3.2B: Administration of Land Empires

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Learning Objective 3B

Explain how rulers used various methods to legitimize and consolidate their power in land-based empires from 1450 to 1750.

Main Idea 1

The recruitment and use of bureaucratic elites and the development of military professionals became more common among rulers who wanted to maintain centralized control over their populations and resources.

Main Idea 2

Rulers continued to use religious ideas, art, and monumental architecture to legitimize their rule.

Main Idea 3

Rulers used tribute collection, tax farming, and innovative tax-collection systems to generate revenue to increase state power and expansion. 


Rulers Increased the Use of Bureaucratic Elite and Military Professionals to Strengthen Their States

The recruitment and use of the bureaucratic elite and the development of military professionals became more common among rulers who wanted to maintain centralized control over their populations and resources.

Bureaucratic and Political Elite in the Land Empires

Bureaucratic governments were not new. Various civilizations had previously had large bureaucracies. However, as distant peoples increasingly interacted through trade and communication networks, effective and efficient governing bureaucracies became increasingly important. If governments could not efficiently collect tax revenue, provide defense, and build infrastructures like roads and ports, their societies were increasingly vulnerable to conquest or revolution.

Political Elite
Bureaucratic Elite
Did not necessarily officially work in the government
Worked in the government bureaucracy
Political power came from social status
Political power came from a position within the governing bureaucracy

Below are a few selected bureaucratic systems used by large societies during this historical period.

Ming and Qing Dynasties in China

Confucian scholar-officials

Both the Ming and Qing dynasties used China’s Confucian scholar class to run the governing bureaucracy. The use of these officials to run bureaucratic ministries was a continuity with previous periods in Chinese history before the Mongol Yuan dynasty who had prevented Confucian scholars from the highest levels of government. 

The Confucian imperial examination system that scholar-officials had to pass continued to be the main route to government service. This examination represents another connection to earlier periods in Chinese governance before the Mongol Yuan dynasty.

Eunuchs in the Ming dynasty

Eunuchs (men who had their sex organs removed) had substantial power in the Ming dynasty. They were closest to the emperor and controlled which Confucian scholar-officials could see the emperor. Chinese mariner Zheng He was an imperial eunuch. The use of eunuchs allowed the emperor to limit the power of the Confucian scholar-officials, especially within the royal household. The Qing dynasty eliminated the influence of eunuchs in China’s royal family and governance.

The Russian Empire

Following the kingdom of Moscow’s defeat of the Mongol Golden Horde Khanate, the kingdom’s leaders used their power to begin building a Russian Empire. Moscow’s rulers first conquered the nearby Russian kingdoms, and they then expanded out and conquered non-Russian peoples. 

Feudal aristocratic governance

The Russian bureaucracy was small compared to China’s bureaucracy and those in Islamic dynasties. The ruling and elite classes were similar to those found in feudal Europe during the middle ages. They consisted of a feudal aristocracy (wealth through land ownership) that supported the Russian Czar.


In 1600, Japan entered the Edo period under the Tokugawa family, who ruled Japan as a military dictatorship. The Japanese emperor was powerless and effectively under the control of the Tokugawa shoguns. The Tokugawa family’s power lasted until 1868 when a revolution led to their overthrow.

Feudal governance in Japan

The Japanese government during this period was most similar to Russia. Feudal lords (daimyo) with their samurai armies supported the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns. 

  • Japanese government during this period was small and lacked a governing bureaucracy. 
  • Tax collection took place on a regional basis. Each daimyo (feudal lord) taxed their people that lived on their feudal lands. The Tokugawa shoguns’ income came from taxing the lands they controlled and through loans and extortion (obtained through force or threats) of merchants.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottomans established a sizeable bureaucratic government. Like the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Ottoman government contained many different ministries. The Ottoman Sultan ruled over the government, and he maintained absolute power. The empire was a theocracy, and Islam was the state religion. 

  • The highest-ranking ministers in the Ottoman government were viziers. The highest-ranking vizier was the grand vizier.  
  • Government employees obtained positions within the Ottoman government through merit. Those with the most skill could rise through the system and obtain higher positions of authority and power.
Devshirme in the Ottoman empire

To limit the power of the Turkish nobility, the Ottoman Sultan used the devshirme system. The Ottomans required Christian areas in the Balkans (southeastern Europe) to provide Christian boys in this system. The boys were forcibly converted to Islam and trained for military or government service. Only Christians were allowed in the devshirme. Most of the highest-ranking members of a sultan’s government or military were former Christians trained through the devshirme system. This system produced most of the empire’s bureaucratic elites.

The Mughal Empire

Mughal emperors ruled over their empire with absolute authority. Mughal emperors were the head of state, the chief lawmaker, and commander of the armed forces, the writer of laws, and the highest legal authority. Like in all other land empires during this period, the monarch made the law. Mughal emperors also became the chief religious authority and resolved differences in opinions on Islamic law. 

  • The Mughal empire was a centralized Islamic state. Some of the government’s major ministries included revenue and finances, the military, foreign affairs, justice, and intelligence. 
  • Mughal emperors subdivided their empire into smaller sections to make administration easier. These provinces, called Suba, each had a governor responsible for law and justice, tax collection, public works, and defense within their regions. 
  • The political elite in Mughal India consisted of both Muslims and Hindu princes of kingdoms that the Mughals had incorporated into the empire. For much of Mughal history, Hindus were allowed to work in senior governing and military positions. 

The Mughals created an aristocratic class to support their rule. Known as zamindars, the Mughals required this noble class to maintain a military that the emperor could call upon to maintain peace or engage in battle. 

  • In exchange for keeping forces military, zamindars had the authority to collect tax revenue in their territory. They could keep some for themselves and had to send a portion to the Mughal state. 
  • Unlike the nobles of Europe, Russia, or Japan, the zamindars did not own the land, and the Mughal emperor could take it and give it to someone else. 
  • Not allowing them to own the land limited the zamindars’ power and increased the emperor’s power.

Armies Modernized and Created a Class of Professional Soldiers

Flourishing civilizations have long had successful militaries. The ability to expand territory and prevent others from invading into one’s territory relied on maintaining a strong military. 

Traditionally, armies consisted of non-professional (people who are generally not soldiers) soldiers. When conflict broke out, leaders would temporarily form military units. These temporary armies consisted of volunteers, mercenaries (people who fight for however pays), and those forced by rulers to fight. Often when the conflict was over, non-professional soldiers went back to their everyday lives.

As new technologies such as gunpowder made warfare more complex, leaders increasingly relied on professional (trained and paid) soldiers. When conflicts ended, these professional soldiers remained in the military. These standing armies remained ready to fight in future battles.

Traditional Armies
Newer Professional Armies
Non-professional soldiers who had occupations such as farming or merhant activity
Professional soldier whose job it was to be a soldier
Did not have training as a soldier
Went through training to be a soldier
Armies were temporary, and when a conflict was over, soldiers went back to their everyday occupations
Remained in the army regardless of whether or not there was a conflict

The Ottoman Janissary

One of the first modern standing armies in Europe and the Middle East was the Ottoman Janissary. Sultan Murad I (1326-1378) formed the first Janissary military unit. Ottoman leaders pulled Janissary soldiers from the devshirme system. Under the devshirme and Janissary systems, young Christian boys were taken from their families, converted to Islam, and raised with complete loyalty to the sultan. 

Janissary soldiers were an elite fighting force: Because they were legally considered slaves, Janissaries were the property of the Ottoman sultan. From a very young age, Janissary lived a strict and disciplined life where they trained for years to become engineers, artisans, riflemen, clerics, archers, and artillery shooters. They had access to the most up-to-date military technology. In the 1440s, when firearms weapons became available, the Janissary rapidly adopted and trained with them. By the 16th century, their weapons arsenal had increased to include grenades, cannons, and trench guns. Janissary soldiers were also one of the first modern militaries to wear uniforms, march to music, and live in military barracks (housing).

The Janissary helped the Ottomans expand: Janissary soldiers were critical to the Ottomans’ early military success and expansion across the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. They helped the Ottoman capture Constantinople, which brought an end to the Byzantine Empire. Their skill was responsible for Ottoman expansion to Eastern Anatolia after the Ottoman victory in the Ottoman-Safavid Wars of the 16th century.

Salaried Samurai in Japan

The samurai were a military class in Japan that began to form as early as the 8th and 9th centuries. Over time, the structure of the samurai changed. During the Kamakura shogunate (1192–1333), samurai were professional soldiers employed by nobles to protect their lands. Unlike the knights in middle ages Europe, samurai did not receive fiefs (land under their operation and control) for their service. For their loyalty, samurai instead received clothing, shelter, and food as payment. 

The end of the samurai as a fighting force: During the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), the role of the samurai further changed. Due to Japan’s relative peace and stability during this period, the need for private, professional samurai armies decreased. The Tokugawa shogun required samurai to either become farmers or to serve their lords in the cities. Many samurai became bureaucrats and government administrators for their lords (daimyo) or scholars.

The Streltsy in Russia

In the 16th century, the Russian empire began to employ professional soldiers known as the Streltsy. 

  • These soldiers received extensive military training, carried muskets, wore uniforms, and lived in their own neighborhoods with their families. 
  • The Russian state paid these soldiers money salaries and provided them bread. When funds for wages were low, streltsy were allowed to engage in farming or trading.

Over time, Streltsy weakened as a fighting force. Peter the Great abolished the corps in 1689 following a Streltsy revolt against the government. He then replaced them with the even more professional Russian Imperial Army in 1721.

The Eight Banner System and Green Standard Army in China

The Qing dynasty also maintained a professional standing army. Troops came from the Manchu Eight Banner system and the Han Chinese Green Standard Army that had surrendered after being defeated by Manchu forces. Following the Ming dynasty’s complete conquest, Qing emperors used the Banner and Green armies to expand the Qing Empire into Mongolia, Central Asia, and Tibet. Once Qing expansion ended, Chinese emperors used these armies to patrol China’s borders and keep peace in the newly conquered frontier regions. The Green Standard Army largely transitioned into a police force in China’s populated eastern areas and cities.

Rulers Created New Ways to Increase Tax Revenue

Empires needed new and efficient systems to collect money to support the state. 

As the size of empires grew, additional tax revenue was necessary to support the increasing costs of war and the state. Rulers used taxes to pay for increasingly complex and expensive gun powder weapons and professional militaries. 

Tax collection took various forms, including the following.

Mughal Zamindar Tax Collection

Zamindars were a semiautonomous (able to act independently to a degree) ruling elite in the Mughal Empire. They functioned as the Mughal noble class. They controlled large pieces of land as well as all of the peasants within their territories. As long as they swore allegiance to the Mughal emperor, Mughal emperors allowed Zamindars near-complete control within their domains. One of their chief responsibilities was the collection of taxes. They were allowed to keep significant portions of tax revenue to enrich themselves and for use toward their territories’ administration. Zamindars would then send the remaining tax to the Mughal emperor.

Ottoman Tax Farming--Not Actual Farming

Ottoman tax farming was the dominant system of tax collection in the Ottoman Empire.

  1.  Instead of collecting taxes themselves in this system, the Ottoman government had auctions where interested parties bid on the rights to collect taxes. Each year, if a person won a bid, they would collect the taxes allowed in their contract. 
  2. They would pay the Ottoman state the amount of their contract bid and keep the remaining revenue. 

The failure of tax farming: The Ottoman state sold contracts to collect taxes on agricultural production and the production and sale of goods. This system initially led to efficient tax collection without the government establishing a large tax collection bureaucracy. However, the system led to the economic exploitation of farmers and merchants. As profits dropped for producers, they had less money to invest in increasing their production and innovating manufacturing methods. Over the long term, this limited Ottoman economic growth and led its economy to decline

Mexica (Aztec) Tribute Lists

The Aztecs collected tribute from conquered peoples—these tributes went to the Aztec emperor and his military allies. As long as defeated leaders agreed to supply a regular tribute, they could maintain power over their peoples and lands. Tribute goods provided to the emperor included animal products, food, copal incense, feathers, warrior costumes, and shields. In a conflict, the Aztec also required conquered peoples to supply the Aztec army with soldiers.

Historical trend: Tribute was a common method to extract money from weaker societies. The Chinese tribute system and the Golden Horde Mongol’s tribute from the Russian kingdoms are also examples of tribute systems.

Ming Practice of Collecting Taxes in Actual Currency

For most of history, people paid taxes to governments with goods or labor. However, in the second half of the 15th century, the Ming emperor began requiring that regional and local governments pay their taxes to the emperor in silver. This change resulted in extreme hardship on the poorest Chinese. Ultimately, it led to the downfall of the Ming dynasty. 

How the process worked 

  1. As a result, regional governments required farmers and merchants to pay their taxes with silver. 
  2. Silver quickly became scarce, and its value skyrocketed. 
  3. People could not afford to pay their taxes to the provincial governments. 
  4. As a result, provincial governments could not pay their taxes to the central government in Beijing. 
  5. As tax revenue fell, the central government had to cut expenses, including on the military. 
  6. In the 1620s, rebellions broke out across China. 
  7. The Ming emperor sent royal eunuchs to collect additional taxes from the more prosperous areas to raise money for the military.
  8. This act led to further rebellion. 
  9. By 1644, the Ming dynasty had fallen to the Manchu invaders who established the Qing dynasty.

Rulers Continued to Use Religion, Art, and Architecture to Support Their Rule

Leaders needed ways to keep people under their authority. Placing themselves at the center of religion was one tool rulers used to accomplish this task. They also used art and monumental architecture to inspire awe (a sense of amazement) in their subjects.  

Rulers Used Religion to Support Their Rule

In nearly all early civilizations, the rulers either controlled religion in their territories or claimed that God chose them to rule. Often leaders had dual roles as both political and religious leaders. 

Mexica practice of human sacrifice

Aztec emperors claimed to be God’s representative on earth. As a result, they were both political leaders and the highest religious leader in Aztec culture. Emperors believed political order resulted from pleasing the gods. The most important God to satisfy was the sun god Huitzilopochtli who was in a constant battle against darkness. Aztecs believed that human sacrifice could feed Huitzilopochtli and make him stronger in his cosmic struggle.

Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez arrived in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1521. In his writings, he described how Aztec priests sliced open the sacrificial victims’ chests and threw their bodies down the steps of the Templo Mayor. Excavations of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City between 2015 and 2018 uncovered evidence of mass human sacrifice. Archeologists found skulls similar to those described by Cortez and other Spanish conquistadors stacked in racks. Other bones unearthed show possible evidence of cannibalism.

The European divine right of kings

The European divine right of kings was the belief that God gave earthly power to rulers, and therefore, God chose them to rule. European rulers used the idea of the divine right to justify their right to absolute power. Monarchs believed that limits on their power by earthly powers such as parliaments went against the wishes of God.

Historical Comparison: The Chinese Mandate of Heaven from this and previous historical periods is also an appeal to religious legitimacy.

The Songhai promotion of Islam

The Songhai empire contained numerous tribes with unique leadership and cultural systems. Under previous powers like Mali, leaders had difficulty uniting and keeping these various groups together.

Islam as a tool to unite diverse peoples: Songhai’s leaders had hoped that Islam, which Mali’s leaders had earlier adopted, might serve as the glue to unite differing peoples under their leadership. King Mohammad I converted to Islam and went on the hajj (Islamic holy pilgrimage) to Mecca. During his journey, the ruler of Mecca anointed (to give a title) Mohammad I, the Islamic caliph (ruler) of West Africa. This title increased his political and religious legitimacy back home, making it more difficult for rivals to steal the throne.

  • Mohammad imposed Islamic sharia law on his people, appointed Islamic judges, and brought Islamic advisors into his government.
  • Islam remained a religion of the urban elite, and most citizens continued to practice the region’s diverse animistic religious traditions. Not until the Islamic reform movement in the 19th and 19th centuries did large numbers of people in the area convert to Islam.

Rulers Used Art and Monumental Architecture to Support Their Rule

Art and architecture was also a powerful tool to promote leadership. Rulers used both to display the wealth and power of their dynasties. Rulers also used art and architecture as a visual tool to connect their authority to God and the divine. In a world where most people were poor, rulers’ art and architecture were often the most visible representations of power.

Qing Imperial Portraits

Qing imperial portraits allowed Qing emperors to connect their rule with the Chinese identity and culture visually. As foreign leaders of China, this was important to maintaining their legitimacy to rule. Artists often painted Qing rulers as Confucian scholars engaged in the study of Confucian classics. Other images showed emperors and imperial family members following important Confucian rituals like remaining filial (respectful) to elders and educating themselves by reading Confucian classics. Portraits of Emperor Qianlong depict him as the Bodhisattva (Buddhist teacher) Manjushri. Another image shows Emperor Yongzheng as a Daoist hermit who has withdrawn from society and lives alone in nature.

Incan Sun Temple of Cuzco

Also known as Coricancha, the Inca sun temple functioned as the Incan empire’s religious and cultural center. The temple built for the Incan sun god Inti was at the center of four major highways that went to the empire’s four regions in the empire’s capital city. Its position at the intersection of these highways symbolized the Incan religion’s importance in tying together the culturally diverse empire. At the height of Inca power, the empire housed over 4,000 priests. Enormous quantities of gold enhanced the grandeur of the temple.

Mughal Mausolea and Mosques

The Mughal dynasty contributed a grand architectural heritage to South Asia. Mughal architecture was a combination of Persian, Turkish, and Indian architectural styles. Mughal mausolea (burial places) and mosques (centers of Islamic religious practices) are some of India’s most recognizable buildings. 

The Taj Mahal: The Taj Mahal in Agra, India, is one of the world’s most photographed and recognizable structures. Built by Emperor Shah Johan between 1632-1653 as the burial place for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj is considered the Jewel of Muslim art in India. Also built by Shah Johan, the Jama Masjid in Delhi was one of the grandest mosques outside the Middle East for hundreds of years after its construction.

European Palaces

European palaces were some of the most remarkable examples of rulers using grand architecture to legitimize their rule. Palaces’ immense size and luxury across Europe symbolized European monarchies’ splendor, wealth, and strength. 

Versaille: The palace of Versaille outside of Paris, France, is one of Europe’s most impressive palace architecture examples. Louis XIV first turned it into a royal palace, and it became France’s primary royal residence from 1682 until 1789. Versailles contains over 23,000 rooms. 

The Apostolic Palace Rome: Located in Vatican City in the heart of the Italian city of Rome, it remains the current home of the Roman Catholic Pope. Construction of the current version of the palace began in 1589. As the Pope’s residence, it served both as a political and religious power center in Europe. The palace contains Saint Peters Basilica, which Catholics believe sits above the burial place of Saint Peter, one of Jesus’s apostles who spread the Christian message following his crucifixion.