Government in the Inca Empire, the Sapa Inca Illustration

Inca Empire for Kids
The Sapa Inca
& His Government

The head of government in the Inca Empire was the Sapa Inca. The Sapa Inca was a god. He was not a king. To the Inca people, he was an actual god. He was sacred. The Inca believed he was descended from the most important of the many Inca gods - the sun god Inti. The Sapa Inca represented Inti on earth. Government and religion were totally intertwined in the Inca Empire because the head of government was a god.

The Spanish gave him the name "Sapa".  They perceived him as the emperor or the king, because that was their background; that's what they were familiar with for the person in charge of government. The Sapa Inca was called Apu by the Inca people, which means divinity. We're going to call him the Sapa Inca because the Spanish name stuck and that's what he is referred to today, except of course by scholars. But it's an important distinction. It's the reason that people, no matter how cruelly they were treated, did not revolt. The Inca people believed if they tried to overthrow the Sapa Inca, they might anger the sun god Inti and be punished by losing the sun. You can imagine how powerful that made the Sapa Inca.

How did the Sapa Inca rule 12 million people all by himself? That's easy. He didn't. The Sapa Inca organized his government in a pyramid. He put his relatives in positions of power.  

  • The Sapa Inca - alone at the top of the pyramid
  • Supreme Council (4 men) –The Inca Empire was divided into Four Quarters. Each member of the Supreme Council controlled one Quarter. All reported to the Sapa Inca.
  • Working Management:

    Provincial GovernorsEach of the Four Quarters was divided into regions. A Provincial Governor was assigned to run one region. Except for the Sapa Inca and the 4 members of the Supreme Council, the Provincial Governors were the most powerful political leaders in the Inca Empire.  

    Officials (army officers, priests, judges, and others from the noble class)
    These individuals could ride in a litter and had other special privileges not enjoyed by the general population.

    Tax collectors.  There were several levels of tax collectors. There was one tax collector for every ayllu (for every family group.) That tax collector reported to a collector higher up the scale who might be in charge of several tax collectors, and so on. Their rung on the social scale was measured accordingly.
  • Workers. At the bottom of the pyramid were the workers. Workers were organized into family units called ayllus. Each ayllus was composed of 10-20 people. Most of the people in the Inca Empire were workers.

When the Inca made a new law, he told the top tax collectors. They told the tax collectors who reported to them, who told the next level down, and so on, until every farmer and every family in the empire heard the news. Since the workers could not vote or voice an opinion, that was the end of it until the Inca Sapa made a new law.

Common people had no freedom. They could not own or run a business. They could not own luxury goods. The only items common people could have in their homes were things they needed to do their job. They could not travel on the roads. Only a small amount of time was allotted for bathing and eating. Life was not all work. They had lots of religious holidays. But they could not be idle. That was the law. Either they were celebrating a state approved holiday, working in the fields, or sleeping. 

Service Tax: The Incas loved gold and silver. They had no use for money. The tax collectors did not collect money. They collected man-hours. Every worker had to do his or her job. Plus, every worker had to additionally pay a service tax for the privilege of doing his or her job. Tax was paid in labor - in billions of man-hours. That is how the Incas were able to build so much so rapidly. Each year, every common man in the empire worked off his tax by serving in the army, in the mines, or in construction - building roads, temples, and palaces.

There were many laws that kept a family (an ayllu) in its place. Laws dictated who should work, when, where, and at what time. Local officials had the power to make all decisions about the lives of the people they ruled. Inspectors stopped by frequently to check on things. Breaking a law usually meant the death penalty. Very few people broke the law.


The Sapa Inca

Crime and Punishment

Incas for Kids