Mayans had a sophisticated and well defined system of government which was hierarchical in nature. At the top of this hierarchy was the king who enjoyed virtually unlimited power as he was considered not just the political authority but also the religious figurehead. In running the affairs of the state, the king was assisted by the nobility and the priests. There were many kingdoms throughout the Mayan civilisation and more or less all of them followed this general structure. With the passage of time, these kingdoms grew in the sophistication of their political setup but their mutual rivalry also became one of the main reasons of Mayan downfall. In certain respects, the structure of Mayan government was similar to the city-states of ancient Greece.
The history of Mayan government can be traced back to the Pre-Classic Period of the Mayan civilisation. Just like Mayan society and agriculture, the foundations of the Mayan government were laid during this period, particularly the Terminal Pre-Classic Period around 400-300BC. The system of governance was further consolidated and clearly defined during the Classic Period of the civilisation which extended from 250AD to 900AD. During this period, different powerful city states emerged who were often at war with each other. It was also during the Classic Period that the elite ruling classes became more educated and their grip on political and religious power became firm.
In the hierarchy of the Mayan government, kings, priests, and the nobles played a decisive role. The king was the representative of the royal family. He was thought to have been descended from gods and it was believed that he had sacred blood. He ruled from the divine right and the position of a king was hereditary. The nobles helped the king in making and implementing laws through their city councils. Leaders of this council were exclusively chosen from the class of the nobles. In this hierarchy of Mayan government, priests also enjoyed considerably important status because of the supreme importance of religion in Mayan society.
The status of a king was supremely important in Mayan government as he was considered to have been descended from gods. The position of a king, upon his death, was usually inherited by his eldest son but in case the king did not have any son, the oldest brother of the king would assume that position. The status of the king was highly elevated and sometimes when he appeared in public, his servants would hold a cloth in front of his face, as per the custom, so that the commoners could not see him. Commoners were also forbidden from talking directly to the king or wearing clothes similar to the king.
Mayan governments had quite strict laws and it was made sure that the laws were implemented to the letter and spirit. Courts were made to execute the laws and local leaders and nobles served as judges in these courts. For cases of supreme importance, even the king could serve as a judge. The punishment was usually carried out immediately after the person accused was found guilty. The court proceedings were not very different from the modern courts. A Judge reviewed the evidence in detail and witnesses from both sides were heard. The accused was given time to explain his behaviour.
There was death penalty for crimes that were considered serious in nature. This included murder, arson, and acts of serious disrespect against the gods. In case it was determined that the crime was an accident, the punishment could be considerably reduced. The punishment could also be reduced in case the victim of the crime wanted to pardon the accused. There were no prisons to put the criminals in and thus the punishments were devised accordingly. Other than the death penalty, punishments for less serious crimes also included slavery and fines of various kinds. One of the usual punishments for less serious crimes included shaving off the hair of the criminal since this was considered a sign of shame.
The Mayan government was closely related to Mayan economics and it was the economy of the city-state which usually gave rise to rivalries and wars between different city-states. The economy of the state was supported by trade with other city states in addition to taxes which were extracted from the common people. Nobles did not pay any taxes. However, they were subject to law just like the common people and in fact, if a noble committed a serious crime, he could be punished more severely than a commoner. The role of Mayan traders was very important in this economy since they were the link between the transfer of goods and food between different city-states.
In the history of Mayan governments, we also find several women rulers. The role of women in Mayan government becomes particularly marked during the 7th and 8th centuries AD. During this period, several women actually rose to the position of becoming the ruling queens. There were various reasons for that. Some became queens because there was no male heir while others served as regent until their sons were old enough to assume the throne. Some of the famous women rulers of the Mayans include the so-called Lady of Tikal who co-ruled with an individual named Kaloomte’ Bahlam, Lady Yohl Ik’nal, Muwaan Mat who ruled before the famous Mayan king K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, and others.
Mayan civilisation did not have a unified government or empire. Instead, it was divided into various city-states which, more often than not, were at war with each other. The foundations of Mayan governments were laid down during the Terminal Pre-Classic Period but it fully established itself during the Classic Period of the civilisation. The Mayan government was hierarchical with kings at the top of this hierarchy enjoying the supreme political and religious status. The king was assisted in governing by the nobles and the priests. The economy of every city-state was run through trade with other city-states, warfare, and tax collection from the common people. There were also instances of women heading the Mayan government, particularly during the Classic Period.