Ancient Greek Government for Kids & Teachers Illustration

Ancient Greek Government

There was no central government in ancient Greece. Ancient Greece was not one country with one ruler. Ancient Greece was never an empire. People lived in independent city-states. And each city-state ruled itself. At one time there were over 2,500 Greek city-states, most of which were very small, just a village surrounded by farmland. Over time, many of the smaller city-states combined. Some of the smaller city-states were conquered or absorbed by larger ones, and became part of and governed by that larger city-state. 

 Even after ancient Greece rearranged itself into about 1,000 city-states, some were still very tiny - the entire city-state still consisting of one village surrounded by farmlands. Others city-states became quite large, and they were more complicated. The larger city-states were composed of a major city and included smaller villages around it and the farmlands around them - that city and a bunch of villages - had one central government for that one city-state. Big or small, each city-state selected its own form of government. Not all city-states were ruled by kings

There were three main forms of government used in ancient Greece by various city-states.

  • Ruled by a king: Monarchy. Some city-states were ruled by a king. This type of government is called a monarchy. The city-state of Corinth is an example; Corinth was ruled by a king.
  • Ruled by a small group: Oligarchy. Some city-states were ruled by a small group of people. This type of government is called an oligarchy. The city-state of Sparta is an example of an oligarchy. Sparta had a rigid oligarchic constitution that clearly stated how government worked in the city-state of Sparta. Sparta was ruled by a small group of retired and highly respected warriors. The members of this ruling group were called Senators. Sparta also had two lifetime kings, who in times of war, were responsible for arbitration in case there was a peaceful way to solve their differences with other city-states.  Their constitution, dictating how government worked in Sparta, was in place for hundreds of years. Sparta was truly unique in many ways.
  • Ruled by many: Direct Democracy. Athens experimented with direct democracy, or rule by many. For about 100 years, every citizen in Athens could directly vote in the assembly on issues. But for most of its existence as an ancient Greek city-state, Athens was ruled by a king.

So, when we refer to ancient Greece, we are not referring to a country or to an empire. We are referring to the many ancient Greek city-states collectively, each composed of people who all spoke Greece, worshiped the same gods, and shared a common history. Most of the Greek city-states were established on the Greek peninsula. Even though we refer to the area as ancient Greece, there was no such place as the country of Greece because Greece was not a country, not in ancient times, not in medieval times, and actually, not until modern times. Even then, the people had to fight and go through many changes before finally, at last, the country of Greece was born and recognized in the modern world.

Today, Greece is a country in southeastern Europe. It is composed of the Greek peninsula and thousands of islands throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas. Greece covers a lot of area if you include the seas between islands, but it is actually a small country. Its population is around 10 million. Athens is its capital. (Athens has been continuously occupied for over 3,000 years!)  Today, Greece is a parliamentary democracy. It does not operate its democracy as we do here in the United States. It's actually quite different. If you would like to know more about modern Greek government, see this site: Greek Government Today for Kids. It's very brief and very clear.

For us, our focus is on the many ancient Greek city-states, where they were located, how they interacted and lived, and how they governed themselves.

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