As part of the political making of a country I'm working on, I was imagining the following structure:

  1. The country is ruled by an emperor/king, who has near-absolute authority over the land.
  2. The emperor surrounds himself by a council/government that he/she hand picks. It implies that the council is subservient to the emperor, who can nominates and dismiss members at will and ignore/overrule proposals and law projects from the council.
  3. However, upon the emperor's death, it's up to the council to pick the successor, and no one can contest their choice, not even the emperor's eldest child or remaining family. For simplicity we'll say the candidate can't be a current member of the council.

This seems interesting to me because it implies that the subservience relationship goes both ways. Yes, the emperor has absolute power over the council members in life, but she/he wants to be careful not to piss them off unreasonably, lest they chose to snub his/her preferred heir and pick someone completely different, ending the dynasty.

Has a similar structure existed on earth? Off the top of my mind I can think of the Pope (elected through a council), but I'm guessing it's not exactly the same (at least nowadays, possibly this was a more valid comparison in the middle ages?). If so, what was the result of this arrangement? Was it stable? Had the councilmen more power over the country than if the successor was determined by inheritance?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Have you looked into the election of the Holy Roman Emperor? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 23:34
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ BTW, I personally love the concept. Whole stories could be written about the court shenanigans to try and influence both the emperor and the council and play with both the ideas of the perception of power and the reality/limitations of power. It's a fantastic playground. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 23:38
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @user535733, vs. the hereditary principle which requires poisoning a couple of siblings? What's fun about this idea is that there's an interesting balance between just-one-person has power and everybody-has-the-right-to-vote. Think about the Catholic Church and the idea of, "wow, I only need to bribe a handful of Cardinals?" Yeah... right... waitaminute... $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 3:34
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Timst, now that I think about it, you have exactly what you're talking about in the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope has the sole authority (if I understand it correctly) to elevate priests to Cardinals, but it takes a vote of the College of Cardinals to elect the next Pope. It's almost a 100% match. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 3:35
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The Holy Roman Empire (no relationship whatsover with the actual Roman Empire) worked in a somewhat similar way for a thousand years. Well, worked is maybe overstating it; but at least it survived. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 4:33

5 Answers 5


The real problem with your model is not the power vacuums, violation of succession wishes, or any of the other issues that are going to be raised here. The real problem is the assumption that no-one can contest a selection of a new emperor.

Of course they can; it happens all the time, even now in destabilised countries. Every attempt at revolution, every act of terrorism, every protest on the streets is in fact an example of people doing exactly that; contesting the status quo.

There is an old saying; "The only power others have over you is that which you give them." This has been demonstrated with every regime change there has ever been, insofar as the law only works in a society if everyone implicitly agrees to be bound to it. Sure, there are criminals out there who change their ways after a stint in prison, and even those who don't, and they're managed by force.

But what if those 'criminals' have bigger guns than the police do?

Ultimately, regardless of whether or not the emperor appoints this council and whether or not they get final say in the succession will come down to their ability to back it up with either popular support and/or force. So, let's really look at this model in terms of what people have to lose if they don't follow the status quo.

The council appointees are given their power (like a privy council with teeth) by the emperor, so they have a vested interest in backing him or her while (s)he's alive. They know that which is why they don't buck the system. But, the people on this council are highly unlikely to be mere lackeys; they're going to know who's popular among the people, who's not and how the military leaders feel about it all. Add to that the fact that their membership on the council makes them influential and (ideally) rich, and when the emperor dies they themselves have a vested interest in the continuance of the state with minimal disruption during the transition of power.

So; the emperor 'prefers' a candidate that's popular with the people and the military, it's a no brainer, especially if that candidate also still likes the privy council.

If your emperor picks a candidate that is unpopular with both the people and the military, finding another candidate, one that will be grateful to the privy council for their support, is also a no-brainer. No-one's going to argue and the country just moves on after a couple of sporadic protests about regime change.

It's the boundary conditions you really have to worry about. Preferred candidates that hate the privy council, but are in tight with the military, even if unpopular with the people. That kind of thing.

Make no mistake; the privy council in your scenario will act in their own interests, but their position and title do make their interests align reasonably well with those of the state. So much so that in many cases it will be hard to see the difference between self interest and altruism. But, at the end of the day, civil war is never in anyone's interest and power is often given in social conformance so as to avoid the use of force in a manner that introduces risk to one's long term health every bit as much as one's short term health.

This is in fact the very moral that was taught to Damocles in the legend about the sword. Great power is not a means to itself as it carries with it the responsibility of the state, and one's decisions must always reflect the welfare of those who grant that power to you by NOT rising in rebellion.

As such, like the Cardinal's Conclave for electing new popes, there are plenty of examples through history where succession has either been declared or ratified by some form of noble council. But, there are also as many examples of where someone with enough numbers and swords decided his choice was better and did something about it.

Whether in a democracy, authoritarian dictatorship or empire, it's a wise ruler (and ruling council) that always takes the views of the people and the protectors of the people into account, and your council will do exactly that if the empire is to continue.

  • $\begingroup$ "Preferred candidates that hate the privy council" I would not say that it's a boundary condition. I would say it is very likely that real life candidate would be at odds with at least some of the council members. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 1:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Alexander you're right that it would be a common occurrence; I was using the term boundary condition to describe those cases where there are a number of conflicting points to consider - closer to the yes/no boundary if you will and the answer isn't going to be clear cut. Unfortunately, like you point out, that's going to occur in a majority of cases. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 1:30
  • $\begingroup$ Upvoted. Solutions to the succession problem like the one outlined in the original question often sound adequate, but there are always going to be other men who think they should be the emperor - losing council candidates, the emperor's own offspring, military leaders, popular demaogogues. If any of them are strong enough to contest the succession, they will. $\endgroup$
    – tbrookside
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 19:30

For simplicity we'll say the candidate can't be a current member of the council.

That's not simplicity, that's a major factor.

The closest existing example is the election of the Pope in Rome. The Pope appoints cardinals and when he dies the cardinals choose the new Pope, normally from among their own number. However you've forbidden the council from following this path. If the current emperor wants to remove someone from the possible succession, his easiest path is to appoint them to the council. It's a great honour that they can't refuse, but it takes them out of consideration.

The electors of the Holy Roman Emperor mostly elected the eldest son of the last emperor. If you're following that path then it's just a formality, but equally this was a fixed set of persons, the position of elector was hereditary.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Ooh you're right, I hadn't thought about this technique. $\endgroup$
    – Timst
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 8:35

Once upon a time there was a king...

In the Russian Empire after the death of the Peter the Great, the traditional throne inheritance system was broken. For several generations, the most influential court dignitaries (those who took part in the previous czar governance) decided who would be the next czar, their decisions enforced by the Imperial Guard. They couldn't nominate themselves, it had to be a Romanov. They sort of went along the familial relations, but an heir that didn't suit them didn't have a long lifespan, from a few years to few weeks even, and could have a sudden apoplectic stroke. By a snuffbox. To the head.

When an heir has been crowned, that same people did they best to follow his or her orders to the letter without question. And their children after them. So here you have your council, even if never formally proclaimed.

It resulted in several empresses doing their best to appease that very same top nobility, interleaved with short-lived unlucky emperors. Corruption spread like a wildfire. The luxury those courtiers lived in were beyond imagination (of that time). Any state reform that could threaten the status quo would be postponed.

Surprisingly to some (but it's actually typical), the state affairs didn't go completely bad during that time. Sometimes a capable empress found good people for the job, and things were good for the empire. Sometimes she didn't, and then it didn't work out. All in all, the country solved its problem, gained territory, had money for government to function and the bureaucrats to steal.

It ended after the war with Napoleon. Many young nobles that weren't part of the top bureaucracy decided, after visiting Europe, that reforms are needed. They tried a revolt. New czar Nicholas I won. Afraid for his life, he implemented harsh oppressive measures. The fun times ended, a simple absolute hereditary monarchy lasted some time after him, then it blew up in 1917.

Of the past let us make a clean slate

In USSR from Stalin rule and up to the december of 1991, a small group of people called Politburo was in charge. And its leader, usually titled General Secretary, ruled the country. Usually he made all the important decisions, and the rest of the members were happy to drop the responsibility onto him. It started even with Lenin actually, but was somewhat different at first.

There was a kinda democratic system of Soviets (councils) and Party Congresses that supposedly ruled. But it all was just a formality. All members of Soviets and Congresses were chosen in one-candidate votes with the candidates chosen by the Communist Party from its own members only. All the party members were obligated to obey decisions by Politburo. Members of Politburo itself were elected in a similar manner. The General Secretary was in effect chosen by Politburo after the death of the previous one.

So here again you have a system similar to yours, albeit in a formally democratic country.

This time, however, in addition to corruption, the system instilled fear of responsibility in everyone. Stalin ruled by cruelly manipulating Politburo members and periodically killing some of them. After his death, Khruschev stopped it, but tried to reform the country and pissed off the corrupt party members, so they got rid of him. After that, the Politburo turned into a swamp. Each member expected others to come with actual ideas and decisions to make country forward. No one wanted any responsibility. They spent time doing minutiae government bureaucracy and vying for a bit of more power instead.

The economy went into a heavy stagnation followed by a decline (it's been completely controlled by this people). From a new generation, a supposed reformer Gorbachev rose to a challenge to fix it. But educated by Politburo, he could only talk about reform, but not actually implement it. The system broke completely, and not a century has even passed from the establishment.

And does it all mean something?..

Hard to tell. The system is somewhat viable, but was proven inefficient. It's always corrupt, abhors reforms, turns them into some hollow imitation of improvement, and drives country into dangerous stagnation. On the other side, it's really stable, and can't be changed much without a serious breakdown.

  • $\begingroup$ I think that what stability Russia had under the Czars was not so much because of the elective system, but because the alternative was so much worse. Civil war is nearly always the worst way to choose a new leadership, given most people a stake in seeing an orderly succession. I'd also note that a key factor in any viable government is one where competent (or aggressive) people with wealth or power either have a path upwards or feel completely secure. Thwarted ambition or insecurity motivate a huge number of historical revolts. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkOlson: you're right, but that's not all of it. Palace revolution age, as it's called, lasted for a century. There was plenty of thwarted ambition or insecurity during it. It has seen enough attempts of both coups by the nobility and uprisings by the commoners. But unlike a previous age, none succeeded. Not a single one has even led to a change in state policy, that's why it's a time of stability. The bureaucracy led by czars or czarinas, supported by the army, always won. That's the unity emperor gets from being approved. $\endgroup$
    – avek
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 18:56

As some comments suggested, let's look at the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation as an example. This empire existed in Central Europe from 800 to 1806.

From 1356 onwards the HRE had a system of elective monarchy. When the emperor died, a new emperor was elected by a council of prince-electors. The prince-electors were the most powerful bishops and nobles from the empire who themselves ruled large regions within it.

But from 1453 to 1740, all emperors were elected from the Habsburg family, making it de-facto a hereditary position. And the only reason that streak was broken in 1742 with the election of Charles VII from the house of Wittelsbach was that there were no Habsburgs available anymore to take the job.

The Habsburgs managed to appease the electors for so long for mostly two reasons:

  1. Smart marriage. The House of Habsburg had an unofficial motto: "Leave the waging of wars to others! But you, Habsburgs, marry". They wed their less important sons and daughters with those of the prince-electors. Being distantly related to every important person in the empire meant they could rely on their friendship and loyalty. And having marriage ties with powerful rulers abroad was also a plus for their ability to handle external affairs. (it also had a big disadvantage, though: Generations of incest created various debilitating genetic defects in the Habsburg family, which is the main reason why the family died out in the 18th century)
  2. The emperors exerted very little authority over the prince-electors. The electors knew that as long as they kept electing Habsburgs, they were able to do what they want.

The system would likely not have worked nearly as well if any emperors would have been less diplomatic and more power-hungry. If any of them had tried to rule with an iron fist and act against the interests of individual electors, then the electors would have very likely broken that streak.

  • $\begingroup$ The essentially powerless nature of the HR Emperorship helped a lot. While it was more than an honorific title, it was a lot less than what "Emperor" normally means. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 15:04

'#1 "near-absolute authority" is the problem here.

Council members have no power apart from what the Emperor gives them, and a sudden death of the Emperor will create a power vacuum, in which nobody would have an incentive to play by the rules.

For example, supreme commander of the army might want to seize the whole power, if not for his own benefit, then just to maintain the order in the empire. Other senior officials may feel personally threatened and move on to secure their future in spite of what the Emperor's will said.

In real life this may be similar to what happened after death of high-profile authoritarian leaders. Succession is never smooth, and top lieutenants are never keen to follow the departed leader's will, unless it's in their personal interests.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Fittingly given your username, this is what happened to Alexander the Great's empire. Rather than having a rigid hierarchy of military officers, he assigned his "Companions" to different tasks based on need, with organizational meetings on practically a daily basis. This worked great... up until he died. Then there was nothing stopping them from warring over who got to inherit the empire, which they promptly did. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 0:57

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .