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The History of Oligarchs, from Ancient Greece to Modern Russia

oligarch ancient greece oligarchy
The term Oligarchy comes from the Ancient Greek for “rule by few.” Credit: Gary Bembridge/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-2.0

The term “oligarch” has become commonplace in the wake of the war in Ukraine, but its roots date all the way back to ancient Greece.

Oligarchs are extremely wealthy people who hold a large amount of power in their countries. Currently, the term is most often used to describe a number of Russian businessmen who exercise considerable political influence in the country.

The word oligarch comes from the word oligarchy, which simply refers to a power structure that is headed by a small group of people.

Oligarchy means “rule by few” in Ancient Greek, as “ὀλίγος (olígos)” means “few,” and “ἄρχω” (arkho) means “to rule” in the ancient tongue.

While an oligarchy is not always composed of wealthy people, as oligarchs can hold nearly any type of power or influence in an oligarchy, most modern descriptions of oligarchs and oligarchies refer to wealth.

Oligarchs first linked to wealth by ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle

This connection between riches and oligarchies comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle himself, who wrote in his work Politics that “oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands; democracy, the opposite, when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”

Although ancient Greece is most closely linked to the concept of democracy, many forms of political rule were tried and tested across Greece during antiquity, including oligarchy.

For the most part, Athenians, who were dedicated to democracy since the concept was first put in place in the sixth century BC, nearly all forms of rule that did not include input from the citizenry were described as oligarchies.

Many references to oligarchies across ancient Greek city-states indicate that the form of power came to be after the collapse or take over of some other governmental system, such as democracy.

The most well-known example of an ancient Greek oligarchy, “The oligarchy of the 400,” is an example of this phenomenon.

In Athens in 411 BC, an oligarchy consisting of 400 men took control of the state from the people only for power to be taken from them by a larger group of 5,000 oligarchs only shortly thereafter.

Another notable example are the Thirty Tyrants, who were pro-Spartan soldiers, lead by Critias, who took control of Athens after the city-state lost the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC. The oligarchy was noted for its extreme cruelty, which included the execution of an estimated 1,500 people.

Many Athenians fled the city during the regime and formed a group of troops that later went on to topple the oligarchy only a year after it was formed.

Sparta itself was ruled by a powerful oligarchy consisting of a number of elders, government officials, and kings.

The ancient Phoenician city-state of Carthage, which is located in modern-day Tunisia, was governed by an oligarchy in the fifth-century BC, when a small group of aristocrats and nobles took power of the city-state.

Oligarchies across the world

Nowadays, the word “oligarch” is most often used to describe immensely wealthy Russian businessmen who exercise a large amount of power in the politics of the country.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and privatization of the Russian economy in 1991, a large number of businessmen in the metal, petroleum, and natural gas industries made a fortune.

These businessmen have links to many significant figures in the Russian government, and many of them have close relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Many of these oligarchs have been sanctioned by various governmental bodies after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine due to their connections to the ruling class.

A notable Russian oligarch is Alisher Usmanov, 68, who owns a major stake in USM, a Russian investment group with holdings in Metalloinvest, one of the world’s largest iron ore producers, and the telecommunications company MegaFon.

He’s the sixth-richest Russian with a fortune of $19.5 billion, according to Bloomberg’s wealth index, although that figure includes the Dilbar.

In early March, Usmanov’s massive superyacht was seized by German authorities after a round of sanctions aimed at Russian oligarchs in the wake of the war in Ukraine.

Oligarchs are not found only in Russia, however, and are common in many countries across Africa, Asia, and the Americas. A number of rich and powerful businessmen had considerable political influence in the Philippines during the rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos during the 1970s.

Many of these oligarchs and their descendants have maintained power in the country, and limiting their influence was one of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s rallying cries during his campaign.

Although scholars disagree, there have been a number of prominent figures in the world of banking and finance in the US that some believe to be oligarchs, such as J.P. Morgan and the Rockefeller family.

While these figures are typically not labeled as oligarchs explicitly, it’s clear that they held a great deal of power and influence during their days. J.P. Morgan, for example, was a financier and investment banker.

Morgan came to dominate the US financial system, including Wall Street during the 19th century.

Throughout his career, he started countless extremely successful multinational corporations, such as General Electric and U.S. Steel. Morgan also exerted some control over numerous railroads, Aetna, and even Western Union.

His significant wealth and influence on the country’s market gave Morgan a substantial amount of control over the US economy. When it was on the brink of collapse in 1907, he, along with a number of other financiers, save the economy from destruction.

John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the Standard Oil Company and of the Rockefeller family, is considered to be the most wealthy American of all time and the richest person in modern history.

As the founder and largest shareholder of the Standard Oil Company, Rockefeller made a fortune when the automobile industry began to expand and grow in the US, as he owned around 90% of all oil in the country during the peak of his business.

He was also incredibly influential in the railroad industry, which meant that he was influential in nearly every industry in the country, as they all depended on the railways for transit and movement of goods and people.

Rockefeller’s political power and influence was very strong, but it seemed that it would be weakened when the Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that his company, Standard Oil, broke antitrust laws and must be split into different entities.

This resulted in more wealth for Rockefeller, however, as it turned out that the individual  companies were worth more than the singular corporation they were originally included in.

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