The successor problem

From the Emperor Augustus to the Emperor Napoleon one of the biggest challenges to the stability and prosperity of any state was to ensure a peaceful succession.  Transition from one ruler to the next was often a time fraught with danger.  If an incumbent ruler had no clear successor then both domestic and foreign competitors would begin to circle, posing a threat not only to the future stability of the state but the present.

A Doge, the chief magistrate and ruler of Venice, was elected by the city-state’s aristocracy, and was an office which was normally held for life.  The first Doge emerged somewhere around the end of the seventh or the beginning of the eighth century, depending upon which story you believe.  In the unsettled early couple of centuries, as Venetians increasingly colonised the islands of the lagoon, it appeared as though Venice might be moving towards a hereditary monarchy, the most common and reliable system for enabling a smooth succession.  However, external threats, infighting, political confusion and the ineptitude of their Doge rulers at the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth, forced a reassessment and the elective system was retained.  There always remained a fear, however, that one family or one individual might someday acquire absolute control.  Thus, in the thirteenth century, to obviate this danger, they instituted what was probably the most convoluted government voting procedure of all time.  The aim was to protect against particularly powerful families exerting undue influence on the election of the Doge.

The procedure went like this:

  • On election day, after praying to St Mark, the youngest member of the inner council of state left the Basilica and stopped the first boy he met and took him to the Doge’s palace. It would be the duty of the boy, the ballotino, to draw slips of paper from an urn.
  • In the Doge’s palace, the Great Council was in session, minus those members who were under thirty years-old;
  • The first drawing of lots would take place, selecting thirty from the council;
  • A second drawing would then reduce the number to nine;
  • Those nine would then vote forty, each of the forty obtaining a least seven nominations from the nine;
  • The forty would then be reduced by lot to twelve, who would then vote for twenty-five, each of whom required nine nominations;
  • The twenty-five were then reduced to nine, who voted for forty-five with a minimum of seven nominations;
  • From these the ballotino picked out eleven, who voted for forty-one, with a minimum of nine nominations;
  • It was these forty-one who then elected the Doge.

It’s worth pointing out that the office of Doge lasted for 1,100 years (697-1797) until the Republic was overthrown by Napoleon, which makes the Venetian form of government (of which the Dogeship was just a single element) one of the most stable devised by man.

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