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City-state refers to a sovereign political entity composed of an urban area and its surrounding territory. It can be usefully contrasted with country, which typically has a greater geographical expanse and larger population. Politically, city-states have been governed by a variety of regimes ranging from authoritarian to democratic. In many cases, they enter into formal or informal alliances with others because of economic or military interests, but they usually maintain their basic political autonomy. Culturally, citystates are often homogeneous. Their relatively small size limits diversity and facilitates a sense of commonality among citizens.
The history of the city-state extends back to the ancient world and includes several ages in which it played particularly significant political roles. The first city-states developed among the ancient Sumerians in the lower part of Mesopotamia. Later, they became the fundamental political unit for the classical Greek civilization in the southern-most region of the Balkan Peninsula. During the medieval and early modern periods they were prominent in Italy and areas of Germany. However, with the rise of the modern nation-state, many city-states lost or gave up their political autonomy. Today, city-states continue to exist, but usually as isolated enclaves in a world of larger political entities.
Perhaps the best-known examples of the city-state are the ancient Greek poleis of Athens and Sparta. These two city-states were bitter military and political rivals, although there were instances of cooperation to repel Persian invaders. The political and cultural differences between the two are quite striking. Sparta was a militaristic state ruled by a mixed government combining monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements. Its citizens lived very austere, disciplined lives. Little attention was given to the arts. In contrast, Athens was the center of Greek culture, producing great works of architecture, art, literature, and philosophy. Among its citizens there was an appreciation of leisure and intellectual activities. The Athenian city-state is especially known for its development of a direct form of democratic government. All male citizens were allowed to participate in the assembly, and older (male) citizens were eligible to sit on the council.
Contemporary examples of city-states include Monaco, Singapore, and Vatican City. Monaco is a very small constitutional monarchy that borders the Mediterranean Sea on the southern coast of France near the Italian border. Even though it relies on France for military protection, Monaco continues to be a politically autonomous state. Singapore is an island state located between Malaysia and Indonesia. It was founded as a British trading colony in 1819 and became an independent city-state in 1965. Singapore is currently governed by a parliamentary republic. Vatican City is a tiny enclave located in the city of Rome. It gained political autonomy in 1929 and has maintained an ecclesiastical form of government, with the Pope serving as the chief of state. Italy is responsible for the defense of Vatican City, with the Pontifical Swiss Guard providing limited security within the city.
The city-state’s political significance has certainly waned in the contemporary world—it may even seem like an anachronism in the age of the large modern state. Nonetheless, the idea of a small, politically autonomous community can still have power over the political imagination; it can provide valuable inspiration for communitarians and advocates of direct democracy.
- Parker, Geoffrey. 2005. Sovereign City: The City-State Ancient and Modern. London: Reaktion Books.
- Sealey, Raphael. 1977. A History of the Greek City State, 700–338 B.C. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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