Tl;dr: In a medieval setting, what would be the key steps to gain control (tax, army, police) of a region similar to a city-state?

The region has a central city, with access to the sea, surrounded by few villages in the woods and hills. Its territory is around 3,000 square miles (~7.700 km²). There isn't any local government as the city was recently partially destroyed and its ruling class was wiped out. It is now in the process of being recolonized. In the surrounding area, there isn't a global government, but an alliance of cities. The city of the region was part of this alliance before being partially destroyed.

For the purpose of clarity, consider the region as an Italian city state (like Pisa or Milan, with a Prince, not a republic) that was partially destroyed by a sudden eruption that killed the noble families and ruling class, leaving no legal descendant. What are the key steps someone with lots of money, but otherwise unknown in the political scene, would need to take to take control (tax, army, police) of the unoccupied region? What would be the mistakes to avoid and what would give him an advantage against other ambitious persons having the same idea?

Bonus points for taking in account specifics details of my setting:

  • No local authority or owner

  • Growing population of former and new residents. These are people that have abandoned their home after the disaster, but who are trying to come back and new people trying to take advantage of the abandoned buildings

  • Destroyed local economy, which means that lots of rebuilding needs to be done

But in the end, the main question remains of how to become the ruler of a little city and its surrounding lands, when all you have is money and ambition, but there is no 'land owner' from which you can buy this land.

  • $\begingroup$ Gain followers by giving them a common incentive. Interesting, but I don't think that this is a world-building question, but a politics/sociology one. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 9:15
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    $\begingroup$ Buy an army and march it in there? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 12:02
  • $\begingroup$ Did the previous authority have soldiers? If so, you already have a controlling power there: Whoever commands these soldiers. Depending on various factors, other power groups (merchants, church, etc.) might want a part of the cake. Of course, it's extremely unlikely that no relative of the ruling caste survives, so such a scenario is far-fetched, in any case. The better question would be: Do these relatives of the ruling caste have enough to influence to become their successors? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like Ankh-Morpork. Lord Vetinari would have fun with this. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 15:55

5 Answers 5


First, you have to have resources

To take over, you'll need resources, primarily money in some fashion. Things like the funds to back an army or hire mercenaries. Funds to feed people displaced during the crisis. Funds to rebuild things. If your world still depends more on barter/trade than coinage, then these funds could be in the form of luxury goods or a well-stocked set of granaries... but you'll need money in some fashion.

You need people

You need people. These need to be loyal. Some need to be the sort of brutes you can send in to forcefully restore order. Some need to be cunning strategists who will help navigate the political intrigues sure to come up. And some need to be spies that no one knows are loyal to you.

You need information

Those spies need to keep you informed. Because in the midst of a power vacuum, you won't be only one trying to seize control. You need to know who your potential rivals are, where they are, and how they plan to take over. You need that information quickly, so you can respond with appropriate countermeasures before their plans can take off.

You need initiative

If another person has already seized some portion of control, then you've lost the initiative and your fight just got harder. Act before they do.

You need the charisma to gain local support

You need the backing of people already there. People of multiple social strata. If only lowest income brackets support you, it won't be enough. If only the merchant guilds back you, still, not enough. You need to win over at least some portion of each faction within your area.

You need to be flexible

Make deals. Let others win when they make bargains with you. Give them something they want. Don't be a rigid, unbending force of nature. Work with people.

But not too flexible

But you can't be soft. You have to be powerful and dominant. So make deals, bargain with the powerful, but don't let them take control of the situation.

You need strength

If anyone challenges your ability to rise, they need to be put down. Fast and hard. If someone threatens you, that must be stopped before it becomes a habit. Mercy might be an option later, but right now, you have to treat rivals as wartime enemies. Mercy will get you killed.


Solve the crisis

  1. Be the kind of person other people look to for leadership
  2. Be there when leadership is required

Normal people don't look for solutions to major problems themselves, they look for someone to solve it for them. They look for leadership. Whether war or natural crisis, most people look for someone else to make the problems go away.

Charisma is a deciding factor here. The people want a leader, and now a leader can step forward and take control.

This doesn't allow the person to be a total unknown on the local political scene, you actually have to be somebody to do this as people will look to a leader when in crisis. However you've said your person has money, hence they are by definition somebody, it's just a matter of what sort of somebody.

Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees. - Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay

Be the crisis

Using the definition of government as the group with a monopoly on violence. Claim leadership by applied violence with enough spare violence to maintain the position. Put simply, march in at the head of an army and declare yourself to be in charge, kill anyone who disagrees.

Once either of these courses of action have been followed you then need to secure your position. This will be done by collecting taxes, repairing city walls, roads and civic buildings, actually being a leader.

Machiavelli goes into considerable detail about appropriate actions for a wise prince taking control of a city. You would do well to read his Prince. For example, he suggests not leading the army yourself but sending a total psychopath to suppress the population. When the population is suitably traumatised, enter the city yourself to take charge, receive reports of the brutality of your prefect from the people and proceed to spread bits of him around the city to show the population that he has been punished for his treatment of them. You then become the saviour of the city from the oppressor.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for a Renaissance Italian guide to domination for the OP who described a Renaissance Italian city-state $\endgroup$
    – Reed
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ Also known as "bigger army diplomacy..." $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ I remember the psychopath you are referring to being the appointed leader of the city with the assignment to impose some laws the local population will not like, not being the conqueror of the city. Same difference of course and it was long ago that I read it. It is also a nice way to dispose of some people that have outlived their usefulness, such as backers that now want to reap their reward or people who´s talents are more fit in wartime than peacetime. Cont´d $\endgroup$
    – Niels
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Niels, the important factor being that he was doing as he was ordered to do, then killed for it. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix, I mean to say that Machiavelli presupposed an existing power base. If the single city is your only claim to power, then giving control over it to a prefect might be very risky. You can not threaten the prefect with outside overwhelming power if the city you just gave him is your power. And if you stay that it would seem to imply you agree with the prefect his policies/brutality. $\endgroup$
    – Niels
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 9:51

Just a side note: There would've always been a heir, a next guy or girl in line. Many families needed a couple of generations (take the Carolingian dynasty) to seize power. This would've been incredibly difficult.

I think to properly answer this question, one needs to study a lot of medieval history and law. If this is supposed to be a serious book you want to sell, I would advice you do that. I didn't do that beforehand, I hope you do not mind. Here are some ideas, I believe combinations of those would be better than each one individually:

  1. Straight up lie. Tell them you are a legal heir. Forge some documents. If you do some bribes, they might believe you.

  2. Get religious support. You can most likely buy a local bishop (or whatever they have in your world). That doesn't mean he has to be corrupt, maybe just make a large donation to some monastery. He might not have the possibility to say no. If you have the church behind you, you have god-given authority.

  3. Get the city elite to vote for you. You should maybe transform your city state into something other than a monarchy in the process (what exactly is up to you), but many leaders in the middle ages got their authority from votes, even monarchs. You, the ruler, are only as powerful as other people with influence allow you to be. A medieval ruler was nothing without nobility or at least the patriciate behind them. You have to secure alliances either way, so you might as well secure your control via vote. How do you do that? That's a topic for another question and has various answers.

  4. Talk to another (local) power. So everyone in that city state that didn't marry much with anyone and was rather independent is dead? Did anyone ever truly like them? Well, what a great opportunity for local powers to get a ruler on that throne that will change all of that. One might be able to (slowly) take control of the city and solve some problems. There were always problems and disputes between states. If you have a local power backing you up, others might stay quiet because they are scared. Maybe you can even get the support of a bigger empire nearby. Alliances of cities were a nasty business for bigger empires (that had enough on their hands staying a single entity), they would very much welcome to break that alliance the easy way and if they get some bribes and promises from you in the process - all the better. You do not have to weaken your state with this option if the foreign power behind you wants to keep an equilibrium between the various states in the region. They might even support a strong and independent "fantasy Pisa". Very often a strong ally is a good ally.

  • $\begingroup$ Good points, but for my setting it is not really possible, except for 1. And for the first point, I don't think it would be enough on its own. Even if you had a crown and scepter, you would need some kind of army/support to make sure nobody call you a fraud. $\endgroup$
    – Naoskev
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 8:56

Look back at history, look back at how feudalism or mafia grew up.

If an authority is missing it doesn't mean people won't have issues needing an authority to take care of them.

Let's say there are thieves raiding the properties of the locals. Mr. Bossy has no appointed authority, but has the means (people, money) and the will to take care of the issue. So let's say he sends out a party to catch the thieves, and conveniently gets them and hangs some of their corpses on the border of the village, as memento for wanna-be thieves.

He suddenly has shown power and will be relied upon by other people for managing other issues. That's how control is built.

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    $\begingroup$ This is what I was thinking so +. If, though, there are no raiding thieves Mr Bossy might arrange for some to arrive. Then he arrives and takes care of them. That is how protection rackets work. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 18:25


"It'd be awful if something happened to that lovely daughter of yours... I'm here to clean up this mess and protect the people of Italy-town." People who pay are paying "taxes", and people who don't get harassed by your thugs at night. The transition from this to governance is pretty short, though the profits of sin may prove too tempting...


"It looks like the [neighboring city-state] wants our fields for themselves, our men for their army and our daughters for their slaves. [lets fear build] Let's take the fight to them!" Depending on how you play this one, you could get 2 city-states in one go. You could also lose both, depending on how clever/cut-throat the neighbors are.


From sugar to silk, there are always opportunities for actual profit. If you employ half a town with a new enterprise (filling the vacuum left by the dearly departed royals), you become the de-facto leader. The only remaining duty to fulfill is practicing diplomacy with the neighboring city-states, though you've done nothing to bolster your legitimacy as a ruler.

The primary role of government in that time period was ensuring the safety of the citizenry. Make a threat seem real (or perhaps there are real threats) and then fix the threat.


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