- This article concerns places that serve as centers of government and politics. For alternative meanings see capital (disambiguation)
In politics a capital (also called capital city or political capital — although the latter phrase has an alternative meaning based on an alternative meaning of "capital") is the principal city or town associated with its government. It is almost always the city which physically encompasses the offices and meeting places of the seat of government and fixed by law. The word capital is derived from the Latin caput meaning "head," and the related term "capitol" refers to the building where government-business is chiefly conducted.
The seats of government in major substate jurisdictions are usually called capitals, but at lower administrative subdivisions, terms such as county town, county seat, or borough seat are also used.
A number of cases exist where states or other entities have multiple capitals. In South Africa, for example, the administrative capital is Pretoria, the legislative capital is Cape Town, and the judicial capital is Bloemfontein, the outcome of the compromise that created the Union of South Africa in 1910.
In others, the "effective" and "official" capital may differ for pragmatic reasons, resulting in a situation where a city known as "the capital" is not, in fact, host to the seat of government:
In such cases, the city housing the administrative capital is usually understood to be the "national capital" among outsiders. For instance, Santiago is understood to be the capital of Chile even though its Congress is in Valparaiso.
As the focal point of power for the region or country, the capital naturally attracts the politically motivated and those whose skills are needed for efficient administration of government such as lawyers, journalists, and public policy researchers. Older capitals have often developed into prime economic, cultural, or intellectual centers as well. Such is certainly the case with Paris, France and Buenos Aires, Argentina among national capitals, and Irkutsk or Salt Lake City, Utah in their regions. Yet such concentration may be controversial. The siting of Brasilia in Brazil's heartland was done in part to represent the government's separation from the crowded and corrupt old capital, Rio de Janeiro. The government of South Korea announced in 2004 it would move its capital from Seoul to Yeongi-Gongju — even though the word "Seoul" itself means capital in the Korean language.
The convergence of political and economic or cultural power is by no means universal. Traditional capitals may be economically eclipsed by provincial rivals, as occurred with Thebes by Alexandria, Nanjing by Shanghai, or Edinburgh by Glasgow. The decline of a dynasty or culture could mean the extinction of its capital city as well, as occurred with Babylon and Cahokia. And many modern capital cities, such as Abuja and Ottawa, were deliberately fixed outside existing economic areas, and may not have established themselves as new commercial or industrial hubs since.
Capital as symbol
With the rise of modern empires and the 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 an emotional affair. For example:
- Ruined and almost uninhabited Athens was made capital of newly independent Greece with the romantic notion of reviving the glory of the ancients;
Peter I of Russia moved his government to Saint Petersburg to give the Russian Empire a western orientation, while Kemal Atatürk did the same by ironically moving east to Ankara, away from Ottoman Istanbul;
- The selection or founding of a "neutral" city, one unencumbered by regional or political identity, represented the unity of a new state with Madrid in Spain, Ottawa in Canada, Washington, D.C. in the United States, and Canberra in Australia among others;
- During the American Civil War, tremendous resources were expended to defend Washington, D.C. from Confederate attack even though the small federal government could have been moved relatively easily in the era of railroads and telegraph.
Lists of capitals