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The Artarkan Star Empire is a loose confederacy of stellar warlords, pirates, slavers, and other groups lying on the edge of known space. While most of these groups hail from one common culture (Artarkan) most operate as independent "clans". The Empire itself was founded by Ar'xhir the Conqueror who unified the warring clans by brute force and political cunning.

But how could Ar'axhir's descendants maintain his Empire? More importantly: How could future emperors keep the clans loyal to the crown with minimal rebellions, but also retaining autonomy for "loyal" clans?

Notes:

  • Centralization is not an option due to the probable outcome of the clans rising up in rebellion against the loss of their "Rights".
  • Economically and technologically the Empire is maintained by a raider culture that participates in slave raids and looting of neighboring systems. Rarely does an ambitious warlord conquer, say, a moon or even a planet.
  • Religiously the Artarkans believe that only through raiding (to obtain offerings) and conquest that the Gods will be satisfied and will prevent the destruction of the universe (think Aztec or Assyrians).
  • The Empire would be vaguely feudal but many of the "realms" are carved out by the Clans themselves, not assigned by the Imperial Clan.
  • Fighting and warring between the Clans is common but regulated with the Imperial Clan stepping in when the fighting gets out of hand.
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    $\begingroup$ This is very possible if there is some kind of common enemy. Otherwise a "loose collection" would be warring within itself (including challenging the Imperial Clan) - which, in turn, may lead to strong unification. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Sep 9 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander the common enemy would most likely be the larger nations they've ticked off or abolitionists. It would be interesting if their common enemy us merely an alliance of nations that see the Atarkans as a common enemy $\endgroup$ – Celestial Dragon Emperor Sep 9 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ so hired them as pirate mercenary or buccanneer is out? $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Sep 9 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Li Jun no that's no the table. You could have a few clams basically "bought" $\endgroup$ – Celestial Dragon Emperor Sep 10 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ If the empire consists of some loosely connected independent rulers...then it sounds like you have a space version of the Holy Roman Empire. Slightly later after its inception it's just a bunch of local rulers that were technically governed by an emperor but they weren't really unified and the emperor didn't really have a lot of power over them. As Voltaire said: neither Holy, nor Roman, and not much of an Empire. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Sep 10 at 14:09
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There is a problem with raiders. They don't build.

Some historians used the label Gunpowder Empire for an empire where only the central government had the means to produce siege guns and the vast amounts of ammunition they required. (This catchphrase is a simplification, of course.)

Assume that only the ruling dynasty controls shipyards and factories to build proper warships. Again historically, the ability to produce armor plate and big guns was limited to a few arsenals and factories. Find something similar in your technobabble, from force field generators to high-powered particle beams to electromag starfighter launch catapults, that comes only from the "Imperial Arsenals." Other yards and contractors might be able to do routine maintenance, or build civilian starships and smaller warships, but not these specialized military components.

Of course the lesser clans realize what is going on, and many resent it. But building an "Imperial-level Arsenal" for the clan requires enormous up-front investments, and years of vulnerability while the capital is sunk and the yard is not yet producing. If the Emperor cuts warship delivery during this period, the clan is toast -- the Emperor does not even have to sully his hands, other clans will handle that.

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  • $\begingroup$ And this allows for Emperors Own with superior ships, which prevents random coalition of lords from taking over. $\endgroup$ – PTwr Sep 10 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ Or have extra fun. The specialized component is bucky-balls that trap antimatter. It looks like soot: it is a powder that is used for guns. Producing it requires a captured black hole and some ridiculously fancy technology. A literal gunpowder empire. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Sep 10 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ The issue with raiders is not that they can not build, but they lack food or economic resources which is why are pushed into a life of raiding. Like the vikings of Europe, this means that what they do build (weapons), they spend a lot more time thinking about and refining than other civilizations do. While the Gunpowder Empire idea might hold for a few decades, those small shipyards that work on imperial ships will quickly learn how those ships are made, and then combine real combat experience with imperial tech to make their own better, smaller, cheaper variants. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Sep 10 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ Another popular choice for an Imperial monopoly is an interstellar communications network, probably FTL. $\endgroup$ – Roger Sep 10 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki, many industrial plants have their "optimal" size. A steel furnace needs a certain size to be effective, and a rolling mill needs a certain size in relation to the metal thickness. The way I envision it, the clans make smaller and cheaper ships, but they are not better -- think late 19th century warships, where there was no real substitute for big guns and thick armor. Of course a new technology like torpedoes and submarines might come around, and become a plot point, or it does not. There is no surface to dive below in space, and no sky to fly. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Sep 10 at 20:38
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Give them a larger threat

I have two examples of this being used with pirates in culture and history.

The first one you are probably familiar with: Pirates of the Carribbean 3 - the pirates of the world basically elect a unified fleet commander in response to the threat of British vessels threatening to ruin all their livelihoods.

The body that enforces they follow the rules - Captain Teague - is not a member of any of the contributing pirate squadrons and thus has no conflict of interest.

My second example is a bit more accurate and follows Ching Shih - who commanded the largest pirate force in recorded history. Ching Shih's personal rise to power is because of various favors and political maneuvering, but the reason her fleet stayed together is to combat external forces - such as the Chinese Government, the East India Company, and European fleets- and internal forces such as other pirate gangs and raider groups.

This didn't just mean they had the biggest stick, but they also distributed the risk. A squadron with failed and damaged vessels would be supplemented by spoils from more successful squadrons.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, and it could even be an imagined outside force. In this case, it's "aliens". Any missing or mysteriously damaged ship is blamed on aliens. Any attack that no one claims is also blamed on aliens. A twist to that is if aliens actually show up. Another twist is if their are actually peaceful, maybe even having proof that the actions blamed on "them" are either accidents or done by the government intending to keep their fear based empire. $\endgroup$ – computercarguy Sep 12 at 16:12
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Religiously the Artarkans believe that only through raiding (to obtain offerings) and conquest that the Gods will be satisfied and will prevent the destruction of the universe (think Aztec or Assyrians)

You got your answer right here. Only do they worship a god-emperor and not gods. As it happens Ar'xhir the Conqueror is, in fact, the highest of the gods who descended to the mortal plane to save mankind (those who follow him). Why should the clans follow his heir? Because a god needs a vessel to exist on the mortal plane and when his current vessel decays he will enter the body of his heir. At least this is what he tells everyone and if you question it his devote followers will do all the nasty things to you religious fanatics are known for. These fanatics will do the same thing to you if you fail to bring offerings (taxes) and do anything that the dear god-king dislikes.

The idea of god-kings and charismatic and mighty leaders declaring to be sent by heaven is hardly a new concept. See the mandate of heaven in China, Charles XII of Sweden, the Pharaos, any modern sect (Scientology, Mormons, ...), the pope and Roman emperors, the Chalif,... . I would recommend watching documentation on how sects control their members to learn more. The issue with handling a sect is that ideology and religion tend to be flimsy things if you got little direct control over the people and they are very autonomous. They as the history of the Abrahamic faiths shows will develop their own interpretations and religions based on the original to benefit themselves. This is of cause an issue, but we are worldbuilding sci-fi here. So let's bring in the star of the show:

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis the mindcontroll fungi

Fungal cells in the ant's head release chemicals that hijack the insect's central nervous system. The fungus forces the ant to climb up vegetation and clamp down onto a leaf or twig before killing its hapless drone.

Let's assume the imperial clan or someone they hired genetically and biochemically modified the fungi so it pushes all the right buttons in someone's brain to trigger religious awe and make someone susceptible to propaganda. This would be the light version, the heavy one could include anything from psychological mind-control triggers to visions and dreams detailing the great deeds of their god-king.

Sadly I can't claim credit for this idea, I only picked it up from Alistair Reynolds. He first used it in Chasm City and later for the sect Quaiche sets up on Hela in Absolution Gap.

Ar'xhir the Conqueror would of cause have to infect the chieftains of the other raider factions with the virus and indoctrinate them. He could have done this one by one or all at once during a great feast (maybe a victory celebration that lasted a week). If the fungi are easily transmittable than only a few people from each clan must be infected to infect the whole clan. If Ar'xhir the Conqueror himself is infected he might actually believe that he is a living god or his vessel and suppresses the memory of his great scheme.

So, in summary, the clans will be very autonomous but will pay taxes, spread the good word and be very willing to appear if the emperor summons them (who would refuse the honor of being in the presence of his god, after all). This is somewhat of a space-mongol-scientology-borg thing and it will be really effective, logical and scary.

PS: One could say all you need to start and maintain a religion is a fun-guy/fungi like the god-emperor. I'll see myself out...

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  • $\begingroup$ While such a God Emperor could maintain control, I suspect there may be some mutually exclusive sociological factors at play that would prevent the vassals from being the loose collection of rogues the OP is looking for. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Sep 10 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki That depends. Many terrorist organisations are run in a very decentralised manner. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Sep 10 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ Or better example would be Japanese Empire: even when all Daimyōs were almost independent and in state of war with each other they all agreed that Emperor and his family is holy and above all of them. So, making your emperor holy figure significant in your religion (or just high priest) will solve this loose-confederation-empire problem. $\endgroup$ – user28434 Sep 12 at 12:49
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What you are describing very closely resembles feudal Europe. Lack of reliable communication and transit meant that local lords were very autonomous in their day to day activities allowing them a lot of freedom go out raiding and fighting among themselves, but everyone was sworn to a lord who was sworn to a higher lord who after so many layers was sworn to a king which the most of the nobility rarely ever heard from but obeyed without question. The king only ruled a very small part of the country directly, but indirectly everyone was sworn to him through the feudal chain of command making him too powerful to challenge.

Feudalism works best when each lord only has the ability to effectively control lands within a certain proximity of his home, these divisions of land were typically called counties or parishes. In medieval Europe, poor roads and lack of good communications systems typically limited a county to a town and the surrounding farms and wilderness. In your space civilization, it could be that interstellar travel and communication is hard or time consuming enough that planets or solar systems only make sense to be locally governed. Either way, because lands beyond a certain point take too long to exchange communications with, it's very hard for a lord to govern what happens too far away.

Since each territory is surrounded by other territories, no one county can safely stand on their own so they will need to form alliances. The lords of each county will tend to flock to the most powerful other county in their region for protection by swearing loyalty in exchange for that protection. The more loyalty a count can garner, the more absolute his power over the region becomes until eventually he established a larger division of power where everyone who lives in his shadow is forced to swear loyalty or be conquered by the combined force of this alliance. These larger areas are typically called duchies.

As these duchies start to form you will start to see a lot of adjacent dukes start going to war over disputes about who should have the vassalship of certain border counties; so, they start to find themselves in the same condition as before of being surrounded by too many enemies. These dukes then form even larger alliances where a powerful duke begins amassing the loyalty of other dukes.

Depending on how large your feudal kingdom is, this process may repeat itself many times and create a complex system of alliances resulting marquis, earls, viscounts, barons, etc. Regardless of how complex the system gets there is always going to be one guy at the top of this pyramid scheme. This is king Ar'axhir.

On its own, Artarkan may not be the strongest planet in the kingdom, but it is at the center of this complex system of loyalties, and that makes it the strongest world.

Limited fighting and warring between the clans is both tolerated and to be expected by the Artarkan, because they understand that this is a natural part of lords vying for greater positions in the upper courts. Intervening in these conflicts would often mean dispatching forces over very long distances; so, the king and higher lords generally only involve themselves in a conflict when it escalates enough to threaten their own power; otherwise, these "quarrels" are just seen local matters for the lesser lords to deal with.

Ultimately, this means that the ruler of the empire does not own the hundreds of other worlds in his kingdom, and he must be careful to tread lightly when it comes to telling them what to do, but as long as he maintains these loyalties well through close relationships with the uppermost lords who are sworn to him, he can muster enough of the kingdom's strength whenever needed to exorcise his supremacy and re-establish order whenever things get out of hand.

This means that local lords seeking to gain power won't risk doing so by raising large armadas and trampling dozens of worlds under foot, even if they have the power to do so. Instead, they rely on things like isolated raids and state sponsored piracy, to undercut their rivals' power and obfuscate culpability.

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  • $\begingroup$ "a king that they rarely ever heard from but obeyed without question" - not exactly. This feudal chain of loyalty was notoriously weak if the king was not also the greatest among top nobility. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Sep 9 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps I was unclear. The local lords rarely interacted with the king while the regional nobility was often in court. The sum of the regional nobility, and the nobles under thier authority was much stronger than the king's private assets in every major european country, but the kings maintained power because they only needed to maintain the loyalty of most of the major lords to ensure that he commanded the most power. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Sep 10 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Court Politics are going to be important here, and deserve more prominence in your answer. Especially if you have the old-fashioned concept of an elected King/Emperor: The Outer Courts will be jockeying to join the Inner Court, who will be preparing to put themselves (or their candidate/heir) on the Imperial Throne when the current Emperor dies or falls from grace... $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Sep 10 at 11:56
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The Emperor has a Big Red Button for each clan.

Way back, when Ar'xhir the Conqueror brought the clans under his sway and had them swear fealty, they were also made subject to a system, process, or scheme by which Ar'xhir gained the power to irresistibly destroy them and all their descendants.

  • Perhaps Ar'xhir infected them with a genetic trait that makes them dependent on a substance only the Empire can provide.

  • Perhaps they were compelled to use technology with a software backdoor that allows detonation of all their ships' drives.

  • Perhaps they were compelled to reveal the coordinates of their home planets/bases, and are regularly checked and tracked, if simply knowing that information is sufficient to ensure destruction.

In any case, the descendants of Ar'xhir may not have overwhelming military power compared to the other clans, but they have them by the throat if any of them tried to rebel openly.

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Might makes right

Like all empires do. The leaders have power over others, be it firepower, numerical superiority, wealth, information, influence, resources, a super weapon or pure charisma.

Perhaps the leaders have control of the only starship building facilities. Maybe the only fuel refinery capable of producing starship fuel. A vast network of spies so the factions are played off against each other leaving the leaders as the strongest.

Perhaps the offspring of the different faction leaders are expected to serve the king before they can inherit their house. The factions send them to act as spies and the king accepts them so they double as hostages.

Whatever the reason, the leaders have power over the others. The others might do things on the sly to try and shift power their way but know they cannot challenge the leader directly and win.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the 3rd paragraph, which I was about to post as an answer. Hostages. The leading clan uses marriages and hostages to ensure loyalty. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Sep 10 at 17:46
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Raiders by themsevles tend to be small and squashable (by military state standards) so give them the opportunity to not get squashed but continue their raiding under certain restrictions.

This is have pirates of the new world operated - a British pirate would be given a letter of marque saying they wer enot really pirates, but "independant agents of the British crown" as as long as they didn't attack British ports, only Spanish ones, all was considered fine.

Once you have that level of integration into the ruling establishment, some pirates, as they got older, would seek riches within the empire rather than the dangerous and not-so-comfortable life outside it. Piracy is a young man's game after all, sitting in an office with a nubile secretay and drinks cabinet telling the yougn men what to do is exactly what an old pirate will wish for - so will not ruin his chances to get it in the future.

If you don't have an external enemy to let the pirates loose on, then the next best thing is to ensure they don't do too much damage, let them loose making sure they follow the rules of not disrupting trade, not attacking certain designated planets and only pillaging to a designated extent. if any don't, then let the other loose on the naugfhty pirates, they'll self-regulate!

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1) The ruling clan is the Bank. Like in Game of Thrones. If you step out of line, they will call in loans and encourage other factions to take you out (in return for economic advantages).

Further, raiders grab lots of stuff, which means they may acquire stuff that's useful to others, but not themselves. The go-to "fence" at which to sell your unwanted items is the ruling Clan (and their bank). Only they can really afford to buy large quantities of hard-to-get-rid-of things for gold or cash. The other Clans would need to basically barter -- if both sides of the deal had things the other wanted.

2) The ruling clan is the Trade Hub, which controls interplanetary portals, ala Stargate. One clan could obviously stuff things into a spaceship and travel to another clan to trade, but if it were with any but the nearest neighbor, they would waste time and risk being pirated by their neighbor. The gates -- the hub of the system being the ruling clan's planet -- are the quickest and safest way to trade and travel.

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