Politics and the Political System of the Ancient Maya

Mayan City-State Structure and Kings

Low Angle View Of Kukulkan Pyramid Against Blue Sky During Sunny Day
Jesse Kraft / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Mayan civilization flourished in the rainforests of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, reaching its apex around A.D. 700–900 before falling into a swift and somewhat mysterious decline. The Maya were expert astronomers and traders: they were also literate with a complicated language and their own books. Like other civilizations, the Maya had rulers and a ruling class, and their political structure was complex.

Their kings were powerful and claimed to be descended from the gods and the planets.

The Mayan City-States

The Mayan civilization was large, powerful, and culturally complex: it is often compared to the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Central Mexico. Unlike these other empires, however, the Maya never unified. Instead of a mighty empire ruled from one city by one set of rulers, the Maya instead had a series of city-states that only ruled the surrounding area, or some nearby vassal states if they were powerful enough. Tikal, one of the most powerful Mayan city-states, never ruled much farther than its immediate borders, although it did have vassal cities such as Dos Pilas and Copán. Each of these city-states had its own ruler.

Development of Mayan Politics and Kingship

The Mayan culture began around 1800 B.C. in the lowlands of the Yucatan and southern Mexico. For centuries, their culture slowly advanced, but as of yet, they had no concept of kings or royal families.

It wasn't until the middle to late preclassic periods (300 B.C. or so) that evidence of kings began to appear at certain Mayan sites.

The founding king of Tikal's first royal dynasty, Yax Ehb' Xook, lived sometime in the Preclassic period. By A.D. 300, kings were common, and the Maya began building stelae to honor them: large, stylized stone statues that describe the king, or "Ahau," and his accomplishments.

The Mayan Kings

The Mayan kings claimed descent from the gods and planets, laying claim to a quasi-divine status, somewhere between humans and gods. As such, they lived between two worlds, and wielding “divine” power was part of their duties.

The kings and royal family had important roles at public ceremonies, such as the ball games. They channeled their connection to the gods through sacrifices (of their own blood, of captives, etc.), dance, spiritual trances, and hallucinogenic enemas.

Succession was usually patrilineal, but not always. Occasionally, queens ruled when no suitable male of the royal line was available or of age. All kings had numbers that placed them in order from the founder of the dynasty. Unfortunately, this number is not always recorded in the king’s glyphs on stone carvings, resulting on unclear histories of dynastic succession.

Life of a Mayan King

A Mayan king was groomed from birth to rule. A prince had to pass through many different initiations and rites. As a young man, he had his first bloodletting at the age of five or six. As a young man, he was expected to fight and lead battles and skirmishes against rival tribes. Capturing prisoners, particularly high-ranking ones, was important.

When the prince finally became king, the elaborate ceremony included sitting on a jaguar pelt in an elaborate headdress of colorful feathers and seashells, holding a scepter. As king, he was supreme head of the military and was expected to fight and participate in any armed conflicts entered into by his city-state. He also had to participate in many religious rituals, as he was a conduit between humans and the gods. Kings were allowed to take multiple wives.

Mayan Palaces

Palaces are found at all of the major Mayan sites. These buildings were located in the heart of the city, near the pyramids and temples so important to Maya life. In some cases, the palaces were very large, multistoried structures, which may indicate that a complicated bureaucracy was in place to rule the kingdom. The palaces were homes to the king and the royal family.

Many of the king’s tasks and duties were carried out not in the temples but in the palace itself. These events might have included feasts, celebrations, diplomatic occasions, and receiving tribute from vassal states.

Classic-Era Mayan Political Structure

By the time the Maya reached their Classic Era, they had a well-developed political system. Renowned archaeologist Joyce Marcus believes that by the Late Classic era, the Maya had a four-tiered political hierarchy. At the top were the king and his administration in major cities like Tikal, Palenque, or Calakmul. These kings would be immortalized on stelae, their great deeds recorded forever.

Following the main city were a small group of vassal city-states, with lesser nobility or a relative of the Ahau in charge: these rulers did not merit stelae. After that were affiliated villages, large enough to have rudimentary religious buildings and ruled by minor nobility. The fourth tier consisted of hamlets, which were all or mostly residential and devoted to agriculture.

Contact with Other City-States

Although the Maya were never a unified empire like the Incas or Aztecs, the city-states nevertheless had much contact. This contact facilitated cultural exchange, making the Maya much more unified culturally than politically. Trade was common. The Maya traded in prestige items like obsidian, gold, feathers, and jade. They also traded in food items, particularly in later eras as the major cities grew too large to support their population.

Warfare was also common: skirmishes to take slaves and victims for sacrifice were common, and all-out wars not unheard of.

Tikal was defeated by rival Calakmul in 562, causing a century-long hiatus in its power before it reached its former glory once again. The powerful city of Teotihuacan, just north of present-day Mexico City, wielded great influence on the Mayan world and even replaced the ruling family of Tikal in favor of one more friendly to their city.

Politics and the Decline of the Maya

The Classic Era was the height of the Mayan civilization culturally, politically, and militarily. Between A.D. 700 and 900, however, the Maya civilization began a swift and irreversible decline. The reasons the Mayan society fell are still a mystery, but theories abound. As the Maya civilization grew, warfare between city-states grew as well: entire cities were attacked, defeated, and destroyed. The ruling class grew as well, placing a strain on the working classes, which may have resulted in civil strife. Food became a problem for some Maya cities as the population grew. When trade could no longer make up the differences, hungry citizens may have revolted or fled. The Mayan rulers might have avoided some of these calamities.

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