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[1292b] [1] another is when the magistracies are filled from high assessments and the magistrates themselves elect to fill vacancies (so that if they do so from all the citizens of this assessment, this appears rather to be of the nature of an aristocracy, but if from a particular section of them, it is oligarchical); another variety of oligarchy is when son succeeds father in office; and a fourth kind is when the hereditary system just mentioned exists and also the magistrates govern and not the law. This among oligarchies is the form corresponding to tyranny among monarchies and to the form of democracy about which we spoke last among democracies, and indeed oligarchy of this sort has the special name of dynasty.1

So many therefore are the kinds of oligarchy and of democracy; but it must not escape notice that in many places it has come about that although the constitution as framed by the laws is not democratic, yet owing to custom and the social system it is democratically administered, and similarly by a reverse process in other states although the legal constitution is more democratic, yet by means of the social system and customs it is carried on rather as an oligarchy. This occurs chiefly after alterations of the constitutions have taken place; for the people do not change over to the new system immediately but are content at the first stages to gain small advantages from the other party, [20] so that the previously existing laws continue although power is in the hands of the party that is changing the constitution.

And that these various kinds of democracy and oligarchy exist is manifest from the actual things that have been said. For necessarily either all the parts of the population that have been mentioned must have a share in the government, or some and not others. When therefore the farmer class and the class possessed of moderate property is sovereign over the government, they govern according to laws; for they have a livelihood if they work, but are not able to be at leisure, so that they put the law in control and hold the minimum of assemblies necessary; and the other persons have the right to take part when they have acquired the property-assessment fixed by the laws, so that to take part in the government is open to all who have got that amount of property; since for it not to be open to everybody on any terms at all is a characteristic of oligarchy, but then on the other hand it is impossible for it to be open to them to have leisure if there are no revenues.2 This then is one kind of democracy for these reasons. Another kind is due to the distinction that comes next: it is possible that all the citizens not liable to objection on the score of birth may have the right to take part in the assembly, but may actually take part only when they are able to be at leisure; hence in a democracy of this nature the laws govern because there is no revenue. A third kind is when all those who are free men have the right to take part in the government yet do not do so because of the aforesaid reason, so that it follows that in this form of democracy also the law governs.

1 Government controlled by a few powerful families. Cf. Thuc. 3.62.4, where the Thebans say, ‘In those days our state was not governed by an oligarchy that granted equal justice to all, nor yet by a democracy; the power was in the hands of a small cabal ( δυναστεία ὀλίγων ἀνδρῶν), than which nothing is more opposed to law or to true political order, or more nearly resembles a tyranny’ (Jowett).

2 i.e. revenues from abroad; the poor can only attend often if paid for attendance, and this can only be financed if the state has income from tribute or foreign property.

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  • Commentary references to this page (1):
    • T. G. Tucker, Commentary on Thucydides: Book 8, 8.54
  • Cross-references to this page (1):
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), OLIGA´RCHIA
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
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