It's a common plot device in stories for one politician to assassinate another in order to take their position. Normally though, these actions are frowned upon by everyone else and act as a motivation for the hero to avenge their politician father/brother/sister/uncle's death. In other words, assassinations are seen as extraordinary and unnacceptable.

What series of events or state of society might cause a government to not just accept that assassinations happen, but to EXPECT attempts on their life as long as they are in power?

By series of events, I mean what would have to happen for a government to accept that assassinations are a regular part of government and maintain this belief for an extended period, not a series of events such as: "We don't like the king --> let's kill him!"

Obviously, there are many short-term reasons for assassinations to be a part of government, but I struggle to think of any long-term ones. I'm talking 100 years and upwards here.

When I tried to come up with an answer, I always came back to the fact that nobody is OK with people trying to kill them. What I need is a situation where assassinations are a part of politics just as much as rallying speeches and sending soldiers to their deaths on a whim.

In case I haven't been clear enough, let me give an example:

In Hamlet, Claudius murders his own brother and Hamlet's father in order to become king. What would have to haappen for this to be accepted as OK, and then for Claudius to be murdered, and his succersor also, and so on?

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    $\begingroup$ Why would you think such extreme measures are needed in order to keep a government from stagnating? Ye olde ballot-box boot generally leaves fewer hard feelings behind... $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    May 8, 2017 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ Stealing an answer from fiction here, but in Chalker's Well of Souls series, there's a country that is governed by a very fluid dictatorship: Anyone who can kill a political leader of some sort gets their job. I'll see if I can find the book and a good quote from it. (It's worth noting that the country in question was filled with technologically-advanced, heavily armored T-Rex-ish creatures, but they could kill each other just as effectively as humans can) $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    May 8, 2017 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me of "My Three Suns". futurama.wikia.com/wiki/My_Three_Suns $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    May 9, 2017 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ Relevant TVTropes link: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/KlingonPromotion $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    May 9, 2017 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ Look into Russian history and the Romanoff dynasty. Their successions were effectively mediated by murder and assassination. The majority of Romanoff rulers were murdered. The Caesars in the Roman Empire often succeeded by lethal means. Many of the regimes in Traditional societies were into blood sports regime change. Just put it on steroids. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    May 9, 2017 at 2:05

16 Answers 16


A lot of places expected assassination as a legitimate means of advancement. This is why people used to lock up and blind their own siblings and other relatives. Historically it was a means to advance in armies as well that were in effect rulers. Baibers for example rose to supremacy when his allied leader died in an accident, same with the Huns, Mongols and many others including Europeans. The rule passed through blood line, so everyone had bodyguards and safeguards and the survivors either hid out, were imprisoned or ruled.

Basically at top level it's not murder, rulers have the right to kill, just as governments today do to anyone who challenges their power. Particularly in monarchies, but the Romans had very powerful families where people advanced by killing off their own relatives. Indian dynasties with kings have a lot of kids ended in attempted and successful assassinations in all directions.

It's not murder if they succeed, it's just politics. It's only murder and treason if they fail.

In tyrannies you basically need to slaughter the previous tyrant and then put his crown on with or without washing the blood off it (provided you were happy to put yourself in the firing line of the next ambitious tyrant). Assassination was one way of doing so.

So if you had a society where kids have the birthright to their parents positions then your society can be like this, all elites would have bodyguards from early in life and may the best man win.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah.... if you read history this is pretty much how many royal families functioned over the millennia. $\endgroup$
    – enderland
    May 9, 2017 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ See: every Sultan who ever had is brothers strangled in the seraglio. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    May 9, 2017 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ On this note, check out what Terry Pratchett did with his Assassins Guild wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/Assassins'_Guild (and Theives Guild as well if you want to get into taxation). Wizards who advance via the "dead man's pointy shoes" method, etc. $\endgroup$
    – ivanivan
    May 9, 2017 at 19:34

I may be missing something here, but don't all world leaders, past and modern, have a reasonable expectation of assassination?

Why would they bother with all that security if they didn't expect that at some point in their reign/political career to have someone try to kill them?

I guess what I'm saying is that all powerful people have a reasonable expectation of assassination, it's one of the costs of power. That doesn't make it "ok", it just is what it is.

I suspect that what makes the difference is how the event is recorded historically... When Lincoln was shot many people mourned the loss of a great leader, but I'm sure there were those in the former Confederacy who celebrated. But remember the Confederacy lost the war, and history being written by the victors, Lincoln being assassinated went down as a bad thing. Had the Confederacy won the war and executed Lincoln, it would have been recorded as a victory.

As far as succession goes, that too is often a matter of perspective. Many leaders rose to power under clouds of suspicion that they may have assassinated their predecessor. It seems that history decides later if this was a good thing or a bad thing. If the successor was "better" then the people rejoice and the suspicion fades or goes away completely, if the successor was worse the people hold the grudge and question the new leader's legitimacy.

See Regicide for a pretty good list of historical references.


The society is highly aggressive and militaristic.

As in real life, the politics of your society is downstream from culture, so you need to have a culture where an assassin's rule would be accepted. In a hyper-militaristic society, everyone values competition and honors those that can show their strength. Conversely, a leader who isn't itching to off the competition is seen as weak. And, unless it's somehow easier to pull off an assassination in your world, it could also be seen as a sign of competence. "He managed to get a team of commandos through the president's security? What great leadership and planning!"

  • $\begingroup$ Assassinating your own superiors is just about the opposite of "militaristic" to me. "Meritocratic" might be a better word? $\endgroup$
    – hyde
    May 9, 2017 at 14:26

I would try having assassination being seen culturally as a sort of test or filter for rulers whose decisions are questioned (or their fitness to rule, etc.); if they cannot defend themselves from assassins, they have no business being rulers in the first place.

In any instance where a ruler is elected (party-based democracy works here, especially if the leader of a party is chosen by a vote amongst only higher-level party officials), it is unlikely that there will be a unanimous agreement. Some people will object, others will vote for the candidate because they are the least objectionable rather than because they like the candidate (see: the last U.S presidential election), still others to pay off (or gain) political favors, etc.

In a militaristic culture or even just one that values personal strength and cunning (possibly a society where "the strongest become king" or some such idea is a critical cultural point), assassination could be seen as a means of testing one's leader. All right, so they won the popular vote/won the support of high officials/inherited the position, but do they actually have the strength and intelligence to do the job? An official who has second thoughts about their support after the fact (see: Brexit, the last U.S presidential election) might quietly hire assassins to remove the ruler whether or not that official thinks they can take that place (so the assassins are not necessarily sent for personal gain alone).

This conception also works in a hereditary system, such as a monarchy; history is littered with examples of bad kings who only got the position because of bloodlines as well as good kings who genuinely did well. Assassination might be seen as an expedient and socially tolerated (if not exactly welcomed) means of dealing with the bad ones.

If the ruler can fight off the attempt, then they might be competent after all. Bonus points if cultural norms dictate that assassins are expected to use physical combat rather than tools like poison to eliminate the ruler and/or the rulers are expected to take a personal hand when necessary instead of relying entirely on bodyguards and the like. If the ruler dies, well, then they would have done badly in the position; the ruler's death in itself is a sign that they were not worthy of the position. If this is a democracy, expect a lot more elections to be called ahead of time due to the sudden loss of the leader or else a different structure that allows a new leader to step in temporarily (a deputy, perhaps) in such an event without an election.


The only way I could see this happening is if the government is a puppet government and the real power lies in the clergy.

If you think about it, a government is only as stable as it is. If you're seeing assassinated leaders every few years you're going to see a natural shift: smart people aren't going to want to be the leader. Why would I want a job with such a low life expectancy. The only good answer to this is power. The head of the government is going to need a lot of power. But this power will crumble without stability. You'll quickly devolve into an ill-ruled nation with multiple warlords vying for rule but none of whom actually control anything.

The only way this could make any sense is if there is something above the government which is holding the real power and keeping it stable. Religion is the natural dual of government. If the priests held the real power, the passing of the leaders would be less damaging.

You might have a culture which is highly devout but which recognizes the need for someone who can operate in ways the religion cannot, by its own rules. Thus, the religion needs a government whose leader can do the nasty things a good pious religion would never do. However, they may want this job to be as walking on the edge of a razor blade. It is expected that you will slip, and that's part of the trade in return for the powerful position you are given.

I could see the religion providing the freedom to the government to do anything it likes except stabilize the rule of its leader, reserving the ability to stabilize to the religion. Any leader who uses their power to visibly prevent assassinations (as any sane leader would) might have their power kicked out from underneath them by the clergy to serve a lesson.

This could create a fascinating world where one of the key challenges a leader faces is how to make it appear as though they are weak to assassination attempts while trying to foil them in secret.


It is hard with humans. It is much easier with nonbiological entities. Imagine a society of artificial intelligences. There is no obvious mechanism for succession because these AIs do not die or age. How then to supplant a ruler? The new ruler deactivates / overwrites / kills the old.

AIs do not necessarily have a preservation instinct either. If it were demonstrated logically that the new would be superior to the old, the old should accept its obsolescence and inactivation in the interest of the society.

I like the idea of code corresponding to leaders of old still archived in deep vaults. Maybe the story requires rebooting an ancient leader whose skillset is once again relevant.


There are Only a Few Motivators for Most People

  1. Power
  2. Money
  3. Love
  4. Honor/Respect
  5. Divine Rewards

The first two are selfish, and therefore valueless to someone who dies. But instances of people being motivated by the latter three to take extreme risks or even accept death outright are actually quite common. Imagine a husband defending his family against a home invader, Spartan warriors embracing an honorable death at the battle of Thermopylae, or a religious martyr accepting death or torture for their faith.

Take a Lesson from Swords vs. Guns

Another aspect that could be useful is what I call the "Lightsaber principle." Swords were displaced as tools of combat by guns because the ability to kill someone from far away is obviously superior to having to get right next to them to do it. But sword fighting is way cooler, so George Lucas needed to make ranged weapons less effective somehow, in order to justify the Jedi using lightsabers. He did this by enabling Jedi to deflect blaster attacks back at their opponents, rendering blasters useless against them, or perhaps even more dangerous than not firing at the Jedi at all.

You could employ a similar principle to make assassination more common, by providing methods of assassination which resist attempts to prevent or punish assassins. Imagine a telepath with the ability to kill someone remotely, which might be near-impossible to prove. Or an orbital weapon which could be used to take out leaders, before warping lightyears away. If punishment for assassins is rare, then there are few reasons not to assassinate a political rival, and people would be forced to accept it as a risk of being in politics, since there are no alternatives, and societies must be led by someone.

Combine these two principles, and you might have a society where assassinations are so easy, that politicians expect to die at some point in their career, and accept it as a sacrifice they make for the greater good, out of love for their families, or because the highest place in their afterlife is reserved for those who die in service of the society as leaders.


In order for the threat of assassinations to be considered the status quo, it must become the status quo. In spite of increased security, assassinations must occur on a recurring basis from many sources. The recurrence of the event engenders the sense that it is a common enough occurrence to be expected. Similarly consistent variations of sources and methods are required if the notion is to persist. If the same source or types of sources were to perform multiple assassinations, then security would tighten around those vulnerable points. If, on the other hand, the sources or types of sources were to be changing rapidly, then security would always be one or more steps behind the threats. In fact this is fundamental to the model of guerrilla warfare Mao Zedong developed, and to modern day hacking.

In fact, I'd go a step further, and have your world develop as a direct result of this "3rd actor" paradigm in modern warfare.

Finally, this history stack exchange may be relevant for historical context. https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/15311/which-country-in-history-has-had-the-highest-number-of-presidential-assassinatio


The Mandate of Heaven

The king's rule is subject to the approval of the gods. As long as the king remains alive, he is seen to have the gods approval, and continues his reign. Assassins are seen as an instrument of the gods; a successful assassin indicates that the ruler had lost the confidence of the gods. An unsuccessful one indicates that his path is considered good enough for the present.

This could be seen as a form of the ever-popular Trial by Combat specifically for the king. Trial by Combat was supposed to reveal the truth in the absence of witnesses, as the hand of god would strengthen the innocent, but one could argue that the king's dignity was beneath such customs. Instead, assassins are expected to continually test the king's luck, strength, and blessings.

Avoiding the Curse

There were a couple of ancient traditions that are worth examining here. One is the Babylonian custom of the substitute king: The priests predicted some terrible event - like a solar eclipse - which would be a bad omen for the king, and so the king would 'abdicate' his throne, and a condemned prisoner would become 'king' for the day. This idea that bad omens attach to a king, and can only be cleansed by killing, could be useful for your world.

A second similar custom was that of the King of the Bean. A ritual feast would be held, usually around the winter solstice, at which a cake was served with one hard-baked bean. Whoever got the bean in their bowl because the 'king' for the following year. He lived the good life, was well fed and treated...and all the time, the sins of the tribe were building up on him. By the time of the next Bean Feast, all their sins were on his head, and he could be sacrificed.

This idea that omens or sins collect on the King's head could certainly encourage assassination - we need a new king, this one's too full of evil. Could you kindly...retire him, Havelock?


We see examples of this all the time in science fiction and fantasy. The protagonists must help their Minotaur/Klingon companion fight in some ritualistic duel to decide ruler-ship. What you are talking about doesn't seem too different. Perhaps instead of a culture based on strength, yours is one focused around trickery, and manipulation. A drow like society with those values would see assassination as proof of a rulers cunning, and prowess. Such a cultural mindset would make politics a constant game off assassinations, with every ruler trying to weed out those who want their throne, only to fall by the hand of someone they would never have thought would betray them. voila, socially accepted assassination.


It could happen, but wouldn't be popular

In a time of extreme instability or civil war, rulers may have a very short life expectancy. Examples in Ancient Rome included the Year of Five Emperors (193 AD) and the Year of Six Emperors (238 AD).

This is generally regarded as a bad thing. Quite simply, killing the Emperor is bad for business. Powerful actors in society (noble families, corporations, religious institutions, whatever) want a degree of order and stability which allows them to protect their assets.

If the ruler is incompetent or insane, then a coup or assassination may be regarded as a necessary evil; but it is a means to the end of getting back to stable and efficient government. Nobody, least of all the Emperor himself, wants to perpetuate a situation where the Emperor can expect to be assassinated at any moment.

An era in which the ruler is frequently murdered is likely to be remembered as the Time Of Troubles, The Dark Age, or something similar.

(For Emperor, feel free to substitute King, President, Sultan, Shogun, or whatever the title of the ruler happens to be.)


There are a number of possible scenarios that could result in this, including:

  • Accidental: At one point in the nation's history, there was a series of several consecutive leaders (good...bad...dictatorial...whatever) who were assassinated and replaced by their assassin. Over time, this became the "ultimate veto" over leadership and the process became formalized, i.e., only the assassin him- or herself could succeed the assassinated leader. Depending on the path the nation went down, this could result either in an extremely enlightened and benevolent leadership or in very few leaders serving out a "full term." IMO, this is the most likely scenario.

  • Bread-and-circuses: Reality programming taken to its ultimate conclusion. Assassination is the way to pacify the masses. The nominal "leader" may only be a figurehead ruler. When the true rulers decide it's time for a "change in leadership," they push forward their "candidate" who must then assassinate the figurehead and assume his or her place. The figurehead may or may not know that he or she is a figurehead, and the assassination may be real or may be a sham. There's actually an OTR episode based on this premise (based on a short story, I believe, though I can't find/remember the title), in which the true ruler is actually a "computer." The new ruler finds himself appointed to take over and finds that the previous rulers have actually retired through fake assassinations. The punchline is that the computer isn't really a computer. It's an old fortune-teller who pretends to be the ruling computer, and who appointed her son the new ruler.... Given that the current President of the United States is a former reality TV star, this one isn't too far off base.

  • The legend of the King: "There once was a Kingdom. Once a year, the King would walk among his subjects at night. He was unarmed, unarmored, wearing a white cloak, and carrying a lantern. No other lights would be lit in the Kingdom that night, and his subjects would wear black. If he survived, he was a good King." (Yes, this was cited in Dune, but AFAIK, Frank Herbert did not originate it.)


Assassination can be regulated

In the venerable long-running Foreigner book series by CJ Cherryh, the central action takes place on a planet where the dominant non-human civilization has institutionalized assassination, to the point where the well-regulated assassins' guild is considered a respectable branch of both local and centralized government.

Note that this book series is not comedy, but serious "anthropological" science fiction.

From the Wikipedia article linked above:

[...] assassination is a legal and accepted means of settling disputes, provided proper protocol is followed. One files a document of Intent which liberates the target to file one back. The Assassin's Guild has the right, often exercised when Intent is filed for foolish reasons, to reject a particular filing.

Assassination can be ethical

When compared to murder (unjustified killing without following the proper assassination protocols) and warfare (which involves mass killing and potential collateral damage and destruction of property) it's easy to see how a society might develop a tolerance for assassination, and even a respect for it as an institution.

A common theme in the Foreigner series is that assassination is considered (by the non-humans) more elegant and moral than resolving disputes through warfare, since innocent bystanders are less likely to be injured or killed.

  1. The first thing that comes to mind would be a situation where in that particular society, the ruler has to prove his position by fighting others that might be interested in taking his position. Thus if he no one tries to assassinate him, he wouldn't be able to prove his strength and in turn, would start losing popularity.

  2. More complicated, yet just a mock-up solution, would be when the government is very strong and isn't afraid of the assassinations and the attempts inform them of some kind of underlying situation. Say, for example, that there is a dumb and strong leader of the underground revolution. The government cannot infiltrate its structures for some reason but feels comfortable with the dumb guy beeing the main figure, thus the assassinations are confirmations that he's still in power and also are a good PR for the society to reject the revolution.

  3. The culture of the given nation is codified as a set of very old rules. The rules clearly state that the ruler is like a god and only if somebody tries to assassinate him, the ruler is allowed to go to war (otherwise they believe in peace and inter-nation cooperation) in order to defend the sanctity of his persona and by implication: the nation's. Thus, if he is in favor of going to war, he will try to induce the assassination attempts.

  4. The society believes very deeply that the family is the most important, saint entity. They are certain that the each child is the God impersonated, thus every part of society is focused on treating the children as a God-on-earth would have been treated. It is believed that the most honourable death is to die by the hand of god, thus when the ruler reaches his 10th year of being in power (10 - the magic number: some legend about how the God was on earth for 10 years before he was killed by his own son should stand behind that), all the children from his family have the right to try and assassinate him.


The idea of a government expecting assassins is an extension of another idea, the Bureau of Sabotage. This idea is developed in two of Frank Herbert's sci fi works. The idea behind BuSab is that disruption is a necessary check and balance to the increasing efficiency of the rest of government.

It's a bit of a stretch to get from there to expecting assassins, but it's along the same line of thinking.


What about a society that constantly strives for the most powerful leader/government. Very similar to the Sith Rule of Two, from Star Wars, an apprentice and master are constantly pitted against each other, to produce the strongest Sith (survival of the fittest). This could work in a warrior society, where strength, not ideas is the real power.

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