An aristocracy is a form of government. The term has origins in the Ancient Greek language. “Aristos” means best, and Kratos means “rule.” “Aristokratia” is the rule of the best.
In his Politics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle describes aristocracy as “the rule of few for the common good. That description is significant to draw lines between it and a monarchy. In a monarchy, all power (unless a constitution regulates it) is in the hands of a single person. In an aristocracy, the power is in the hands of a group.
The idea that qualified citizens would rule was the concept of this system in Ancient Greece. The hereditary habit was not a part of the theory. That is what made it different from a monarchy.
However, over the Middle Ages, the system changed. Since then, the aristocracy was the rule of a privileged group of people. It is also hereditary. Today, it is a contrast to democracy.
Who are aristocrats? They are a group of higher-class citizens. Hence, they are wealthy, powerful, and high on the hierarchy of society. For example, the nobility is aristocracy. Nobility is the second highest social class after the royal family. But, aristocracy as a class is broader. Particularly wealthy families also belong here.
Aristocracy in practice
The system was typical in Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe. In Medieval Europe, there were examples of those led by nobility and by wealthy families. The so-called Merchant republics in Italy are an example of the latter form. It is not very usual today.
It tends to be more stable and firm. While it highlights the quality of the small group, it also has many faults. The fact that only a small group has the power to rule can also be a significant disadvantage. Limited flexibility is another weakness.