12

Why did the government of most nations after the fall of Rome and the beginning of medieval age turn to monarchy?

Before the fall of Rome most nations seem to be organized after different model and few seems to embrace the practice of one person with absolute power. The Rome had Senate and/or an Emperor. The Greek (some at least) had democracy for free men. Germanic nations had councils or a chief that was part of a confederations. So how did we go from a system of so many different government types to monarchy dominating Europe?

  • 8
    I think you should read about monarchy and absolutism and how one does not imply the other. – SJuan76 Jul 5 '15 at 20:10
  • 9
    It was quite common also before the fall of Rome:-) – Alex Jul 5 '15 at 20:28
  • 7
    I think this question should be re-opened; this is within the remit of history as commonly practiced. There are flaws in the question (like the notion that Greece abandoned Democracy and Rome abandoned Republicanism, and Monarchy was never what it seemed to be), but I think one of the key competencies of H:SE is addressing questions where OP misunderstands key concepts that prevents them from effectively researching the question. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 6 '15 at 11:47
  • 3
    I think this should be reopened, as there are historical answers for this: on one side, talking about how lines of kings who ruled side-by-side with the Roman empire (e.g. the Merovingians, Alaric I, etc.) ended up ruling over the fragments as the empire fragmented, and from the other, how Rome's emperors changed from the priceps model to the dominate model, setting the stage for the Divine Right of Kings in Europe. – Gaurav Jul 6 '15 at 17:33
  • 2
    Your question seems rather incorrect or easy to misunderstand: Rome itself had kings before becoming a republic, so nothing new about it. Absolute power is rather vague term here: e.g. many European kingdoms had their kings elected, many had constitution limiting the power of the monarch, and most had some kind of institution where large part of nobility had a voice in political question. – Greg Jul 7 '15 at 8:44
22

The short answer is that it didn't. Monarchies did not become more common, and Europe in general did not adopt absolutist rule, immediately after the fall of Rome.

First, to answer your literal question, monarchies were already common before Rome fell.

Given above, therefore, most of Europe were already governed by monarchies even before Rome fell. In fact, the establishment of the Roman Empire converted large swathes of Southern and Western Europe into monarchical rule.

Note that while much Italy and Greece had previously been oligarchies or democracies, most if not all originally had kings, such as the Roman Kingdom or Athenian Kingdom. Some even retained their monarchies until the Roman conquest, for instance Macedonia or Syracuse.


Your implicit question seems to be why Europe became governed by absolute rulers. That's a misunderstanding; monarchies are not necessarily absolutist. The kingdoms of Early Medieval Europe were mostly set up by Germanic peoples in the wake of Rome's fall, and consequently inherited the Germanic kingship of their earlier tribal governments.

While the specific varied, these kings primarily acted as military commanders and judges. Vestiges of these roles remained apparent today - all British criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of HM Elizabeth II, incidentally commander-in-chief of all British, Canadian and New Zealand forces.

In fact, up until the High Middle Ages, the power of kings were severely limited. Feudalism jealously guarded their power against royal overreach. The authority of early Kings of France were largely confined to Paris, while as late as 1215 the barons of England would force their king to agree to the Magna Carta. Scandinavian kingships retained their elective character into the Late Medieval Period, and the throne of Germany remained elective until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire.

All in all, absolutism did not really prevail in Europe until the Early Modern Period (even then, only briefly and to uncertain degrees).

11

1) Long before Rome fell it had abandoned Republicanism. After Diocletian and the Crisis of the Third Century the Emperors no longer felt any need to consult with the Senate. The Senate's role in government and in the legitimacy of the Empire was symbolic. This is the first flaw in the question - the transition between Republic and Monarchy occurred during the Roman Empire.

2) Greek Democracy fell to the Macedonians, although a more full discussion would include that (a) the Greeks abandoned democracy themselves more than once, and (b) Greek Democracy was actually an oligarchy - voting rights were invested in a small minority of the inhabitants.

3) Europe didn't pursue absolute monarchy for centuries. In the comments many others have noted that the governance model from the fall of Rome to the rise of absolute monarchy explored a variety of models. Most common, as I recall, was for those who wielded effective military power to select one of their number to exercise leadership, but that selection was limited and revocable.

4) Ultimately Monarchy wins out for a couple of reasons. Democracy and Republics suck at war. War requires effective command, and Democracy tends to provide a diffuse and inchoate command structure - Rome (and if I recall Greece) delegated to a dictator during a war. (I think one can argue that Democracy sucks at foreign policy in both peace and war.) Monarchy provides advantages for the organization and governance of societies of a specific size and technological level. hat tip to @bilbo_pingouin who suggested this revision Monarchy provides for a (relatively) stable succession, coherent governance, and strong effective states. Hat tip to @TheHonRose This changes somewhat in the modern age; @TheHonRose correctly points out that Churchill defeated Hitler; that democracies defeated empires in WWII. But OP is asking about a pre-modern time where war was fought & won with weapons is different from a modern time where war decided by industrial production. There is a fascinating essay there but (a) I'm not truly qualified to write it, and (b) it is non-responsive to OP's question. I'll stand with my thesis that during the pre-modern age, working with economies based on agriculture and land, that monarchy (and vassalage) is a more effective command and control institution. Rome was an aberration - Rome developed an educated class broad enough and deep enough to take advantage of a form of democracy, and an economic infrastructure that surpassed simple agriculture. (another interesting essay, but probably off topic).

Update - It occurs to me that I've neglected to address the underpinning of OP's question. Why monarchy over democracy? Fukyama's Origins of Political Order argues that democracy requires some relatively sophisticated institutions. (I'm abridging a book into a sentence; I'm aware of the injustice I do to his argument). Democracy is built on the notion that the citizens trust the state. In an era of poor communications, and unbelievable wealth gaps, it is difficult to assemble any meaningful demos. (Stop whining about today's 1%'ers; imagine life in Charlemagne's time, when 99% of the population legally could not travel from their home and would almost never speak to anyone outside their home village.) Greek democracy worked because it was a tiny oligarchy of citizens who knew one another. The same was true for the Roman Senate - a small coterie of families who knew one another, supported by tribes (who claimed kinship). Rome couldn't maintain the cohesion and degenerated to an absolutist monarchy, followed by a military dictatorship. There was no hope to build the kinds of institution and societal trust mechanisms that would enable democracy in societies with that kind of weak communications and cooperation.

  • 2
    I think your fourth point is a bit too strong. I would not use "best", but maybe "easiest". If you look at Greek-Persian wars. Ultimately the (somewhat more) democratic states won against the strong monarchy. And that included the Republic of Athens negociate for a union of Greeks, not bad for failure at diplomacy. – clem steredenn Jul 8 '15 at 6:28
  • 1
    A slight (and frankly timid) caveat - Hitler was a dictator, Japan an empire, but were defeated by democracies. Yes, Britain is a monarchy, though a constitutional one, and, yes, much of the democratic apparatus was suspended during WWII. But Churchill and Eisenhower could not have won the war without at least the tacit support of the people. – TheHonRose Apr 18 '18 at 21:12
  • 1
    Excellent point - but in the age between Rome an Churchill, there was no way to obtain that support - no way to share the information, the population wasn't educated enough to understand the issue, and the mechanisms of war didn't rely as heavily on industrial production. Democracy and total war are modern phenomena. – Mark C. Wallace Apr 18 '18 at 21:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.