All societies have government in one form or another. A brief tour of the fantasy genre would suggest that the only option available to a premodern society is monarchy, but in fact Almea includes examples of almost every form of government known to us, and a few never tried on Earth.
Types of government
As a way of carving a path through this morass, I've classified governments by whether authority ultimately rests with an individual, a small group, or a wide base of society. The key word here is “ultimately”: obviously power can be shared, and monarchies can be weakened or watered down to share aspects of the other systems.
These are realms principally ruled by one person, though they vary in how absolute the ruler’s power is, and in how the ruler is chosen.
- The ruler may be selected by the leading clans, or barons, or even a wider collection of stakeholders. In theory the best man is chosen, but contention is widespread. Examples: Naviu tribes' Skourene ‘strong governor’ states.
- Rule may be hereditary, which avoid the contention at the cost of having a fair number of incompetents in charge. The particular hereditary rule varies:
- The ruler may be the top priest, as in early Uytai or Ȟamsan. In the former, however, the rulership was hereditary, while the Ȟamsanese selected their rulers by what was essentially a random process.
- The ruler may take power by coup d’état in an emergency, as an exception to ordinary government. Examples: Skourene despots; the wizard Utu; the Verdurian parliamentarian Onvaďra 2ë.
These are ruled by a group— wider than an individual, pointedly much smaller than the general population. The group may be defined in various ways:
- the leaders of clans (extended families): pre-Tej Tžuro
- land-based nobles: Cuzei, Sarnáe, K'aitan, medieval Eretald, modern Hroth.
- urban merchants: Gurdago and other Skourene states, Jansɛ̀, Nyandai
- regional governments of various types: Belšai
- a military class: the Men’s Empire
- a bandit gang: Peleu, the Mauraŋ pirates
- a separate species: the ktuvok empires
The ruling group may be defined as a formal legislature or not. In some of the above cases there may be a monarch, but one with severely limited power.
Here I mean states that are ruled by a relatively large subpopulation— thousands or even millions rather than dozens or hundreds. (No state, even on Earth, is run by “the people” as a whole— children, at least, are always excluded, and often other large groups.) The political class may be composed of:
- all citizens above a particular property requirement: Verduria, Šura
- nearly the entire adult citizenry: Flora, Elkarinor
- the intellectual (artist) class: modern Xurno
Hunter-gatherers require little government, often resisting anyone who tries to set themselves up as an autarch; they may thus be classified here.
Ȟamsan, though it had a religious head of state, was notable for having an elective military. All officers were elected by their subordinates, their votes being weighted by the number of men they commanded.
What they do
What do governments do? Answers can vary by culture, and by degree of centralization. Some of the state powers described here may be administered by provincial or city governments.
In some case the answer is “Whatever the sovereign wants”. Such would include classical Uytai and Krwŋ, the ktuvok empires, Caďinas, Axunai, and Mútkün. They key feature of these realms is that there is no such thing as malfeasance by the ruler: what the ruler does is legal and moral by definition.
As society becomes more complex, and as rulers show their fallibility, such systems become hard to sustain. Out-of-control emperors may destroy their own state by overreach; weak ones may tempt local leaders to take power; bureaucracies almost inevitably become an obstacle. The idea of law (perhaps in the form of precedent) comes to be seen as applying to the ruler. Or it’s simply realized that things run more smoothly when the stakeholder class is increased. Even the ktuvoks have found it expedient to share power with their top human subjects.
It takes a fair amount of organization to maintain a large standing army, especially for a sedentary state. This is one reason nomads can often dominate agricultural areas with small numbers: the skills of nomadic life, especially if horses are available, are directly transferable to military success. In regions such as Eretald, the development of a landed aristocracy can be seen as a way for an agricultural state to maintain its own dedicated cavalry. But not all states have aristocracies; many are alive to the danger that nobles will become too independent.
Policing a large bureaucracy may become an end in itself, and a difficult task given premodern communications as well as the eternal tendency of bureaucrats to act not in the ruler’s interest but their own (or for that matter, according to their perception of the needs of the state or the people). Many a ruler has created special offices to control the bureaucracy, and not a few have come to regret it as these roam out of control or even seize power.
The other universal power of government is to maintain the elite. We’re so used to a modern point of view that it’s hard to see this as anything but taking resources from the producers; but most Almean peasants wouldn’t see it that way. They might not like taxation any more than we do, especially as it often left them balanced on the edge of starvation, but it was considered the obvious prerogative of those who owned the land, or rightful thanksgiving to the gods, or (as in Cuzei) a communal sharing for everyone’s benefit.
The government often takes the lead in stockpiling food to guard against famine.
To regulate taxation, the state may undertake censuses, draw maps, and maintain archives of land ownership and boundaries.
Often only the state had the resources for large-scale works: irrigation or transport canals, aqueducts, paved roads, sewers, forts, city walls, mines. Some governments provided temples, arenas, theaters, schools, libraries and scriptoria, observatories, public baths, fountains and parks, mills, shipyards. Of course, they also constructed palaces for the comfort of the rulers and for official business.
What a society considers important and worth communal effort may be quite different from our norms.
- The Wede:i of Jennine invested their effort in creating an immense model of the cosmos.
- In Xurno, artistic instruction and performance are state functions.
- In imperial Uytai, one of the functions of government was to institutionalize magic.
- Exploration of the world is considered a fit subject for government in Verduria and Kebri.
In many early empires, notably Axunai and Uytai, any economic activity above the level of a single farm or workshop was organized by the state— everything from mining to metallurgy to issuing money to lumber extraction to armaments to shipbuilding to salt panning. In market economies some or all of these were taken over by private parties. The state might regulate the private sector, or it could regulate itself.
Diplomacy may start as an extension of trade and as an alternative to war.
States organize internal communication networks, which may be extended to the private sector.
The idea of law has many sources: monarchical decrees; morals preached by the priests; custom; bureaucratic precedent; rights granted to favored nobles or demanded by obstreperous ones; rules proclaimed by the founder of a dynasty. Law need not be universal— often it applies very differently to different classes, and it may never be fully applied to the king. States also differ greatly in how new laws are promulgated.
There isn’t always a court system— laws may be enforced directly by the monarch or by the bureaucracy.
The idea of laws regulating private contracts is generally a late development and seems to accompany market economies. It’s not always the state which regulates contracts: guilds, clans, and even bandit gangs may take this role.
The sovereign generally enforces a level— perhaps a low one— of public order. This is easiest to do in the cities, which are the safest regions in premodern societies: rural areas are easily terrorized by gangs, and only a strong state can prevent this. However, the state (or the city) may only care about suppressing violence; it may or may not be concerned with investigating disturbances. Often it’s the strong extended family that takes the lead in punishing murders, thefts, rapes, etc.
Few premodern states were entirely untangled with religion. On the other hand, not all belief systems are centered around temples and priesthoods, and some have no organization above the level of a local cleric. The balance between temple and state varies:
- Rulers often claim divine authority; the Kurundasti Tej, Nan, early Uytai, Ȟamsan, the ktuvok empires, and even to some extent Cuzei all claimed holy mandates.
- In other cases rulers found it expedient to organize or regulate religion, making practice and doctrine uniform and ensuring that the messages given supported the state; examples include Caďinas, Axunai, and imperial Xurno.
- A religious division may make it imprudent for the state to commit itself to a single belief system— thus the plurality of modern Verduria.
- In yet other cases rulers had little to do with religion beyond their responsibilities as believers: Belesao, Skouras, Flora, Kebri.
- The Itsenic confederacies had a tripartite structure: in effect government was a coalition of the warriors, the shamans, and the women.
The state may or may not intrude in personal morality or marriage. Axunai, for instance, had no marriage laws; marriages were affairs between families.
Some states (notably Xurno) organize public schools; quite a few create centers of higher education.
An official language is often a natural development of a central state; but some have also created offices to regulate this, such as the Xurnese šundaus. In Verduria this is done by the independent University of Verduria; but queen Elena found it within her prerogatives to mandate a spelling reform.