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The aristocracy are people considered to be in the highest social class in society, who traditionally have land, money, and power. They are often members of a hereditary nobility that derives its stature from a lineage traceable to the original inhabitants or rulers of a region. They are usually below only the leader(s) of a country in the social hierarchy.

The term "aristocracy" is derived from the Greek language aristokratia, meaning 'the rule of the best'.

Origins of the notion

The term "aristocracy" (ἀριστοκρατία) was first given in Athensmarker to young citizens (the men of the ruling class) who led armies from the front line. Because military bravery was highly regarded as a virtue in ancient Greece, it was assumed that the armies were being led by "the best". From the ancient Greeks, the term passed on to the European Middle Ages for a similar hereditary class of military leaders often referred to as the "nobility". As in ancient Greece, this was a class of privileged men whose military role allowed them to present themselves as the most "noble", or "best".


The French Revolution attacked aristocrats as people who had achieved their status by birth rather than by merit, and this was considered unjust. The term had become synonymous with people who claim luxuries and privileges as a birthright. In the United Kingdommarker and other European countries, such as Spainmarker and Denmarkmarker, in which hereditary titles are still recognised, "aristocrat" still refers to the descendant of one of approximately 7,000 families with hereditary titles, usually still in possession of considerable wealth, though not necessarily so.


In the United States and other nations without a history of a hereditary military caste, aristocracy has taken on a more stylized meaning. It also can refer to those, like the Roosevelts, Du Pont family, and Vanderbilts, whose families came to the United States early in its history, acquired large holdings and have been able to maintain their wealth through several generations. The term "Southern aristocracy" refers to families who acquired large land holdings in the American South before the American Civil War and remain wealthy landowners to this day, or to families that lost their wealth in the 19th century but continue to insist on deference.


In India the kshatriyas formed the military aristocracy. Even though they are the second highest caste, with Brahmins or priests who are interpretors of religious texts being theoretically the highest, the kshatriyas have sometimes wielded more extensive powers than even the Brahmins.In ancient India, the 3 highest varnas were considered nobles (arya). The ancient title comparable to knight or cabalerro was asvapati, the equivalent of Freiherr was damapati, the equivalent of count was Kshatrapati and the equivalent of duke was senapati. These were all under the rajas and maharajas.

Indian allochtonous titles

Under the Mughal rule the titles for those under a king were borrowed from Persia. Most Indian Princely families and a large part of jagirdars, thikanadars and talukdars of the subcontinent were from the kshatriya caste but often there were not as was the case for the rulers of the Deccan. (Some call these the Nobility of the Sword).Many landholding families either held legal or administrative offices, were sometimes considered to be the Indian version of the Nobility of the Robe. The princes appointed officers, such as dewan and other state level ministers, to run their administrations, who were considered to be members of the regional nobility. Most of these officers were either relatives of the Princes who appointed them, or were themselves substantial landlords under the sovereignty of the Princely States, and mostly held hereditary offices. Sometimes educated men belonging to the British Imperial Services were also appointed to the high offices of the Princely States, but their positions were not hereditary and they were seen as career bureaucrats rather than noblemen by their employers.


  1. The Oxford Companion to British History, John Cannon (Editor), Oxford University Press, 1997, ISBN 9780198661764

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