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Junior Taamas
, Nigeria.
Whether we love it or not, the dominant
form of government across the world today
is the representative democracy, in which
the citizens elect representatives who then
use their voice in government on their
constituents’ behalf. Representative
democracy is found across the world and is
broadly similar from country to country.
Whether we live in Japan, the UK, or the US,
elections and government work in much the
same way.

But in the past, many wildly different
government types existed side by side for
centuries—and some were unimaginably
different compared to the way politics work
in the West today. Here are ten of the
strangest forms of government in history.

10. Carthage

At its height, Carthage was a rival to the
early Roman Empire and the dominant
maritime power of the ancient world,
controlling trade throughout most of the
Mediterranean. Carthage was originally
settled by Phoenician colonists from
modern-day Jordan, but unlike the
Phoenicians, the Carthaginians turned their
back on monarchy and became a republic in
the seventh century BC.

The heads of state were the two suffetes
who, much like the consular system in Rome,
were elected for a 12-month term and held
equal power to each other. Beneath them
was a senate of around 200 to 300 people
who, when selected, served for life.
Unfortunately, the way they were selected is
lost to history.

We do know, however, that the senate
played an important role in Carthaginian
government, with groups of senators being
commissioned to manage aspects of the
government, such as maintaining religious
sites or collecting taxes. The senate also had
to be consulted by the suffetes on matters
relating to the state. The senate would vote
on the issue, and if their decision disagreed
with the two suffetes, or if the two suffetes
disagreed with each other, the matter would
be settled by the people’s assembly.

The people’s assembly met in the market
square in Carthage itself, and any male of
the city could vote. Since voting was open to
any citizen who turned up (only males could
be citizens), the size of the assembly would
have varied wildly. The people’s assembly
also seems to have directly elected the two
suffetes, meaning that the people had a large
say in how they were governed in ancient
Carthage. Unfortunately, though, it meant
that people from elsewhere in the
Carthaginian Empire had no say over how
they were governed; this might have been
why, when Rome eventually conquered
Carthage, the rest of the empire felt little
desire to avenge them.

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Rufai Oladimeji
Lagos State University
100Level, Nigeria.
9. Iceland

When Iceland was settled by the Vikings
around 850, it was too far away from a
center of authority for any king to really
control it. The result was a medieval Viking
republic, governed by the Althing from
around 930, making it the oldest
continuously functioning parliament in the

By 930, the population of Iceland had grown
to the point where many people decided they
needed a way to organize their own laws and
attitudes toward people from outside
Norway. From around then, for two weeks in
June every year (the best time for traveling),
the Althing met at Thingvellir to discuss
matters of law. The country was split into 36
chieftaincies, each of which sent a chieftain
and two advisers to the Althing. Chieftains—
called gothis—were nominated by the people
who lived in their chieftaincy, so they were
usually the best-connected and most well-
liked person in their region.

The Althing was directed by the lawspeaker, a
chieftain who was chosen by the other
chieftains to serve for three years. The
lawspeaker was effectively the living
constitution of Iceland, and he and his
advisers were expected to know all the laws
of Iceland by heart. He would start the
Althing by reciting the laws from memory
and then would help to facilitate debate
between the chieftains by helping them
resolve matters through the law or create
new laws if they were needed. He held no
more power than another chieftain, though,
and Iceland had no single head of state.

The Althing was more than a meeting of
politicians, though—hundreds of people
from across Iceland would travel to the
Althing to trade, party, catch up with old
friends, and make or break family alliances
or agreements, such as arranged marriages
or fosterships.

8. Venice
One of the longest-lived republics in
European history, the Venetians first elected
a doge to lead them in 727 and were
governed by elected officials until the city’s
conquest in 1797, over 1,000 years later.

The Venetian system was so robust because
it had lots of different moving parts, each
wielding different amounts of power and
having some level of influence over the
others—a concept integral to modern
democracy. The doge was the head of the
system, appointed for life and the de facto
ruler of Venice. Despite this, his power was
restricted in many ways: The doge was
unable to name his successor or even a
preferred successor (to prevent certain
families from dominating the position), he
was banned from leaving Venice, and all his
mail was read by an independently elected
censor who reported to the public.
The systems that made up the Venetian
government changed over time, but the
most important were the Collegio, a council
of 40 men from the elite families, the
senate, which managed finances and
diplomacy, the Council of Three, who
monitored the other branches, and the grand
chancellor, who ran the city’s bureaucracy.

All these officials were chosen by and from
the members of the Great Council, which
consisted of 1,000 people who were all
chosen from a list of 180 great families—
making Venice an oligarchy, not a true
democracy. To complicate matters further,
some people were allowed to be members of
several government bodies at the same time.
Nothing sums up the crazy Venetian system
better than the way they elected the doge :

First, 30 members of the Great Council were
chosen at random and then reduced at
random to nine. These nine chose 40 more
Great Council members, who were reduced
at random to 12. These 12 chose 25, who
were reduced to nine. These nine then
elected 45 members, who were reduced to
11, and these 11 chose the 41 who elected
the doge by majority vote. The final number
was originally 40 but was increased to 41
after a tie in 1229.

Venice’s masterminded system was ultimately
toppled by the introduction of the Council of
Ten around 1310. Originally designed to
monitor the other bodies and prevent them
from taking too much power, it seized more
and more power for itself over time and
even had its own secret police force. By
1600, Venice had effectively become a

7. Florence

At the end of the 1200s, many Northern
Italian cities rejected the rule of wealthy
nobles and instead turned to the rule of the
popolo, and Florence was no different. In
1293, the city enacted the Ordinances of
Justice, which blocked the 152 noble families
of the city from holding political office.

From then on, the people would rule.
Of course, it wasn’t quite so simple. Though
government was no longer restricted to the
nobility, to be part of the popolo, a citizen
had to be a member of one of the seven
major guilds of the city (the judges, cloth
traders, moneylenders, silk traders, doctors,
wool traders, and fur traders); the members
of the five minor guilds (the butchers,
shoemakers, smiths, masons, and
secondhand traders) also had a lesser status
in the popolo.

Together, they elected the Signoria, who
served a term of just two months and were
the highest authority in the city. The Signoria
was led by the gonfalionere, a member of
the Signoria who was chosen at random. The
Signoria met every day in the Palazzo della
Signoria (today known as the Palazzo
Vecchio), where they discussed government
matters and decided on legislation to
introduce, which would then have to be
passed by the Twelve Good Men.

The two-month term limit led to an acute
interest in politics and much factional
infighting, mainly because power was always
within grasp for any aspiring politician. For
most of the republic’s history, politics was
dominated by antagonism (and sometimes
outright civil wars) between the Guelphs,
who supported the pope, and the
Ghibellines, who supported the German
emperor. The gonfalionere’s term limit was
extended to life in 1498, after which
Florence was dominated by the rule of the
Medici family, who eventually made
themselves the hereditary rulers of the
Duchy of Florence in 1533, ending the
republican government.

6. Republic Of Novgorod

While Novgorod was always ruled by a
prince, the veche held the most power.
The veche was effectively made up of every
male citizen of the city and made
government decisions through mass meetings
in which people voted on the issues of the
day. The veche could be convened by any
free man of the city by ringing the veche bell
in the town square, which was the official
signal for any interested citizens to
congregate in the square and participate in

The prince remained the head of state , but
he was severely restricted by a constitution
introduced by the veche : The prince was
banned from engaging in commerce, for
example, and could not hold land or have a
personal army of more than 50 people.

Other than the prince, the veche elected the
posadnik (mayor) and tysyatsky (militia
commander), who were in charge of day-to-
day government.

As Novgorod grew in size and influence, the
government became more advanced: By
1291, the state was managed by the council
of lords, which was made up of the
archbishop, a representative of the prince,
the posadniks and tysyatsky of Novgorod,
and the posadniks of other regions in the
republic outside the city. Novgorod was split
into five veches , which each elected their
own posadnik. The territories the republic
owned outside the city were also split into
five regions, each with their own posadnik.

The republic’s end ultimately came from
outside, from the city of Muscovy (aka
Moscow), their ancient rival. Muscovy’s
strength increased over the 14th and 15th
centuries until, in 1478, the Muscovite
prince and his army conquered Novgorod
and removed the veche bell, officially ending
the republic.

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Rufai Oladimeji
Lagos State University
100Level, Nigeria.
5. Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois Confederacy was a union of five
—later six— Native American tribes who lived
in the New York state area before the arrival
of the first European colonists. Originally
enemies, they were united by the
semilegendary figure Hiawatha, who
encouraged the tribes to work together and
not to attack each other, instead helping
each other to tackle their enemies.

The arrangement soon became a basis for
government. Because Iroquois society was
matriarchal, the individual clans and families
were led by clan mothers. Each clan mother
chose a chief to send to the Iroquois
council, which was made up of 50 chiefs. The
decisions of the council had to be
unanimous, so no action would be taken
until all 50 chiefs could be persuaded to
support it.

As time went on, the Iroquois agreement
became cemented in the Great Law of Peace,
which was divided into 117 separate articles
governing everything from religious and
state ceremonies which helped to cement a
feeling of unity between the six tribes, to
protecting individual liberties and the
concept of separate powers. Despite
originally being recorded on strings of
wampum shells because the Iroquois had no
written alphabet, it was a highly complex
and involved constitution. Ideas from it
influenced the development of the United
States Constitution—particularly Benjamin
Franklin’s Albany Plan. In 1748, the Iroquois
chiefs offered to teach their democratic
principles to the British colonists.

The confederacy ended in 1784 in a brief but
devastating war with the United States. Two
of the tribes decided to relocate to British
Canada for protection, one moved to a
reservation in Wisconsin, and three were
moved to reservations in New York, where
they remain today.

4. Sparta

In the past, it wasn’t unusual for a country
to be run by a single king or queen. What
was far more uncommon, however, was a
country ruled by two different kings from
entirely different families at the same time—
but this was the system the Spartans used.

The two kings were also priests of Zeus ,
making them especially important in the
religious structure of the city-state. In times
of war, one of the kings would lead the army
to battle, and he would have almost
unlimited power over the soldiers. When in
the city itself, though, the kings had
surprisingly little influence over state affairs:
that was reserved for the Gerousia, the
council of elders.

The Gerousia was made up of 28 elders and
the two kings. Each elder had to be at least
60 years old. They were elected by the
people in a voice vote—the candidate who
received the loudest vote was chosen, after
which he held the position for life. The
Gerousia mainly existed to advise the kings
on matters of government and to settle
disputes between other Spartans—the
council was also Sparta’s high court.
Proposed law changes were voted on by the
people’s assembly, which met once a month
and of which every male Spartan citizen over
30 was a member. Unlike in other Greek
democracies, however, the assembly had
very little power: It was not allowed to
debate issues, only vote yes or no on them,
and the Gerousia had the power to overturn
any vote they deemed to be “crooked.” The
assembly was originally overseen by the
kings, but in later years, it was managed by
the ephors, five people who were elected for
a single one-year term (and who were
banned from standing again after) by the

The ephors were originally introduced to
oversee government practice but, much like
the Council of Ten in Venice, soon seized
power for themselves. Their role allowed
them to scrutinize and punish any in the
government who they saw as acting illegally,
which frequently led to the ephors abusing
their position. By the end of the Spartan
age, the ephors controlled the activities of
the kings and had their own secret police

3. Babylon

Long before the ancient Greeks , the
Babylonian Empire stretched across most of
Mesopotamia, uniting the region under a
single government that, at its height, could
easily have opposed the might of ancient

The strength of the Babylonians lay in their
authoritarian, centralized system of
government that prioritized efficiency above
all things. At the center of their system was
the king, who was considered a god on Earth
and who, if his mind was made up, no one
could contradict. The king enforced his rule
with an organized bureaucratic system of
taxation, military conscription, census
records, and records of goods created,
traded, and stored. This was maintained by a
large elite civil service who kept things
moving and who owed their power to the

Perhaps most famously, though, the
Babylonians created a well-known set of
laws. The laws, which are often known as the
Code of Hammurabi (named after the king
who introduced them) were written so that
the “strong should not harm the weak” and
to “further the well-being of mankind,”
according to Hammurabi himself. In all, it
consisted of around 280 separate laws, most
of which set out the responsibilities of
people who entered contracts—for example,
holding a builder to account for a house that
falls down or removing a judge who changed
his decision after it had been written down.

2. Holy Roman Empire

In all of human history, few governments
have matched the Holy Roman Empire for
sheer complexity. To fully explain the
government of medieval Germany would take
an entire list by itself, but at its heart, the
Holy Roman Empire was governed by two
separate bodies: the emperor and the

The emperor ruled for life, but unlike many
other medieval monarchies , the position was
not hereditary. Instead, on the emperor’s
death, it was the duty of the empire’s
electors to select a new emperor. For most
of the empire’s history, the electors were the
archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne,
the king of Bohemia, the margrave of
Brandenburg, the elector of Saxony, and the
count of the Rhine. The emperor had to be at
least 18 years old, be of noble blood, and
own land in the empire. This meant that,
while it was rare, monarchs of other states
could be put forward as legitimate
candidates for emperor. Otherwise, the
emperor was similar to a ceremonial head of
state today in many ways: He represented
Germany abroad but had little actual
diplomatic agency, he was the highest judge
in the empire but could only exercise his
power in the courts, he appointed officials
and had his own household staff, and he
could withhold his consent to new laws,
preventing them from being passed.

The Reichstag was the council of the empire,
made up of representatives from all its
regions. The Reichstag served at the
emperor’s pleasure until 1653, after which a
new member of the Reichstag had to be
approved by the College of Princes and the
College of Electors (effectively, the other
members and the electors).

The main body of the Reichstag was the
College of Princes, which was made up of
members called states of the empire. In the
early days, a state of the empire was
attached to a particular portion of land—so
the owner of that land would go to the
Reichstag as its representative and use its
vote. If there were several owners of that
land (which became increasingly common as
landowners divided their lands between their
sons on their deaths), they had to share that
vote in the Reichstag. This meant that if
someone held different portions of land
around the empire, they could end up
sharing several votes on the Reichstag with
different people, without outright owning a
single vote. On top of this, the emperor
could make a particular individual into a
state, giving him a vote even if he held no
land—this privilege was removed in 1653. A
state of the empire also had several rights,
such as forming its own council and making
its own treaties with countries outside the
empire. In effect, each state of the empire
was its own country, which sent a single vote
but (sometimes) multiple representatives to
the Reichstag, depending on who owned the
land that made up that state. In addition,
some states were specifically defined as
having only a single vote, which only one
individual could use, or shared votes, which
could be shared between the state’s

To make matters worse, there were also units
bigger and smaller than the states: The
electors had their own college in the
Reichstag, where they had much more
influence than their measly number would
suggest (there were over 1,000 states of the
empire), and there were the imperial cities,
independent city-states which were grouped
into benches that were led by different cities
at different times. The city with the most
prominence was usually the city in which the
Reichstag was meeting that day. (The empire
had no permanently defined capital.) The
rights of different states, electors, and cities
also varied depending on whether or not
they were held by a member of the clergy or
a member of the nobility.

Thankfully, the whole sorry affair was put to
an end by Napoleon in 1806 when he created
the Confederation of the Rhine following the
Battle of Austerlitz.

1. Inca Empire

At its height, the Inca Empire numbered over
ten million people. Despite its great
population, however, the number of ethnic
Inca was a lot smaller. The empire united
many different Andean peoples with wildly
different cultures and languages in a single
unit, ruled by a single man—their god-king,
who was the son of their all-powerful sun
god. The state was highly organized and
hierarchical, with the king at the top, closely
followed by his dead ancestors, who were
mummified and preserved (and even
consulted for advice in elaborate rituals at
times of crisis). Immediately beneath the
king was his council of ten families closely
related to the royal family, who advised the
king and helped in the running of the
empire. Beneath them was another council
of ten noble Inca families, which was
followed by another council of ten non-Inca
families from other parts of the empire.
Beneath them, the empire was split into 80
regions, each led by a governor, whose job it
was to administrate his region and ensure
that the enormous amount of data the
empire collected from its people was
properly recorded, kept, and transported
back to the capital. To ensure that the
governors remained loyal to the empire,
their heirs were taken to the Inca capital at
Cuzco to be held under house arrest, where
the king and his allies could keep an eye on

But the most unusual thing about the Inca
Empire was that, despite its large population
and extremely organized bureaucracy, it had
no system of currency or written language.

The government collected a census every
year that recorded births, deaths, marriages,
individual workers’ skills and statuses, and
the amount of goods in each region, among
other things. It was used to help the central
government decide on where to build new
state projects, where food needed to be
distributed, where to send laborers (who
were sometimes traded as a commodity), and
so on.

They did all this, even lacking a written
language and despite the many cultural and
linguistic barriers across their empire, by
using quipu , which involved tying knots on
strings to represent values. These strings
allowed the Inca to develop a rather
advanced credit/debit system not unlike
modern Western accounting, built on the
base-ten system that we use for mathematics
across the world today. The quipu knots
were used to record everything from the
numbers of different goods in stockpiles to
the distances traversed by enemy armies.

Because it didn’t rely on knowledge of a
written language to work, it could be used
across the empire, without people having to
learn each others’ languages.


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