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Within my setting, there is a large empire which includes all of civilized humanity, within a late medieval setting. There are no notable external forces, so any and all conflict has always been from within the empire.

Previously, the empire was well respected and honoured by all, each of the many kingdoms swore fealty to the emperor, and presented to the emperor a portion of their armies as well as their money.

However, that all changed when there was a succession dispute, however, the true rightful empress was dethroned and exiled. Now, an emperor, who was the deposed empress's sibling, is in control of the empire.

Now for the question, how do I allow the kings to fight each other, while still swearing fealty to the empire, AND make it so that the emperor has little to no martial power?

Things to note:

  • Late-medieval tech levels all around
  • Low powered magic is common, but high powered magic is very rare
  • There are various races of varying sizes and capabilities within the empire, all of them are political equals to one another and are full members of society.
  • Humans do not outnumber the rest of the races. Humans will make up about 25% of the population, but each other race will then be about 3-6% each.
  • The emperor is human.
  • The many races are more nationalistic than racist.
  • Gender-based race are in full swing, when a male X marries a female Y, all boys are X and all girls are Y.
  • If it was not obvious before, feudalism is in full swing here. A majority of any landed ruler's troops and money would have to come from his/her vassals
  • As for gender succession, it is going to be absolute primogeniture, which is to say, the oldest child inherits, male or female. Also matrilineal marriage is very common, when the female is of nobler blood or higher rank.

PS: Most of these things are based from me playing crusader kings II, so feel free to correct me where needed. Sorry in advance.

EDIT 1: Do note that the scope of the empire has slightly shrunk from all of humanity to just all civilized humanity. This means that there are barbarians and the like outside the empire.

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  • $\begingroup$ The kingdoms that give money and army to the Empire are inside or outside the Empire? full members or mere tributary states ? $\endgroup$ – Vincent Feb 10 '15 at 3:36
  • $\begingroup$ I THINK in mediaeval Europe kings were not allowed to get involved in the battles of barons (two barons warring). I'd guess the same applied if you bump king to emporer and baron to king. I'm going to dig for references because I don't remember where I heard this so it may not be accurate (though, if its fantasy you could always use it anyway, which would allow your kings to fight while swearing fealty to a common emporer). Maybe someone who actually knows what they're talking about will jump in before I can find evidence :-) $\endgroup$ – Mac Cooper Feb 10 '15 at 9:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Vincent the kingdoms are within the empire, politically and geographically. The kings are vassals of the emperor $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 10 '15 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ You have an empire that encompasses all of humanity and the former empress is exiled from it. Does the empire no longer encompass all of humanity? :) $\endgroup$ – glenatron Feb 10 '15 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ @glenatron That, is very clever. I should rephrase it to all civilized humanity then I guess, which will then allow for external barbaric forces and stuff $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 10 '15 at 12:59
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hmmm that's an intriguing set of problems.

So the emperor is not militarily powerful, but the empire still stays intact.
There is plenty of room for the kings under the emperor to fight.
There is a strong nationalist loyalty powered by the general populace.
I think the primary solution is to provide the emperor some sort of political, (or other), power that makes him an undisputed threat to any king. A threat to the king regardless of the martial power of that kings kingdom.

I would recommend one or more of the following:

  1. The emperor has an elite & powerful force of assassins supported by another force (or the same force?) of amazingly effective spies. This force is so effective that a king deciding to secede or otherwise undermine the emperor is typically found dead with a message indicating the reason for his death within a day or two. The message & it's details regarding the plans of the king would strike deep fear in the hearts of the heirs to the throne, councilors of the king who was assassinated, etc..
  2. The emperor has a small group of powerful magic users (since magic is rare this would grant him the opportunity to engender an impressive amount of power in itself, mostly in the form of fear of the unknown [or known] powers of this small group). This small group could effectively allow the emperor power in whatever way you choose from being effectively the same as the assassins/spies to turning the minds of the kings to unswerving loyalty regardless of what they thought of the emperor prior to becoming king, (through magic in the crowns, through powerful & complex spells in the land of the kingdom itself, etc...)
  3. The emperor has absolute control of a vital resource which he uses to control all of the kingdoms. This could be used to threaten any kingdom not conforming to the desires of the emperor. The fear of another kingdom taking control of the resource could allow the emperor to manipulate each kingdom into protecting him and the resource, (perhaps by getting each kingdom to provide equal sized forces to protect the resource simultaneously?).
  4. The last thought is some form of manipulation of the nationalist loyalties of the people of each kingdom. Possibly a set of competitions/statistics that the emperor collects or controls, keeping each kingdom focused on competing with each other kingdom and NOT focusing on controlling the empire as a whole. The citizens of each kingdoms severe nationalist loyalties would even allow control of the king if it where felt by the vast majority of the people of each kingdom. This manipulation could be expert political & propaganda/marketing methods, powerful magic, etc...

Interesting idea & good luck!

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  • $\begingroup$ I like your answer the best, for now, as this allows me to give the emperor power, and not in a militaristic or economic form. $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 10 '15 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ In addition to the above options, there's always the standby of making the emperor respected by the people on spiritual grounds to such an extent that none of his vassal-kings would dare try to overthrow him out of fear it'd spark an uprising of their own serfs wanting to defend the "holy emperor". In this way, you can avoid having the emperor need to have any might/resources of his own. (Indeed it could prevent him from having any real influence at all over the kings if needed, since they'd be much too savvy to actually believe in such religious nonsense.) $\endgroup$ – Timothy Fries Feb 10 '15 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ @TimothyFries Ah, good point, the approach that gave a certain church an enormous amount of political power over most of Europe during many points in western history, (particularly surrounding the middle ages). $\endgroup$ – MER Feb 10 '15 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @grimmsdottir - In the same vein as this answer, I suggest reading the Mistborn trilogy of books. The first one involves overthrowing the immortal emperor. He's got the assassin/spies, the strong magic users, and total control of the resource which allows for using magic. (Spoiler: The second and third books involve dealing with the problems which only he could prevent, that no one else knew about.) $\endgroup$ – Bobson Mar 17 '15 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ Or the emperor is the religious leader, like the Byzantines. Or he controls the banking system and holds stock in all major corporations. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Dec 4 '17 at 2:17
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Well, a good solution would be to take from a solution by Terry Pratchett, namely, the solution of Lord Vetinari. Your emperor doesn't have to be powerful in terms of military might or power, so long as he is a blasted good politician and arm twister.

The reason why I think this would work is because your Empire actually sounds pretty much like a larger version of Ankh-Morpork, where there are a lot of different races and a lot of different people vying for positions of power, and there is one person who runs it all from the top. In both cases, the topmost person is but a measly human in a land full of fantastical creatures, and in both cases magic is quite rare.

So, I would venture to say that the solution could be quite similar - No one would move to overthrow the Empire/Emperor so long as it is irrefutable fact that the empire could not run without them. They are so good at manipulating people and running everything that it would be unthinkable for them to not be doing it. People keep him there because they don't believe anyone could possibly do a better job, not even themselves.

TL;DR: In Ankh-Morpork, do as Lord Vetinari does.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Vetinari strategy is workable, but (among other reasons) it works in Ankh-Morpork because AM has a lot of individual liberty and only a vestigial feudal system (i.e. stupid/economically inept actions are self-countering in the medium-long term). Not sure it could protect a leader, no matter how competent, against a wildly irrational baron who inherited a huge army of blindly loyal vassals. $\endgroup$ – Leushenko Feb 10 '15 at 21:05
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The Sengoku Jidai, the Japanese Warring States Period, saw something like this. There was technically an emperor, but he was mostly helpless in the affairs of people. Warrior monks and Samurai were the political and military powers of the day, not the Emperor.

As a side note, Extra Credits has an entertaining telling of this period. Basically, the people with the real power duked it out, until the strongest (luckiest? cleverest?) ousted or strong-armed all the competition until the empire was re-established.

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It was quite common for the Emperor to become just a figurehead. There are plenty of example in human history: Han dynasty, Abbasid Caliphate (although a Caliph is not exactly the same as an Emperor), the Ottoman Empire... The Empire can survive for quite some time but it does make it weaker against invaders. As long as there is no external threat, they can survive as long as the Empire members do not try to declare independence.

With a weak emperor, that might happen at any time and there is not much that can be done to prevent it. This rarely happen when everything goes right but only in difficult times like economical problem or political crisis. The only thing left for the Emperor his is legitimacy, what the Chinese call the Mandate of Heavens. The members are more likely to stay if there is order in the Empire.

You did say that the last Empress has been replaced by someone else. I suppose that the new emperor has the support of a large portion of the aristocracy? Otherwise, if he doesn't have a lot of allies, the Empire is in great trouble. He risk a civil war or perhaps worst: the Empire dismemberment in total indifference.

There are no notable external forces

That doesn't mean anything. The Mongols were unknown to Chinese people until it was almost too late. The Jin, a nomad people closer to Mongolia, did not have any mention of Mongols either. With a good but small cavalry, nomadic people conquered most of Asia. They came out of nowhere and incorporated more and more tribes as time advanced. And that, you can understand if you played Russia in CK2 while being defeated easily by the armies of the steppes. I controlled about a fifth of the map and I was annexed. The threat should not be underestimated since the Empire is very decentralized.

In conclusion, whatever he does, your emperor is just buying time because the odds are against him. A bad harvest, an incompetent successor, an invader (invaders always hit when your down) and he's done. He could try to regain the powers from the aristocracy but that alone would deserve it's own question/answer.

But I'm going to add this section from my other answer: One way to do this (this might become a bit off topic so I will explain briefly), is to make the aristocrats useless. Without coordination, these lords are separated when it comes to fighting an enemy. Being members of the Empire is no grantee to have help form the others. The Emperor might have the moral authority to gather allies in order to defend the Empire. But, every time a local lord must depend on the leadership of the Emperor to defend it's territory, he is at risk of being marginalized, slowly. With a constant threat form the nomadic tribes nearby, this system of defence can become institutionalized (made official). Meaning that it could become an automatism that the Emperor lift troops and money from it's members to defend the Empire.

It also mean that the Emperor could take the right to collect taxes across all the Empire. The lords might not like it but they can't do much about it since they can't defend their land appropriately by themselves. That is more or less what happened in France by the of the reign of Louis XIV. The nobility is still there but aside form some ascetic powers and some privileges (like not paying taxes), they are powerless.

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I would argue in a similar vein as to @Feuarie, but on a somewhat different plane. Political machinations are a good way of doing it. Straight up and down, behind the back, treacherous intrigue can result in a stalemate where nobody wants your ruling power, but nobody wants anybody else to win the position either. A similar problem occurred in the Sengoku Jidai, where the Oda clan rose to power as enemy clans refused to ally against them. Think the "pirate king" in Pirates of the Caribbean for another example.

So, your position of emperor lends some air of legitimacy to martial manoeuvre, even if no actual might. Any warring king would relish that legitimacy, as well as the other benefits the office might hold. A powerful new emperor might rally the less aggressive nations to them in an effort for peace. They may be able to levy taxes or pull on other resources with the office in hand.

Thus, the kings would be desperate to seize it, but equally desperate to keep enemies away. The emperor in place might use this to his advantage, pointing the armies of others where necessary when threatened, or the kings may intrigue to keep others away from him while trying to curry favour.

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