Monarchy: A Long History

What is monarchy? Rule by a king/queen, an emperor/empress, a grand duke/duchess, a prince/princess, among numerous titles, but that begs the question. Monarchy (Greek, “single ruler”) generally means rule by someone who is descended from his/her predecessor or was selected by his/her predecessor or predecessor’s family, and sometimes both.

The opposite of a monarchy is a republic (Latin, “public thing”), and in a republic, the leaders are selected by the citizens or by some council of aristocrats or other dignitaries. What we call representative democracy (Greek, “people rule”) is a kind of republic.

The line between monarchy and republicanism is not a sharp one, because some nations have mixed systems or “constitutional monarchies”, “monarchical republics”, or “crowned republics”. In some cases, the monarchs are not involved in day-to-day governing and are essentially figureheads, making their nations de facto republics.

Though many nations are now crowned or pure republics, that is rather unusual over humanity’s recorded history. For all the 5000+ years of recorded history, many of not most large-scale societies have been monarchies, and many of them have entered recorded history as monarchies. One may attempt to extrapolate further using archeological evidence and cross-cultural comparisons, but that method has obvious difficulties.

Some monarchies have been very long-lasting, at least if one allows for conquests, coups, abdications, and interregnums along the way. Overthrowers of monarchs often become monarchs themselves, succeeding those that they overthrew, thus providing some continuity. The resulting line of monarchs can continue for centuries.

Perhaps the longest-lasting one has been the Pharaonic monarchy, which had lasted over 3000 years. Egypt was already a monarchy when it became literate about 5000 years ago, and its monarchy ended on August 12, 30 BCE, when the last pharaoh, Cleopatra VII Philopator (the famous one), committed suicide. This was because the Roman general Octavian was coming to conquer Egypt. Which he did, turning it into a Roman province. Egypt did not become fully independent again for nearly 2000 years.

The Chinese monarchy had lasted nearly 3000 years. China’s first reliable dates are of the Gonghe Regency, which started around 741 BCE. Since it started when a monarch was exiled by some nobles, the Chinese monarchy is thus older. That monarchy ended on 12 February 1912, when the last Chinese emperor, Puyi, abdicated.

The Roman Empire was another long-lived monarchy. It emerged out of the civil wars and strife that the Roman Republic came to suffer from, and as this strife receded, a certain Octavian emerged as unchallenged leader. The Roman Senate gave him the title Augustus on 4 January 27 BCE, and as Augustus Caesar, he became the first Roman Emperor. Some 300 years later, the empire got split in two, with the western half declining and finally falling on 4 September 476, and the eastern half surviving for a millennium after that. It also declined and it finally fell on 29 May 1453. That monarchy thus lasted 1500 years.

Some medieval-to-modern European monarchies have also been long-lived, sometimes for nearly 1000 years.

Yet monarchy is now either weak or absent in much of the world. I will consider that riddle in my next entries on this subject.

One Response

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