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Constitutional theory defines a timocracy as:
The more extreme forms of timocracy, where power derives entirely from wealth with no regard for social or civic responsibility, may shift in their form and become a plutocracy where the wealthy and powerful use their power to entrench their wealth.
The word derives from the Greek words timē (τιμή), meaning "price" or "worth", and -kratia meaning "rule" (as in government).
Timocracy and property
Solon introduced the ideas of timokratia as a graded oligarchy in his Solonian Constitution for Athens in the early 6th century BCE. His was the first known deliberately implemented form of timocracy, allocating political rights and economic responsibility depending on membership of one of four tiers of the population. Solon defined these tiers by measuring how many bushels of produce each man could produce in a year, namely:
- Pentacosiomedimni - "Men of the 500 bushel", those who produced 500 bushels of produce per year, could serve as generals in the army
- Hippeis - Knights, those who could equip themselves and one cavalry horse for war, valued at 300 bushels per year
- Zeugitae - Tillers, owners of at least one pair of beasts of burden, valued at 200 bushels per year, could serve as Hoplites
- Thetes - Manual laborers
N.G.L. Hammond supposes that Solon instituted a graduated tax upon the upper classes, levied in a ratio of 6:3:1, with the lowest class of thetes paying nothing in taxes but remaining ineligible for elected office.
Aristotle later wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics (Book 8, Chapter 10) about three "true political forms" for a state, each of which could appear in corrupt form, becoming one of three negative forms. Aristotle describes timocracy in the sense of rule by property-owners: it comprised one of his true political forms. Aristotelian timocracy approximated to the constitution of Athens, although Athens exemplified the corrupted version of this form, described as democracy.
Timocracy, comparable values, and Plato's five regimes
In The Republic, Plato describes five regimes of an unjust state, with timocracy as the second listed of the five. Aristocracy degenerates into timocracy when, due to miscalculation on the part of its governed class, the next generation of guardians and auxiliaries includes persons of an inferior nature (the persons with souls made of iron or bronze, as opposed to the ideal guardians and auxiliaries, who have souls made of gold and silver). A timocracy, in choosing its leaders, is "inclining rather to the more high-spirited and simple-minded type, who are better suited for war". The city-state of Sparta provided Plato with a real-world model for this form of government. Modern observers might describe Sparta as a totalitarian or one-party state, although the details we know of its society come almost exclusively from Sparta's enemies. The idea of militarism-stratocracy accurately reflects the fundamental values of Spartan society.