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Maya Civilization


History >> Aztec, Maya, and Inca for Kids


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.

Drawing of a Mayan ruler
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

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