What Is A City-State?

The State of Vatican City occupies an area of 44 hectares inside Rome.
The State of Vatican City occupies an area of 44 hectares inside Rome.

A city-state denotes a politically independent city whose territory also includes its dependent territories. This type of political structure was common in antiquity, as seen in the city-states of Carthage, Rome, and Athens. Italy's territory featured merchant city-states in the course of the Renaissance from Venice, Ancona, Florence, Naples, Pisa, Bari, to Lucca. City-states are not as numerous in the modern day, with Vatican City, Singapore, and Monaco considered as being the true definition of the term. City-states also go by the name micro-states, a term which is also used to denote other configurations of particularly small nations. A handful of other small states bear similarities to the structure of city-states and are thus regarded as modern city-states such as Malta, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Brunei. These territories each possess an urban settlement hosting a substantial proportion of the population although they have a number of distinct settlements in addition to a de facto capital city.

Ancient City-States

Numerous city-states prospered in medieval times in various parts of the world from Russia, Greece, Central Asia, Egypt, to the Swahili Coast. Rome is one of the notable example of these cities. It developed from a series of settlements surrounding a ford on the river Tiber. Italy's Latin tribe is credited with the formation of the city-state. The Roman Republic began around 509 BC, and it featured such democratic elements as a constitution, representative assemblies, Senate, and annually elected magistrates. The city expanded its mandate through conquest to include territories in North Africa, western Europe, the Mediterranean region, Eastern and Northern Europe, and Asia Minor. At the city's height in AD 117, it covered 5.0 square kilometers and had 50 to 90 million residents. Rome inspired numerous modern republics. Another medieval city-state was Tyre which was among the most prominent city-states in all of Phoenicia. Tyre was made up of two areas. The older part of the city developed on the mainland from c. 2750 BCE while the island complex grew as a trade center. The island's prosperity necessitated its heavy fortification. Babylon's King Nebuchadnezzar II besieged the city for thirteen years and did not manage to breach its defenses. The city also attracted the attention of Alexander the Great. The inhabitants of Tyre were experts in the making of dye from the crushed shells of the Murex shellfish. The purple dye that was produced was highly prized in the medieval era. The city's alliance with Israel further facilitated its prosperity.

Italian City-States

Venice, Sienna, Florence, Lucca, and Genoa arose as the most notable Italian city-states from the 9th to the 15th century. Venice arose as a great maritime power and as a commerce hub for spice, silk, and grain. Venice also benefited from a lucrative banking sector, and it is regarded as the 1st proper international financial center. Genoa was another Mediterranean trading power, and the city's bankers lent money to monarchs such as those of Spain. Florence flourished in the 12th century through trading with foreign nations. Numerous palazzi and churches were built going into the 13th century which featured Gothic architecture. Florence also had a lucrative wool manufacturing industry. Lucca was renowned for its silk industry while Siena arose as a commercial center. These city-states implemented a republican form of government fashioned after medieval Rome and Greece. Several interlinked councils made significant decisions in the states while prominent adult men were chosen or elected to perform legislative or executive duties. The city-states did not, however, allow substantial political rights to the residents of their subject territories out of the capital city.

Decline Of The Medieval City-States

Several city-states had already lost their sovereignty in the 16th century. The Florentine Republic evolved into the Duchy of Tuscany in 1532 under the reign of the Medici family, while Sienna was conquered by Spain in 1555 and bought by Florence in 1557. The city-states were fewer and weaker by the 18th century. Venice struggled to retain its independence after it was engaged in a series succession wars with the Turks from 1645 to 1718. Napoleon Bonaparte managed to conquer Venice in 1797. The European city-states were major losers in the time between the Renaissance to the French Revolution as they could not afford the manpower and wealth to defend themselves against powerful monarchies.

Current City-States


Monaco is among the world's current city-states. It lies in the French Riviera in the western part of Europe. Monaco sits on an area of 0.78 square miles and has an estimated 38,400 residents. Monaco has implemented a constitutional monarchy type of government. The House of Grimaldi has maintained rule over the territory despite several brief interruptions. The state's independence is guaranteed by the 1861 Franco-Monegasque Treaty, although its defense is in the hands of France. In 1993, Monaco was awarded full voting rights by the UN. The state also participates in some EU policies such as border control and customs even though it is not an EU member, although it has been a participant in the Council of Europe since 2004.


Singapore is an Asian city-state whose territory features one primary island and an additional 62 islets. Its colonial history includes British occupation and Japanese occupation in the course of the WWII. Singapore joined other ex-British colonies to create Malaysia, but it detached itself two years later citing ideological differences and established itself as a sovereign country in 1965. Singapore faced initial challenges such as a hinterland and lack of natural resources, but its focus on external trade propelled its economy. Singapore's constitution provides for a representative democracy structure of politics. The country has in place a sophisticated and technological advanced military system to defend its sovereignty if the need arises.

Vatican City

Vatican City occupies an area of 44 hectares inside Rome. The city's establishment is credited to the 1929 Lateran Treaty negotiated between Italy and the Holy See. The figure in charge of the Roman Catholic Church assumes political power in the state, and the Pope is therefore at the center of the city's legislative, judicial, and executive functions. The highest state officials are Catholic clergy of different national origins. Vatican City has a unique economy as it relies on the sale of publications and postage stamps, the admission fees to museums, as well as the sale of tourist mementos.


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