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Capital city

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Tokyo, the capital of Japan, and the most populous metropolitan area in the world

A capital city or just capital is the municipality holding primary status in a country, state, province, department, or other subnational division, 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, sometimes meaning multiple official capitals. 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, the "relations between London and Washington" refers to the "relations between the United Kingdom and the United States".[1]

Terminology and etymology[edit]

Rome, as the capital of the Roman Empire, acquired the nickname of Caput Mundi ("Capital of the world").

The word capital derives from the Latin word caput (genitive capitis), meaning 'head', later borrowed from Medieval Latin capitālis ('of the head').[2] The Latin phrase Roma Caput Mundi meaning 'Rome capital of the world' (lit.'head of the world') was already used by the poet Ovid in 1st century BC.[3] It originates out of a classical European understanding of the known world: Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. The phrase is related to the enduring power of the city first as the capital of the Republic and the Empire, and later as the centre of the Catholic Church.[4][5][6]

In several English-speaking states, the terms county town and county seat are also used in lower administrative divisions. 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.


Beijing, as the last of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, has served as the country's political centre for most of the past eight centuries.
Tehran, the capital and largest city of Iran, and the capital of the Persian Empires in the last two centuries

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.[7] Historical examples are ancient Babylon, ancient Athens, ancient Rome, Abbasid Baghdad, Constantinople, Chang'an, and ancient Cusco. The modern capital city has not always existed: in medieval Western Europe, an itinerant (wandering) government was common.[8]

The capital city 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,[9] e.g. Constantinople (more than one religion), Rome/Vatican City (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 position during the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812, when Helsinki was made the current capital of Finland by the Russian Empire.[10]

The convergence of political and economic or cultural power is by no means universal. Traditional capitals may be economically eclipsed by provincial rivals as is the case with Nanjing by Shanghai, Quebec City by Montreal, and several US state capitals. The decline of a dynasty or culture could also mean the extinction of its capital city, as occurred at Babylon[11] and Cahokia. "Political nomadism" was practiced in ancient Near East to increase ties between the ruler and the subjects.[12]

Although many capitals are defined by constitution or legislation, many long-time capitals have no such legal designation, 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[edit]

London, the capital of England and the United Kingdom, and the largest metropolitan area in Western Europe
Paris, the capital of France, and one of the most populous cities in the European Union
Moscow, the capital of Russia, and the former capital of the Soviet Union

Many modern capital cities are located near the centre of the country, so that 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 between 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.[13] The majority of national capitals are also the largest city in their respective countries. Modern examples are Beijing, Berlin, Cairo, London, Madrid, Mexico City, Moscow, Paris, Tokyo, and Washington, D.C..

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.[14]

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[edit]

L'Enfant Plan in 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[edit]

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.[18]

Unusual capital city arrangements[edit]

The Supreme Court, the seat of Switzerland's judiciary, is in Lausanne, although the executive and legislature are located in Bern.
Parliament House in 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[edit]

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[edit]

Capital as symbol[edit]

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:

Capitals in military strategy[edit]

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[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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. Archived from the original on 3 April 2023. Retrieved 17 June 2020.
  2. ^ "Definition of CAPITAL". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 7 May 2024.
  3. ^ Ovidius Naso, Publius (2003). Amores. Translated by Bishop, Tom. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0415967414.
  4. ^ Beretta, Silvio (2017). Understanding China Today: An Exploration of Politics, Economics, Society, and International Relations. Springer. p. 320. ISBN 9783319296258.
  5. ^ B. Bahr, Ann Marie (2009). Christianity: Religions of the World. Infobase Publishing. p. 139. ISBN 9781438106397.
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  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ "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.
  14. ^ 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.
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  19. ^ Real Decreto de 30 de noviembre de 1833 en wikisource
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  22. ^ "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.
  23. ^ Limos, Mario Alvaro (2 July 2020). "Where the Heck Is the Capital of Cavite?". Esquire Philippines. Mandaluyong: Summit Media. Retrieved 25 December 2023.
  24. ^ "Lisboa não tem documento que a oficialize como capital de Portugal", Comunidades Lusófonas (in Portuguese), 13 April 2015, archived from the original on 8 December 2020, retrieved 5 November 2016
  25. ^ 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.
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  34. ^ See Jerusalem Law
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External links[edit]

  • Media related to Capitals at Wikimedia Commons