Series Info...Playing with History #18:

Theocracy 101

by Michael Karlin

"Now the [Utah] Territory is virtually under the theocratic government of the Mormon Church. The union of church and state is complete. The result is the usual one, the usurpation or absorption of all temporal authority and power by the church."
- Rutherford Birchard Hayes, 19th President of the United States

So you want to be an oppressor?

Ayatollah Khamenei and Muammar Omar are two names that are on the lips and fingertips of the media right now, as we see the re-emergence of a very old form of government: theocracy. The rule by religious decree has existed for thousands of years, indeed it was one of the first forms of government capable of dealing with a multi-ethnic empire. Where countries had a strong religion in ancient times, they were difficult to conquer. Where countries had a weak religion, it was easy enough to assimilate them into the more dominant culture.

To Westerners, the thought of this comes with some distaste, as liberal democracy is taught to separate religion and the state, but for ancient cultures it brought a rare predictability. Strong religions, to some extent, come with dogma, or religious law and custom. With law, you can predict what behaviour will have you rewarded, and what behaviour will take your head. Tribes ruled by wayward warlords could be very unpredictable, and for them life must have been a great deal stressful. The Kievan Rus, in their de facto confederation that existed prior to Russia, had a very loose religion with little-to-no clergy or religious institution. They had myths and creatures that changed from polity to polity. In order to gain a more complete control over his population, St. Vladimir had his entire country converted to Greek Orthodoxy through the Church of Byzantium. This brought order and predictability, because to a certain extent, the king now had a constraint on power.

The Divine Right of Kings, that lovely excuse to rule given by the Bourbon family in France and Spain, is not theocracy in the strictest sense. It has a degree of religious element to it, such as a fairly religious people who would believe that god anointed the Bourbons to rule as well as laws that mimic Christian justice, but the priesthood is not integrated into the bureaucratic machinery of the state.

Theocratic Checklist

If you want to implement a theocracy in your game, you'll need these four important characteristics present:

  • Religious institution dispensing religious justice. Not only are the laws passed down by one or more gods, but they are interpreted by these gods' messengers or students.
  • A religion raison d'etat or purpose of rule. This is a justification for the monarch or Guardian Council or what-have-you to govern.
  • Constantly antagonistic view towards those of other religions. Simply, if the religion of your state gives you justification to rule, than those of other religions are blasphemers and have false claim to rulership. Ancient Egyptians viewed other states as savage and inferior, Taliban Afghanistan viewed outside states as outright dangerous.
  • Secularism, or competing ideology, cannot be reasoned with or mixed in the system. Fanatics must indoctrinate as many as possible in the military, schools, government, etc.

Inevitably, this type of regime is onerous to keep. Few people in this world are fanatics, and often theocracy comes at the expense of many, many lives. In ancient cultures, this sort of government rose at the same time that there was tribal conglomeration occurring, thus the theocracy was a way to bind peoples together. This is not far from the truth in Egypt.

Ancient Egypt, Glory of the Nile, and Theocracy

Ancient Egypt was not always a theocratic state, but then again before it became that way, it did not actively extend its borders beyond what was considered traditionally Egyptian. Then the Asiatic Hyksos invaded. At first the Hyksos tried to impose their beliefs on the Egyptians, but the Egyptian religious fabric was very strong, included a complex bureaucracy of priests, a series of gods and a very well developed sense cosmology and religious law. Not only did the Hyksos promptly cease their efforts, they actually adopted aspects of the Egyptian religion to use themselves.

After the Hyksos were overthrown by the Theban princes, the Pharaohs became increasingly paranoid that foreigners would invade, and so they struck out first. It was during this time that the religious power behind the cult of Amun-Ra grew immensely, and indeed Pharaohs were deified as the god Horus (god of rulership) in a mortal shell. The priests' power increased to an extent that they became a caste of their own. They wielded exceptional political sway, and as the rulers grew weaker, especially in the 19th dynasty after Ramses II died, the priests practically seized the country.

Glory of the Nile takes place at the beginning of the 18th dynasty, far before this rivalry occurred, but after the priests begin to consolidate power. They hold political power, but not necessarily popular power. The people are still in love with the military and their battle against the "tyranny of the Hyksos" and the ensuing Libyan invasion in the north. PCs who join one of many (but not all) orders of priesthood will find that they are very well accepted by many (but not all) of the upper echelons of power. Of course, since this is a polytheistic region, one order of priests does not necessarily get on well with others. Those are the politics of religion that a player must learn if getting involved in that sector of society.

A theocracy is an interesting atmosphere to create for a game because it is so rigid. The social and political censorship of ideas in that system is intense, and it makes the conflict of the popular undercurrent all the more fascinating. Of course, in Glory of the Nile, the gods will walk and influence the workings of mortals, so there is a limited amount of denunciation that can occur. Still, there is ample room for the less religious in this very religious society. The conflict should be fun to play out, regardless of what side of the fence you find yourself.

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