One of the most ancient and famous elective monarchies is that of Rome. Not the Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire or even the Holy Roman Empire (all of which were elective in nature, however) but the Kingdom of Rome. Dating back to 753 BCE, the kingdom lasted for about 250 years before the nobility decided they'd rather have a republic. The first king was the founder and conqueror of Rome, Romulus, a figure clearly not elected. Now let's not get confused, pretty much every king was royalty in some form or another, but the principle is the same. The history of the Kingdom of Rome is rather vague and convoluted as it was written during later times, but it seems the king was more the president of the Senate than a true sovereign. When the king died, the Senate chose a replacement during an interregnum ("time between monarchs"). In Rome, it seems the Senate truly had a choice in the next monarch. Matters were different in later Roman periods...
The Roman Empire, founded by proclamation by Augustus Caesar in 27 BCE, became a rather haphazard form of elective monarchy. While many dynasties rose and fell during the Roman Empire, most were at their core elective in nature since no true form of hereditary monarchy was ever established. The least elective period of the Roman Empire was the first 100 years, when the descendants and close relatives of Augustus and Tiberius ruled until Nero's death in 68 CE. Even so, all of the monarchs except Augustus were assassinated (a form of early impeachment, if you will) and Claudius was proclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard (a guard unit in charge of the emperor). From that point onward, virtually every Roman emperor sought to establish a dynasty despite prohibitions against such actions, and most of those emperors died an early, unnatural death. The primary way of becoming emperor was not through approval of the Senate (the people), although that was necessary to legitimize the election, but through the usurpation and occupation of Rome...in other words, a candidate would take an army and blackmail the Senate into being elected emperor. The only exception was when the Senate already approved and/or supported the election of a close family member of the previous emperor.
|The Roman Senate|
|The College of Holy Roman Prince-Electors|
Now, let's move past Rome (and Germany) to other European elective monarchies. Ireland was one of the most mysterious of the ancient monarchies and it also was elective. In fact, due to the clan culture of both Ireland and Scotland (both the Picts and the Scots), the king was chosen from among the eldest members of the clan rather than through hereditary descent. Granted, the clan in a sense was a dynasty since the clan was all related, but the kingship was still elective by nature. Even the High King (Ard Rí) of Ireland was elected by the regional kings.
|An Anglo-Saxon King and his Witenagemot|
|The Election of 1573, Poland-Lithuania|
|The College of Cardinals with the Pope presiding|
Before we move away from Europe, we cannot forget the only surviving elective monarchy in Europe: the papacy. The papacy was traditionally established in the first century CE by Saint Peter the Apostle. For the first millennium or so the Pope was elected through popular acclamation (people shouting, basically) but a system eventually formed whereby a group known as cardinals, high leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, meet in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City (Rome) and select the next leader, usually from among themselves. It has been one of the most efficient systems of election for years and, since the cardinals represent various Catholic populations from around the world, it has become very democratic, although the cardinals are not elected by their representative populations.
Outside of Europe, there have also been some elective monarchies of note. One discussed just three weeks ago was that of the Great Khanate of the Mongols. The Mongol khans elected from among themselves the Great Khan (Khagan) which was elective, although it was also hereditary after the reign of Kublai Khan. The Mali Empire of Africa was elective in nature but often stuck to select dynasties that had ancient claims to the title. The Kingdom of Kongo was also elective and very rarely had two successive kings from the same family.
As is clear, elective monarchies have appeared and disappeared throughout history and, although few exist today, they have played an important part in modern-day politics. A more recent trend has been to elect the first monarch of a country in the hope that they may begin a stable dynasty. The dynasties of Norway, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania all began by having either the people directly or the national parliament select a monarch from European royal families to act as their monarch. While all these monarchies except Norway no longer have a monarch, they all have active monarchist movements suggesting that their elected dynasties established some semblance of national pride in the people.
One interesting side-note to this discussion is Alexander Hamilton's 1787 attempt to install a national elective monarchy in the United States. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Hamilton argued in a passionate speech that the United States should have an elective monarch rather than a president. The monarch would rule for life unless impeached and have many more powers than the president that resulted. He later relented and defended the four-year term of the president but never gave up his hope that a president should rule for life.