According to legend, the first city of Ankh-Morpork was founded thousands of years ago by twin brothers who were raised by a hippopotamus (an allusion to the myth of Romulus and Remus, albeit with a hippo replacing the original wolf). It is in memory of this that the hippo is the royal animal of Ankh. One legend has it that if danger ever threatens the city, the eight stone hippopotami guarding the Brass Bridge will come to life and run away. Another legend claims that many centuries ago, the Disc flooded. An ark was constructed, containing two of every animal. When the accumulated dung of forty days and nights was dropped over the side, they called it Ankh-Morpork.
The original city was little more than a walled keep, surrounding the Tower of Art, a building of mysterious origin and which may even predate the Disc itself.
At one point it had an empire, similar to the Roman Empire, that covered half the continent including the neighbouring country of Klatch. These were the days of the "Pax Morporkia," another reference to Rome and their Pax Romana.
The empire was largely the creation of General General Tacticus (an obvious pun or play on words, and a reference to Tacitus), the greatest military mind in history. Tacticus refused to accept that the Empire was growing too big to control, and was finally shipped off to be king of Genua. As king he decided that the greatest threat to Genua was the Empire, and declared war on it (a probable reference to Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, who served under the Emperor Napoleon but later, as King of Sweden, allied with France's enemies).
This was a Golden Age, ruled by the Kings of Ankh, who are recalled in legend as wise, noble and fair. The line died out approximately 2000 years before the present, giving way to real kings who were realistically corrupt and peverse and ultimately leading to the collapse of the empire.
Royalty became extremely debased and the later kings of Ankh-Morpork are recalled in history as power-mad and corrupt, or just mad; some are mentioned by name in Men at Arms:
- Queen Alguinna IV
- King Artorollo (a contemporary of Alberto Malich)
- King Cirone IV
- Queen Coanna
- King Loyala the Aaargh (Had a 1.13 second rule from coronation to assassination) - The Discworld Companion
- King Ludwig the Tree (Known to issue royal proclamations on the need to develop a new type of frog and similar important matters, and also responsible for the city motto "Quanti Canicula Ille In Fenestra") - The Discworld Companion
- King Paragore
- King Tyrril (ruled circa AM 907)
- King Veltrick III
- Webblethorpe the Unconscious
The last and worst - the euphemistically-remembered Lorenzo the Kind (the full extent of whose infamy is not revealed, save that he was said to be "very fond of children" and had in his dungeons "machines for . . .") - was overthrown in the Ankh-Morpork Civil War of 1688 (dating from the founding of UU). The question of what to do with the deposed king (no judge would try him) was settled when he was executed by the then Commander of the City Watch, Suffer-Not-Injustice Vimes. Known as "Old Stoneface," his regicide resulted in his being banned from bearing arms (These events parallel the English Civil War of the 1640s, and the execution of Charles I by Oliver Cromwell). Afterwards "Old Stoneface" (an ancestor of the current City Watch Commander Samuel Vimes) and his Ironheads (a play on "Roundheads") attempted to introduce democracy, but the people voted against it. After "Old Stoneface" himself was overthrown, Ankh-Morpork reverted to a non-hereditary oligarchic system, where the leaders are still ruthless tyrants, but don't have the audacity to invoke divine right. It is, however, rumoured that the royal blood line of the Kings of Ankh has not in fact died out but instead continued, and that the true king, Carrot Ironfoundersson, walks the streets of the city on a nightly basis. The Patrician rules the city, and operates a specialised form of "One Man, One Vote" democracy: the Patrician is the Man, and he has the Vote.
Under the Patricians the city has become the mercantile and political capital of the Discworld, so much so that the Sto Plains operates under a new Pax Morporkia, which operates not on the principle of "If you fight, we will kill you," but on the principle of "If you fight, we will call in your mortgages." The current Patrician has opened the city to dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, humans from across the Disc and even the undead, making a truly multicultural society, with both the advantages and problems that suggests. Mimes are strictly forbidden. (The current Patrician's own, typically pragmatic, view on multiculturalism is "Alloys are stronger.")
In recent years, the city has seen numerous changes. Most notable are: the rise of the semaphore network (the "clacks"), the invention of the newspaper (with the help of the iconograph), and the revitalisation of the City Watch and the Ankh-Morpork Post Office.
Civic symbols include Morporkia, a woman in a cabbage-spangled cloak and an old-fashioned helmet, carrying a shield with the civic coat of arms and a toasting-fork symbolising "something or other" (compare Britannia, Columbia).
The succession of the Patrician is normally either by assassination or revolution. It has been known for Patricians to resign, but it is very much the exception.
Power is to some degree shared with the many Guilds (see above) and the surviving nobility. They form a sort of advisory city council, but the Patrician has the only vote at meetings.
The nearest surviving relative of the former royal family seems to be Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson, technically a human, but fundamentally a dwarf (or vice-versa depending on point-of-view). However, he has gone to some effort to keep this as quiet as possible. The origin of Corporal Cecil Wormsborough St. John (Nobby) Nobbs remains shrouded in mystery. At one point he was identified as being a descendant of de Nobbes, the Earl of Ankh (and therefore the next in line), but this was (probably) a deliberate deception.
A Patrician has almost absolute power over the affairs of the city and works together with the leaders of the city's Guilds, who are the ones who elect him in the first place (through the Guild Council, as shown in The Truth. Eligible for election are members of rich and influential families. Unfortunately, almost all of the people who have held the post through the years proved once in office to be little different from a king, except that power did not pass automatically to their descendants. They were despotic, oppressive and fairly often mad. Past Patricians have included:
- Mad Lord Snapcase (preceded Vetinari)
- Homicidal Lord Winder (preceded Snapcase)
- Deranged Lord Harmoni
- Laughing Lord Scapula
- Frenzied Earl Hargath
- Nersh the Lunatic
- Giggling Lord Smince
- Olaf Quimby II
Vetinari appears rather more permanent than most, largely due to his Machiavellian ("for a given value of Machiavelli", according to Terry Pratchett) machinations. He has arranged the politics of the city in such a way that to remove him from office would cause chaos among the Guilds and nobility. He firmly believes that what people really want is stability, and that is what he provides.
The primary engines of Ankh-Morpork's economy are the guilds. There are hundreds of guilds, for every conceivable profession, from clowns to butchers, and each has its own strictly maintained laws and trading practices. Many guilds have assumed roles which in real-world cities would be assumed by government agencies.
As Ankh-Morpork does not appear to have anything approaching a public education system, the primary means of education is the vocational training imparted by the guilds to their young members. Foundlings are, for instance, often dropped at the doorsteps of guilds in the hopes of their learning a useful trade. The Assassin's Guild is considered the top educational establishment on the Disc and, whether one intends to be an assassin or not, is considered the school of choice for young aristocrats such as the future Lord Vetinari. Many children from poorer backgrounds are educated at dame schools, similar to the institutions in Victorian England of the same name; Sideney (in Hogfather) and Samuel Vimes (in Thud!) were educated at dame schools. Others attend boarding schools outside Ankh-Morpork, such as the Quirm College for Young Ladies.
The laws and protections offered by the guilds are the city's main form of personal security. The most obvious example of this is the Thieves' Guild, which, by regulating the crime trade, acts as the city's main law enforcement agency; however, many of the guilds also have private enforcers, such as the Agony Aunts for the Seamstresses' Guild and the Bloody Fools for the Fools' Guild.
At its most basic level, law in Ankh-Morpork operates on the principle that a grocer is free to mix soil in his coffee, and also to be vivisected by any customer who happens to find out. Other than that, options are slim. In cases of personal grievance, one might make an appeal to the Guild of Lawyers, providing, of course, one is wealthy enough to pay (The Lawyers' Guild consider this a very reasonable arrangement, as the poor are inveterately criminal anyway). Barring that, the only course of action in criminal cases is a direct appeal to the Patrician, which frequently works, as he sees such a result as highly instructive.
The City Watch is one of the greatest success stories, having grown under the leadership of Commander Vimes from three unemployable men to the most modern police force on the Disc.
Biers is a pub frequented by creatures of the night, usually lumped together as "undead", though they can include werewolves and bogeymen. Difficult to find, unless you happen to be "the right sort." Susan Sto Helit is a noted frequenter of Biers. The more typical clientele occasionally loudly demand to know what she thinks she's doing there. They seldom do so twice. The barman of Biers is named Igor, though he doesn't appear to be an Igor. It's best to eye what he serves carefully; as Pratchett noted in Hogfather, "When Igor the barman was asked for a Bloody Mary, he didn't mix a metaphor."
The Dwarf Bread Museum which, as its name suggests, is a building where certain articles of the (in)famous dwarf bread are kept; usually specimens of a cultural or historical importance. First mentioned in Men at Arms; more prominently featured in The Fifth Elephant as the building from which the Scone of Stone is stolen.
The Mended Drum, formerly the Broken Drum, the city's principal inn, located on Filigree Street. A rowdy, cloudy, crowded, smelly and utterly disreputable establishment, and therefore the ideal haunt for the Disc's plethora of heroes. It is also a favoured locale for those wishing to discuss business of a clandestine nature.
The Shades, Ankh-Morpork's slum district, comprise the oldest region of the city. The moral equivalent of a black hole. A pretty nasty place, all told (a horse in the Shades is often called "lunch", and nothing is seen as more suspicious than fresh paint).
Unseen University (UU) is in many ways the city's core. Centred around the 800-foot Tower of Art, the tallest building on the Disc, it serves as the Sto Plains' (and possibly the entire Discworld's) premier magic academy. The city originally grew out of the need to service and maintain the University. The Shades technically fall under its dominion, and much of its income is derived from rents there.