Non-democratic Political Institutions in Ancient Greece: the World of Oligarchies

Matthew Simonton (Stanford University)

Abstract: I present some key results of my research, which seeks to understand ancient Greek oligarchy from a new-institutional perspective. An understandable interest in the emergence of democracy has discouraged work on Greek oligarchy, which is considered “natural” and thus uninteresting (the Iron Law of Oligarchy). However, when we consider the democracy-fostering nature of many of the structural conditions of the ancient Greek world – relatively low inequality, weak central coercive capacities, small territories conducive to high levels of joint action – we should wonder how oligarchy managed to survive in the face of democracy. Previous accounts of oligarchic persistence have stressed the traditionalist character of the majority population or the ability of the elite to exact compliance through ideological manipulation. I propose instead that oligarchs designed institutions to repress and co-opt the majority through such common authoritarian techniques as perverse incentives, clientelism, and preference falsification. After summarizing the nature of intra-elite politics in oligarchic regimes, I focus on two areas where NIE-based approaches have proved particularly fruitful: the use (and abuse) of popular assemblies in oligarchies, and the dynamics of oligarchic breakdown. Based on the results of these analyses I suggest that an institutionalist framework makes better sense of the punctuated equilibria found in the historical evidence, wherein seemingly stable oligarchies suddenly and often violently transition into democracies.