Some cities are special.
Capitals are the obvious example of this — in some ways all the more so because not all cities you think of as capitals actually have any official status as such. London? Paris? Lisbon? They’re conventionally spoken of in those terms, but there’s no legal designation backing it up. Instead they’re capitals in the older sense, which is what we’re going to unpack now.
Long before we had legal definitions of what constitutes a capital, certain cities established themselves as important centers of their respective societies. This could be done on a number of grounds, such as economic importance or religious significance, but the one that leads most directly to capital-dom is being the seat of the government. If there’s any degree of centralized power, then it’s going to exert a kind of gravitational force on other aspects of society, drawing other things toward this.
But this can be a lot more temporary than you might think. The first capital of Japan was Nara, for a little over seventy years; then it was Nagaoka for ten, until flooding and other disasters convinced the emperor that his court was haunted by the spirit of his dead brother, who had died in exile after being implicated in an assassination. Only then did they build Kyoto (aka Heian-kyō) and stay put for centuries. The capital of China shifted dozens of times, sometimes back to former sites, sometimes to entirely new ones. The hassle of pulling up stakes was counterbalanced by the need to get away from enemies and closer to allies, by changes in economic or environmental conditions, by the perception of spiritual danger or benefit, and more.
European monarchs were itinerant in a different fashion. They frequently didn’t have capitals at all in the early days; the center of government was wherever the sovereign happened to be at any given moment. Which might be in a city, or a castle, or a countryside manor, or anywhere else depending on the season and demands of the moment. This was partly a response to the model of kingship they worked under, where it was important for the sovereign to personally visit his or her vassals, and partly a response to bad sanitary conditions: after the court had lived somewhere for a while, it became filthy, and they moved on to a clean location while the previous one got tidied up.
You might expect the person in charge to head for someplace convenient: easily accessed by water or good roads, well-provided with food and other goods, etc. In reality, that didn’t always happens. Heck, sometimes they decided to move some place that didn’t even exist yet. When I said that the Japanese court built Heian-kyō as their new capital, I wasn’t speaking metaphorically; there was no more than a small village on the site when the emperor declared it his new home base. They had to construct their capital before they could use it. Ögedei Khan not only built the Mongolian capital of Karakorum from scratch, but did so in the middle of the steppe, away from anything one might consider suitable conditions. It created logistical nightmares for keeping the city supplied . . . but for him, the more important thing was to build a base of power in the Mongolian heartland, whatever problems that might cause on other fronts.
The tendency to shift around quieted down in later eras, in both Europe and China. Beijing lasted as the capital of the Qing Dynasty for nearly three hundred years, until the collapse of the empire; English monarchs started remaining closer to London as Parliament’s role grew, because that body almost always met in Westminster, just up the river from the City proper. As a country’s bureaucratic apparatus grows more complex, uprooting it becomes more difficult, and this friction eventually helps bring it to a halt in one place.
Because the seat of government attracts influential people, and influential people are usually rich, the political center naturally becomes a center of other types as well. The need to legitimize rulership through the support of the religious hierarchy means that even if the spiritual center of the country remains elsewhere, it will have a strong presence in that city. Trade flows toward the capital, because expensive goods can find buyers; art does the same. This concentration, and the support of elite patrons, often results in a lot more artistic innovation, with new styles of fashion or painting or music springing up. The city becomes a capital not only of government, but commerce, high culture, and more.
A city doesn’t have to be a capital, though, to have some kind of special status. Even back in ancient Mesopotamia, when the concept of a “city” had barely been invented, certain places — Nippur, Babylon, and others — enjoyed exemptions from obligations of taxation, military service, and conscripted labor. Commoners in Kyoto were not required to kneel to lords in the street; I presume, but don’t know for sure, that this was because lords passed by so often that it would have been a major disruption to daily life. And the sovereign of England, or now the United Kingdom, traditionally has to stop at Temple Bar on the western edge of the City of London and ask the Lord Mayor of London for permission to enter.
That reference to the City of London — not London the city, but a specific area within it, approximately a square mile in size — points toward some of what’s going on here. Like those cities in ancient Mesopotamia, London is old (relative to its urban peers), and it has from early times been the country’s pre-eminent hub of commerce. Because of this, the local government and local elites were able to exert leverage over the national government and elites, demanding — and receiving — special consideration. Even in 2019, the City of London has its own police force, separate from the Metropolitan Police that serve the rest of the city; in the nineteenth century this complicated investigations into Jack the Ripper’s murders, because he crossed jurisdictional lines. But just as it was important to Ögedei Khan to have his capital in the Mongolian heartland, difficulties be damned, it’s been important to the City of London to maintain its separate identity.
This is a key thing to remember because local government often vanishes from the picture when we talk about the government of a fictional society. But the rich merchants and craftsmen and priests of major cities weren’t without power of their own, and you can see the fingerprints of that in the special privileges enshrined by custom and law.