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Let's imagine a high magic world. Most of the cities, resources, armies, arms, and everything else is controlled by guilds.

There is a small generational monarchy that owns little but has a lot of power. They have their own castle, some clerks, scholars and a few hundred honor guard to keep the peace. Any guild could overrun them with military power without any issue. What the monarchy has is access to immortality. This is a gift of their bloodline, and can be bestowed upon others. Any one receiving the gift stops aging for ten years, and can't be killed unless most of their body is destroyed. Without the gift they go back to normal, to live out their life from where their aging stopped. There are no other magical ways to significantly prolong your life, except the gift. it is impossible to separate the gift from the person, and there is a limit to how many people can receive the gift from one individual. The monarchy grands this gift for extraordinary cost only affordable by the highest members of guilds. These costs are so high that it generates enough income for the monarchy to be the richest entity.

The question is, is this feasible? Could a small group of people without a large army, religion, or a large civil presence maintain law and control if not management over very rich, organized, and greedy entities by holding eternal life over their heads?

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    $\begingroup$ (1) When I first saw the title, I thought it was about a monarchy keeping control by controlling immorality, and I thought, what a refreshing idea. (2) A small group of people is not a mon-archy. The mon- part means one. (3) A small group of people without an army, religion, or a large civil presence does not have control over a large empire to begin with, let alone keep it. Maybe in the beginning when the small group are many and the create immortals are few, although I don't see how they could get control in the first place. But later, when there are many new immortals? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 18 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ That's basicly the underlying plot of Lukianenko's Dreamline fantlab.ru/work10817 - the Emperor is as such because he is the only person gifted with building a resurrection machine. $\endgroup$
    – alamar
    Jan 18 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ Except for it being a high magic world and not a somewhat futuristic one, this is the plot of Haldeman's The Long Habit of Living, even down to the life extensions being 10 years each. As with that book, the answer is story-driven, so VTC. Information that has not been provided that could drive that story include: a) Can someone in the "monarchy" bloodline breaks away and goes into the immortality business for themselve? and b) how many people can they grant immortality to? The consequences of a) are obvious and if b) is small then it depends how much influence those people have. $\endgroup$ Jan 18 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ A key question is can one of those royals be forced to bestow the gift or is it something that requires many working together. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 18 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ If they're ridiculously rich, why can't they hire an army? $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Jan 19 at 11:20

10 Answers 10

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Could a small group of people without a large army, religion, or a large civil presence maintain law and control if not management over very rich, organized, and greedy entities [...]?

Yes totally, thats how big monarchies worked in the past.

You don't even need the immortality stuff, thats just an extra lever for the monarch to pull. Historically the Emperor usually didn't have an actual army. Neither did the Kings below him. It's the small lords, the Dukes and Barons and Counts and Knights that each have a very small army.
In times of war the Emperor calls upon his vassals to join together to form his big army.
The Emperor himself only had enough men to guard himself and his castle/palace.

It was a delicate power balance and the emperor only reigned through the power the lords gave him. However each lord on his own could have never taken on all the other lords united under the Emperor. And the Emperor had to always keep his vassals in check, making sure nobody gained more influence than himself. Most of the time not through power but through diplomacy.

Granting additional life span 10 years at a time is just another tool for the Emperor to employ in his diplomatics. And a powerful one as he can make sure that those who are loyal to him keep living and won't be succeeded by their less loyal heirs. Also it is a powerful thing to use and bribe or even extort people.

But it is also a tool that can be used against him. Whoever is able to kidnap or otherwise secure someone of royal blood can offer the same 'service' to get more influence and support.

Just imagine some guildmaster getting a very seductive maid into the service of the horny prince. Once she is pregnant she moves back to the service of the original lord without anyone knowing what is happening. If the born child is a boy the lord can just raise him as his own and thus gain access to 'the gift' without the emperor even suspecting anything. If its a girl he can even marry her. As such the lord now could start his plot and his co plotters would not have to fear losing 'the gift' when they overthrow and execute the emperor.

This small story is just to highlight that the emperor should not think that he can just keep all guildmasters in check by making them depended on 'the gift' but rather use it as just another tol in his vast toolbox of diplomacy.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would not be too worried about the presented scenario with a seductive maid. Such monarchy would have very soon established a strict rule that whenever any of them has sex with somebody, that person must remain with the royal family and may only leave a 10 month ofter last sexual contact occurred. $\endgroup$
    – Rasto
    Jan 20 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ You are right about past monarchies being able to (mostly) work without military majority. However, the situation of bloodline that can grant immortality is actually more challenging because by granting the Gift they will in time create stronger adversaries than any historical monarchies had to face. The gift will most likely be granted to talented and ambitious individuals. Then we prevent them from aging so they remain sharp while also gaining unprecedented experience, that we cannot imagine. Unless the royal family grants the gift between themselves, sooner or later the most able... $\endgroup$
    – Rasto
    Jan 20 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ ...of those near immortal competitors is just too much for a new unexperienced young ruler from the royal family to handle. Then, the royal family gets enslaved by them (not killed, they need the Gift). Granting Gift inside the royal family leads to another instability: Succession conflicts. Royal people able to grant the gift would pile up basically indefinitely. Until some of the oldest royal members overthrows the ruler. To make the whole system more stable I suggest to limit the Gift: Gifts prolong your life by a century or two but then the Gift helps no more (or even kills you). $\endgroup$
    – Rasto
    Jan 20 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ If the Gifted are smart, they will make sure that the granting process is involves a complex ritual, known only to them, perhaps involving several of the younger Gifted, each of whom only knows their part. The ritual does nothing of course - but as long as everyone thinks it is important, no-one tries the seductive maid trick. $\endgroup$
    – Jack B
    Jan 21 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Rasto I too think that such rules would be in place, but looking at the past we do know how much humans actually tend to do something even more when it is forbidden. Also depending how far the society understands reproduction, they would either be not aware of all mechanisms, or know enough to harvest some semen from a used bedsheet the next morning. Remember: As long as you stay "loyal to the royal" you have all the time you need to wait for the right moment $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Jan 22 at 7:32
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No

Too many riches in a too small group of people, with too small protection. Use force, kidnap those gifted people together with their riches, now either you are immortal or very rich, or both. The social equilibrium you describe is unstable, and it should hinge on the immortality granters having immense power instead of wealth. Having those guilds that can overturn you in relative submission is not enough.

There is also one single aspect of human psychology that prevents this situation running for considerable time, namely "if I can't get it, nobody will" attitude. In case one ruler would get shunned off immortality renewal/provision because of say too high personal cost, or worse, a continued grudge between those immortality granters and that ruler's kin, he can decide to go all out war against them, with main goal of killing (likely knowing that even an immortal can get killed if properly disposed of) the entire set of people with the gift of granting immortality; the secondary goal would be to get enough loot to compensate for their war efforts. And with "several hundred honor guards" they won't last long, especially if the assault would be well-planned. In case it would be a magic guild ruler, he might aggravate all the other guilds of course, but if the damage would be done so that no one else would ever be able to bestow immortality, the social structure would collapse together with the entire empire.

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    $\begingroup$ Yup, as described, the answer is this. OP needs to adjust something or the only two ways the story go are enslavement or complete annihilation. $\endgroup$
    – lly
    Jan 19 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ All the more so because the exact same drives will be acting on the generation under the guild leaders who would be facing the prospect of never being able to move up. Even if the guild leaders got the gift gratis and provided protection out of the kindness of their hearts, that layer of underlings would be constantly attacking the whole system. $\endgroup$
    – lly
    Jan 19 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Ily: The ruler would just need to be the smarter than his enemies (as it always has been). What stops the ruler from cooperation with those second in line, once it is apperant that they have the support of the guild to do a coup? The ruler needs to be ahead of his enemies all the time. No easy job, but also he has a lot of time to get experience. There is an enemy who he does not grant immortality anymore? Make sure that this one is disposed of before he can build a grudge. Maybe even before he knows that he gaind the disfavor of the ruler. $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Jan 19 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ Do you think using the wealth from the gift to keep a large mercenary force on hand would alleviate some of the problems? $\endgroup$
    – Andrey
    Jan 19 at 23:47
  • $\begingroup$ This does not make much sense. 1. The "if I cannot get it, nobody will" attitude applies in the real world to money as well. Yet there are people whose wealth is beyond imagination of most and also families that are so wealthy for generations. 2. Like in old monarchies, if one (or few) powerful guild master goes against the throne, the ruler calls all the other for help. And they do help to keep the Gift comming their way. Same like in real past kingdoms, the ruler stays while the majority of guild masters support him. $\endgroup$
    – Rasto
    Jan 20 at 14:34
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Yes, but not directly.

You can control immortality - fantastic, but what does that get you? Not much in the way of combat or politics or economics or really anything. What it does get you is control over others.

Probably the majority/most people fear death[citation needed], and they'd probably be willing to pay a lot to dodge it. Naturally the people who actually get immortality will be limited to those who can afford it - which outside of your group of immortal oligarchs is pretty much restricted to the upper eschalons of society, probably people who control corporations, empires, or other highly-influential organizations.

So, you've got a few barons, gold magnates, and maybe some regents hooked on your immortality, paying you in money. But these people certainly have other ways to pay you... perhaps by having the authorities kindly turn a blind eye to a few crimes, or having the militaries conveniently destroy anyone who would threaten the Immortals. Maybe some money too on the side.

How do you make sure this works? Make the gift revocable. Perhaps the person who bestowed the gift upon the baron or gold magnate or regent can also take the gift away, and if the bestowee in question is past their expected lifespan, they go back to having to fear death. This works much better on older people: "Hey, better keep the riffraff out of our palace, or I'll revoke your gift and you'll have about 48 hours before you die of a heart attack." I'd certainly be scared.

Of course, this isn't necessary; people in power don't want to leave power, and being nigh-unkillable is convenient for ensuring that you don't get executed by your constituents. If a powerful figure is fearful of imminent assassination, they might go to the Immortals and pay for ten years of guaranteed immunity from death. This is another attack vector for the Immortals: have the Immortals play up the murder rates and take hits out on powerful figures to make death seem much closer and scarier. Think about it: if you own the gold mines in the Eastern Mountains and you've just heard that three of the ten fellow mine-corp-owners were just murdered in cold blood by a worker, you'd be pretty eager to hand a little control over to the Immortals so that you don't die either, wouldn't you? (Of course, it doesn't matter whether this is true or not. You just heard from the Immortal's emissary that there were murders; verification surely isn't needed!)

Overall, the answer is definitely yes. Control over death is a powerful thing.

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    $\begingroup$ The gift is already "revocable" in a sense: it only lasts 10 years, no matter what. How does "immediate" revocation improve the situation? $\endgroup$ Jan 19 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ More immediacy? I mean, delaying punishment makes people feel less accountable (citation needed). $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Jan 19 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly, the immediate revocability keeps the nobles that the Immortals control accountable. Otherwise, they could do a couple months of work for 10 years of immortality and then just forget about it. Immediate revocability makes sure that the work for the Immortals has to be ongoing so that they don't lose the gift halfway through their ten years. $\endgroup$ Jan 19 at 14:26
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Yes, but some extra effort is needed

In order to rule over people, you need to command their hearts and minds - being loved preferrably, but being feared does the trick too. So said Machiavelli.

If being immortal and being able to share the gift is all that you got, like some other answers have said, the monarchy is done for. They will be tortured into bestowing immortality to whomever keeps them captive.

You need to get people to believe that if the monarch or some other immortal noble suffers, then everybody suffers too. That may require some headology - it's kinda like psychiatry, but more brutal in its approach. A psychiatrist treating a man who believes he's being chased by a monster will try to convince him the monster doesn't exist. A headologist will give the man a stick and a chair to stand on.

So you find something that can really **** up an entire city with minimum effort. For example, a dam could cause a disastrous flood if broken, so you fix it up in a way that it is solid but can be easily made to collapse by a few men.

Then every generation you pick up some idiot - it is very important that this guy is dumb - and bless him with immortality. Then, and this is key, you also make him nobility. Let this guy spend time in the city's brothels and its lowliest taverns. Give him very little security detail.

And then you spread the lies that people can also become immortal by killing an immortal (you said it's possible) and drinking their blood.

Once the inevitable happens (the guy is murdered), you break the dam. Tell the populace some deity did it because a noble was harmed. Also kill the murderers while making a show of it, to show everyone that the fake ritual does not make them immortal.

That should keep peasants and treacherous underlings in check for a few decades. Repeat whenever people start showing the slightest sign of disrespect.

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Yes, but they are riding a tiger.

Any ruling elite rules only as long as they can convince the next tier down that life is better with the elite than without it. Conferring even a ten year extension to life, let alone an open ended extension, certainly makes life better so as long as the elite don't make too many demands they'll be secure.

But if I were one of the barons with a large standing army I'd be tempted to see how long an immortal could be tortured before they accede to my demands for free life extensions. Of course the other barons know this too and if I made a move to kidnap any immortals they'd band together against me. So the position of the elite remains secure only as long as they can balance their barons against each other.

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    $\begingroup$ Unless, of course, the barons band together. They don't even have to put the "monarch" in a dungeon, they can just hint that what's going to happen should the "monarch" refuse to comply. $\endgroup$ Jan 19 at 9:22
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Vatican
is kind of a real life example for your thought.
(Except they woo everyone not just the rich & influential).

Your Immortal-making-business needs to acquire Reputation, Money and Power(Influence & Soldiers) to reach his goal of an independent and strong small country.

Their strongest state is dependent on how many people they can immortalise.
Just the few emperors oder the hundreds of influential and opinion-forming scholars & lords.
If they can control the opinion-forming in other countries, that is a huge influence on other countries. That is easier if you don't have to threaten their emperor. I heard they don't like that[citation needed].
In general a lot of wise and experienced diplomats are needed to exert your influence and power.

The setup phase of this business is hard and not without risk.
Thus it can happen that a neighboring emperor just invades and the plan is just destroyed.
But this risk can be avoided if you display your services as beneficial at first, ally yourself with many neighbors and raise the payment of money and influence later, as you'll be safe from invasions and unruly emperors due to your alliances.

The effects of your Immortalization though will probably cause, that there will be only one familiy forever ruling in one country. That is beneficial to your plan, as your don't have to woo so many new people

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Absolutely

In the same way that most historical monarchs had their power due to their ability to balance and play against each other the nobility of the realm, your king would have to be a great diplomat.

He has something that others want and that can't be taken from him, so he is important (and his family, etc.). More importantly, it is something that you need to come back for as it lasts only so long. So you can't get the gift and then murder him.

Everyone he makes immortal wants to keep him alive to get more. He is the shared interest of those elite few. They would also watch each other carefully so none of them has the idea of locking him up to get the gift only for themselves or something.

But, as many kings in history found out, it's also a dangerous place to be. Every few generations there will be some madman, or someone who didn't get the gift and now wants to take it away from everyone else. Or someone who thinks that kidnapping your oldest son is a good way to pressure you, and so on (strong Game of Thrones vibes).

And it's not such a big step from being the master of the nobility to being the slave of the nobility. French history is an interesting study there. With the invention of cannons, the French king suddenly became the most powerful person in the realm, and kept a monopoly on them. But it didn't last long, and the so-called absolutist kings were, in fact, trapped in a web of positions and favors so much that even when they saw the system falling apart, they couldn't do anything about it.

Your king's actual power depends on him being a few steps ahead of everyone else. That requires that he doesn't extend anyone's life for too long - otherwise they gain too much experience and skills and connections. His own immortality is his greatest asset only if he keeps others living considerably shorter lives. Again, a precarious balance.

If he can dance on that knife edge, he can make it work.

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Without support from a very rare religion that does not promise either reincarnation or an afterlife, the monarchy will be unable to keep itself in power using the gift of life extension because the gift will lose its value. Even that support can be easily undermined by the existence of other religions, which do promise some form of life beyond death, which also devalues the monarchs' gift. For the followers of those other religions, prolonging their current Earthly life would just delay their ascent into the next life, and what good would that do them?

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    $\begingroup$ Promise of afterlife or reincarnation is just a psychological trick to make people think they are immortal, and when they die that will just transform into something else and will keep going. In this world you can get actual tangible immortality. That monarchy doesn't need some religious support, they are destinied to become a major religion. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Jan 19 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ user28434, thank you. Except the OP isn't quite sure if the monarchy can as much as keep their current position. But now it is destined for greatness? Please explain. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Jan 19 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vatican_City — imagine Middle Ages where the Catholic Church wouldn't just crown kings to signify their divine right, but also make them live longer like living gods. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Jan 19 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ Also, "For the followers of those other religions, prolonging their current Earthly life would just delay their ascent into the next life, and what good would that do them?" — if the followers of all religions just wanted to get to the next life faster, suicide would be the norm. But people don't want to speedrun their life, people want to live in this world as long as they can. Afterlife and reincarnation is just an idea that living in some form will continues even after the body is dead. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Jan 19 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ user28434, thank you. I'm sorry to say that you show a fundamental lack of understanding of religion. Your life is a gift from God(s), which you must neither squander nor abuse; in other words, you don't get to choose how long to live. That applies to monarchs too, especially if they want to govern with God(s)'s blessing; they have too much to lose by blaspheming so openly, beginning with the loyalty of their supporters, without which they will not remain monarchs for long. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Jan 19 at 15:37
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The situation is inherently unstable even without all out war

You don't need to go to war with the monarchy. The royal trait is tied to the bloodline, which means it will escape control. Either:

  1. A prince of the royal family will sow his royal oats and it escapes naturally, or
  2. A sufficiently patient, and completely amoral individual can take control of it on purpose. They just need to kidnap a single still-fertile royal (men are probably a better target than women given longer duration of fertility and "scalability"), use said royal to breed a half dozen or more children of the bloodline, then raise said children as their own; if they love you or fear you enough, they'll hand out the blessing on demand. Kidnapping is hard, but much of the real-life complications come from effectively ransoming the victim, and that doesn't come up here.

Once either of those things happens, the monopoly is broken. But the monarchy doesn't have to fall in such a circumstance, any more than it fell in real life when the monarch frequently had little or no army of their own and relied on their vassals and had no such gift to fall back on. They wouldn't be granting the gift solely for wealth, but to a handful of selected loyal vassals that maintain armies on their behalf. Sure, treason is always possible, just like it was historically, but if the power is distributed widely enough, it's much harder to organize a coup.

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There are so many interesting answers here. I think you'd have to home in on exactly how this power stays with the bestowers of it. For instance, is it a magical ring, scepter, or crown that was ordained for a specific bloodline and, should anyone else try to use it, they cannot access the power? I think otherwise, the guild masters, etc. would spend a lot of generations trying to torture the power out of the royals. If it does require bloodline for the magic to work, the power might be held within the royal court simply because people are constantly angling to marry into the aristocracy (often many aristos are relations to sitting royals throughout our history) in order to link their bloodlines. If you wanted to further borrow from real history, you could make it that in the past, the bloodline was so jealously guarded that the genetic makeup started to break down because of consanguineous marriages and incestuous birth. In this way, there would be a tense interdependency between the royals and those who surround them: the courtiers want to attain the bloodline status and eventually the scepter/ring/crown that ignites their power while the royals need to keep their bloodline varied to maintain the strength of the gift. Perhaps so-called sooth-sayers would claim they had the power to see which new blood is best to introduce in any given generation. This would lead to people trying to intimidate, buy off, charm the soothsayers to say their own child or even they were the right blood for the moment. It would also create a web of interdependent power brokers that might insulate the royals against brute force from rivals. FWIW

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