Let's suppose a fictional world, with ancient / medieval technology and culture. This world has several countries and empires, each with its own capital. Some are purely coastal, some are landlocked. There is a wide range of terrains, from plains, to desert, and mountains.

I understand that capitals are chosen among all the cities of a given country based on the traditional importance of that city on the national history, as well as its economic, religious or political relevance.

However, my question is this: Suppose that all the cities on a given country have the same traditional, economic, religious or political relevance... how would you define what city would be the capital (or alternatively, where you would build a capital from scratch) based on geographical localization?

Note: I accept that geographical factors may act indirectly, by increasing the city's military and economical proeminence over other cities as time goes by... but the geography should be the ultimate first cause for the capital chosing.

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    $\begingroup$ Water, large population centers are always in places with access to fresh water, rivers or lakes. Water travel also makes it easier to move resources around helping encourage growth. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 4 '17 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ Usually one of the cities would – for reasons given in the answers – have a higher traditional, economic, religious or political relevance, and thus become the capital. A country with many identically relevant cities could only happen in a quite artificial setting. $\endgroup$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Mar 5 '17 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @PaŭloEbermann: The question is meant to be an artifical setting. It is meant as a thought experiment to know the impact of geographical factors on capital chosing. Therefore, as in a scientific experiment, I must try to isolate every comfounding variable. I'm not trying to use geographical factors exclusively on my worldbuilding, just trying to understand the geographical influence on this particular item. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 5 '17 at 16:50

12 Answers 12


Essentially capitals of a country are those in the region that are best suited to contact all other regions of said country. There are some cases where the capital was the home of a particular leader that joined the region but on the whole contact with the rest of the country was key.

This is a very good video on city placement, I think it would help a lot with your idea of where to place capitals in your story.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your response... I'll watch the video. But a city that would best contact all other regions wouldn't also be more vulnerable to military attacks and, therefore, not a good place for a capital? $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 4 '17 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ I took the emphasis of your question to be why the city was a capital. Most cities sprang up in times when they had to, largely, fend for themselves and so would have taken that into account. So when faced with a number of cities which are all reasonably defended the next most important thing is choosing where to set up your government and that would be somewhere which can easily contact other regions in your country. $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Mar 4 '17 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I misread your answer... I thought you said best suited to contact all other countries, not the regions of the same country. My bad. :P $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 4 '17 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ @PedroGabriel I can see why, I've editted my answer to, hopefully, be a little clearer. $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Mar 4 '17 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ Just saw the video, very informative. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 4 '17 at 21:03

Based on observation and nothing else intelligent at all, I would day that Capitals are based on a couple of criteria. The most predominant criteria is central location. This is not as simple as it sounds. It has to be as centrally located as possible based on the predominant method of travel of the time. Look at Washington DC, for example. At the time of the founding of the USA, it was centrally located with respect to sea travel. Travel was reckoned not in miles, but in time. A sea voyage from Maine to Washington did not take much longer than from Georgia.

In a land locked nation, this may not be a great deal different. The capital would be located within X days travel from the outlying regions. If there is mountainous terrain, it may look closer on a flat map, but the journey would take the same amount of time as travelling a long distance over a well paved flat road.

The next geographical distortion comes with some of the things we associate cities with, like access to water, trade routes, and defensability. A castle in a rocky wasteland is no good if there is no water. A city in the middle of a plain next to a river needs to have the fortifications beefed up for defense. Finally, no one wants to live in a place where merchants aren't going to come by and sell you stuff. So your capital needs to balance these things. Water is really the only deal breaker here.

To sum up, get a map of your country and put your finger in the geographical center. Then shift your finger around a bit until you find a spot that is:

1) roughly equal in travel time to reach

2) has water

3) Can be defended

4) has people willing to sell stuff coming by

That is where you put your capital based mainly on geography.

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    $\begingroup$ Quite Welcome. there is a lot of other good answers here too. someone made a great point about sources of wealth too $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Mar 4 '17 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ Counter example: England. London has been the capital of England since the Norman conquest - but it is nowhere near central to the borders by travel time (consider how much longer it takes to get to Cumbria than to Kent). I don't even think London was central to the then population. $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner supports Monica Mar 5 '17 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ The sea travel, defence and trade are all good points, but the equidistance is less important than those for more historical capitals like London. $\endgroup$ – Pharap Mar 5 '17 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ All True. The OP was talking about maybe building a capital from scratch. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Mar 5 '17 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ BTW DC was placed due to a political compromise about which region got the capital not because of its centrality $\endgroup$ – sdrawkcabdear Mar 9 '17 at 20:30

If I were to generate a formula, I'd tie it to the country's source of wealth:

  • Countries with trade wealth have coastal or river capitals (UK, China).
  • Large agricultural countries might have an artificially-created internal capital. (USA, Brazil, Russia)
  • Countries with raw mineral resources might pick a small city near the resource (in the mountains or in the desert) over a large trading city on the coast.

In each case it's basically moving the capital to where the wealth is created.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for having into account the different wealth sources of different civilizations. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 4 '17 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ Moscow was not artificially created - it grew on a large river, making it rich in trade. Well that, and the fact that Muscovy was the principality that united all the other lands of Rus. What were they going to do, put the capital in Novgorod, a city that Ivan IV brutally conquered and suppressed? $\endgroup$ – SPavel Mar 5 '17 at 1:25
  • $\begingroup$ And before that, when the capital was in St. Petersburg, it was put there because St. Petersburg had easy sea access to Europe, which was beneficial for Peter I's foreign policy. $\endgroup$ – SPavel Mar 5 '17 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ I thought about adding a comment about moving the capital, but it seemed too much for the posted question…. Russia's capital moving from St. Petersburg to Moscow also reflected a political change, a conscious decision to stop looking at European monarchy as a model and instead invent something that worked for the people…. USA's original (temporary) capitals were New York and Philadelphia (coastal trade cities) but not for very long. This could also be attributed to a conscious decision to reject European monarchy and do something new. $\endgroup$ – wetcircuit Mar 5 '17 at 16:15


  1. Trade routes. In the case of a coastal country, the best trade route is probably at a coast. In the case of a landlocked country, it is in a crossing of the natural trade routes.
  2. Defensibility. For example, this was the reason why the capital of the old West Germany was near to its most western point (Bonn). They were prepared to a large-scale Warsaw Pact attack from East.
  3. Historical reasons/social impedance. It means also (1) and (2), but not on the todays view, but in the historical views (for example, in the medieval era, it mean a top of a mountain somewhere in the center of the country).
  4. Political reasons. Sometimes the capital is built intentionally in a low-importance location, as a deal of the local, concurrent sub-powers, all fearing that the others will use against them that the capital is by them. An example is Washington D.C.

If we check the map, (1) and (2) are the most important, although they often mirror historical views on (3).

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your response: Regarding (1), do you think a city with good access to trade routes would be a better candidate than a city with good access to primary production of said goods? (for example, a coastal city on a gold trade route would be more suited than an interior city near the gold mines and, hence, with a steady inflow of cash?); Regarding (2), since defensibility decreases accessibility, wouldn't this also interfere with (1) [see also the example you set on (3)]? $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 4 '17 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ @PedroGabriel I think the trade routes and the military reasons are more important today. I can't name a single capital city which were built around factories, partially because industry weren't an important, large-scale thing as most of them were built. But trade was always important and large scale. $\endgroup$ – Gray Sheep Mar 4 '17 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ Many American state capitols and also the national capitol Washington DC are the result of compromise between rival cities / interests. With the exception of Georgia, the capitol of each state is not the dominant city in the state. I can very much imagine that in your situation the equally matches cities would want to build a new capitol such that all balanced interests are equally represented. $\endgroup$ – Willk Mar 4 '17 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Will Wow, good to know. I think it can be in the case of a new country. In old countries, the capital city is already given historically, and to change this decision would mean a major restructuring of the interests and influence possibilities, thus it would have probably stronger rejection as acceptance. Although it happened in Brasilia (their old capital was Rio de Janeiro, now it is Brasilia city, as I know mainly city planning and the continuous traffic chaos was the reason of the change). $\endgroup$ – Gray Sheep Mar 5 '17 at 1:34
  • $\begingroup$ I think defensibility was always much more important as accessibility in the medieval era. In the feudalism, the ultimate source of power and wealth was the land (== feudum, on latinic). All military power wanted the most stronger control over as many land area as possible. Accessibility was only important in the sense, that the King obviously wanted to reach all of his country as fast as possible, which was a strong argument for the central regions of the country. Although most capitals were also trade centrals, too. $\endgroup$ – Gray Sheep Mar 5 '17 at 1:40

The difference between state and non-state culture is specialization of subjects.

In a non-state culture, everyone is somehow involved in decentralized food production, while states tend to have lots of people in other roles, so they need to redistribute food from the producers to the specialists.

For this, the food needs to be accessible to the state, so (specialized) soldiers can visit farms and confiscate grain to keep the army fed. This requires that farmers switch to produce that is easily measured, can be transported, doesn't spoil quickly and is ripe at predictable times. In the western world, that is mainly wheat and corn, in Asia, it is rice.

This usually leads to a monoculture, which degrades the soil, so for a state-building project to be successful over time, there needs to be a mechanism to replenish nutrients, such as a river with a yearly flood.

Thus, the capital for an agrarian society is located

  1. in the plains (no obstacles to army movement, so maximum area of influence)
  2. near a river (water and nutrient supply)
  3. somewhat near the mountains (spring flood still needs to carry soil)

States based on overseas trading have their capital in a harbor, and states based on strategic location along trade routes have their capital placed at the strategic location, but both are normally integrated into an agrarian state during the course of history, as agrarian states can maintain significantly larger armies.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for having into account how the interplay between soldiers and producers (i.e. specialization) would also influence the geography that would be more appealing for a capital. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 5 '17 at 18:20

Expanding on Paul TIKI's and Mikey's answers and focusing on your two statements:

how would you define what city would be the capital based on geographical localization?


ancient / medieval technology and culture

First, lets establish some times. Ancient would typically be from about the rise of Greece to the fall of Rome. Medieval is the period between the fall of Rome to about Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of the Americas. Based on those timelines, most medieval capitals were already established ancient capitals (with a few exceptions), and all capitals were already established cities.

The largest factor behind the establishment of ancient cities is geography. How easy was this land to defend? How fertile is the land? Food was tough to come by in ancient times. The second largest factor is the travel time. Can we get the food there before it spoils? How quickly can the populace get to the defensible spot? By the way, there are some fascinating isochronic maps showing the travel times. Here's one showing how long it took to get to Rome: Travel time to Rome Sure, water and trade help a city grow, but those fall under the auspices of its defensibility. E.g., how long can you defend against invaders without water or food? Plus, rivers are just another natural barrier against invaders. So ultimately, the largest factors are a natural barrier like a hill or river and a source of water.

Looking at this list of the top 10 ancient capitals:

  • Rome was founded on Palatine Hill next to the Tiber River.
  • Athens was founded on The Acropolis. The Cephissus river, the Ilisos and the Eridanos stream were its main water sources.
  • Byzantium (later Constantinople then Istanbul) started as fishing villages on Seraglio Point, and although it lacks a hill, it is surrounded on 3 sides by the Bosporus. (I personally think the lack of a hill played a part in its continual changing of hands throughout the centuries.)
  • Babylon lacks a hill like Byzantium, but it too was almost completely surrounded by the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
  • Cuzco was built high up in the Andes in the Urubamba valley and only guns and smallpox allowed it to be taken.
  • Tenochtitlan is built in the middle of Lake Texcoco.
  • Thebes was built in the Theban hills along the Nile river and may have been the most populous city in the world at one time.
  • Great Zimbabwe was built in the Zimbabwe hills between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers.
  • One of China's first capitals, Xi'an, was founded at the foot of the Qin mountains along the banks of the Wei river. With 7 more rivers nearby, it had ample water and natural barriers.
  • Cahokia was founded along the banks of the Mississippi river near modern day St. Louis, Missouri.
  • Jerusalem was founded on a hill near the Gihon spring.

I find it interesting that mound building civilizations all had capitals that were not founded on a hill (counting the pyramids as mounds).

So, to determine which of your cities will become the capital, decide how to attack it with an army of spears, bows, and (maybe) horses. If you can't devise a winning plan, that's your capital.


Modern capitals tend to be located close to borders; however they usually were located more centrally in the past. The most important example being Vienna and Bratislava, which turned into border cities (at least the latter) after the separation of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

  • $\begingroup$ Vienna is around 100km from the border. It is really unusually close, but I wouldn't say it a border city. $\endgroup$ – Gray Sheep Mar 4 '17 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ 50-60km at most. Berlin is no more than 90km from Poland either. And Bratislava is located right at the border as well as Salzburg (the latter one not being a capital but still an important regional and interregional center for westernmost Austria and southeastern Bavaria). $\endgroup$ – MedwedianPresident Mar 5 '17 at 9:36

In addition to the various factors discussed by the other posters, there are a few that also need consideration:

Defense. A capital city (or indeed any city with wealth in this era) needs to be defendable from most types of attack. Wealth is a magnet for brigands and marauding armies as well as merchants and artisans, and the merchants and artisans are not going to appreciate being overrun and pillaged on a regular basis. This is usually provided by looking at the local geography to limit the areas of direct approach, ensuring there is access to adequate water supplies at the very least and enough building materials nearby to make raising walls possible without breaking the bank.

Access to agricultural supplies. Building a capital city high in the mountains because it is close to the silver mines might make sense because this is where the money is and it is easy to defend, but if no one can be fed, then there are going to be a few issues.

Religion and culture. Some capital cities or major centres are built around religious or cultural sites. Some may have to move because they celebrate a religion or culture which is at odds with the new ruling class or people, or the new rulers of a conquered area may have to adapt in order to make ruling their territory easier by appeasing the natives (provincial capitals might have to take this into account if the province was conquered). Co opting the natives is usually a lot easier if you leave them with symbols and tokens of their own to cling to.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for this answer... defense was already covered on other As, but access to agricultural supplies is important too. As for religion and culture, I they go beyond what was asked here, unless that religion/culture has some connection with geography... $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 5 '17 at 18:18

Capital designation has a number of causes. But luckily you have it refined to medieval capitals. I'll work with your assumptions:

  • "Medieval" (European, I'm guessing? Not Islamic or Eastern)
  • "Geography should be the first cause"
  • "All cities have ... the same traditional, economic, religious or political relevance"

I will also use Madrid, as it is my favorite (as an Urban Planner) for description of historical European medieval urban study.

Geographic Distribution

After centuries of conquest by different cultures, when Spain established its rough borders after Reconquista (post-Islamic takeover) and determined the capital to be centrally located in Madrid, or مجريط (Arabic: Madzjreetdh).

enter image description here

It was central to all of the provinces and cities. But that's not all that contributed.

Access to Resources

Resources were accessed by river - accessibility that is critical to a European medieval city. Travel by river, sea, ocean was much faster than by land. Access includes information as well, not just goods. Religious and political players can get to a medieval city much quicker, from which everything could be spread. But that, too, is not the only factor. This also contributes to the size of a city, being the crossroads of so much trade.


Both defensive structures and symbolic/civic/religious structures help make a city most prominent in 1500s Europe. Sitting on a rise, as though to look over the whole territory.

enter image description here


Some medieval capitals were established from cultural/religious ties, but I don't think that's what you're looking for, since you stated that they all have the "same traditional, economic, religious or political relevance."

Again, there are a bajizillion reasons to make a city a capital, but these were the most relevant in medieval Europe. In other places and other times, there are other factors.


How are capitals chosen?

Growth or Placement


Most capitals are chosen by growth, we pick the largest or wealthiest city in the country and make it the capital. In this case what makes a capital is what makes a city large: good trade routes, good water supply, good place to build. This encompass the majority capitals (London Paris Cairo Moscow and so on).


Sometimes a political decision is made to make something other than the largest city the capital. This can be a political compromise between factions (Washington DC), an attempt to urbanize an area of the country (Brasilia), or an attempt to move the capital to safer territory (Tel Aviv vs Jerusalem speculation about moving Seoul south)


There are a few factors which can influence where a capital city ends up being.

One important consideration is how long the state in question has existed with a reasonable stable government administration.

Historically (ie around the middle ages) the capital city didn't functionally mean much and often Royal Courts would move around according to the personal preference of the ruler and the season. In an era of poor communications this also allowed the monarch to have more direct influence than they might by staying in one place.

There is also the fact that capitols will tend to gravitate towards major trading hubs as they will have good connections both within the state itself and with the outside world and naturally be a focus of both civil and military power. So many capital cities are either on the coast or a major navigable river or other trade hub. London is an obvious example of this.

Equally many modern countries, especially in Europe, are the end result of the amalgamation of several smaller autonomous states so it may be that the ultimate capital was the seat of the provincial dynasty which ended up on top.

In many countries the capital was pretty much fixed before industrialisation took hold so it is less common for industrially based cities to be capitals.

There may also be historical drivers associated with a sense of national identity for example a city which grew up around a stronghold of a historic figure considered to be of particular national importance. Indeed for countries prone to invasion there may have been a tradition of establishing the seat of government in a defensible location.

There are also plenty of examples of cities which were planned more or less from scratch as dedicated administrative capitals, regardless of economic size. Canberra in Australia is a good example and to a degree, Washington DC. This is often the case with countries which made a fairly rapid transition to modern civil government. Equally there may cases where the capital has been deliberately moved to break associations with previous regimes, especially in large states with a complex imperial history like India, China and Russia.


The key to the question is the assumption that:

all the cities on a given country have the same traditional, economic,
religious or political relevance

In real-world examples, there is usually a city with greater relevance, such as an existing historic, symbolic capital. But in this problem, we are assuming that all cities are equally un-symbolic.

In a medieval/ancient culture, the various power centers are likely to struggle for supremacy to set up their absolute monarchy. Think Shakesperian machinations and many battles. Today we call this a civil war. Eventually one group will emerge triumphant.

Since there is no historic, symbolic capital (London, Paris) for the victors to seize, they will remain where they are - located with their power base. Their city, wherever it is, will become the new capital, and with each passing year will acquire the symbolism of the national capital. Future aspirants to the throne will want that symbol, regardless of location.

Is there way to predict which of the otherwise equal cities will emerge triumphant? Not with the given assumptions that the cities start out equal, and that the culture is medieval/ancient. In this artificial case, the other factors (water, central location, defense) may matter...but less so than clever politics, fortune in battle, and a plentiful supply of luck.


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