγοι ὄντες, κύριοι τῆς ἀρχῆς ὦσιν. Comp. 4.6, p. 1293; Plat. de Rep. viii. pp. 550 C, 553 A.) The case of the wealthy portion being also the more numerous would be a very rare exception. Their dominion, of course, would not be an oligarchy; but neither would it be a democracy (Arist. Pol. 4.4, p. 1290). When an aristocracy passed in the natural development of society into an oligarchy, the oligarchs would, of course, be high-born as well as rich. But high birth was not an essential condition. It very commonly happened that the oligarchs were themselves only a section of the old nobility, having excluded the poorer members of their order from the possession of power.

Aristotle (Aristot. Pol. 4.5, p. 1292 b) distinguishes various species of oligarchy:--1. Where a certain large amount of property is the only requisite for being a member of the ruling class: 2. Where the property qualification is not large, but the members of the government themselves supply any vacancies that may occur in their ranks by electing others to fill them: 3. Where the son succeeds to the power of his father: 4. Where, besides this being the case, the rulers govern according to no fixed laws, but arbitrarily. (Camp. Plat. Polit. pp. 301, 302.) The first kind, where privileges were distributed according to certain gradations of property, especially when the τίμημα was not extravagently high, so that a considerable number shared political power, though only a few of them might be eligible to the highest offices, was sometimes called τιμοκρατία (Arist. Eth. Nic. 8.12). It approximates closely to the πολιτεία, and hence Aristotle (Aristot. Pol. 4.11) calls it ὀλιγαρχία πολιτική, that is, an oligarchy so moderate as to be nearly a πολιτεία: where more extensive privileges were given to large property, it was called πλουτοκρατία (Xen. Mem. 4.6, 22): Plato, in Rep. viii. p. 547 D, uses τιμοκρατία in a different sense.

To the conditions of 3 and 4, where the rule of the few is both arbitrary and hereditary, or, in other words, where arbitrary power has come into the possession of a few ruling families, the name δυναστεία is given (Arist. Pol. 4.5, 2, p. 1292 b): this is described as the extreme oligarchy and corresponding (α᾽ντίστροφος) to the extreme democracy [OCHLOCRATIA]. This δυναστεία is described as existing in Boeotia at the time of the Persian invasion, and in Thessaly (Thuc. 3.62; 4.78) and sometimes in Crete (Arist. Pol. 2.10, p. 1272 b), and the danger of it is given as one cause for ostracism (Arist. Pol. 5.3, p. 1302).

The term Aristocratia is not unfrequently applied to what the more careful distinctions of the writers on political science would term Oliarchtia. (Comp. Thuc. 3.82; Xen. Hell. 5.2.7; Aristoph. Birds 125.) [p. 2.267]

Besides the authorities quoted above, the reader may consult Wachsmuth, Hellenische Alterthumskunde, § § 36, 44, 47, 63, 64; Schömann, Antiq. of Greece, p. 98; Hermann, Lelrbuch der griech. Staatsalterthümer, § § 58-61; Thirlwall, Hist. of Greece, vol. i. ch. 10. [C. P. M.


hide References (9 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (9):
    • Aristophanes, Birds, 125
    • Aristotle, Politics, 4.1292b
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.62
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.82
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.78
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 5.2.7
    • Xenophon, Memorabilia, 4.6
    • Polybius, Histories, 6.4
    • Polybius, Histories, 6.8.4
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