The rule of government by mob or a mass of people, or, the intimidation of legitimate authorities.

First Known (English) Use: 1584

— Middle French ochlocratie (1568), from Greek ochlokratia, from ochlos (mob) + kratia (form of government, rule, or influence).


Kratos (Cratus) was son of Pallas and Styx and personification of authority, one of Zeus’ winged enforcers—along with siblings Nike (victory), Bia (force/violence), and Zelus (zeal).

In Ancient Greek political discourse, three forms of government where considered unrepresentative:

  • Tyranny — sole-ruler (not strictly evil, but by no means good) who had forced their way into power and governed by self-interest
  • Oligarchy — political power controlled by a select group of individuals
  • Ochlocracy — government by the mob

These were in distinct contrast to three forms of representative government:

  • Monarchy — hereditary rule generally with the genuine interests of the people in mind
  • Aristocracy —  power in the hands of a small, privileged few
  • Democracy (the Aristotelian polity) — rule of the commoners through government representation of an entire citizen body

Polybius described a cycle of political organisation, that he called anacyclosis: monarchy degenerates into tyranny before the aristocrats depose the tyrant and before it degenerates further into an oligarchy, which is replaced by the rule of the people (democracy), which is then overrun by mob rule, which may or may not progress to anarchy before power is seized by a new monarch.


Ochlocracy is a pejorative majoritarianism — the fickle crowd (mobile vilgus) from which the word “mob” derives (1680s). Polybius, in the 2nd century BCE, coined the term in his Histories, referring to a pathological form of popular rule (cf. democracy). Both the Talmud and Rashi, a Jewish biblical commentary, make reference to ochlos as anything from “mob”, to “populace”, to “armed guard”.


The threat of “mob rule” to a democracy is restrained by ensuring that the rule of law protects minorities or individuals against short-term demagoguery or moral panic —

such as President Eisenhower assured in September of 1957.

Arkansas National Guard troops and large crowd outside of Little Rock’s Central High School, September 5, 1957. [America’s Library]
Examples of mob-rule through history include Ancient Rome, the Salem Witch Trials, political lynching, and the Kiev Pogroms. Contemporary ochlocracies would be the 1986 revolution in Philippines and the recent revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.

This weekend you could do worse than visit Ochlocracy in Action. Or you could be the Grecian philosopher to lead a revolt against the Olympian Gods for allowing the Athenian School of Philosophy to be destroyed by the foot of a clumsy immortal, killing everyone inside. Rally the Athenians to your cause, tearing down buildings, recruiting fellow rioters, and taking it to their gods to establish an Okhlos over ancient Athens. Or you could play Mob Rule, with its more contemporary feel.

Or, finally, you could just watch the Olympic Games Closing Ceremony.


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“Government by the rabble”, 1580s, from [Middle] French ochlocratie (1568), from Greek okhlokratia (Polybius) “mob rule”, the lowest grade of democracy, from kratos “rule, power, strength” (-cracy) + okhlos “mob, populace”, perhaps literally “moving mass,” from proto-Indo-European *wogh-lo-, from root *wegh- “to go, transport” in a vehicle (see weigh). Related: Ochlocratic; ochlocratical. Greek also had okhlagogos “mob-leader”, ochlagogue.

Online Etymology Dictionary




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