I was thinking of a situation in which there is a city state with a direct democracy in which citizens not only vote directly on the issues but vote on which issues are to be voted on as well as counting the votes. The people in this city state vote to begin conquering their neighbors and within ten years what started as a city state becomes an empire covering 397,000$km^2$. Within thirty years the empire expands to cover more territory than the roman empire. The empire has the same direct democracy as the city state that started it and people in every city of the empire are allowed to vote.

What effect would expanding from the size of a city to being larger than the roman empire within a generation have on this empire with a direct democracy? Would this empire be able to hold together without going into civil war or would the people in the conquered territories vote to break away?

  • $\begingroup$ How big are the populations of the initial city and the empire? Was all the territory united by force, or was diplomacy used? $\endgroup$
    – user8808
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 11:38
  • $\begingroup$ As an "empire" does it have a king/emperor? $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ A direct democracy is nothing but mob rule. No one has rights, and the majority makes all the decisions. That doesn't sound like it could work on any scale larger than a small town. $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ It's all fun and games until JarJar appears before the senate and proposes giving emergency powers to the chancellor. $\endgroup$
    – frozenkoi
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ It's all interesting and entertaining until Jar-jar exists. Just kidding. It never was $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2016 at 15:20

4 Answers 4


What level of (technological) development are you considering?

Direct democracy would fall apart quickly in pre-industrial times (which seems to be your focus, given the reference to the Roman Empire), because every proposal to vote on something on would take weeks or even months to distribute across the empire, then another few weeks for the vote tallies to be returned, after which the actual vote would take the same amount of time again.

In addition, the people in the conquered territories probably have no shared interests at all with the original state's citizens. They could probably organize and pass a vote to disband the imperial army and distribute the treasury to the conquered territories. They wouldn't even need to vote for independence after that.

A federal system might work to alleviate the communications problem by having direct democracy only at the city/province level, but it doesn't solve the problem of people not wanting to be part of the empire and voting to sabotage or leave it.

Conquest and democracy simply don't go well together. Imagine the United Kingdom The Netherlands (pop 17 million) conquering India its old colony Indonesia (pop 220+ million) and then giving their new citizens equal voting rights. After the next elections, the country will be run by a government of Indonesian parties. Essentially, the UK Netherlands would have been absorbed by India Indonesia rather than having conquered it.

If the empire grew by having cities join voluntarily (after the population deposes the local rulers), it might last longer, but only as long as it can provide material benefits to the citizens that its neighbors don't.

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    $\begingroup$ UK is a bad example when considering issues of scale as our parliamentary seats are assigned by region and those regions do not have uniform populations. By definition, UK citizens do not have equal voting rights. The whole of India could be assigned a single seat if we liked. The US is the same. $\endgroup$
    – Gusdor
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Gusdor "The US is the same." Um, no, the US is not the same as the UK. There may be some obscure attribute in this regard that they share, but representation of the states in Congress is dictated by the constitution according to a formula that includes population. It does not insure exact uniform representational ratios, but such a thing is mathematically impossible anyway in any system where the number of votes in Congress is less than the number of people in the US. $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ But not for Senate ? $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ I believe the UK also has a formula. However, both systems see greater per vote impact in the smaller regions. You can limit this effect by adding seats but there is only so much space in those grand buildings. $\endgroup$
    – Gusdor
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ @PierreHenry well, considering that the Senate originally existed to provide representation for state governments and their interests, there was good reason for that. And then some idiot introduced the idea of direct election of senators, and everyone jumped on the idea without thinking. Now we have two houses of representatives which make everything unequal. $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2016 at 15:26

You could potentially build a large empire with some level of democratic process in place, but not to the extent that you're describing.

The level of bureaucracy you're describing is completely unrealistic in a medieval setting (and that's before you take the problems Cyrus describes into consideration):

  • A very small number of people knew how to read or write in those days
  • Even many of those who knew how to read or write had no education or culture to speak of. This leaves the door wide open to the manipulation of the masses via clever propaganda, rumors, etc.
  • The resources needed to vote on which issues to vote on, and then vote on the issue itself would be absolutely mind boggling. The city would come to a grinding halt as everyone would have to go and vote. Your entire empire would make decisions so slowly that its enemies would be able to crush it without a problem.
  • Even today we struggle with ballot stuffing, and dishonesty in the voting system. Ensuring vote validity in a time when there is no good way to discern who's who (no government photo ID) is simply impossible.

Basically .. even having a city run in this fashion is nothing short of a fantasy setting.

So here's how you can - for the most part - accomplish your goals:

A Flavor of Democracy

Your government should work a bit in the same way that democracy works now in the United States (pick and choose some of the elements, of course).

The reason I'm singling them out is because their President is the supreme military commander, and he is able to order certain military actions with no input from any other branch of government. This ability is absolutely crucial in a medieval setting - the ruler must be able to make quick, clear military decisions, and have the armed forces obey unquestioningly.

Some politicians may grumble, the senate may voice their opposition, etc., but they can't stall the decision with pointless political bickering while the nation's enemies advance.

Furthermore, seeing how the US is basically a modern, democratic conquering empire of sorts, the analogy works well.

Tiered Citizenship

Uncultured, and uneducated people should not be allowed to vote for obvious reasons (stated above). However, the situation is even more nuanced than that.

Your empire is a bully of sorts. You march into people's nations, bring their governments down, slaughter their armed forces, etc. There's going to be a fair amount of hatred directed at you. Giving newly conquered people the ability to vote is a really bad idea, as you will soon find yourself sitting at the table with elected officials who would like nothing better than to slit your throat given the smallest chance.

So here's the solution: Don't allow just anyone to vote.

Create a tiered citizenship system, a la Starship Troopers. Anyone who serves in the legions for 10+ years becomes a citizen with full voting rights in local and "imperial" (federal) elections. Anyone who serves in the imperial scribe services (political system) for 10+ years can do the same. Many more people may wish to become scribes rather than soldiers risking life and limb, so each applicant should take a test to determine in which branch (s)he would be best suited, and be assigned not only according to their results, but also the need of the Empire.

Those who undertake local vocational training (merchants, cobblers, blacksmiths, etc.) can vote in local elections, but not in federal elections.

Those with no education of any type (minimal wage jobs so to speak) don't get to vote at all.

This might seem harsh, but there's a simple reason for it: the legions and scribe services will serve as educational institutions, and culturally assimilate those who successfully complete their terms of service. This way, the people who eventually end up voting the next supreme leader of the Empire into power do so while fully understanding the issues which the Empire is facing, and who are probably deeply invested in its continued success (since their careers are now tied to its governing body).


Some people are not aware, but most Roman legionnaires were, in fact, foreigners. They signed up for the same reason I describe above: citizenship. The Roman empire would roll in, and like an unstoppable wave, would crush the local tribes. The surviving tribesmen would join up and fill the ranks of the very legions which had crushed their countrymen. Why? Because clearly the newcomers were someone to be reckoned with! They pledged to serve 10 years, which would guarantee them citizenship. This was a huge deal. In the mean time, they became Romanized. They learned the language, they fought the Empire's wars, and gained a sense of pride at the Empire's achievements. You want your own system to work largely the same.

In the end, each conquered nation would slowly embrace your system of governance, although having their populations gain full voting rights might take a few decades.

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    $\begingroup$ I laugh at your calling the US a conquering nation. We haven't conquered anything and kept it since the Spanish American war over a hundred years ago. $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2016 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon Don't fool yourself, conquering takes on a whole host of faces in the modern era, you don't need an army to conquer a country anymore. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon - the US goes into a country, topples the government, wrecks the military, then places their preferred rulers in charge and takes off. It has worked out with varying degrees of success, but let's not confuse the issue: it's modern day conquest. The US simply has to "play" within certain international rules and regulations. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ Well, that's different. The US goes in, makes poor decisions, tries to make it better and utterly fails. That isn't conquering. That's taking a cesspool of chaos and stirring it. That's not conquest. That is failure. $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2016 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon - the US is constantly expanding its sphere of influence. If you really think that they are merely "trying to help folks out, but failing to accomplish their goals" then you are being incredibly naive. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 15:25

Much more information is needed. Are we talking about earth, or some other world? If we're talking about the earth, at what historical period? And what region?

The most important influences would probably come from without, rather than from within. What originally motivated the city/state to "conquer" its neighbors? Was it because they coveted their "stuff"? Was it to stop a neighbor from taking their "stuff"? Was it because they felt threatened by a more distant neighbor? Perhaps they saw an advantage to consolidating their resources with several of their neighbors' resources? Perhaps they had arable land and their neighbors had a good harbour, and another had mineral resources, and yet another had good forests...

And that's just a starting point. When, if ever, do they encounter a rival empire? Or multiple kingdoms, etc,...

Depending on their technological stage, and that of their eventual neighbors, do they reach a point where they can no longer sustain their borders without growing? And have they met rivals that they cannot absorb? Et cetera...

Another major factor would be what form this "empire's" democracy takes. Forms of government are large umbrellas at the meta level. Is it a democratic republic? A direct democracy? Wikipedia lists at least 507 types of democracies! Don't let your imagination be pigeonholed by other peoples definitions of what a democracy has to be.

I just saw you called it a direct democracy

So, would it fall into civil war? Would some conquered territories vote to break away? And would they be allowed to?

Do the advantages of staying within the empire outweigh the disadvantages? A small territory with strong, aggressive neighbors might think they should stay. A larger, rich territory with a strong cultural or religious past and differences may feel otherwise.

I think we'd need a little more situational development to figure out where we're at, and where we're going. Remember though, nothing lasts forever. At some point this empire would probably face civil war(s) and the secession of territory(ies).


A genocidal and strategic population may be able to accomplish this with some planning.

Another way to solve the problem of direct democracy becoming potentially nonviable with greater and greater size without making the changes that @AndreiROM suggested that would preserve universal suffrage would be to use a slow-growth nativist policy.

The Dutch-Indonesia problem

As @Cyrus stated, a conquesting direct democracy risks being subverted by the people they conquer. I would like to point out that our state can simply kill the people or reduce their population over time to preserve a ratio of foreign to native voters. Three methods that could be used to accomplish this are

  1. Violent Genocide - Conquering a territory and killing enough of the population would ensure that territory gains do not create a foreign/native voter imbalance. This would grant our empire-to-be large amounts of new territory. It's a kind of "Lebensraum" approach that would provide for growth of our original population. This would take a bit of work, and would probably make the enemies of our empire fight harder against us knowing that we will kill most of them if they were to be defeated.

  2. Non-violent Genocide - Alternatively a population could be conquered and reduced through social engineering such as chemical means to reduce the fertility rate and a child-tax to reduce reproduction. This method takes more time but may have less political repercussions.

  3. Population Spamming - Ideally we would not only reduce the foreign population but increase our own - Quebecois style - by selective immigration, high rewards for marriage and having children and punishing those who don't marry and have children. This increases the tolerance our democracy has to absorption of foreigners.

A combination of all three methods would be more efficient than any one method used in isolation.

Additional concerns

Aside from things that are universally required to uphold a functioning democracy like education, individual rights and an integrous press, our state has a few additional housekeeping items that it should seek to attend to.

  1. Restricted Immigration - to manage our exposure to vote subversion through immigration.

  2. A Strong Eugenics Policy - The amount of self organization this strategy demands would require a considerably high median intelligence in our state.


There are additional issues that one would have to explore related to managing the behavior of our group to 'get the ball rolling' and about how to confront remaining problems of direct democracy and political challenges our state would face in the future.

For example if the Holy Roman Empire had engaged in all out war in an attempt to completely destroy the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and it's people, all of Europe, in all likelihood, would have fallen to the Ottomans. So our state has a lot of variables it has to balance, some of which we may not be able to look to history for guidance on. Ultimately our state in the long term will have to be flexible with it's strategy as it faces a lot of uncertainty.


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