Political Science Modern Dynastic Rule
Douglas A. Yates
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0180


Dynasty comes from the Greek word for family and is used for a family that rules or simply reigns. One quarter of all states in the contemporary world system have a family dynast as their head of state or government. Some are constitutional monarchs; others are absolute monarchs. Some are republics temporarily ruled by democratic political families who win and lose power in elections. Others are tyrants born to rule oxymoronic dynastic republics. One thing is certain. Dynasty is no archaism on the verge of extinction. Every historical era and geographical region breeds its own kind of dynasty. So the question is why do we accept to be ruled by families? What kind of atavistic behavior is this? Does dynastic style really provide a comparative advantage? How should we study these omnipresent phenomena? No modern textbook in comparative politics is available on modern dynastic rule per se, so we tend to borrow from the classics of Antiquity or from sociology’s theory of patrimonialism, anthropological theories of kinship, psychological theories of personality, political and social histories, biographies, and journalism. This leads to an eclectic bibliography, if it is intended for political scientists. Before diving into thick biographies or attempting to read national histories about very different peoples and cultures, it is important to have some understanding of the debated anthropological concept of family kinship and sociological theories of patrimonial rule, as well as some grounding in psychological theories of family influence on individual personality. Empirical cases of modern dynasties are limited here to contemporary families still currently in power, divided into four fundamental categories: two authoritarian (Absolute Monarchies, Dynastic Republics) and two democratic (Constitutional Monarchies, Democratic Political Families) in order to distinguish those regime types and to differentiate monarchy from republic. The life-span of a dynasty is a subject of political science. One theory is that a dynasty lasts on average three generations, which is useful in making predictive statements of the some of the world’s most despotic regimes, but this will require more testing by scholars in the future.

General Reference Works

A handful of comprehensive reference works (Bosworth 2004), encyclopedias (Middleton 2015) and handbooks (Morby 2018) provide an enumeration of historical examples of dynasties, but none of them treat dynastic republics or democratic political families.

  • Bosworth, Clifford Edmund Bosworth. The New Islamic Dynasties. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.

    This book lists by name the rulers of all the principal Islamic dynasties with Hijri and Common Era dates. Each dynastic list is followed by a brief assessment of its historical significance and by a short bibliography.

  • Middleton, John, ed. World Monarchies and Dynasties. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2015.

    Fully illustrated encyclopedia provides a complete survey of all the major rulers and ruling families of the world, past and present. Arranged in A-Z format for ease of access, includes overviews of reigns and successions, genealogical charts, dynastic timelines; concepts, problems, and theories of monarchy.

  • Morby, John E. Dynasties of the World: A Chronological and Genealogical Handbook. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    This handbook draws on scholarly research from many sources to assemble an accurate enumeration of more than 600 dynasties around the world, covering five millennia in clearly designed chronological tables showing the names and dates of rulers and their family relationship, complimented by annotations.

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