Monarchy as a Form of Government in History: Tracing Kingship from Ancient to Post-Modern Periods


Monarchy is the oldest and most used model of government from the Ancient World through the Middle Ages and the development of early modern nation states.

Monarchy is one of the oldest forms of government. In the Ancient world, forms of monarchy were normative. The Hebrews, for example, argued with God to give them a king so that they would be like their neighbors. Monarchies existed in Ancient Greece and Rome, begun as an Etruscan monarchy. Throughout the Middle Ages, kings and more infrequently queens ruled territories and eventually modern nation-states. The Catholic Church, an integral institution in Western Civilization, favored monarchy as the form of government that most closely represented the cosmological world view. Monarchy still exists in the post-modern world, albeit in various stages.

Development of Ancient World Monarchies

In the latter years of the Neolithic period, early communities were formed around the great river valleys of Africa and Asia. As these communities began to practice sedentarization, social, economic, and political institutions were formed. In many cases, these early communities were led by warrior-priests and some historians cite the prominent role of powerful women in some ancient communities. The role of warrior-king was soon differentiated from the role of priest and in many cases became hereditary.

In Egypt, the land was unified under a pharaoh, a title traced to Hebrew and Greek titles meaning “great house;” in Mesopotamia, the ruler of the individual city-states was known as lugal or big man. From these early forms of kingship monarchy as an ideal spread throughout the ancient world. Only in Greece, where geography tinkered with evolving and disparate city-states, were other forms of government employed.

Rome and the Middle Ages

Rome began as part of the Etruscan system of city-states, governed as a monarchy until the last of the Tarquin kings was overthrown in 509 BCE. One of the chief fears of the Republic was the reestablishment of monarchy. It was one of the reasons Julius Caesar was assassinated by members of the Roman Senate.

Even during Imperial Rome, emperors, though behaving as kings, preferred, like Augustus, to see themselves as the “first servant” of the state. Much of this broke down during the 3rd – Century as rampant political instability interfered with good imperial leadership.

The rise of the Christian Church, however, brought back the notion of kingship. Monarchy became the preferred form of government in the emerging territories that had either been part of the Roman frontier or pagan communities in Germania. It was the Catholic Church that pressured the powerful stem-dukes to select one of their own to become emperor. In 800, Pope Leo III proclaimed Charlemagne “king of the Romans.”

Monarchies and Early Modern Nation States

Following the Hundred Years’ War, several early modern nation states emerged in England, France, Spain, and Scandinavia. Within the next two centuries, powerful dynasties like the Hapsburgs, Romanovs, and Hohenzollerns would create strong states that competed for overseas colonies and influence in European continental affairs. For the first time in history, several prominent women would sit on thrones, although ancient history does provide examples of exceptional women rulers like Hatshepsut in Egypt and Wu Zhao of Imperial China.

Monarchies in the Post Modern World

Monarchies still exist, but in varying stages. All surviving European monarchies operate as national symbols with kings and queens serving as figureheads. In England, Queen Elizabeth II still opens Parliament and is the Head of State in Australia, represented by a Governor General. In Thailand, the king still wields some political power while some Middle East countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have strong monarchies.

The lure of monarchy is still in evidence. Numerous contemporary science fiction depictions of galactic threats use the model of monarchy, from Star Wars to the Chronicles of Riddick. As the ideals of popular self-government permeate world political institutions, monarchies will become less attractive. Historically, however, monarchy has been the preferred form of government for most nations.