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The Definition of Aristocracy

People like the wealthy woman buried with the granary model at Athens and the earlier couple from Lefkandi constituted the aristocracy that emerged during the later part of the Greek Dark Age. The term aristocracy 1 comes from Greek and means “rule of the best.” Although the use of this term is traditional in accounts of ancient Greek history, it is important to remember that “aristocracy” in this context does not mean what it often means in,for example, French or English history. That is, ancient Greece never had an aristocracy that was an officially recognized nobility, whose members inherited their status regardless of their wealth or other socio-economic characteristics. Rather, the term as used in ancient Greek history refers to the social elite, whose status depended on a combination of factors, of which wealth and public conduct were very important. When one speaks of a Greek aristocrat, then, it is crucial to understand this designation as meaning “a member of the social elite.” Aristocrats in ancient Greece seem to have possessed more wealth than others in their communities, but birth was also a criterion in their enjoying general acknowledgment as the “best” in their society — that is, the people with the greatest social status and political influence. We can only speculate about the various ways in which families might have originally gained their designation as aristocratic and thus became entitled to pass on this status to those born into them. Some aristocratic families in the Dark Age might have inherited their status as descendants of the most prominent and wealthy families of the Mycenean Age; some might have made themselves aristocrats during the Dark Age by amassing wealth and befriending less fortunate people who were willing to acknowledge their benefactors' superior status in return for material help; and some might have acquired aristocratic status by monopolizing control of essential religious rituals.

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