Archontology is a term of reference used to describe the study of historical offices at every level of government, international, political, religious, and other institutions. Some researchers consider it a branch of history, collecting chronological and biographical data of office holders, but there is no universal agreement on the subject.
The groups of people holding important offices, colloquially known as "rulers" have always been an object of interest. The works related to studying the rulers emerged long before it became a part of history and chronology as academic disciplines. This distinctive interest in studying the chronologies of heads of states, governments, ministries and other offices may be rigorously defined as institutional chronology or as archontology (from Greek, αρχων [archon], meaning ruler; used specifically for supreme magistrates, as in Athens, or even kings, as in the Cimmerian Bosporus).
Institutional chronology as integral part of general chronology dates back to the times of first civilizations. One of the earliest efforts of ancient historians was aimed at compiling the chronology of contemporary rulers and their predecessors. The kinglists, found in most centers of the ancient civilizations, formed a basis for building more detailed historical accounts and served as a skeleton for further historical studies. It is difficult to imagine what history of Ancient Egypt we would have, if modern historians could not base their research on the tables of rulers by Manetho and the Abydos inscriptions. The history of Rome would be difficult to reconstruct if we did not have the availability of consular lists. The tradition of keeping records of rulers survived through the ages and became a part of modern chronology, but in fact it appears as a distinctive field of study and independent discipline closely related to political science and legal studies.
Historians and chronographers spared no effort and ink in building the lists of kings, queens, dukes and other powerful leaders. Royal genealogies including information on reigns and pedigree became the first analytical works in institutional chronology. In 1649, Giovanni Ludovico Gotofredi published Archontologia cosmica, including the chapters on the past and modern rulers from the popes to Chinese emperors. Another 17-th century work Histoire de la maison royale de France et des grands officiers de la Couronne (Paris, 1674) by R.P.Anselme may still be interesting as an example of early studies focused on the heads of state and the holders of highest state offices. The 19th and 20th century witnessed the appearance of general works attempting to compile the lists of rulers sorted out by nations and time (Stokvis, Poole, Spuler, Truhart). The most massive example of such study is the work of Peter Truhart Regenten der Welt/Regents of Nations (Munich, 1985), a universal reference book for heads of states and governments of all nations of all times. It was published twice, in 1985 and in 2001, but, unfortunately, is still riddled with errors resulting from the attempt by its author to include as much information as available regardless of its validity from the viewpoint of chronology. Works focused on a narrow scope of research enjoyed a far better success. The Handbook of British Chronology, a work continuously improved by its editors, serves as an excellent example of the combining of theoretical, historical and chronological methods.
Today, with the advantage of computer technologies and the Internet, such disciplines as institutional chronology and some of its close kin, such as genealogy, received the support of many enthusiasts interested in collecting the information related to the highest state offices. Modern technical improvements should help to increase the degree of sophistication in chronological analysis and this might be seen as a crucial point in turning institutional chronology into a more refined discipline. However, the quality of studies has not dramatically improved, as the process of collecting attracted many of those whose primary objectives were far from profound analysis and extensive study. The situation may be reminiscent of numismatics, where a collector may even be a child, while the circle of academic researchers is much smaller. The majority of the studies currently being published leans towards an easier approach. The field of archontology not only offers opportunities for amateurs, but currently depends to an overwhelming extent on their input, both as to facts and as to analysis and organization.
My primary interest lies in the institutional chronology of state offices and is limited to the holders of positions corresponding to those known in modern international law as heads of state and heads of government. When compared to the works of Spuler and Truhart, I tend to give more emphasis to the meaning of facts determining the dates of reigns and offices. What should be accepted as a sound reason for dating the beginning of a reign: the death of a predecessor, the proclamation by parliament, coronation? What does officially determine the premature end of an office holder's tenure: the date of his/her resignation, the date when the resignation was accepted by national legislature, the installation of a successor? Such questions are often neglected or noted only occasionally. Therefore, the study of political developments and national legal systems should be recognized as essential tool in determination of dates. Personal identification of "rulers" should be used by adding biographical details including full names, titles, precise dates and geographic locations of births and deaths.
My study began as collecting names and dates of reign for the European monarchs, but at some point I realized that numerous studies contradict each other concerning even the most obvious dates. The reasons for such contradictions apparently lay in the fact that different authors were chiefly concerned with building consistent chronologies, which recorded each possible name and date, but failed to provide reasonable explanations for picking the dates and sometimes even for historical characters included in such lists. In most of these works one can hardly find references to the primary sources including archival documents. A lack of details and proper explanations diminishes the quality of reference works on institutional chronology.
The availability of quality studies in this field varies from country to country. It is very simple to learn the dates and mechanisms of changing presidents in the United States from 1789, but not every book may answer the question what preceded the inauguration of George Washington and what role the presidents of the Continental Congress played in 1774-1788. The history of Russia is covered in thousands of studies, but we still cannot name a book providing documented dates for its heads of government in the 20th century. A number of gaps remains for historians to fill. This enterprise would not involve only the study of printed primary sources, but also a lot of work in the archives.
My primary ambition is not a simple collecting of dates and names, but combining them into detailed chronologies, where the changes of office holders are reasonably explained from the viewpoints of history, political science and law. This approach significantly boosts the value of the collected material and should help fill in the gaps existing in chronologies of national leaders. Unfortunately, there is no carefully elaborated and universally accepted system for selecting and verifying chronological facts, but such a system would be extremely helpful to determine the criteria of selection for dates and names.
The lack of authoritative information results from many factors. It might seem to be easy, but verification of dates and creation of consecutive chronologies appears to be a challenging task. From my own experience I know that the lists of rulers used as appendixes to academic works are usually over-simplified and poorly verified. This may be the case because the verification requires consulting a great number of official periodicals and collections of legal statutes published in various countries. The tiny facts related to the changes in government are hidden deeply in the minutes of national parliaments and executive bodies.
The study of national leadership chronologies may be enriched by attaching theoretical analysis of patterns found in political developments of different countries. Provisional governments, temporary substitutions of office holders, term definitions, authentic position titles, regencies – these topics form only a part of theoretical issues.
The works not focused on the institutional chronology tend to use colloquial terms and definitions, which partially distort the historical retrospective. The typical current approach to studying the history of office holders might and should be changed. Currently, most works on chronology of rulers and high state officials require extensive improvement as they appear as skeletons of names and dates, to which no flesh of facts is attached. Normally, a reader finds himself confused and bored with thousands of unexplained dates and names, while different works continue to contradict each other adding to the reader's confusion. The nations whose histories feature a rich variety of constitutional and unconstitutional changes of rulers are presented in the reference books in an impoverished form, due the fact that their institutional histories are not properly studied.
Theoretical principles of institutional chronology are still far from being clearly formulated. A researcher puzzled with two or more conflicting dates needs a definite guidance on what event makes the date valid from the viewpoint of institutional chronology or needs an alternative date backed by facts. A simple question as to when an office holder legally took possession of his or her office may raise a number of tough questions. We find a very interesting instance of this in case of the members of the Executive Directory of the French Republic in 1795-1799. Various works on the history of the Executive Directory give rather contradicting answers to a question as to when a director formally took his office. A detailed study showed that at least three different approaches might be applied to the precise determination of their terms of office. Out of 13 directors, the initial four members officially entered into exercising their duties upon constituting the Directory as an executive body, seven – upon their election, and two – on the dates fixed in a special law. Despite the fact that numerous works on the history of France in the 18th century have been published and continue being published, these difficulties remain largely unknown. As a result, we find conflicting and confusing appearances of the respective dates in reference works.
A significant portion of sources for studying the institutional chronology consists of the archives of actual legislation. The collections of documents issued for the purpose of governing by the heads of states and governments, ministers, military leaders and others contain valuable information for studying authentic definitions used by the office holders, their self-styles and official parlance in general. Slightest changes in styles, frequently ignored in the works on general history, might be restored only by careful examination of heritage accumulated by the national governments. For instance, it is known that the colloquial use of the term tsar for the All-Russian Emperor in 1721-1917 is strictly incorrect, because in this period the term tsar was used in the of monarch only for subsidiary (and partially imaginary) polities. The lack of proper definition for a ruler's style results in a distorted view of political development. The answers are often to be found exclusively in the study of legal documents.
Besides purely academic interest, institutional chronology has a true practical meaning. It is used in many disciplines and can be utilized for different purposes. Definite and proven information on the terms of offices may be successfully used for dating the documents. The advantages of proven chronologies of office holders appear when reasonable defined terms of offices narrow the area of research. The right of signature pertinent to office holders and the dates of holding the office help determine the dates of issuing a document if such date was not found in original copy. The principle of using the rulers' names for year counting is known for many nations including ancient Rome and Greece, imperial China and Japan. The regnal years have an essential role for chronology of England and other European countries. Thus, only a neatly composed chronology of rulers may serve as a good basis for researchers.
Summarizing the issues presented in this article, it appears that the ultimate goals of institutional chronology cannot be achieved only by removing discrepancies and filling the gaps in the lists of rulers. As a matter of fact, these gaps cannot be reconciled unless we accept some universal definitions and terms. The criteria for selection of persons to be included in archontological studies, the criteria for selection and verification of terms and dates, the ways of identification of rulers and office holders are still to be defined. Current approaches should go through reconsideration for further improvement and sophistication.
To become an independent academic discipline, archontology should focus on elaborating new standards and terminology for classification of rulers and officials. The existing chronologies, based on well established facts, may serve as a basis for archontological studies, but it should be extended, restructured and supplemented with theoretical information including historical, political and juridical aspects for changes in the forms of government and governmental succession. It is not necessarily that the studies should focus on the succession of office holders. The researches on authentic titles, mechanisms for succession, classification of legal information, inauguration ceremonies and others may form an organic part of archontology.
While a universal improvement of records for all nations and ages could hardly be expected in the nearest future, the study of institutional chronologies for particular countries and supranational unions should be encouraged through sophistication of methods and approaches. The appearance of enriched, verified and documented chronologies recorded with the appropriate technical terminology would signify a real improvement in the development of this field of study and would help the general regeneration of archontology.