Throughout the course of history there have been thousands of nations, kingdoms, duchies, and tribal groupings. Each of these had a slightly different form by which people organized themselves politically. This system for ruling communities is known as a government type or 'form of government'. Though there are countless variations, many of them can be boiled down to several basic coverall terms.
One of the earliest forms of rule is a monarchy. Monarchy is a government in which the king or queen (the monarch) has most of the power, and the rest of the state falls under them. However, it is rare that the king has absolute power. The earliest monarchies worked on a feudal system, in which the country was split up into a minority of rich landowners, known as dukes or barons, or aristocrats, and the poor peasants who worked the land. A duke would protect the peasants on his land, and they would pay taxes to him. These dukes and barons all fell under a king's rule. Individually, they might be weaker than the king, but together, they were often stronger. The king relied on them to send him troops in time of war, and if the king was tyrannical and abused his power, his dukes might become disloyal and overthrow him. In a monarchy, power is inherited, or passed down through generations, usually to the eldest child. Today, there are only a few true monarchies-one example is Saudi Arabia. The United Kingdom, while technically being a monarchy due to having a queen, functions like a republic in practice, as the queen has little power, and is mainly symbolic.
Another famous form of government from history is the empire. This form of government is characterized by having a large area of land, and many different cultures, which are all forced to follow similar laws and pay absolute deference to the emperor. One of the most famous empires is the Roman Empire, which conquered much of Europe and North Africa during its peak. However, a monarchy can also be an empire, as Great Britain was both during the 1800s. The term 'empire' can be a little arbitrary, and is often given to countries which have a lot of territory, or assumed by rulers who want a prestigious title. Napoleon Bonaparte, for instance, crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, though he would more accurately be described as a dictator. In fact, many empires were dictatorships-which are characterized by the ruler having absolute power over everything in his country, until he is overthrown in a revolution for being too tyrannical. Some people consider the United States of America an empire, though it is a republic.
The term republic comes from the Latin res publica or 'public affair', and means that the rule of the country is the business of all citizens, not just of one dictator or of a handful of aristocrats. Where a monarch might exercise his authority over his aristocrats and an emperor might have absolute power over everything, a republic functions on the rule of law. In a republic, citizens usually come together to cast votes for their leader in a democratic process. These leaders, knowing that they owe their power to the citizens, are less likely to be tyrannical... at least in theory. To further prevent a country's leaders from being tyrants, power is usually divided up in a system of checks and balance. This means that different branches of government have authority over different things, and no one person or group can take charge of the whole government and conduct a reign of terror.
There are many other forms of government, for instance Communism, which is a form of group dictatorship in which the state controls the economy directly and attempts to make all citizens 'equal' by redistributing goods and services. A theocracy is a type of government ruled by a religious leader and according to religious laws. No system is perfect, but republics, and the corresponding democratic elections, are the least flawed political system, and the most common in the world today.
To link to this Government Types page, copy the following code to your site: