Capital city

A capital city or capital is the municipality holding primary status in a country, state, province, department, or other subnational entity, usually as its seat of the government. A capital is typically a city that physically encompasses the government's offices and meeting places; the status as capital is often designated by its law or constitution. In some jurisdictions, including several countries, different branches of government are in different settlements. In some cases, a distinction is made between the official (constitutional) capital and the seat of government, which is in another place.

English-language news media often use the name of the capital city as an alternative name for the government of the country of which it is the capital, as a form of metonymy. For example, "relations between Washington and London" refer to "relations between the United States and the United Kingdom".[1]

Terminology and etymology

Skyline of Tokyo, the capital and financial centre of Japan

The word capital derives from the Latin word caput (genitive capitis), meaning 'head'.

In several English-speaking states, the terms county town and county seat are also used in lower subdivisions. In some unitary states, subnational capitals may be known as 'administrative centres'. The capital is often the largest city of its constituent, though not always.


The Roman Forum was surrounded by many government buildings as the capital of ancient Rome

Historically, the major economic centre of a state or region has often become the focal point of political power, and became a capital through conquest or federation.[2] Examples are ancient Babylon, Abbasid Baghdad, ancient Athens, Rome, Bratislava, Budapest, Constantinople, Chang'an, ancient Cusco, Kyiv, Madrid, Paris, Podgorica, London, Beijing, Prague, Tallinn, Tokyo, Lisbon, Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw. (The modern capital city has, however, not always existed: in medieval Western Europe, an itinerant (wandering) government was common.)[3]

The capital city naturally attracts politically motivated people and those whose skills are needed for efficient administration of national or imperial governments, such as lawyers, political scientists, bankers, journalists, and public policy makers. Some of these cities are or were also religious centres,[4] e.g. Constantinople (more than one religion), Rome (the Roman Catholic Church), Jerusalem (more than one religion), Babylon, Moscow (the Russian Orthodox Church), Belgrade (the Serbian Orthodox Church), Paris, and Beijing. In some countries, the capital has been changed for geopolitical reasons; Finland's first city, Turku, which had served as the country's capital since the Middle Ages under the Swedish rule, lost its right during the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812, when Helsinki was made the current capital of Finland by the Russian Empire.[5]

The convergence of political and economic or cultural power is by no means universal. Traditional capitals may be economically eclipsed by provincial rivals, e.g. Nanking by Shanghai, Quebec City by Montreal, and numerous US state capitals. The decline of a dynasty or culture could also mean the extinction of its capital city, as occurred at Babylon[6] and Cahokia. "Political nomadism" was practiced in ancient Near East to increase ties between the ruler and the subjects.[7]

Although many capitals are defined by constitution or legislation, many long-time capitals have no legal designation as such, including Bern, Edinburgh, Lisbon, London, Paris, and Wellington. They are recognized as capitals as a matter of convention, and because all or almost all the country's central political institutions, such as government departments, supreme court, legislature, embassies, etc., are located in or near them.

Modern capitals

  Countries whose capital is on the coast
  Countries whose capital is not on the coast

Many modern capital cities are located in the centre of countries so they are more accessible to its population and have better protection from possible invasions. (See also § Capitals in military strategy) The location may also be based on a compromise among two or more cities or other political divisions, historical reasons, or enough land was needed to deliberately build a new planned city for the capital.[8] The majority of national capitals are also the largest city in their respective countries, but this is not the case in some countries.

Counties in the United Kingdom have historic county towns, which are often not the largest settlement within the county and often are no longer administrative centres, as many historical counties are now only ceremonial, and administrative boundaries are different. The number of new capitals in the world increased substantially since the Renaissance period, especially with the founding of independent nation-states since the eighteenth century.[9]

In Canada, there is a federal capital, while the ten provinces and three territories each have capital cities. The states of such countries as Mexico, Brazil (including the famous cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, capitals of their respective states), and Australia also each have capital cities. For example, the six state capitals of Australia are Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney. In Australia, the term "capital cities" is regularly used to refer to those six state capitals plus the federal capital Canberra, and Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and also of the United Arab Emirates overall.

In unitary states which consist of multiple constituent nations, such as the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Denmark, each will usually have its own capital city. Unlike in federations, there is usually not a separate national capital, but rather the capital city of one constituent nation will also be the capital of the state overall, such as London, which is the capital of England and of the United Kingdom. Similarly, each of the autonomous communities of Spain and regions of Italy has a capital city, such as Seville and Naples, while Madrid is the capital of the Community of Madrid and of the Kingdom of Spain as a whole and Rome is the capital of Italy and of the region of Lazio.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, each of its constituent states (or Länder, plural of Land) has its own capital city, such as Dresden, Wiesbaden, Mainz, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, and Munich, as do all of the republics of the Russian Federation. The national capitals of Germany and Russia (the Stadtstaat of Berlin and the federal city of Moscow) are also constituent states of both countries in their own right. Each of the states of Austria and cantons of Switzerland also have their own capital cities. Vienna, the national capital of Austria, is also one of the states, while Bern is the (de facto) capital of both Switzerland and of the Canton of Bern.

Planned capitals

The L'Enfant Plan for Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States

Governing entities sometimes plan, design and build new capital cities to house the seat of government of a polity or of a subdivision. Deliberately planned and designed capitals include:

These cities satisfy one or both of the following criteria:

  1. A deliberately planned city that was built expressly to house the seat of government, superseding a capital city that was in an established population center. There have been various reasons for this, including overcrowding in that major metropolitan area, and the desire to place the capital city in a location with a better climate (usually a less tropical one).
  2. A town that was chosen as a compromise among two or more cities (or other political divisions), none of which was willing to concede to the other(s) the privilege of being the capital city. Usually, the new capital is geographically located roughly equidistant between the competing population centres.

Compromise locations

The Australian Parliament opened in the small town of Canberra in 1927 as a compromise between the largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne.

Some examples of the second situation (compromise locations) are:

Changes in a nation's political regime sometimes result in the designation of a new capital. Akmola (renamed Astana in 1998) became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Naypyidaw was founded in Burma's interior as the former capital, Rangoon, was claimed to be overcrowded.[13]

Unusual capital city arrangements

The Supreme Court, the seat of Switzerland's judiciary, is in Lausanne, although the executive and legislature are located in Bern.
Parliament House, Singapore. As a city-state, Singapore requires no specific capital.
The Blue Palace, the official residence of Montenegro's president, is in Cetinje, although the executive and legislature are located in Podgorica.

A few nation-states have multiple capitals, and there are also several states that have no capital. Some have a city as the capital but with most government agencies elsewhere.

There is also a ghost town which is currently the de jure capital of a territory: Plymouth in Montserrat.

Capitals that are not the seat of government

There are several countries where, for various reasons, the official capital and de facto seat of government are separated:

Some historical examples of similar arrangements, where the recognized capital was not the official seat of government:

Disputed capitals

Capital as symbol

Mariehamn, capital city of Åland, a demilitarized archipelago with self-governance

With the rise of the modern nation-state, the capital city has become a symbol for the state and its government, and imbued with political meaning. Unlike medieval capitals, which were declared wherever a monarch held his or her court, the selection, relocation, founding, or capture of a modern capital city is a highly symbolic event. For example:

  • The ruined and almost uninhabited Athens was made capital of newly independent Greece in 1834, four years after the country gained its independence, with the romantic notion of reviving the glory of Ancient Greece.[31] Similarly, following the Cold War and German reunification, Berlin is now once again the capital of Germany.[32] Other restored capital cities include Moscow after the October Revolution.
  • A symbolic relocation of a capital city to a geographically or demographically peripheral location may be for either economic or strategic reasons (sometimes known as a forward capital or spearhead capital). Peter the Great moved his government from Moscow to Saint Petersburg to give the Russian Empire a European orientation.[33] The economically significant city of Nafplion became the first capital of Greece, when Athens was an unimportant village.[34] The Ming emperors moved their capital to Beijing from the more central Nanjing to help supervise the border with the Mongols. During the 1857 rebellion, Indian rebels considered Delhi their capital, and Bahadur Shah Zafar was proclaimed emperor, but the ruling British had their capital in Calcutta. In 1877, the British formally held a 'Durbar' in Delhi, proclaiming Queen Victoria as 'Empress of India'. Delhi finally became the colonial capital after the Coronation Durbar of King-Emperor George V in 1911, continuing as independent India's capital from 1947. Other examples include Abuja, Astana, Brasília, Helsinki, Islamabad, Naypyidaw, and Yamoussoukro.
  • The selection or founding of a "neutral" capital city, one unencumbered by regional or political identities, was meant to represent the unity of a new state when Ankara, Bern, Brasília, Canberra, Madrid, Ottawa and Washington became capital cities. Sometimes, the location of a new capital city was chosen to terminate actual or potential squabbling between various entities, such as in the cases of Brasília, Canberra, Ottawa, Washington, Wellington and Managua.
  • The British-built town of New Delhi represented a simultaneous break and continuity with the past, the location of Delhi being where many imperial capitals were built (Indraprastha, Dhillika, and Shahjahanabad) but the actual capital being the new British-built town designed by Edwin Lutyens. Wellington, on the southwestern tip of the North Island of New Zealand, replaced the much more northerly city of Auckland to place the national capital close to the South Island and hence to placate its residents, many of whom had sympathies with separatism.
  • During the American Civil War, tremendous resources were expended to defend Washington, D.C., which bordered on the Confederate States of America (with the Commonwealth of Virginia), from Confederate attack even though the relatively small federal government could easily have been moved elsewhere. Likewise, great resources were expended by the Confederacy in defending the Confederate capital from attack by the Union, in its exposed location of Richmond, Virginia, barely 100 miles (160 km) south of Washington, D.C.[35]
  • Two national capitals refer to another sovereign state. The name of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is thought to be derived from Taani linn, originally meaning "Danish Castle" and now "Danish Town" in Estonian, named after the Toompea Castle, which Denmark controlled in 1219–1227, 1238–1332 and in 1340–1346.[36] Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, was named so in Spanish by the first settlers from Spain in the 16th century.[37] See List of national capital city name etymologies for more.

Capitals in military strategy

As the last of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, Beijing has served as the political center of China for most of the past eight centuries.
Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was the final part of the empire to fall to the Ottoman Turks due to its strong defences.

The capital city is usually but not always a primary target in a war, as capturing it usually guarantees capture of much of the enemy government, victory for the attacking forces, or at the very least demoralization for the defeated forces.

In ancient China, where governments were massive centralized bureaucracies with little flexibility on the provincial level, a dynasty could easily be toppled with the fall of its capital. In the Three Kingdoms period, both Shu and Wu fell when their respective capitals of Chengdu and Jianye fell. The Ming dynasty relocated its capital from Nanjing to Beijing, where they could more effectively control the generals and troops guarding the borders from Mongols and Manchus. The Ming was destroyed when Li Zicheng took their seat of power, and this pattern repeats itself in Chinese history, until the fall of the traditional Confucian monarchy in the 20th century. After the Qing dynasty's collapse, decentralization of authority and improved transportation and communication technologies allowed both the Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists to rapidly relocate capitals and keep their leadership structures intact during the great crisis of Japanese invasion.

National capitals were arguably less important as military objectives in other parts of the world, including the West, because of socioeconomic trends toward localized authority, a strategic modus operandi especially popular after the development of feudalism and reaffirmed by the development of democratic and capitalistic philosophies. In 1204, after the Latin Crusaders captured the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, Byzantine forces were able to regroup in several provinces; provincial noblemen managed to reconquer the capital after 60 years and preserve the empire for another 200 years after that. The British forces sacked various American capitals repeatedly during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, but American forces could still carry on fighting from the countryside, where they enjoyed support from local governments and the traditionally independent civilian frontiersmen. Exceptions to these generalizations include highly centralized states such as France, whose centralized bureaucracies could effectively coordinate far-flung resources, giving the state a powerful advantage over less coherent rivals, but risking utter ruin if the capital were taken.

See also

Further reading

  • Andreas Daum, "Capitals in Modern History: Inventing Urban Spaces for the Nation", in Berlin – Washington, 1800–2000: Capital Cities, Cultural Representation, and National Identities, ed. Andreas Daum and Christof Mauch. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 3–28.
  • Capital Cities: International Perspectives – Les capitales: Perspectives internationales, ed. John Taylor, Jean G. Lengellé and Caroline Andrew. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1993, ISBN 978-0-7735-8496-9.


  1. Panther, Klaus-Uwe; Thornburg, Linda L.; Barcelona, Antonio (2009). Metonymy and Metaphor in Grammar. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 978-90-272-2379-1.
  2. "What does a Capital City Mean?". 5 December 2012. Archived from the original on 31 May 2017. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  3. "Where Next: The Reasons Why (Some) Countries Move Their Capitals". Archived from the original on 10 October 2017. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  4. Makas, Emily Gunzburger; Conley, Tanja Damljanovic (4 December 2009). Capital Cities in the Aftermath of Empires: Planning in Central and Southeastern Europe. Routledge. ISBN 9781135167257. Archived from the original on 10 October 2017.
  5. "Turku, Finland – Britannica". Archived from the original on 11 July 2021. Retrieved 1 August 2021.
  6. Seymour, Michael (29 August 2014). Babylon: Legend, History and the Ancient City. I.B.Tauris. ISBN 9780857736079. Archived from the original on 10 October 2017.
  7. Bahadori, Ali; Miri, Negin (2021). "The So-called Achaemenid Capitals and the Problem of Royal Court Residence". Iran: 1–31. doi:10.1080/05786967.2021.1960881. S2CID 238840732.
  8. "Capital cities: How are they chosen and what do they represent?". BBC News. 6 December 2017. Archived from the original on 23 March 2022. Retrieved 26 June 2022.
  9. Berlin – Washington, 1800–2000: Capital Cities, Cultural Representation, and National Identities, ed. Andreas Daum and Christof Mauch. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-521-84117-7, pp. 4–7.
  10. Crew, Harvey W.; Webb, William Bensing; Wooldridge, John (1892). Centennial History of the City of Washington, D.C. Dayton, OH: United Brethren Publishing House. p. 124.
  11. McLintock, Alexander Hare; John Victor Tuwhakahewa Baker, M. A.; Taonga, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage Te Manatu. "GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION OF POPULATION". An encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, 1966. Archived from the original on 31 October 2016.
  12. Levine, Stephen (13 July 2012). "Capital city – A new capital". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Archived from the original on 5 May 2015. Retrieved 4 May 2015.
  13. Pedrosa, Veronica (20 November 2006). "Burma's 'seat of the kings'". Al Jazeera. Archived from the original on 23 November 2006. Retrieved 21 November 2006.
  14. Real Decreto de 30 de noviembre de 1833 en wikisource
  15. Real Decreto de 30 de noviembre de 1833 en el sitio web oficial del Gobierno de Canarias
  16. Ordonnance n° 58–1100 du 17 novembre 1958 relative au fonctionnement des assemblées parlementaires Archived 30 April 2013 at the Wayback Machine article 1
  17. "Presidential Decree No. 940 : Philippine Laws, Statutes and Codes". Chan Robles Virtual Law Library. 24 June 1976. Archived from the original on 6 September 2014. Retrieved 20 April 2014.
  18. "Lisboa não tem documento que a oficialize como capital de Portugal", Comunidades Lusófonas (in Portuguese), 13 April 2015, retrieved 5 November 2016
  19. Lansford, Tom (24 March 2015). Political Handbook of the World 2015. Singapore: CQ Press. ISBN 978-1-4833-7157-3. Archived from the original on 30 August 2017. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  20. Boxall, Sheryl (2008). DeRouen, Karl; Bellamy, Paul (eds.). International Security and the United States: An Encyclopedia, Volume 2. Westport, Connecticut, USA: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 728. ISBN 978-0-275-99255-2.
  21. "Verfassung des Kantons Zürich" [Constitution of the Canton of Zurich]. 16 March 2022. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  22. "Tanzania". The World Factbook. 16 November 2021.
  23. Reeder, Scott. "What does it cost taxpayers to pay for lawmakers' empty Springfield residences?" (Archive). Illinois News Network. 11 September 2014. Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  24. Gauen, Pat. "Illinois corruption explained: the capital is too far from Chicago" (Archive). St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  25. "In Nicosia, the world's last divided capital, a spirit of reconciliation is stirring across the fence". the Guardian. 15 January 2017. Retrieved 15 August 2021.
  26. "Nicosia Municipality - Nicosia, capital of the Republic of Cyprus". Retrieved 15 August 2021.
  27. "The Constitution of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus". Retrieved 15 August 2021.
  28. See Jerusalem Law
  29. 2003 Basic Law of Palestine Archived 11 February 2016 at the Wayback Machine, Title One: Article 3
  30. Landler, Mark (6 December 2017). "Trump Recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's Capital". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 December 2017.
  31. Chrysopoulos, Philip (18 September 2018). "September 18, 1834: Athens Becomes the Capital of Greece". Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  32. "History of Berlin – Past and present of Berlin". Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  33. "History of St. Petersburg, Russia: Peter the Great (short biography)". Retrieved 7 January 2019.
  34. Mikellides, Byron (1 June 2001). "The Creation of Modern Athens, Planning the Myth". Urban Design International. 6 (2): 119. doi:10.1057/palgrave.udi.9000029. ISSN 1468-4519.
  35. "Washington: Capital of the Union – Essential Civil War Curriculum". Retrieved 7 January 2019.
  36. Tallinn Archived 5 October 2021 at the Wayback Machine. [KNR] Dictionary of Estonian Place names. Retrieved 5 October 2021
  37. What Is The Capital Of Trinidad And Tobago? Archived 5 October 2021 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 5 October 2021
  • Media related to Capitals at Wikimedia Commons
This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.