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Narmer Palette: a slate stone with a carved man beating up his enemy

Monarchy definition: Narmer Palette, Ancient Egypt (about 3100 BC)

What is a monarchy?

A monarchy is a government where one person is in charge. That person can be a king or a queen, but they could also be called a prince or princess, a emperor or empress, a dictator, or many other titles. All that matters is that there is one person at the top who has power over everybody else. Monarchy combines the ancient Greek words mon – one – and archy  – rule – so it just means “the rule of one”.

Early Egyptian government in Africa
Early Mesopotamian government
Ancient Indian government
The Olmec in Central America
Types of government

Who made up the idea of a monarchy?

We get the idea of dividing governments up into different types of government from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle tried to make sense of the world by sorting things into categories. He was trying to make order out of chaos.

 Who was Aristotle?
Order and chaos

Egyptian New Kingdom pharaoh - stone statue of a woman - Hatshepsut

Monarchy definition: The Egyptian New Kingdom pharaoh Hatshepsut

Aristotle divided governments into monarchies, oligarchies, tyrannies, democracies, and republics. Those are still the main categories we use today. Not all governments fit neatly into Aristotle’s categories, but these categories are useful for helping us to think about governments. How and why are governments different from each other?


Where were the first monarchies?

The first states were mostly monarchies. They were ruled by kings or queens. The earliest monarchies that we know about are the ones in Sumer and Egypt. These both began around 3000 BC. But it was not only the early states which had kings and queens. Many countries still have kings and queens today.

What is a state?
Bronze Age Timeline

Is a monarchy always a state?

Henry II on his tomb

Monarch definition: Henry II of England

Usually we don’t call a government a monarchy unless it is big enough to be a state. Chiefdoms and complex chiefdoms have chiefs, not kings.

What is a chiefdom?

But states and empires are bigger. They have more layers of government: At the top they have monarchs – kings, queens, emperors, empresses. Below the ruler, there are governors or lords. Below that, there are town councils, and maybe village mayors.

What are some examples of monarchies?

The Maya glyph (sign) for Queen Yohl Iknal

The Maya glyph (sign) for Queen Yohl Iknal

Some other examples of places that were ruled by kings or queens are Greece in the Late Bronze Age, as described in Homer’s Iliad, the Etruscan cities in northern Italy, including Rome between about 700 and 500 BC, and China in the Warring States period.

Government in ancient Greece
Who were the Etruscans?
Three Kingdoms China

From the Middle Ages, we have  the Early Medieval kingdoms of Western Europe like the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Franks. In Africa, Ethiopia and Mali were monarchies too. In India, the Chola and Rajput kingdoms were monarchies. So were the Maya and Aztec in Central America.

The Chola in India
Visigoths in Europe
Early Medieval Franks
Medieval Black Kingdoms
Who were the Maya?
The Aztec in Mexico

From the High Middle Ages, there were monarchies in the kingdoms of France, England, and Spain, and the Inca in South America.

Capetian kings of France
Kings and queens of England
Kings and queens of Spain
The Inca in South America

Are the rulers men or women?

Empress Wu - a Chinese woman with a fancy hat on

Empress Wu of the T’ang Dynasty

There have been many more men in power than women, but women have always been rulers too. Some women ruled Egypt, like Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, and other women ruled the Byzantine Empire, like Irene.

More about Cleopatra

There were women who ruled in Castile in Spain, like Isabelle, and the many queens of Kush in Africa, Queen Elizabeth of England, Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary, and the Empresses Lu, Wu Chao, and the Empress Cixi in China. Women like Catherine the Great ruled Russia for many years.

More about Catherine the Great

Many other women ruled their countries without having the official title, often as regents for their sons or grandsons, like Agrippina and Julia Maesa in Rome, Pulcheria in Constantinople, or Brunhilde, Blanche of Castile, Catherine de Medici, or Anne of Austria in France.

More about Blanche of Castile

Nurbanu Sultan

Nurbanu Sultan

In the Ottoman Empire, Nurbanu Sultan, Sofia Baffo, Kosem Sultan, and Mihrisah Valide Sultan all ruled either as regents or behind the scenes. In India, Hamida Banu ruled with her son, and after her, her grandson’s wife Nur Jahan.

More about Sofia Baffo

Today, there are still many women in power – Angela Merkel in Germany, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, Park Geun-hye in South Korea, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, and Michelle Bachelet in Chile – though there has never been a woman President in the United States.

Learn by doing: write a biography of one of these queens
More about states and empires

Bibliography and further reading about governments:

More about States home