Aristocracy (Greek ???????????? aristokratía, from ??????? aristos "excellent", and ?????? kratos "power") is a form of government that places power in the hands of a small, privileged ruling class. The term derives from the Greek aristokratia, meaning "rule of the best".
At the time of the word's origins in ancient Greece, the Greeks conceived it as rule by the best qualified citizens--and often contrasted it favourably with monarchy, rule by an individual. In later times, aristocracy was usually seen as rule by a privileged group, the aristocratic class, and was contrasted with democracy.
The concept evolved in Ancient Greece, whereby a council of leading citizens was commonly empowered and contrasted with representative democracy, in which a council of citizens was appointed as the "senate" of a city state or other political unit. The Greeks did not like the concept of monarchy, and as their democratic system fell, aristocracy was upheld.
In Ancient Rome, the Republic consisted of an aristocracy--as well as consuls, a senate, and a tribal assembly. In the Middle Ages and early modern era, aristocracies primarily consisted of an influential aristocratic class, privileged by birth, and often by wealth, land and property. Since the French Revolution, aristocracy has generally been contrasted with democracy, in which all citizens should hold some form of political power. However, this distinction is often oversimplified.
The aristocracy frequently were warriors who gained land by conquest and the rights of land or real property could not be repossessed, foreclosed or sold as a result of defaulting on debt or place monetary value on them because they were tied up with various ancient traditions. This system was called feudalism, a formal set of obligations to lords, dukes, kings and other warrior caste nobles which may include patronage to traditionally valued guilds or professions, bestowing rights, protection or heritable property under fiefdoms. In exchange feudal aid is received from tenants or vassals, oaths of military allegiance and administration services. However an oligarchy, nobility or royalty had the right to set taxes, assemble or raise armies and command loyalty (fealty) by virtue of traditional authority.
Aristocrats as a hereditary or self-made noble social class represented ideals such as Roman virtues e.g., Auctoritas (spiritual authority); Pietas or duty/dutifulness, loyalty, piousness and honor; Virtus or courage, valor and character; and Iustitia (justice).
In the 1651 book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes an aristocracy as a commonwealth in which the representative of the citizens is an assembly by part. It is a system in which only a small part of the population represents the government. Modern depictions of aristocracy tend to regard it not as the ancient Greek concept of rule by the best, but more as a plutocracy--rule by the rich.