While princes and bishops may no longer be common, they once ruled Europe secularly and religiously. But even in bygone eras a ruler that held both complete secular and religious authority was rare. One would have hardly thought to look in the corner of the Balkans, in a land that was almost completely controlled by the Islamic Ottoman Empire. In the harrowing mountains of Montenegro, however, a series of prince-bishops, or vladikas, ruled for over a century.

Pass in the Balkan Mountains, Robert Walsh, Constantinople and the Scenery of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.

This rare theocratic system emerged in the 17th century in opposition to the Ottomans. The Ottomans had taken control of Montenegro at the end of the 15th century, but the local secular and religious authorities, often with the support of the Republic of Venice, resisted Ottoman domination. The linchpin of Montenegro was the Metropolitan of Cetinje, the chief religious authority in the area. But originally he was not the secular leader of the Montenegrins, just a common voice that could at times coordinate the disparate Montenegrin clans to resist the Ottomans together. It was only under the House of Petrovic (later known as the House of Petrovic-Njegoš) that the Metropolitans of Cetinje emerged as secular-religious leaders, the vladikas.

Danilo Šćepčev Heraković Njegoš become the Metropolitan of Cetinje in 1696. Danilo united civil and religious authority under his control and unified the Montenegrins to the extent that the Ottomans accepted its autonomy in 1711, after over two centuries of supposed direct rule. With this new status, Danilo became vladika of Montenegro. The title of vladika was hereditary, but it had to be passed down by a unique method due to the celibacy of bishops. It was passed down from uncle to nephew, keeping the title in the House of Petrovic-Njegoš for several generations.

But vladika of Montenegro was hardly an easy job. Montenegro was a small and impoverished country with no major cities (its capital, Cetinje, had less than 10,000 people) and no real access to the sea. It was entirely surrounded by the hostile Ottoman Empire, and its own population was composed of factious clans. The vladikas maintained their power through a powerful protector, the Russian Empire, and a mixture of personal charisma and religious respect. The House of Petrovic-Njegoš did not always sit easy on its throne, but at the turn of the 19th century, one of its members was still sitting on it.

As the 19th century began, the vladikas began to expand their power. Although Serbia gained autonomy from the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the century, Montenegro had been seen as the beacon of Serbian independence for a long time, given the Serbian historical background of Montenegrin territory. Although this status now began to fade, Montenegro still maintained its independence in the face of Ottoman power and Serbian pressure to unify (the unification agreements were broached came to nothing). Petar I (1784-1830) was a talented military commander and his successor, Petar II (1830-1851) created a modern central government, including a senate and a police force.

Petar II was succeeded by his nephew, Danilo, who, just a year after his accession, in 1852, declared Montenegro a secular principality. Naturally, he became the secular prince and was no longer a bishop. The theocratic state was no more. Ironically, Danilo was succeeded by his nephew, even though he was the first non-celibate ruler of Montenegro from his family. But since he died young and without any sons, the throne passed to his nephew, Nicholas. Montenegro would go on to expand its borders and the House of Petrovic-Njegoš would continue to rule until 1918, when Yugoslavia was formed in the aftermath of World War I.

The Montenegrin vladikas were an elusive political rarity in history. They combined secular and religious authority over a people in opposition to overwhelming external threats and internal strife. Montenegro was the earliest state to emerge from Ottoman domination in the Balkans, being recognized over a century before Greece gained its independence or Serbia its autonomy. Although they are practical forgotten today, the vladikas were a tenacious line of leaders who laid the foundations of the modern Montenegro, rulers of a mountain theocracy.