In both of these arrangements power is shared through hereditary or other 'biased influences', so what is the fundamental difference between these two?

  • 3
    Have you consulted a dictionary? "a form of government with an hereditary head of state." vs. "a small group of people having control of a country". Perhaps you could explain what is unclear about this?
    – James K
    Dec 13, 2021 at 21:27
  • @JamesK For a start, how exactly are decisions made in the oligarchical power arrangement. In monarchy, monarchs have their cabinet of ministers and in oligarchy there must be someone who is the head, so where is that thin line of difference is drawn. so i found it confusing, maybe you could elaborate more on the following
    – Sam.565
    Dec 14, 2021 at 3:35
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    @Sam.565 "Oligarchy" and "monarchy" (or even "absolute monarchy") are fairly broad categories of how a state works, not specific systems. It doesn't really make sense to ask for details of exactly how decisions are made in either; the terms are intended to encompass many different systems that vary in detail but have broad characteristics in common. For example "monarchs have their cabinet of ministers" is true of some but by no means all monarchies (particularly if you consider historical rather than current), and a state need not have a single person who is the head.
    – Ben
    Dec 14, 2021 at 9:56
  • You can have oligarchic democracies like medieval/renaissance Venice or ancient Athens (small number of eligible voters); oligarchic communist systems (where power is shared among a few leaders or organisations); oligarchic fascist dictatorships (military juntas); oligarchic technocracies...
    – Stuart F
    Dec 14, 2021 at 10:34

5 Answers 5


Absolute monarchy is a sub-category of autocracy - the rulership by a single person.

An oligarchy, on the other hand, is a rulership by a small minority of society but still more than one person. So by definition, a central feature of oligarchy is that there is more than one oligarch. If there is just one oligarch, you have an autocracy.

Whether or not rulership is hereditary is irrelevant for either definition. A monarchy can be hereditary or non-hereditary (like an elective monarchy). And an oligarchy can also be hereditary, quasi-hereditary (like a plutocracy in a society with low social mobility) or non-hereditary (like a meritocracy where the oligarchs are chosen based on their personal abilities).

But as usual with political definitions, lines can get blurry. Is a country ruled by a monarch who is dependent on a powerful nobility technically an oligarchy? Is an oligarchy where one oligarch is much more powerful than the others technically an autocracy? It depends on your point of view.


Traditional monarchies are based in military power. A monarchical line establishes its right to rule through some original acts of combat and conquest, and that puissance — that original virility or power — is theoretically passed down through male heirs, ostensibly making the male children of the original monarch the best leaders down the road. Whether or not that's true, the idea of it generates transfer of loyalty from king to heir, so that the inner circle of the military gives fealty to the hereditary line, not just to the original monarch.

Traditional oligarchies are based in economic power, composed of real property, valuables, trade items, and/or currency. While oligarchies usually raise armies, such armies are paid soldiers, not loyalists, and are usually tasked with the defense and preservation of the realm, not conquest. Oligarchies are wheelers and dealers, more prone to poisoning enemies than waging war. Transfer of power to heirs is accomplished merely through normal economic inheritance; when a wealthy oligarch dies, his son inherits everything and assumes the place of a wealthy oligarch in his own right.

Of course there are many mixed forms of these governments, and in the modern world one rarely finds a pure example of either. In fact, most modern governments are infused with Liberal ideals that ostensibly give power to citizens at large. In other words, a dictator is a monarch who claims to be a man of the people, and a plutocrat is an oligarch who hides his power from public criticisms that his more ancient brethren never had to face.


Monarchy: a state with a monarch. That is a Head of State (who may have little or no power) that is hereditary. Most modern monarchies have a constitutional framework that divests the monarch of actual power and hands it to a Parliament. Monarchies generally are proud of their status as monarchies and have names like "United Kingdom" and the monarch celebrates in a title like "King" or "Emperor"

Oligarchy. Properly, a system of government in Ancient Greece in which a small clique or council is the government. Nowadays normally used pejoratively to describe states that claim to democracy, but are alleged to have a small group of political leaders that share power between them. It's not a system, rather it is an insult. I'm not aware of any country that self-identifies as an oligarchy. I can think of several that have been accused of being oligarchies (USA, China, Russia, ...)

So in a typical Monarchy, power is passed to a parliament, perhaps with the king holding some "reserve powers". And actual planned oligarchies don't exist. So it is moot to discuss how power is shared.

In the Ancient Greek model, a monarchy consisted of a single hereditary ruler, an oligarchy consisted of an (unelected) council of rulers. But Ancient Greek city-states don't exist anymore

  • An absolute monarchy, or absolutism for short, gives unlimited centralized power to a monarch with all that power going to one person. An oligarchy is when power rest in a small group of people, so that power is not held by a single person. That power is also not guaranteed to be absolute. For example, a civil oligarchy gives a small group of people, usually a wealthy elite, a lot of power enforced by the state, but that power is not absolute and oligarchs can still be punished for breaking certain laws (where absolutism makes a monarch the ultimate legal authority who practically has no one to stop them from changing rules to fit their own needs).

Functionally speaking, life is a lot easier for a Monarch than it is an Oligarch.

A monarch has complete control of the government, existing above and outside the law. Their word is, in fact, law. They say "dance for me" it is actually a crime to not dance.

Oligarchies, meanwhile, introduce co-equal (to some degree) sources of authority. An oligarch might be able to command you to dance, but their peer can then command you stay still - and in the absence of clarity, no meaningful law exists.

Oligarchs have to work together (if they want to be successful), and share power... something that - historically speaking - humans haven't been so great at, once given over to large swaths of power in the first place. All sorts of maneuvering and shenanigans are possible, depending on the specific formulation of the oligarchy in question, that are simply impossible in a monarchy. At worst, the monarch has to worry about someone trying to hasten the succession process. Oligarchs worry about that, and also their peers vetoing them/interfering with their agendas/trying to oust them from the inner circle in order to transition towards a monarchy.

  • 2
    In the majority of monarchies around the world, the word of the monarch isn't law. Most exist in a constitutional framework that divests them of power and hands it to to a Parliament in which they have at most a ceremonial role.
    – James K
    Dec 13, 2021 at 22:49
  • 1
    @JamesK Actually i was asking in the terms of Absolute monarchy vs oligarchy. thanks for the info btw.
    – Sam.565
    Dec 14, 2021 at 3:32
  • @WilliamWalkerIII so in simple terms, can we say that oligarchy is just an pretentious autocracy trying to be more democratic but failing spectacularly at it?
    – Sam.565
    Dec 14, 2021 at 3:45
  • 1
    @Sam.565 well no, An autocracy is absolute rule by one, and an oligarchy is >1 people sharing power. Of course, things are fuzzy in practice because absolute monarchs and autocrats are rare, at least in the most pure sense. Typically even very powerful monarchs and autocrats couldn't say "dance for me" to whoever they chose and not worry about getting a knife in the back. China post Mao and USSR post Stalin (arguably being autocrats) would probably be considered an oligarchy, but China today is much closer to an autocracy. China during both periods would argue they were better than democracy
    – eps
    Dec 14, 2021 at 15:22

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