I have an alternative-history setting (technology comparable to ~1900), where the country is comparable to modern day Turkey in size (i.e. large), geography (i.e. fertile coastlands, arid heartland), number of inhabitants and city locations. The country is ruled by an emperor with absolute power who resides in the capital in the country's inland (compare to Ankara), but as it is really large it is divided into provinces with local administration. Governors are appointed by the emperor, but on a local structure, some democratic elements exist, such as councils elected by rich/influential citizens.

Challenge for the emperor: Cities/provinces at the coast are by far more wealthy and generally better off economically than the capital and the rural provinces, as they have access to the sea, ports... How could the absolute ruler prevent the local governors/province rulers from becoming too powerful and challenge the emperor's power or deciding they'd be better off independently?

In this setting, the dimensions of the country would also make it difficult to move troops quickly or to have them spread out to many places at once.

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    $\begingroup$ Reminder to close-voters: The problem cannot fixed if the OP is not made aware of it. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ With great difficulty. See: Roman Empire. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ Read about Stalin. Death on a whim for no reason and a powerful ruthless secret police to do so widely. Fear. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ Fear of the Death Star? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 15:32
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    $\begingroup$ Stalin = good answer. Or Kim. The difference: Kim's methods actually worked in the long run. While the Soviet Union eventually fell, the country Kim founded is still ruled by his dictator grandson: an absolute monarch and seems to keep all the regional rulers in line through that delicate balance of "life of luxury" vs "being shot with an anti-aircraft gun". Various policies such as the personality cult and the three generation rule & the "secret police of every citizen" not to mention always being on the bring of savage invasion from the South seem to keep everything humming along real nice! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 0:26

13 Answers 13


Rotate them around and make them compete

Fortunately for your comparison, early-modern Turkey came up with a good solution to this. In the Ottoman Empire, regional governors were appointed by the Sultan, and were constantly moved around to new posts. They would usually start their careers in the poor outer provinces, and gradually get "promoted" to ruling the richer ones, as they proved their loyalty. I believe they would also eventually retire and get to live in a fancy palace with their families, after a long enough period of service.

This system ensured that governors never rule a province long enough to build a base of support. It also keeps potentially disloyal governors in the poor/weak provinces, and then promotes the loyal/competent ones over them. Moreover, by making them compete for rule over the richest provinces, you encourage then to rat on each other when plots do occur, and to fight anyone rising against the emperor.

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    $\begingroup$ As expected, the best way to control the regional governors flies in the face of good management and is a great way to ensure that the poor regions will always remain poor. $\endgroup$
    – SPavel
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 13:30
  • $\begingroup$ With this strategy, how do you stop someone from playing the long game? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ @RobinSaunders Even if they do play the long game, and are given a rich and powerful province, they won't be there long enough to build up a base of support willing to fight for them against the emperor. They won't bring their whole administration with them, just their family and maybe a couple top advisers. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ What if they covertly stay in touch with their allies from a distance? After all, various historical pretenders have grown their support whilst abroad. Moving around is a good way to make lots of contacts, and perhaps uncover pre-existing networks with an interest in overthrowing the emperor, or form new ones. The governor wouldn't be permanently face-to-face with the same individuals, but might be able to maintain contact with the help of members of their retinue, perhaps employing runners. How many individuals is it practical for the emperor to keep an eye on? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ @RobinSaunders Nothing is watertight (except global mind control I suppose, but even then we'd just get some plucky heroes who are immune to it). Insurgence is always a risk, all you can do is try to mitigate that risk. $\endgroup$
    – Cubic
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 10:38


  • The Romans did it successfully for about 250-300 years (from about the 1st century BCE to about the end of the 2nd century CE), and then again for about 200-300 years in the Eastern Empire (from about the 4th century CE to about the 6th).

  • The Persians did it successfully for about 700 years (from the 1st century BCE to the 6th century CE).

  • The Chinese did it successfully for about 300 years (Ming dynasty) and then again for another 300 years (Qing dynasty); the current Chinese Empire is only about 70 years old, so it's too early to tell whether it's a good example or not.

  • The Russians did it successfully for about 200 years, from the 18th to the 20th century; the current Russian Empire is only about 100 years old, so it's too early to tell whether it's a good example or not.

  • The Americans have been doing it successfully for about 150 years, since the suppression of the Southern Rebellion; everybody knows how the Americans are doing it -- they push a relentless "one nation" propaganda, they try to make sure than no province can survive financially on its own, and they keep gigantic imperial military bases in rich and large provinces such as California or Texas which may run the risk of getting uppity.

  • The Ottomans did it successfully for about 500-600 years, from the 14th to the late 19th or early 20th century.

Everybody is bored with things Roman, so,

How did the Ottomans do it?

The Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic multi-language multi-religion structure. The most widely spoken languages were Turkish, and Greek, and Kurdish, and Arabic, but they also had subjects who spoke Bulgarian and Armenian and Hungarian and Albanian and many other languages. Most inhabitants were Muslim, but Christians (mostly Orthodox, but also Armenians and Catholics) were very numerous; the empire also had a significant number of Jews, especially after the most idiotic decree of the Most Catholic Monarchs Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon.

When looking at the organization of the pre-Tanzimat Ottoman Empire one is bound to observe that they practiced an early form of matrix management, where multiple concurrent hierarchies controlled different aspects of the social, economic and military life, so that except the Sultan and the Grand Vizier, nobody had complete rule over any piece of land or any collectivity of people. (The Grand Vizier could do everything the Sultan could do, except become himself Sultan or sire an heir to the throne; and he could be executed whenever the Sultan wanted; see below on how they were selected.)

  • The civil government was structured into layers:

    • At the topmost layer were the eyalets (provinces, also known as pashaliks) governed by a three-tails Pasha, also known as a "Bashaw" in English. There were about 20 such provinces. The three-tails Pasha was responsible for the collection of taxes (from those who actually paid taxes, see below military government), but he had no military attributions, and no direct executive or judicial attributions; for those, the depended on...

    • His subordinated one-tail Pashas, each governing a sandjak (counties, also called sometimes in western Europe pashaliks, to the despair of historians). Both the three-tails and the one-tail Pashas were appointed for a limited term by the central government (specifically, by the Grand Vizier), so that there was no chance for a three-tailed Pasha to cultivate a cadre of subordinated one-tail Pashas. The sandjaks were divided into...

    • A multitude of small-ish jurisdictions ("kaza") placed under the administration of Kadis, who combined the functions of a governor and a judge. But,

    • The Kadi had jurisdiction only upon Muslims, and on cases involving a Muslim; Christians and Jews had their own laws and judges, so that in effect a large part of the Empire's population had a dual subordination: to the Kadi / Pasha for fiscal purposes, and to their respective religious hierarchies for judicial purposes.

  • The military power of the Empire was completely separated from the administrative structure; and in order to avoid any risk of a successful rebellion, the infantry and the cavalry had parallel and incompatible structures.

    • The main military force was the archetypal Ottoman infantry consisting of Janissaries, who were notionally personal slaves of the Sultan (and by consequence, at least initially, Christians or Jews, the Muslim religion prohibiting the enslavement of Muslims); they were paid a decent and regular salary, were splendidly trained, and were expected to remain celibate and spend their entire life in the army. In later times, when the Empire ran out of easy-to-get Christian slaves, any free-born subjects of the Sultan could enlist, and the restruction on marriage was lifted. Importantly, the Janissaries were not taxed and were not subordinated of any civilian authority.

    • The cavalry consisted of Sipahis, most of whom were timariots, basically the Ottoman equivalent of western European knights. A timar-holding sipahi received a time-limited control over a piece of land (complete with villages and inhabitants), and they (not "he" -- the timar-holder could be a man or a woman) were entitled to a certain part of the tax revenues produced by the land; in exchange, they had to participate in military campaigns (or in the case of women, send a fully equipped knight). The property over the land remained with the state, and the timar could be reassigned upon failure to perform the service; moreover, the timar was not necessarily inheritable -- a son would inherit it only with the Sultan's approval, which was not automatically granted.

  • Foreign policy was strictly the reserve of the Sultan, the Grand Vizier and the personnel of the central state apparatus, of which the Grand Dragoman, the Chief Translator (who was a Christian), was of great importance. (Most Muslim Ottomans did not learn the languages of non-Muslim nations, so there was a need for a translation service at the highest level, manned by Christians.)

  • Bonus weirdness:

    • Grand Viziers were often promoted from newly converted families, so that they had great power but no deep social networks; even a Christian slave could convert to Islam and eventually become Grand Vizier -- see for example Ibrahim Pasha the Frank. There was no way for a Great Vizier to become Sultan, so that their loyalty was supposed to be certain. (It wasn't.)

    • The Imperial Harem was (not always, but often) an extremely important factor in imperial politics; for about 130 years (in the 16th and 17th centuries) the Imperial Harem was the most important political factor in the Empire: see the Sultanate of Women.

    • Great Dragomans, who were Christian, were occasionally promoted to the throne of Christian vassal states such as Wallachia and Moldavia.


The Ottomans ruled their sprawling empire for more than half a millennium; central control was preserved by separating civil authority from military authority, by limiting the duration of any appointment or appanage, by slicing and dicing the population into collectivities with parallel judicial structures, and by ensuring that the appointment in positions of authority remained in central hands so that advancement depended directly on the favor of the Sultan or Grand Vizier.


The superbly complicated Ottoman imperial structure ensured that rebellions were rare and did not get traction; at most, one can cite the occasional short strife between siblings who vied for the throne, for example between the unhappy Musa Çelebi and his brother Mehmed.

But in the end, it resulted in the ossification of the empire, its economic and military decline and its eventual spectacular collapse, of which the effects are still felt from Libya to Syria, Palestine and Iraq. Sometimes it's better for an empire to renew itself through a successful uprising instead of keeping an unerring course towards decrepitude.

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    $\begingroup$ This makes me wonder: Was the Ottoman setup 'by design' or a result of events without a plan behind it? $\endgroup$
    – DHa
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ @DHa: The creation of the slave-soldier corps of the Janissaries and the Mamelukes was pretty much by design. The separation between administrative and military power was, probably, a continuation of the Byzantine practice. As for the rest, who knows what advice the wise and holy Sheikh Edebali gave to the young and ambitious Osman Gazi? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ Do you actually have a reason to think this structure was the cause of the economic stagnation? To me it seems more like a case of sharing the similar symptoms of overreliance on infidels and the separation of infidels and muslims than causation. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 6:05
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    $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi: I don't understand what you mean by "overreliance on infidels" and "separation of infidels and muslims", unless by the latter you mean their millet system. When the empire fell, the population of Constantinople, Greece, Thrace and Anatolia was very mixed, Muslim and Christian. The current clear separation between Christan Greece and Muslim Turkey is the result of the massive forced population exchange following the insane Greco-Turkish War (1923). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP. Your description of American history seems flawed. The Southern states education systems tended for decades, perhaps even until now, to describe the Southern Rebellion as not nearly as evil as it was and as being partially justified; the transportation network that integrates the economy of states and regions is considered economically beneficial; and before WWII US military army bases were small due to the small US military. alternatewars.com/BBOW/Stats/US_Mil_Manpower_1789-1997.htm $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 17:37

The Incas had an app for that

The Inca Empire used several methods together to keep their empire together without any external threat, and in a rather harsh environment:

  • Multiple clear lines of authority - There were the local administrators, and there was the army. The administrators ran the empire, supervised projects, and made the key decisions. The army supervised only itself, and was not permitted to meddle in local politics...beyond the obvious occasional use of overwhelming force to enforce the Inca's authority.

    The Inca made quite sure that his army was loyal to himself first. Local army leadership obeyed some directives from regional leaders ("That village didn't pay their taxes - burn it"), but were clearly proscribed from obeying others ("Give weapons to that village"), and would promptly arrest regional administrators at the first obvious sign of treason.

  • Hostages - the families of the regional leaders and the army leadership were required to live at the Inca's court. If the remote leaders obeyed, their children were educated and trained to be the next generation of the ruling class. The families of any disloyal remote leaders were promptly killed.

    Hostaging works both ways - too much palace intrigue could get your distant spouse recalled and executed (and then you, too). The messaging seems pretty clear: You can get much more by working within the system than by working against it. Only the Inca is indispensable.

  • Multiple sources of information - many merchants and couriers were also spies for the Inca, reporting upon conditions, local politics, and other key information. That's in addition to reports from the administrators and the army. Too many independent sources of information were outside the control of potential rebels.

The Inca system fell apart when two brothers fought for the throne...while smallpox devastated the empire. Not due to an internal revolt or coup. Historians suspect the system was never tested by a mad or overly rapacious Inca, so it may be brittle in other, unexpected ways. But that's beside the point of the basic takeaways.

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    $\begingroup$ The hostage thing was used successfully in France for a time, and is the reason why Versailles was built. It's very efficient as not only can they be used as hostages, but it costs them a lot of money as richer dukes will want to impress the king more, and all these families ended up sending a lot of money to Versailles in "useless" frivolities. I bet the incas did the same. $\endgroup$
    – Shautieh
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 9:16

The navy.


The Byzantine navy was the naval force of the East Roman or Byzantine Empire. Like the empire it served, it was a direct continuation from its Imperial Roman predecessor, but played a far greater role in the defence and survival of the state than its earlier iteration. While the fleets of the unified Roman Empire faced few great naval threats, operating as a policing force vastly inferior in power and prestige to the legions, the sea became vital to the very existence of the Byzantine state, which several historians have called a "maritime empire".

Your wealthy provinces have access to the sea and to ports. That gives access to the riches of trade but also puts them at risk for raiders and pirates. The central government can maintain a navy as the Byzantines in this same territory did. The navy will protect the maritime provinces in a way they cannot do for themselves (because they are not allowed to keep their own navies). They will thus depend on the presence of the Imperial Navy for their livelihood and have zero prospect of effectively resisting the Navy if they decide to go solo. Inland dimensions do not matter for ships - the navy can show up in any port on short notice and keep order in these provinces, putting down any insurrection or other trouble. Probably at any given port there would be several naval vessels at any given time - an Imperial presence and reminder.

A navy like this could also benefit the state in that it could offer extraterritorial "protection" to other smaller maritime states in its region. A protection racket has a bad reputation but sometimes there is actually protection; if El Gordo is regularly shaking you down he will not look kindly on any small timers who think they too are going to shake you down. These smaller states will become beholden to your state which means better trade terms for you and also a buffer between you and more distant hostiles.

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    $\begingroup$ Considering that the seat of power in the east roman empire was located in a port city (one of the largest at that), this is a pretty bad example. The navy would depend entirely on the rich merchants and would not be immediately accessible to the emperor, with no port cities at all. $\endgroup$
    – Clearer
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 14:22

Separation of power, in this case division of civilian- and military authority.

Each province would have civilian- and military governor. Civilian governor would run the judicial system and only troops under his direct control would be from the law enforcement, additionally he would have the authority to call militia.

Additionally the province would have military bases, where the civilian governor has no authority. Military bases in the province would be under control of the military governor, who receives their funding and orders directly from the emperor.

If the province is attacked the two governors would cooperate in order to defend the province.

If the military governor revolts, the rebel army would have difficulty in moving forward, as they would be entirely depended on the funding of the emperor.

If civilian governor revolts, military governor would be able to suppress the rebellion before the rebels even have to chance to organise.

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    $\begingroup$ This system might be further extended by introducing the clergy (a kind of a secret police). Local bishops have no administrative or military power, but they may accuse anyone (including local governors) in blasphemy and effectively dismiss them from their position. The new governor then should be appointed by the ruler. Thus, bishops can't abuse this power (this would annoy the ruler), but they can use it to remove a non-reliable governor from power. This is probably also good for a story as creates a lot of space for politics and intrigues :) $\endgroup$
    – rs232
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 7:05

The ancient Medes and Persians had a solution. Take the children if the regional governors to the capital and give them the best education and training, preparing them for governance. The children serve as both hostage and replacement, and guarantee the governed people's feel they have a stake in the empire. Read the book of Daniel for a record of four such captives and how Daniel in particular was more central to the empire's operation than the four governments he served.


Three simple methods would do the trick.

  1. Separation of powers. The local civil administrator doesn't control, say, the local military units or chief judge/law enforcement. They report separately to superiors in the capital. This way a treasonous cabal would require more people to be aware of it, and the more people aware of it, the more likely they get ratted out.

  2. The senior people most likely to conspire are on limited terms and are rotated to different postings. Most importantly, you do not rotate them to the same area at the same time. So the civil administrator goes to one province, the judge to another, and the local military commander (or perhaps the whole unit) to a third. This breaks up potential treasonous cabals if they do form.

  3. Finally, your important people are given their positions not where they live/grew up/have many family connections. This helps reduce the chances of them having an existing base of support from before they were appointed to the position.


External threat

The rich merchants of coastal cities would be more than happy to occasionally pay taxes to an inland Emperor, so long as that Emperor keeps the cities from being sacked by their hostile commercial rivals.

In this case, the Emperor doesn't need lots of small garrisons around, he just needs a large enough army to deter attacks on his country. This protects the merchants who no longer want to rebel.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh, I thought you were going to go in the opposite direction -- enlist raiders to keep your coastal cities from becoming too wealthy while making a big show about chasing them away. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 5:04

Feudal Japan

During Edo period Japan put in place a system called Sankin-kotai that both kept the local lords poor enough to prevent them from rebelling and promoted the prosperity of the country itself, especially the centre. The Tokugawa Shogunate used the system throughout its 260 years of ruling.

Enforced spending and hostages

The lord himself was required to spend alternating years living in the capital and his home province, and his family lived in the capital permanently, effectively as hostages. Due to the standard of living a feudal aristocratic family was accustomed to he had to maintain a pair of lavish palaces as well as pay for regular trips to and from the palace. This was effective because it was most expensive for the far-away lords - the ones who had the largest regions and were the most likely to rebel.

Bringing money to the inner regions

Money wasn't just spent in the capital and the home provinces. Roads had to be built and food and lodging had to be purchased all the way along the routes between national and regional capitals. This stimulated economic activity all throughout the country, but concentrated in the capital and the surrounding smaller, more loyal1 provinces, resulting in the shogun a wealthier capital and more money to spend than anyone else.

The capital, Edo, began as practically a small fishing village at the beginning of the period and became modern Tokyo. Even if the capital of an alternate-history Turkey-like country was the poorest city of all Sankin-kotai would cause it to become at least on par with the rich coastal cities.


There are two basic types of revolts: Revolt by the leadership or other small group, and revolt by the general populace. You can't really do anything about the latter except be prepared to gas them all and re-settle the area with your own people and you did ask specifically about regional governors, so I'll focus there.

A local ruler who wishes to revolt against the empire needs a few, basic things. He needs to get the bureaucracy on his side so they won't rat him out or desert him. He needs a sufficient stockpile of defensive resources to prevent the empire from simply conquering the area again. He needs to get the people on his side so they don't simply refuse to support him and switch to following whoever the emperor tells them to next.

All of these resources take time, planning, and personal charisma to acquire.

Assuming you're thinking the "evil empire" bit, denying the regional governors the opportunity to gather the needed resources is fairly straightforward. Appoint the governors to fairly short terms, probably a year, two at most. This limits their ability to sway people to their cause. Further, select governors by random lot from the general population of the entire empire. This makes it pointless for anyone to try to build a base of followers and then get an appointment, because the odds are millions to one against.

Appointees are taken in the dead of night and installed in the governor's mansion. If they serve well and faithfully they are returned home at the end of their term and given a small-but-useful pension. If they're not competent they simply disappear and are never heard from again and a new governor is appointed. If they prove actively traitorous they and all their family, friends, and anyone who is known to have had more than one conversation with them gets executed.

Service is mandatory. Any who refuse or complain are treated as traitors.

Put it together with a healthy incentive program whereby anyone who unmasks a traitor gets a small-but-useful pension and you can probably keep it going for quite a while, as long as you don't mind a fairly high rate of executions and being constantly surrounded by idiots (until you disappear them and select another, random replacement anyway.)

Just make sure you keep the locals believing that you're honestly doing your best and that it's really the provincial government that's invariably corrupt and the source of all their problems. That way they'll never turn on you.


You could have the emperor play them off of each other. Create rivalrys between local leaders and you should have the emperor not treat them with respect making them not feel as powerful.

  • $\begingroup$ Careful. Disrespect you're governors enough and you might just encourage them to band together and depose you $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Commented May 25, 2022 at 19:47

You could do what Louis XVI did: he kept his potential enemies close...

Louis began his personal rule of France in 1661, after the death of his chief minister, the Italian Cardinal Mazarin.[4] An adherent of the concept of the divine right of kings, which advocates the divine origin of monarchical rule, Louis continued his predecessors' work of creating a centralized state governed from the capital. He sought to eliminate the remnants of feudalism persisting in parts of France and, by compelling many members of the nobility to inhabit his lavish Palace of Versailles (formerly a hunting lodge belonging to Louis' father), succeeded in pacifying the aristocracy, many members of which had participated in the Fronde rebellion during Louis' minority. By these means he became one of the most powerful French monarchs and consolidated a system of absolute monarchical rule in France that endured until the French Revolution.


In the medieval days they pretty much did this exact when the monarchs would tour the country if they came to your province it would heavily strain the resources of your castle/keep, potentially ruining you financially.


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