Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Oligarchy Definition:

A form of government in which a few persons rule and govern by assuming all legislative and administrative authority.

Related Terms: Monarchy, Democracy

John Bouvier's description of an oligarchy is of power usurped by a few citizens alone which ought to otherwise belong to the people.

James Ballentine's offering is shorter but fails to mention any characteristic of lawfullness or constitutionality of the oligarchy:

"Oligarchy: a government which is administered by a few persons."

McLean and McMillan wrote:

"Aristotle distinguished between rulers who govern in the general interest ... and those who govern in their own interest (oligarchy)."

On several occasions in the history of Rome, law-making and administrative powers was taken over by force by a few people, (e.g. a triumvirate) who then proceeded to govern as a multi-headed monarchy.

In an article he wrote in the Columbia Law Review in 1960, Michigan State University history professor Robert Brown used these words:

"If oligarchy means simply government by a few men, then any elective government becomes an oligarchy. If oligarchy implies rule by men who were not subject to popular approval, a connotation that the word seems to carry in popular thinking...."


  • •Ballentine, James, Ballentine's Law Dictionary (Rochester: Lawyers Co-op. Publishing Co., 1969), page 884.
  • Brown, Robert, 60 Colum. L. Rev. 1203 (1960)
  • McLean, I., and McMillan, A., Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

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