The Maya civilization consisted of a large number of city-states. Each city-state had its own independent government. A city-state was made up of a major city and the surrounding areas which sometimes included some smaller settlements and cities. Archeologists believe there were hundreds of Maya cities at the peak of the Mayan civilization.
You can visit the ruins of some Maya city-states today such as Chichen Itza and Tikal. Go here to read about some of the more famous and powerful Maya city-states.
A Maya Ruler by Ricardo Almendariz
King and Nobles
Each city-state was ruled by a king. The Maya believed that their king was given the right to rule by the gods. They believed that the king worked as an intermediary between the people and the gods. The leaders of the Maya were called the "halach uinic" or "ahaw", meaning "lord" or "ruler".
There were also powerful councils of leaders who ran the government. They were chosen from the class of nobles. Lesser lords were called the "batab" and military leaders were called the "nacom".
Because religion was an important part of the Maya life, the priests were powerful figures in the government as well. In some ways the king was considered a priest, too. The kings of the Maya often came to the priests for advice on what to do in a crisis and to get predictions of the future. As a result, the priests had great influence on how the king ruled.
The Maya had strict laws. Crimes such as murder, arson, and acts against the gods were often punished with death. The punishment was much reduced, however, if it was determined that the crime was an accident.
If you broke a law you appeared in court where the local leaders or nobles served as judge. In some cases the king would serve as judge. At the trial the judge would review evidence and listen to witnesses. If the person was found guilty, the punishment was carried out immediately.
The Maya did not have prisons. Punishment for crimes included death, slavery, and fines. Sometimes they would shave the person's head as this was considered a sign of shame. If the victim of the crime wanted to pardon or forgive the accused, then the punishment may be reduced.
Interesting Facts about Maya Government and Kings
The position of king was usually inherited by the oldest son. If there wasn't a son then the oldest brother became king. However, there were also many cases of women rulers.
Commoners had to pay taxes in order to support the king and the nobles. Men also had to serve as warriors when the king commanded.
The Maya nobles were also subject to the law. If a noble was found guilty of a crime, they were often punished even more severely than a commoner.
Sometimes when the king appeared in public, his servants would hold a cloth over his face so the commoners could not see him. Commoners were also not supposed to talk to him directly.
Commoners were forbidden from wearing the clothing or symbols of the nobles.