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Focus question 2: What are the main types of government?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: Ancient Greece: time and place ESL Activity 1
Assessment task 1: Poster ESL Assessment task 1
Assessment criteria  
Assessment task 2: Talk ESL Assessment task 2
Assessment criteria  
Assessment task 3: Notes  
Assessment criteria  


In this unit we look at systems of government, in particular democracy. A study of ancient Greece provides examples of six main types of government.

Activity 1: Ancient Greece: time and place

1a Trace or put a copy of the map of the world into your workbook. Using an atlas as a guide, shade in the area of modern Greece.

Figure 1

Figure 1

1b Copy this timeline into your workbook.


1c Put a copy of the map of the city-states of ancient Greece into your workbook.

Figure 2 Map of ancient Greek city-states

Map of ancient Greek city-states

1d Because each city-state of ancient Greece developed separately, each had different laws and different types of government. Using the map, see if you can explain why the cities of ancient Greece grew up separately.

The polis (city-state)

Ancient Greece was not a single country or nation. It was made up of many small ‘countries’, each based on one city. The Greek word for these states was polis (from which we get the words ‘politics’ and ‘police’). Many such city-states grew up in Greece between 1100 BC and 800 BC. Some of the most famous were Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Olympia and Delphi.

The city-states were separated by mountains and valleys. The smallest were only a few square kilometres in size. Although most of the city-states had populations of less than 10,000 people, more than a dozen had larger populations. Athens probably had a population of around 35,000 in 600 BC, and over 250,000 two hundred years later in 400 BC. Mark these points on your timeline.

Because each city-state developed on its own, they were not all ruled in the same way. Some of them changed and developed new styles of government while others hardly changed at all. Some city-states were ruled by kings, some by the rich, some by a person who had seized power by force, some by ‘the people’ (in ancient Greece that always meant the men), some by the elders and some by a combination of methods.

Types of government

Three of the most important types of government in ancient Greece were monarchy, tyranny and democracy.


At first, most city-states were ruled by kings. This type of government is called a monarchy from the Greek words mono meaning ‘one’ and arkho meaning ‘rule’. The king often ruled with the help of a council of nobles or rich landowners called the aristocracy. On the death of a king, his eldest son took his place. This is called ‘hereditary rule’, which means that power is passed on through the one family.



By 800 BC many city-states were ruled by rich landowners. This type of government is called an aristocracy, from the Greek words aristos, meaning ‘the best people’ and kratos meaning ‘power’. In an aristocracy, power is inherited or passed down from parents to their children.



Where a small group ruled, government was called an oligarchy, from the word oligos, meaning ‘the few’. Such a powerful small group might arise from the aristocracy, the wealthy, the military, strong individuals or those experienced in government.

Tyranny (dictatorship)

Sometimes a strong individual seized power and ruled alone. This was called a tyranny, from the Greek word turannos, meaning ‘cruel ruler’. This is a word still used today, but the more common word now for a ruler who seizes power and rules alone is a dictator, and the form of government is called a dictatorship.



The biggest city-state, Athens, experienced all these types of government at different times, but the ordinary citizens of Athens gradually got more and more say in how they were governed until, by around 500 BC, it became a democracy, from the Greek words demos, meaning ‘the people’ and kratos meaning ‘power’.



Sometimes, after one ruler or group had been overthrown, no-one at all ruled for a while. This was called anarchy, from the Greek word anarkhos, meaning ‘without a ruler’.


Views of democracy in ancient Greece

Not all ancient Greeks thought that democracy was a good idea. Its value was regularly debated. Here are three different views:

Plato: ‘Democracy starts when the poor win, kill or exile their opponents.’ Plato maintained that democracy generally turns into a tyranny because the people turn into a bloodthirsty mob.

Republic, 557A, 565E-566A.

Pericles: ‘Our city is called a democracy because it is governed by the many, not the few’.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2037.2.

Lysias: ‘The liberty of all [is] the strongest source of harmony ... [It is] the way of wild beasts to be ruled by force ... Men should decide justice by law ... [and] convince by reason.’

Lysias, Funeral Oration, 17-19.

Views against democracy

Socrates, his pupil Plato and Plato’s pupil Aristotle, among the most famous philosophers of all time, all lived in ancient Athens. Philosophy is just a name for thinking carefully, in an organised way, to help us get a better understanding of what is true and what is not. All three philosophers had views about democracy. Books containing the ideas of all three philosophers are still available today.

Socrates always said that he didn’t know anything; that all he did know was how to ask questions. By asking questions he would often lead other people to better understandings.

He made many enemies, probably because he led many people, particularly the young, to question important beliefs. He probably questioned religious beliefs of the day, and he opposed democracy. One of his students, Alcibiades, became a famous traitor by going over to the side of Sparta when the two cities were at war. Another of his students, Critias, became one of the ‘thirty tyrants’ who ruled Athens for Sparta when Athens lost that war. Critias had many Athenians brutally put to death.

SocratesA jury of 1,200 Athenians sentenced Socrates to exile or death for the crime of ‘corrupting the young’, perhaps because he had turned his followers against democracy or because the citizens thought of him as a traitor after their defeat by Sparta. There are many other possible explanations of what the charges against him meant and it will probably remain a mystery. Socrates chose to die by drinking hemlock, a poison.

The fate of Socrates may explain why Plato, one of his students, hated democracy so much. He said about democracy:

‘[It] treats all men as equal, whether they are equal or not.’

Republic, 558C.

Plato believed that power should be in the hands of a special class of people trained for the purpose. Although he lived all his life in Athens, he didn’t like the way it was governed or how people lived. He admired Sparta instead. Plato wrote a number of books which have had a big influence on many thinkers throughout history.

Aristotle, a student of Plato, became the personal tutor of Alexander the Great. Aristotle had so much influence that for over 1,500 years people thought that just about everything he said was right and couldn’t be questioned.

As he believed that democracy, monarchy and aristocracy all had their good and bad points, he argued for a mixture of the good points from all three. This is one of the things he said about democracy:

‘In ... democracies each person lives as he likes ... This is a bad thing.’

Assessment task 1: Poster

Stories of Democracy

Using one of the three guides below, and your own research in the school library, local library, Internet, Stories of Democracy CD ROM, newspapers and magazines, make a poster to illustrate one of the following forms of government:

    • monarchy
    • tyranny (dictatorship)
    • democracy.

  • Include on your poster a slogan for or against the system of government. For example, for monarchy, ‘We’re born to lead whether you like it or not!’; for aristocracy, ‘Follow the natural born leaders!’; for democracy, ‘Together we can make a difference!’.
  • You may work in pairs to complete this task. Your teacher might divide the class effort so that there are roughly an equal number of posters on each type of government. (Discuss with your teacher where these posters should be displayed.)
  • Plan the layout of your poster in your workbook carefully before you begin on poster paper.
  • Collect and select all the information you intend to use before you begin your poster.
Assessment criteria

Your poster will be assessed on:

  • the quality of your research - particularly your selection of clear examples of the type of government being displayed, including illustrations
  • understanding - demonstrated through text written in your own words, including headings, captions and choice of examples.

Monarchy: poster guide

Monarchs are not elected. They have their power by right of birth.


  • Make a diagram, perhaps like this one, and label it appropriately.
  • Show some examples of monarchs from different times and places, with accompanying pictures and captions. Some famous examples to help you are: Henry VIII of England, Louis XIV of France, Catherine the Great of Russia, Ashoka of India, Phillip IV of Spain, and Elizabeth I of England. (Because we live in a mainly English-speaking country, it is pretty easy to find examples of English monarchs, but try to look wider than England and over a range of different time periods.)
  • Your poster will be more interesting if you can include facts and brief stories about each monarch, such as Henry VIII having six wives and why he had two of these wives beheaded; or how Ashoka disbanded his army because it was against his Buddhist beliefs to go to war.

Today, some countries are democracies but still have a king or queen as a figurehead with little or no real power. This form of government is known as a constitutional monarchy. This has happened because in the past these countries were just monarchies but gradually the power of the king or queen has been transferred to ordinary people.

Tyranny (dictatorship): poster guide
  • Make a diagram, perhaps like the one here, and label it appropriately.
  • Show some examples of tyrants or dictators from different times and places, including pictures and captions. Some tyrants are elected to power and some have the support of the people, but what sets them apart from other rulers is that they are in total control of the state. Some famous examples are: Stalin in the Soviet Union (1927-54), Hitler in Germany (1933-45), Idi Amin in Uganda (1970s-80s) and Mussolini in Italy (1922-43) (Provide some facts and brief stories about the tyrants you select, such as Hitler’s regarding other races as inferior to Germans and his attempt to exterminate some of these races, such as Jews and Gypsies; or Stalin ordering his secret police to steal crops from the farmers of Ukraine, deliberately causing many millions of people to starve to death.)

Democracy: poster guide
  • Illustrate some examples of the establishment of democracy in different times and places, with pictures and captions. Some famous examples are: ancient Athens (5th century BC), France (1792), India (1948), Australia (1901), and Russia (1990). Include brief information about how democracy came about in these cases and the names of any people strongly associated with its achievement.

Assessment task 2: Talk

Prepare a short talk to the class on the form of government shown on your poster. Use your poster or overheads of sections of your poster during your presentation. Try to cover the following:

  • Who rules in this type of government? How is it decided who should rule? Who has the real power?
  • Who has no power or say in this type of government? How are they excluded?
  • Give one famous example of this type of government and tell a story about it.
  • Say what, in your opinion, are the good things about this form of government, and why you think they are good.
  • Say what, in your opinion, are the bad things about this form of government, and why you think they are bad.

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

  • preparation - how well you have covered each of the above points
  • presentation - speaking clearly, audibly and with expression.

Assessment task 3: Notes

You are required to take notes during other people’s talks. The notes should be set out in the following way and include answers to the following questions:

  • Heading (for example, Monarchy)
  • Who rules in this type of government?
  • How is it decided who will rule?
  • Who has real power?
  • Who has no power or say in this type of government?
  • What are famous examples of this type of government?
  • What, in the opinion of the speakers, are the good things about this form of government?
  • What, in the opinion of the speakers, are the bad things about this form of government?

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

  • demonstrating an understanding of each of the above points through the taking of accurate notes.

ESL activities

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