How do you get rid of a monarchy? Getting rid of kings isn’t the hard part (at least in theory, if not always in practice)—get the peasants angry enough, pass out the torches and the pitchforks, then roll out the guillotine when the time comes. No, the hard part is getting rid of the idea of kings. Monarchs cling to power through force, but also through instilling in people the idea that there is something special about kingship, something an ordinary person would never be able to replace. As long as that idea exists, someone can hitch their own ambitions to it.
I’ve written before about how the myths and legends that make up the part of the DNA of modern fantasy literature often have a pro-monarchical bias and about ways of building your fantasy worlds for something other than monarchy. It’s worth noting that we are not the first people to face this problem. The ancient Greeks and Romans also had to grapple with the monarchic parts of their past as they created new ways of life and they found interesting ways of disarming the idea that kings were necessary.
In the early iron age and archaic periods (roughly 900-490 BCE), societies in ancient Greece were small, and power structures were not particularly stable. We get a glimpse of this life in the Homeric epics. The contentious relationships among the assembled Greek kings at Troy and the competition for wealth and power among Helen’s suitors back on Ithaca reflect a world in which power was held by rich warlords competing with each other for preeminence. The Greek word for these warlords was basileus (plural basileis). The word does not exactly match up with what we typically think of as kings: there was more than one basileus in any community, and their power was more personal than institutional, but a basileus was the closest thing early Greece had to a king. Basileus was also the word Greeks used for the kings of other peoples, such as the Lydians and the Persians.
We don’t know much about how the ideologies by which basileis justified their power, but many basileis in mythology were the children of gods or had other kinds special relationships with the divine. Literary and archaeological evidence shows that basileus families maintained the worship of heroic ancestors. These facts point to a religious element: basileis held onto power in part by claiming a vital role in maintaining their communities’ relationships with the gods.
This ideology presented a problem for those agitating for a wider sharing of power, but it was a problem that had a solution. The earliest organized government we know of in Athens (not one we would call democratic, but one that was clearly designed to keep any one person from holding too much power) had an official position dedicated to overseeing religious affairs. That position was called the basileus. We can imagine some frustrated Athenians at some point saying: “So, the gods will only favor us if we have a king? Fine, we’ll call this guy over here ‘king’ and just not give him any real power. Good enough!”
Something similar happened in Rome. In its early history, the city was ruled by a king (in Latin: rex). Later, the kings were replaced with a republican government that, much like the one in early Athens, was specifically designed to keep power from falling into one person’s hands. We know little about the ideology of Rome’s early kings, but later Roman legends gave them religious associations, and it seems that they also asserted a special role in the city’s relationship with the gods. The Roman republic similarly got around this problem by just calling someone else “king.” Specifically, republican Rome had a priestly official whose title was rex sacrorum, meaning “king of the sacred things,” to carry on the religious duties of the old king. This office came with particular limitations intended to make sure that its holder could never make himself into a real king, including a ban on handling weapons and on being present while the Roman army was assembled for war.
Athenians and Romans found was of disarming monarchic ideology by subverting its claims in ways worthy of the weaseliest of rules lawyers.
History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.