Eight ancient government systems from beyond Europe

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


I'm working on an article about unusual governments to use as worldbuilding inspiration, which means that my research rabbit holes this week are a little more academic than normal since I want to be triple-sure I'm right about stuff.

Fun Facts

Polynesia is a series of islands where people had wildly different political systems, despite having similar ethnicity, economies, and religions. For example:

  • One chief was technically the king's subject but had such a strong personality that he was the one actually in charge.
  • Another island had two co-equal kings, like Sparta.
  • The elite of Nanumea were 2 chiefs and 7 priests, and the priests ruled.
  • The supreme priest of Funafuti Island had more influence than the paramount chief.

Gallic polities were similarly diverse.

Distributed Power

Precolonial Igbo society had a complex political system. Priests were very important. Village councils of elders could consult and debate important issues. Successful merchants, male and female, could get rich and become prominent voices. It's unclear how much power their "kings" (Eze) even had. [Read More]

Eight Year Cycles

In the Ethiopian Highlands, a cycling age-set system known as the gadaa allowed for the development of a republic with democratic elections and the peaceful transfer of power. This system dates back centuries, beginning as a religious setup and evolving into a more comprehensive system of political, legal, religious and social system around the 16th century. It balances representation of all clans, lineages, regions and confederacies, and there is a strong culture surrounding selecting leaders who are wise, clever, knowledgeable and talented. [Read More]

Shofeṭ — Judge?

The etymological origin of shopheṭ is "judge" or "to pass judgment." Biblical Judges are generally described as "magistrates" or "military leaders" but a political leader who gains influence due to their keen legal insight instead of their strong right arm does not seem outrageous to me, particularly given the cultural importance of things like the Judgment of Solomon. Deborah held court and rendered judgment, after all. [Read More]

Non-violent Governments

Jesus, Gandhi & MLK were not unique in advocating non-violent politics. The Kingdom of Nri, west of modern-day Gao, embraced a theocratic government that used a system of strong rituals and taboos to essentially make violence anathema. Slaves were made free in Nri territory, and Nri expanded its territory through religious conversion, not war. Their society was extremely averse to bloodshed. [Read More]

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my article about the surprising contributions of ancient priests.


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