This global-spanning empire is divided among five royal families, each headed by a prince. The emperor himself leads the empire, with the five princes serving under him. While they owe fealty to the king who has absolute authority over the empire, these families operate semi-independently and control their realms directly, as well as their own security forces and economy. The king holds all secular power by law. However, his right to rule is given to him by the gods, with priests of the theocracy speaking on their behalf.

The selection process of becoming king is administered by the priests themselves in order to prove the future king's worthiness. A series of trials are conducted in which the heads of the five families compete against each other. These contests vary with each selection process, and these princes can participate themselves or elect a champion from their realm to compete on their behalf. The winning prince of these contests is then elected to the position of emperor, and rules until he dies. The four losing princes are ritually sacrificed to the gods. This system is meant to prevent any disputes between rival families as to who is the rightful ruler, and to keep the empire stable.

However, it is possible that a prince or several princes may simply not accept the results. They may lead their families into open rebellion to avoid their honorable fate of being sacrificed for the good of the empire. This is unacceptable, for it would tear the empire apart with various wars.

How would I prevent this from happening?

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    $\begingroup$ @CreedArcon princes cannot back out of the trials, as they were ordained by the gods and it is his destiny to participate. Yes they are told what trials there will be. And as anyone who has studied world history knows, it is impossible for any priest to be corrupt, for they are moral figures beyond approach. They speak with the authority of the gods and are merely humble servants to their divine will. $\endgroup$
    – Incognito
    Jan 20, 2019 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ "And as anyone who has studied world history knows, it is impossible for any priest to be corrupt, for they are moral figures beyond approach." Thanks for the good laugh $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ You mean to hold a contest where at the end all but the winner die? You do realize that in practice the contest starts much earlier than you anticipate, and the rules will change to "the one who dies last wins", right? $\endgroup$
    – Peter
    Jan 21, 2019 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ You are missing a few things: 1) In this scenario, the priests have all the power because they can kill off the 4 most powerful threats. 2) Based on the way dynasties work, you would probably have a range of age of princes competing: 60 year olds vs 10 year olds and further 3) since you are killing the heads of all 5 families every 10-25 years (because the emperor just dies last) on top of basic life expectancy you are going to have a hard time keeping enough members alive in each family. 4) and keep in mind accidents happen so you might end up with 2 elections in just a few years $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ You are better off not requiring that it be the head of the families that compete but allow each family to put forward their own candidate. But either way, the families are going to find out that the best way for one family to take over the empire is to switch inheritance to "eldest male" not primogeniture then in one generation, have 5 or 6 sons and wait 50 years. Then, just assassinate the emperor every couple years: this family will be able to weaken all rival families (who don't have so many descendants) in a generation. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 9:20

10 Answers 10


The question seems to imply that the gods are not in fact real, or at least are 'hands off.' If they're not the problem is trivial.. have the gods be godly.

Otherwise it would probably be best to have a series of mechanisms, indeed if they weren't 'artificially' created, supporting cultural assumptions and practises would likely evolve anyway, assuming the system survived long enough.

Firstly, appeal to the esteem of the church. If the church is popular amongst the people, going against it's ruling may make retaining power untenable even were an immediate or military victory achieved.

Secondly, allow rebellion. There's no way no prince ever (assuming a continuous policy for hundreds of years, long enough to 'span a globe') decided he wanted to save his own skin. Use these instances as historical 'cautionary tales' to contemporary Princes and Families. Some may have fled as individuals, with wives or children or alone, and gone into hiding. Some may have attempted to raise rebellions. However successful those rebellions might have been, if the Empire remains extant it(and it's agents, including the Families) will want to paint them as utter failures(if only to prevent the chaos and bloodshed involved in putting down another.)

Thirdly. Collateral. Hostage taking has been mentioned, but consider that an entire bloodline is allowed the privilege of being held in esteem and allowed to rule on the Emperor's behalf and potentially take the Imperial throne. Just as in the modern day if a company breaches a major contract once, people will be less willing to trade with it, so in terms of aristocratic lineage must the same be true. Punish the entire family.

Setting the Stage. Have sermons/dogma that directly addresses what personal and professional flaws one might (must!) own to challenge not only the word of god and their priests but risk the peace and prosperity of the entire empire for their own advancement. This will not only paint a picture(ready) in the minds of the public as to the vices of any Prince who rebelled but also perhaps influence the Prince's and Families thinking also.

Stewardship. It's easy to waste resources, there must be a mechanism for Princes and their Families to fail outside of the Selection, otherwise one would not need for the Princes to rebel as the public would rebel under bad management. Historically, for a family to rise to prominence it would normally only take one or two individuals of note in a generation, but it's just as easy to fall from grace as it is to rise, rich men make rich enemies...and a lot of people want your position. For noble families to remain in power requires that they develop and/or maintain the ability to manage the affairs of their state. Orderly management on the scale of one fifth of a planet.. this is clearly more about delegation and the management of people than any professional discipline. Fomenting an attitude that would allow a Prince to rebel and maintain support across such a vast reach would not be plausibly hidden.

Bodyguards/Secret Service. The personal guards of the Prince and their family may be taken from Imperial forces, such allows for the creation of two way trust (though others might see it different, if the thing you're trusting is far off and abstract it will seem unimportant or nonexistent ,trust cannot develop. If however a person has immediate and obvious power over you and does not abuse it.. then trust can develop.

Maintain some consistency in the tests or give forewarning (perhaps take the tests from prior acts of the gods or religious verse) randomness will always benefit somebody 'unfairly,' and being able and willing to prepare for known challenges might be considered a valuable trait, as opposed to just being good at what luck happens to throw at you.

Give the church and/or the empire and/or the individual princedoms resources which the others do not wish to be without, rebellion and/or war would limit or end access to that resource. If one of the royal families has a monopoly on military naval construction for example, a Prince preparing to challenge global naval supremacy could hardly go unnoticed.

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    $\begingroup$ this is what i was thinking about the whole death trials +1. it would lead to MORE of the empires instability. killing heads of state would make destructive ripples every generation (hey you know that war hero Prince that was holding off that horde he cant do that anymore he got killed in the trials). $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 5:49

If I remember correctly, in ancient Japan all the daiymios had to send their sons to reside in the Shogun's castle, where they were held as hostages, as a warranty for the underling's fidelity. The practice was called Sankin-kotai, thanks to Jay Carr for pointing to the reference.

The emperor can use a similar system. Each family has to give their heirs into the complete control of the emperor. Rebelling to the emperor and his designation results into the beheading of the family itself, as all of the heirs will face death.

Be faithful and you lose just one member. Betray, and you lose all your descendants.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You are correct! Here is a link to a wikipedia article explaining it in greater detail, perthaps it can be added to your answer. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sankin-kotai I was gonna suggest this, but you beat me to it :) $\endgroup$
    – Jae Carr
    Jan 21, 2019 at 2:18
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    $\begingroup$ Historically, empires have frequently employed this practice. The biblical Daniel was one such hostage. The other side of the hostage equation is that the heirs are educated and groomed to become high ranking officials in their own right, giving their homeland a stake in the success of the empire. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Jan 21, 2019 at 4:19
  • $\begingroup$ To add on this: Emperor Nero of the Roman Empire did the same thing too. $\endgroup$
    – Narusan
    Jan 21, 2019 at 7:41
  • $\begingroup$ I just read up on Sankin-kotai now and I feel like this answer confuses it a bit: The lords spent one year with the emperor, then one year at their home while their wife and heir have to stay with the emperor. That's a little more complex than what's described in this answer, "only" the heir staying with the emperor. However that simpler form has been practiced in medieval Europe. It's also mentioned in the Nibelungenlied, or if you want pop-culture, take Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones (which is based on the middle ages). $\endgroup$
    – R. Schmitz
    Jan 22, 2019 at 10:24

Prince-in-waiting likes the situation!

If you are dead set on "prince dies" you make it work by having many princelings in a family. One of these immediately takes over for the family not on the death of the old one, but when the old one loses and is condemned.

If a given losing prince refuses to accept his demotion from prince to sacrifice, there are people in his court who are eager for him to accept his fate - his heirs / brothers, one of whom is at that moment the new prince, according to the king. Revolution risks everything, and sending an older no-longer-a-prince brother off to die risks little. The military would prefer not to fight 4 other houses and so it is an easy decision for them too.

This system falls apart if a given prince does not have an heir. Solution - princes from each families line reside safe in the capitol. These princes may or may not be next in line for the throne, but they could be. This is the system of the Romans - raise the children of your enemies as Romans. Then when they go back to rule their people, they will in theory be sympathetic to their overlords.

Substitute prince.

A given prince might try to dodge his fate (if he were pretty certain to lose) by ceding the princedom to some elderly half brother stand-in, drafted into rulership from civilian life and expected in short order to lose and die. The new prince holds his head high and takes it like a man for his country. Unless by chance his champion turns out to be a lot better than anyone expected...


Louis XVI managed to control semi independent royal families really well. Unfortunately he ignored the populace which led to his demise.

He used the palace of Versailles as a carrot to attract royal families from the provinces.

His method was to entice lords to come to the palace of Versailles by holding lavish celebrations (parties) all year long. If the lords are in Versailles having fun, they won't be fomenting rebellions.

To earn the king’s favor it was necessary to spend time in the royal residences and stick to etiquette. A constantly hovering presence was rewarded with financial allowances, gifts, accommodation in the best rooms of the Palace of Versailles, and regular invitations to the best celebrations and ceremonies.

On the contrary, not coming to Versailles to attend the King's celebrations was frowned upon.


Make it so each prince can command their own army, but the army they command is at an opposite end of the empire from the lands they actually control. This, while confusing, prevents any prince from consolidating military power in their home territory and using it against the emperor.

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    $\begingroup$ But what happens if an enemy is coming ? Having your troops far away from you doesn't seem ideal. You'll always be late on the battlefield, and the prince who commands the troops on your land may be happy to see your power decline... $\endgroup$
    – Don Pablo
    Jan 21, 2019 at 10:27

Change Who can Participate in the Trials

The death trials still doesn't seem like a fair deal, like you’re the head of a family you train for years, just for that one rich family to hire the best mercenary in the world to curb stomp you. If I was one of prince’s I would rebel just so I would not get killed and install an elective Imperium like the Holy Roman Empire (like it’s a one in five chance to win and if you lose you die). It would also make your empire unstable as well; you kill off every head of state EVERY TIME your emperor dies (also I would be pissed if my dad got killed and the new emperor was responsible).

What would be better if you still want a holy death trial is open it up to any volunteer (could be just nobles and or commoners) so anyone who wants to risk it for the biscuit can, instated of forcing a select few to do so. Like well-known champions get sponsored by the families and if they win then they will carry favour with the next emperor. Could open up a lot of possibility’s for story telling as well, like a minor noble becomes a candidate and everyone did not see it coming or a rare sight an actual prince does the trials and every is like wow.

if i was a prince i would be cool with that and if my son or i "volunteered" then it would seem far more holy then force us to do so. i would not be so pissed if he or i lost because both would have known what they were getting themselves into

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    $\begingroup$ The obvious downside being that the new absolute ruler is selected for being the most bloodthirsty combatant who is either so narcissistic or so desperate as to risk their life, not who is best able to rule a country through wisdom and diplomacy with the respect of the other lords. The empire will quickly fall into ruin and the princes will dissolve the empire as 5 occasionally warring kingdoms would still be better for both themselves and their people. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi, If they expect to ruler with wisdom and diplomacy, they shouldn't decide it with death-match in the first place. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Jan 21, 2019 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think the job description said anything about bloodthirsty combat. Trials, that's it. Could be quizzes on imperial history and MBA-style diplomatic use-cases and economical modelling via differential equations, for all we care. Also if a proxy person is used to compete (and does win the trials), one of the well-earned benefits could be to become a proven capable advisor to the new Emperor. $\endgroup$
    – Jim Klimov
    Jan 24, 2019 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Jim Klimov i never said that the trials would involve combat. the reason i called it the death trails is in fact that every one who partakes besides the winner dies (the name seems to fit) I'm still not a fan of the champion system that's in place either (i would not want my emperor to be someone who gets champions to win for them) frankly the whole death Trials is the biggest problem the county has involving destabilization (killing all of your leaders does that after all) remove the fact that every one dies or who can partake will change this $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2019 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ CreedArcon: thanks for clarification :) Actually, I forgot to tag that my earlier comment was more to @pluckedkiwi about the downside of having the bloodthirstiest competitor as the new ruler, and at that one who hides behind others. And the original job description referred to the one in topmost original post :) Hope this settles things :) $\endgroup$
    – Jim Klimov
    Feb 7, 2019 at 12:21

Some ways this was handled historically

Marry the families

In medieval world, the blood ties were really important. By marrying into them or them into your family, you could get strong bonds that reduce the chance of them rebelling against their kin. This was not uncommon to do in back in the day. The emperor could marry a daughter or cousin to each family, for example, or take some of their female members to marry to males of the empire dynasty. This can by itself is not a bad thing but usually it additionally seals a pact between the two families to help each other.

The downsides starts with giving a family a potential claim to the empire. While marrying would normally pacify an enemy, it could backfire and incite them into action to try and grab the throne. This is also quite common in the medieval times. It can be a potent hook for a story if needed or an element to be removed if unsuited - perhaps in your world people value family ties even more.

Another downside is incest and inbreeding - the two families have incentive to keep marrying into each other, so perhaps the daughter of the emperor has a child which is married to the emperor's son's child. Again, common in the medieval world to marry cousins. Over several generations this can lead to your version of the infamous Hapsburgs.

Take hostages

This sounds way more dramatic that it actually was but it was still a common practice in the medieval days. When we talk about "hostages" it's not usually somebody locked in a dungeon or tower - they were more like honoured guests. In fact, children could be sent to the capital (and this the emperor) to get a better education which the emperor would see to. However, as it happens if the child's family rises up, then the emperor still has the child at his mercy. If your firstborn son, or even all your male descendants were in the capital, that could be a very compelling reason not to threaten the emperor.

However, as I said, it's not just threats - being in the emperor's favour is a good thing - your children get education they probably can't get anywhere else. And included in the package is knowledge of how the empire operates, first name basis with the current or even future emperor and key figures in the administration. That gives you, as an underling, a very good way to get things from the empire - money, troops, favours. After all, your child can speak on your behalf to exactly the people who can arrange that. When your child succeeds you, they have a very close tie with the administration that they can still use to help the family.

All in all, a "hostage" isn't a bad deal and was rightfully used in the past. It could even be used between different states - they would regularly exchange hostages with each other to ensure peace and further help out diplomacy. After all, if your neighbour's kid grows to know your culture and you personally, they are less likely to harbour enmity.

However, this can also backfire Tsar Simeon I of Bulgaria was educated in the court of the neighboring Byzantine Empire (East Roman Empire) but used his knowledge of how the empire operates to start a war against them. Interesting to note Simeon negotiated being given the Roman (Byzantine) title of "caesar" after the war. The slavonic way to pronounce it resulted in the title "tsar" (alternatively spelled "tzar" or "czar" but its different transliterations of the same root). So, in effect Simeon became an emperor. His grand goal was to become the ruler of both Bulgarians and Romans (Byzantines) but ultimately didn't achieve that. However, being recognised as caesar was the road to that. Just reinforces how the "hostage" solution could be used against an empire.


People can be loyal but loyalty can be bought. The emperor could pay..."extra" to key personnel to be loyal. That doesn't mean pay the families - if the emperor pays the generals under the families, then the family doesn't have much leverage to lead a rebellion. Although diverting some cash their way can also keep them satisfied. At any rate, the idea is to keep administrators and generals happy with the emperor, so they wouldn't just turn sides. Even if somebody gets the throne, that doesn't mean everybody underneath them would support them, after all. It's probably in the best interest of individuals to support the new emperor but then again they could just want the old one back. And cash is a good incentive.

Another incentive is the two points from before - give the most prominent generals brides from the imperial bloodline and/or take and educate their kids in addition to cash and they can be quite invested in the well-being of the empire's bloodline and position. After all, their own position now depends on it - a new emperor can mean that they are not kin with the top dog any more.

Generals are the obvious choice but don't forget the other administrators. Tax collectors would be vital to the empire's prosperity. Don't think about some intimidating guy from an office coming to steal the poor peasent's income - think of a guy who knows the locals and their plights. The locals already know and trust him, they also supply whatever tribute (probably coin, but could also be goods - depends on the setting) that goes to the empire. Without that guy, you'd have the former - a government agent trying to shake the locals for their earnings. This is way less effective and a good way towards a rebellion. A decent empire would recognise that preferring the latter. So, keeping the local tax collectors and other administrators complacent is preferable.

Speaking of the Byzantine empire, giving "gifts" to various key figures was a regular thing. They were pretty much bribes but more official as in, given out officially by the emperor. Annually (usually), there would be an event at the capital where powerful and influential people from across the empire would gather and would be given literal sacks of gold - dressed up as being "for accomplishments". It also served establishing and maintaining ties between the emperor and these people.

By this point, you may think "can this backfire?". The answer is that yes, it can. So, in the theme of the Byzantine empire, on the extreme end of "pay for loyalty" we have the Varangian guard - Norse who were were the paid bodyguards of the emperor. They were utterly loyal...to the emperor. Which led to a somewhat famous example when there was a coup against the current emperor and the Varangians "switched sides" supporting the usurper. They were loyal to the one who pays them and supporting the "loser" doesn't pay, after all.

On the other end we have the eastern part of the empire. Administratively called "Armeniacon" it's present day eastern Turkey and parts of its neighbors. The territory was quite hard to control for many reasons but it all boiled down to the emperor needing to be in the really good graces of the Armeniacon leader. Yes, that is the correct phrasing here - the core of the problem is that were Armeniacon to "defect" and join the empire's eastern neighbors that takes a huge chunk of territory and thus tax and troops away. The nature of the terrain is that it's really hard to attack directly, so winning the territory back would be very hard. Marriages, bribes and favours liberally flowed to the current leader there to keep them in line. Which also meant that the Armeniacon leader would have a lot of political power. Having their support could spell the doom of one emperor and the rise of another.


Because there are five viceregal-level families, the system might be stable even if the four losing princes unite to save their heads. They could salvage their legitimacy within the imperial system by recognizing the winner as a titular ruler, but make the emperor have little more power than the other four viceroys.

As Tom Kratman explained in his Carrera series, a balance of power among five roughly-equal powers is the most stable that can be expected. If four powers gang up on one, one of the four is likely to defect. If three powers gang up on two, the two are likely to be strong enough to resist the three.

Chapter 26 of Kratman's Come and Take Them discusses one fictional power's view of a possible five-power balance-of-power.


Give them some secret (new every time) slowly acting poison, which does not hinder the selection trials, and only the winner gets the antidote.


Threat of a curse and a holy crusade.

Since the priests are the ones doing the trials, any action against the will of the god will invoke a curse upon those who defy the will of the One. Anyone siding with them is also be cursed (does not need to be real), causing them to lose even their loyal subjects. Obviously the curse will be a black mark that will cause all other kingdoms to attack them, electing a new noble family. Since the risk of losing nobility is high and the threat of a otherworldly curse is also on the table, I bet only few will try that way. Even if one of the families revolts, it wouldn't be too difficult to subdue them.


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