The term ‘aristocracy’ derives from the Greek and means literally kratos (‘rule’) of the aristoi (‘the best’). However, our ideas of what constitutes an aristocracy – images of feudal kings and their lords – are not wholly compatible with what aristocracies in the ancient world were actually like. Aristotle, in his Politics, discussed four main types of government or ‘constitutions’ (monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy), and considers aristocracy largely a relic of a bygone time.
Who were those ‘best’ men who ruled in an aristocracy? By and large, these men were members of families with old roots. Such noble families are a feature of many ancient societies. The Greeks didn’t distinguish between these old families and others, but the Romans referred to them as patricians and plebeians respectively. However, the distinction between ‘noble’ patricians and ‘common’ plebeians was difficult, especially when, from the fourth century BC onwards, a plebeian could rise up through the ranks and become a novus homo, a ‘new man’ (like Marius), and enter the ranks of the nobility (but without becoming a patrician). Influential men from the Late Republic could be patricians (like Julius Caesar) or plebeians (like Mark Antony).
The Greeks tended to refer to the old, noble families in terms of ‘clan’ (a group of families) or by individual lineages. For example, Herodotus claims that Corinth was, before the rise of the tyrant Cypselus, ruled by a clan called the Bacchiadae. The ancient nobility of Athens was referred to as the Eupatridae (literally ‘good-fathered’). In Athens, the Alcmaeonidae were a powerful noble family, and included Megacles (the killer of Cylon) and Cleisthenes (who reformed Athens and turned it into a democracy).
Agathoi and kakoi
However, as later in Rome, Greek society could not be easily divided between an upper class of wealthy aristocrats and a lower class of commoners. Ian Morris, in his Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the Greek City-State (1987), recognized that it was virtually impossible, based on the archaeological data, to distinguish ‘aristocratic’ burials from ‘common’ burials. Instead, he opted to create two new ‘classes’: the wealthy agathoi (‘good people’, the elite) on the one hand, and the poorer kakoi (‘bad people’, the commoners) on the other hand. He borrowed the two terms from from Archaic poetry.
Morris makes clear that the agathoi or the elite could consist of two different groups: a governing elite and a non-governing elite. The non-governing elite can be as wealthy as the governing elite, but is excluded from actually ruling the community. Here, the governing elite could possibly be an aristocracy similar to the Bacchiadae or the Eupatridae, a group of families claiming the right to rule based on their ancestry. Archaeologically, they might be distinguished by being buried in a cemetery separate from the other agathoi and away from the kakoi. (Interestingly, it seems from Morris’s analysis that the agathoi were always buried in an archaeologically visible way, but the kakoi are sometimes absent in certain periods.)
The Roman example shows that the distinction between ‘nobles’ and ‘commoners’ wasn’t always very strict. The same holds true for the Greek world. In the Homeric epics, the men from noble families are referred to as basileis, often translated as ‘princes’ in this context. When meeting a stranger, they will recite their lineage to demonstrate their heritage (and thereby validate their claim to be in a position of power). But the epics make clear, as Hans van Wees has pointed out in his Status Warriors: War Violence and Society in Homer and History (1992), that the princes continuously have to defend their position.
In the Greek Archaic period (ca. 800–500 BC), stasis was a common phenomenon. It is often translated as ‘civil war’ or something similar, but it is best translated as ‘factional strife’, since it tends to focus on struggles among what Morris would refer to as the agathoi, the elite. The poetry of Alcaeus, who was active around 600 BC, contains political fragments focusing on the emergence of tyrannoi (‘tyrants’, essentially dictators). Alcaeus was a member of the ruling elite of Mytilene and anxious about men like Pittacus rising to power, referring to the latter in disparaging terms. Alcaeus did not manage to stop Pittacus and was exiled, but the tyrant nevertheless later allowed him to return. As Pittacus was also listed as one of the Seven Sages of Greece, he cannot have been all that bad.
Situations such as in Mytilene were not unique. They shed an interesting light on power struggles in Archaic Greece among the elite. Poetry of the sixth century BC from Megara – often attributed wholly or partially to Theognis – demonstrate how the elites engaged with each other in a manner recalled Italian mobsters, as Hans van Wees has pointed out in his chapter ‘Megara’s mafiosi: timocracy and violence in Theognis’, published in R. Brook and S. Hodkinson’s (eds) Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization and Community in Ancient Greece (2000). The fragments attributed to Theognis ‘suggest that violent struggles among the élite were common and invariably involved groups of people going into exile or fighting their way back (…) therefore, power and property must have changed hands constantly as it was abandoned, seized, and recovered’ (p. 66).
When we think of aristocracies, in general terms, we might imagine medieval kings and their lords, with the king bestowing honours on his followers and elevating them through knighthoods and so on. Indeed, knighthoods and related honours are still handed out yearly in the United Kingdom and other monarchies throughout the world. But in the Greco-Roman world, at least, aristocracies were more fluid. It was possible to rise to nobility, seize sole rule of a polity, or further your own cause in some other way.