A city-state is an independent sovereign city which serves as the center of political, economic, and cultural life over its contiguous territory.[1] They have existed in many parts of the world since the dawn of history, including cities such as Rome, Athens, Sparta, Carthage, and the Italian city-states during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, such as Florence, Venice, Genoa and Milan. With the rise of nation states worldwide, only a few modern sovereign city-states exist, with some disagreement as to which qualify; Monaco, Singapore, and Vatican City are most commonly accepted as such. Singapore is the clearest example, with full self-governance, its own currency, a robust military, and a population of 5.6 million.[2]

A number of other small states share many of these characteristics, and are sometimes cited as modern city-states. Djibouti,[3] Qatar,[4][5] Brunei,[6] Kuwait,[6][4][7] Bahrain,[6][4] Malta,[8][9][10] Estonia,[11][dead link] Costa Rica,[12] Jordan,[13][14][15][full citation needed] Suriname,[16][17][18][full citation needed] Uruguay,[19][20] Latvia,[21][failed verification] and Mongolia[22][failed verification] each have a capital urban center comprising a major portion of the population and the majority of GDP. Each has more than one distinct municipality, with one identified as a capital city, though the same was often the case for historical city-states. Occasionally, microstates with high population densities such as San Marino are cited, despite lacking a large urban centre.[6][23][24]

Several non-sovereign cities enjoy a high degree of autonomy, and are sometimes considered city-states. Macau, Hong Kong,[25][26] and members of the United Arab Emirates – most notably Dubai and Abu Dhabi – are often cited as such.[6][23][27]

Historical background

Ancient and medieval world

Historical city-states included Sumerian cities such as Uruk and Ur; Ancient Egyptian city-states, such as Thebes and Memphis; the Phoenician cities (such as Tyre and Sidon); the five Philistine city-states; the Berber city-states of the Garamantes; the city-states of ancient Greece (the poleis such as Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth); the Roman Republic (which grew from a city-state into a vast empire); the Italian city-states from the Middle Ages to the early modern period, such as Florence, Siena, Ferrara, Milan (which as they grew in power began to dominate neighboring cities) and Genoa and Venice, which have became powerful thalassocracies; the Mayan and other cultures of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (including cities such as Chichen Itza, Tikal, Copán and Monte Albán); the central Asian cities along the Silk Road; the city-states of the Swahili coast; Ragusa; states of the medieval Russian lands such as Novgorod and Pskov; and many others. Danish historian Poul Holm has classed the Viking colonial cities in medieval Ireland, most importantly Dublin, as city-states.[28]

The Republic of Ragusa, a maritime city-state, was based in the walled city of Dubrovnik

In Cyprus, the Phoenician settlement of Kition (in present-day Larnaca) was a city-state that existed from around 800 BC until the end of the 4th century BC.

Some of the most well-known examples of city-state culture in human history are the ancient Greek city-states and the merchant city-states of Renaissance Italy, which organised themselves as independent centers. The success of regional units coexisting as autonomous actors in loose geographical and cultural unity, as in Italy and Greece, often prevented their amalgamation into larger national units.[citation needed] However, such small political entities often survived only for short periods because they lacked the resources to defend themselves against incursions by larger states (such as Roman conquest of Greece). Thus they inevitably gave way to larger organisations of society, including the empire and the nation-state.[29][need quotation to verify]

Southeast Asia

In the history of mainland Southeast Asia, aristocratic groups, Buddhist leaders, and others organized settlements into autonomous or semi-autonomous city-states. These were referred to[by whom?] as mueang, and were usually related in a tributary relationship now described[by whom?] as mandala or as over-lapping sovereignty, in which smaller city-states paid tribute to larger ones that paid tribute to still larger ones—until reaching the apex in cities like Ayutthaya, Bagan, Bangkok and others that served as centers of Southeast Asian royalty. The system existed until the 19th century, when colonization by European powers occurred. Siam, a regional power at the time, needed to define their territories for negotiation with the European powers so the Siamese government established a nation-state system, incorporated their tributary cities (Lan Xang, Cambodia and some Malay cities) into their territory and abolished the mueang and the tributary system.[30][need quotation to verify][31][32]

In early Philippine history, the barangay was a complex sociopolitical unit which scholars have historically[33] considered the dominant organizational pattern among the various peoples of the Philippine archipelago.[34] These sociopolitical units were sometimes also referred to as barangay states, but are more properly referred to using the technical term polity.[34][35] Evidence suggests a considerable degree of independence as city states ruled by Datus, Rajahs and Sultans.[36] Early chroniclers[37] record that the name evolved from the term balangay, which refers to a plank boat widely used by various cultures of the Philippine archipelago prior to the arrival of European colonizers.[34]

Central Europe

The Free imperial cities as of 1792.

In the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806) over 80 Free Imperial Cities came to enjoy considerable autonomy in the Middle Ages and in early modern times, buttressed legally by international law following the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. Some, like three of the earlier Hanseatic citiesBremen, Hamburg and Lübeck – pooled their economic relations with foreign powers and were able to wield considerable diplomatic clout. Individual cities often made protective alliances with other cities or with neighbouring regions, including the Hanseatic League (1358 – 17th century), the Swabian League of Cities (1331–1389), the Décapole (1354–1679) in the Alsace, or the Old Swiss Confederacy (c. 1300 – 1798). The Swiss cantons of Zürich, Bern, Lucerne, Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel, Schaffhausen, and Geneva originated as city-states.

After the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, some cities – then members of different confederacies – officially became sovereign city-states, such as the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen (1806–11 and again 1813–71), the Free City of Frankfurt upon Main (1815–66), the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (1806–11 and again 1814–71), the Free and Hanseatic City of Lübeck (1806–11 and again 1813–71), and the Free City of Kraków (1815–1846). Under Habsburg rule the city of Fiume had the status of a corpus separatum (1779–1919), which – while falling short of an independent sovereignty – had many attributes of a city-state.


Italy in 1494, after the Peace of Lodi

In Northern and Central Italy during the medieval and Renaissance periods, city-states - with various amounts of associated land - became the standard form of polity. Some of them, despite being de facto independent states, were formally part of the Holy Roman Empire. The era of the Italian states, in particular from the 11th century to the 15th century, was characterized by the remarkable economic development, trade, manufacture, and mercantile capitalism, together with increasing urbanization. With remarkable influence throughout much of the Mediterranean world and Europe as a whole. During this time, most of the Italian city-states were ruled by one person, such as the Signoria or by a dynasty, such as the House of Gonzaga and the House of Sforza.[38]

Examples of Italian city-states during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Republic of Florence, Duchy of Milan, Duchy of Ferrara,[39] San Marino, Duchy of Modena and Reggio, Duchy of Urbino, Duchy of Mantua and the Republic of Lucca.

Another example of Italian city-states, were the powerful maritime republics, the best known are: Republic of Venice, Republic of Genoa, Republic of Amalfi and Republic of Pisa.

20th-century cities under international supervision


The Free City of Danzig was a semi-autonomous city-state that existed between 1920 and 1939, consisting of the Baltic Sea port of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) and nearly 200 towns in the surrounding areas. It was created on 15 November 1920[40][41] under the terms of Article 100 (Section XI of Part III) of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles after the end of World War I.


After a prolonged period where the city of Fiume enjoyed considerable autonomy under Habsburg rule (see Corpus separatum (Fiume)), The Free State of Fiume was proclaimed as a fully independent free state which existed between 1920 and 1924. Its territory of 28 km2 (11 sq mi) comprised the city of Fiume (now in Croatia and, since the end of World War II, known as Rijeka) and rural areas to its north, with a corridor to its west connecting it to Italy.


The Shanghai International Settlement (1845–1943) was an international zone with its own legal system, postal service, and currency.


The international zone within the city of Tangier, in North Africa was approximately 373 km2 (144 sq mi). It was at first under the joint administration of France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, plus later Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States. The international zone was initially attached to Morocco. It then became a French-Spanish protectorate from 1923 until 29 October 1956, when it was reintegrated into the state of Morocco.


The Klaipėda Region or Memel Territory was defined by the Treaty of Versailles in 1920 when it was put under the administration of the Council of Ambassadors. The Memel Territory was to remain under the control of the League of Nations until a future day when the people of the region would be allowed to vote on whether the land would return to Germany or not. The then predominantly ethnic German Memel Territory (Prussian Lithuanians and Memellanders constituted the other ethnic groups), situated between the river and the town of that name, was occupied by Lithuania in the Klaipėda Revolt of 1923.


The Free Territory of Trieste was an independent territory situated in Central Europe between northern Italy and Yugoslavia, facing the north part of the Adriatic Sea, under direct responsibility of the United Nations Security Council in the aftermath of World War II, from 1947 to 1954. The UN attempted to make the Free Territory of Trieste into a city state, but it never gained real independence and in 1954 its territory was divided between Italy and Yugoslavia.


Under the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine of 1947, Mandatory Palestine was to be partitioned into three states: a Jewish state of Israel, an Arab state of Palestine, and a corpus separatum (Latin for "separated body") consisting of a Jerusalem city-state under the control of United Nations Trusteeship Council. Although the plan had some international support and the UN accepted this proposal (and still officially holds the stance that Jerusalem should be held under this regime), implementation of the plan failed as the 1948 Palestine war broke out with the 1947–48 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine, ultimately resulting in Jerusalem being split into West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem. Israel would eventually gain control of East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War in 1967.

West Berlin

In the 20th century West Berlin, though lacking sovereignty, functioned from 1948 until 1990 as a state legally not belonging to any other state, but ruled by the Western Allies. They allowed – notwithstanding their overlordship as occupant powers – its internal organisation as one state simultaneously being a city, officially called Berlin (West). Though West Berlin maintained close ties to the West German Federal Republic of Germany, it never legally formed a part of it.

Modern city-states

Monaco, known for its casino, royalty and scenic harbour
Singapore, modern city-state and island country


The Principality of Monaco is an independent city-state. Monaco-Ville (the ancient fortified city) and Monaco's well-known area Monte Carlo are districts of a continuous urban zone, not distinct cities, though they were three separate municipalities (communes) until 1917. The Principality of Monaco and the city of Monaco (each having specific powers) govern the same territory. Though they maintain a small military, they would still have to rely on France for defence in the face of an aggressive power.


Singapore is an island city-state in Southeast Asia. About 5.6 million people live and work within 700 square kilometres (270 sq mi), making Singapore the 2nd-most-densely populated country in the world after Monaco. Singapore was part of Malaysia before it was expelled from the federation in 1965, becoming an independent republic, a city and a sovereign country. The Economist refers to the nation as the "world's only fully functioning city-state". In particular, it has its own currency and a full armed forces for deterrence to safeguard the nation's sovereignty against potential aggressors.[42][43][44]

Vatican City

Vatican City, a city-state well known for being the smallest country in the world

Until September 1870, the city of Rome had been controlled by the pope as part of his Papal States. When King Victor Emmanuel II seized the city in 1870, Pope Pius IX refused to recognize the newly formed Kingdom of Italy.

Because he could not travel without effectively acknowledging the authority of the king, Pius IX and his successors each claimed to be a "Prisoner in the Vatican", unable to leave the 0.44 km2 (0.17 sq mi) papal enclave once they had ascended the papal thrones.

The impasse was resolved in 1929 by the Lateran Treaties negotiated by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini between King Victor Emmanuel III and Pope Pius XI. Under this treaty, the Vatican was recognized as an independent state, with the Pope as its head. The Vatican City State has its own citizenship, diplomatic corps, flag, and postage stamps. With a population of less than 1,000 (mostly clergymen), it is by far the smallest sovereign country in the world.

Non-sovereign city-states

The city of Basel, located on the Rhine, is a historic city-state and a Swiss canton.

Some cities or urban areas, while not sovereign states, may nevertheless be constituent states of a federation, or enjoy a high degree of autonomy. As such, they function as "city-states" within the context of the sovereign state to which they belong. Historian Mogens Herman Hansen describes this aspect of self-government as: "The city-state is a self-governing, but not necessarily independent political unit."[6] A city with more limited self-government may be referred to as an independent city.

Some non-sovereign cities which a high degree of autonomy which have been described as city-states include:

Some cities that are constituent states in a federation, and as such can be accurately described as non-sovereign city-states include:

Proposed city-states


The London independence movement seeks a city-state separate from the United Kingdom.

New York

There have been various proposals for the City of New York to secede from New York State.

In the period of national crisis immediately preceding the American Civil War, Democratic Mayor Fernando Wood proposed the secession of the city as a sovereign city-state to be called the Free City of Tri-Insula (Tri-Insula meaning "three islands" in Latin), and incorporating Manhattan, Long Island and Staten Island.[48] In an address to the city's Common Council on January 6, 1861, Mayor Wood expressed a Copperhead sympathy with the seceding states and a desire to maintain profitable cotton shipping, confidence that the city state would prosper on the import tariffs that then supplied 2/3 of federal revenue, and especially dissatisfaction with the state government at Albany. But the idea of leaving the United States proved too radical even in the turmoil of 1861 and was poorly received, especially after the Southern bombardment of Fort Sumter starting on April 12.[48] The war, and especially conscription, was nevertheless often unpopular in the city, sparking the deadly New York Draft Riots. The neighboring City of Brooklyn, in contrast, was staunchly Unionist.

In 1969, writer Norman Mailer and columnist Jimmy Breslin ran together on an independent ticket seeking the mayoralty and City Council Presidency, challenging Mayor John Lindsay with an agenda to make New York City the 51st state. When questioned as to the name of the new state, Breslin said the city deserved to keep "New York" and that upstate should be renamed "Buffalo", after its largest city.

On 26 February 2003, a bill was introduced by Astoria, Queens Council Member Peter Vallone, Jr., and sponsored by 20 of 51 City Council members, reviving the idea of referendum for secession from New York State in the context of the red state vs. blue state divide and opposition to the policies of Governor George Pataki. A committee report was written but otherwise little action was taken, and the bill was reintroduced with one additional sponsor on the same date in 2004. Like Mayor Wood, Council Member Vallone emphasized the fiscal benefits of secession, with revenue now derived not from tariffs, but from Wall Street. Council Member Vallone reintroduced the bill in 2006. In January 2008, Vallone again offered a bill for the secession of New York City from New York State. After Mayor Michael Bloomberg testified to New York State legislators that New York City gives the state $11 billion more than it gets back, Vallone stated: "If not secession, somebody please tell me what other options we have if the state is going to continue to take billions from us and give us back pennies? Should we raise taxes some more? Should we cut services some more? Or should we consider seriously going out on our own?" The New York City Council planned to hold a meeting on the topic.[49]

Washington, D.C.

Tel Aviv

The Tel Aviv independence movement seeks to separate Tel Aviv from the rest of Israel due to the political differences present in Tel Aviv as oppose to the rest of Israel.

See also


  1. "city-state | Definition, History, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 19 April 2020.
  2. Brimelow, Ben. "How a tiny city-state became a military powerhouse with the best air force and navy in Southeast Asia". Business Insider. Retrieved 15 October 2020.
  3. "Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs, Volume 2." United States Congress House Committee on Appropriations. Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs. April 15, 1992. Page 239: "The Republic of Djibouti is in effect a city - state , with few natural resources, few trained workers, no permanent streams and very little arable land. Some 75% of the population live in the capital city, the economy of which is focused on the port, airport, railway, the French garrison, and the re-export of consumer goods."
  4. Parker, Geoffrey. 2005. Sovereign City: The City-state Through History Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 219
  5. Roberts, David. 2014. Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-state. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.
  6. Mogens, Hansen. 2000. "Introduction: The Concepts of City-States and City-State Culture." In A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures, Copenhagen: Copenhagen Polis Centre. Pg. 19
  7. El-Katiri, Laura, Bassam Fattouh and Paul Segal. 2011 Anatomy of an oil-based welfare state: rent distribution in Kuwait. Kuwait City: Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States
  8. "The emblem of Malta, Department of Information, Official Website of President of Malta". Archived from the original on 22 October 2013. Retrieved 20 October 2013.
  9. "Draft National Strategy for the Cultural and Creative Industries – Creative Malta". Archived from the original on 28 July 2013. Retrieved 20 October 2013.
  10. Bank, European Central. "Malta". European Central Bank. Archived from the original on 7 April 2014. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
  11. Kaja Koovit. "Half of Estonian GDP is created in Tallinn". Retrieved 20 May 2012.
  12. Glassman, Paul; Graham, Carolyn (29 May 1998). "Costa Rica Guide". Open Road Publishing via Google Books.
  13. "Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, Jordan". Economist Intelligence Unit. 31 May 1983 via Google Books.
  14. Kawar, Ramzi (31 May 1983). "Development in Jordan: bibliography and informative abstracts of selected research, 1970-82". Development Research Services via Google Books.
  15. "Country Profile: Jordan". The Unit. 31 May 1997 via Google Books.
  16. "Caribbean Review". Caribbean Review, Incorporated. 31 May 1985 via Google Books.
  17. "Studies in Third World Societies". Boswell Printing and Publishing Company. 30 November 1992 via Google Books.
  18. "Proceedings of the Conference on the Contribution of Traditional Authority to Development, Human Rights and Environmental Protection: Strategies for Africa: Accra and Kumasi, Ghana, 02 September 1994-06 September 1994". African Studies Centre. 31 May 1994 via Google Books.
  19. Bernhardson, Wayne (29 May 1996). "Argentina, Uruguay & Paraguay: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit". Lonely Planet Publications via Google Books.
  20. Weinstein, Martin (29 May 1975). "Uruguay: The Politics of Failure". Greenwood Press via Google Books.
  21. "/ Uzņēmējdarbība / Nosaukti desmit lielākie eksportējošie uzņēmumi Rīgā un Rīgas reģionā". Retrieved 12 March 2013.
  22. Bhaswati Ray and Rajib Shaw. "Urban Drought: Emerging Water Challenges in Asia." Springer Singapore, November 2018. Page 360: "Ulaanbaatar is the center of administrative, commercial, and financial activities in the country. The city covers approximately 0.3% of the territory of Mongolia, but also half of the Mongolian population, with almost two-thirds of Mongolia's GDP produced in Ulaanbaatar."
  23. Parker, Geoffrey. 2005. Sovereign City: The City-state Through History Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  24. Mogens, Hansen. 2002. A Comparative Study of Six City-State Cultures: An Investigation p. 91
  25. "City-states never disappeared: Hamburg, Hong Kong, Singapore". Tomorrow.Mag. 6 September 2019. Retrieved 15 October 2020.
  26. "Capital Facts for Hong Kong". World's Capital Cities. 16 September 2020. Retrieved 15 October 2020.
  27. Kotkin, Joel. 2010. "A New Era for the City-State?" In Forbes.
  28. Holm, Poul, "Viking Dublin and the City-State Concept: Parameters and Significance of the Hiberno-Norse Settlement" (Respondent: Donnchadh Ó Corráin), in Mogens Herman Hansen (ed.), A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures Archived 21 June 2013 at the Wayback Machine. Denmark: Special-Trykkeriet Viborg. (University of Copenhagen, Polis Center). 2000. pp. 251–62.
  29. Sri Aurobindo, "Ideal of Human Unity" included in Social and Political Thought, 1970.
  30. Scott, James C. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale agrarian studies. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300156522. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
  31. Winichakul, Thongchai. 1997. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press
  32. Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit. 2009. A History of Thailand: 2nd ed. Sydney: Cambridge University Press
  33. Quezon, Manolo (2 October 2017). "The Explainer: Bamboozled by the barangay". ABS-CBN News. Archived from the original on 2 October 2017. Retrieved 4 October 2017.
  34. Junker, Laura Lee (2000). Raiding, Trading, and Feasting: The Political Economy of Philippine Chiefdoms. Ateneo de Manila University Press. pp. 74, 130. ISBN 9789715503471. ISBN 971-550-347-0, ISBN 978-971-550-347-1.
  35. Junker, Laura Lee (1990). "The Organization of Intra-Regional and Long-Distance Trade in Pre-Hispanic Philippine Complex Societies". Asian Perspectives. 29 (2): 167–209.
  36. Carley, Michael; Smith, Harry (5 November 2013). Urban Development and Civil Society: The Role of Communities in Sustainable Cities. Routledge. ISBN 9781134200504. Archived from the original on 4 February 2018. Retrieved 7 May 2018 via Google Books.
  37. Plasencia, Fray Juan de (1589). "Customs of the Tagalogs". Nagcarlan, Laguna. Archived from the original on 23 January 2009.
  38. "Italy - Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 12 May 2021.
  39. Haney, John (1987). Cesare Borgia. World leaders past & present. New York: Chelsea House. p. 74. ISBN 9780877545958. Retrieved 4 October 2020. [...] the duchy of Ferrara — a small but strategically important city-state situated between Venice and the Romagna.
  40. Loew, Peter Oliver (February 2011). Danzig – Biographie einer Stadt (in German). C.H. Beck. p. 189. ISBN 978-3-406-60587-1.
  41. Samerski, Stefan (2003). Das Bistum Danzig in Lebensbildern (in German). LIT Verlag. p. 8. ISBN 3-8258-6284-4.
  42. "The Singapore exception". The Economist. 18 July 2015. Archived from the original on 31 July 2017.
  43. Oliver, Robert T. (1989). Leadership in Asia : persuasive communication in the making of nations. Newark: University of Delaware Press. p. 200. ISBN 087413353X.
  44. Quah, Euston (30 July 2015). Singapore 2065 : leading insights on economy and environment from 50 Singapore icons and beyond. Singapore. ISBN 978-9814663397.
  45. Lulat, Y. G.-M. (2015). A History of African Higher Education from Antiquity to the Present. Greenwood Publishing. p. 197. ISBN 9780313320613. Archived from the original on 2 November 2017.
  46. Europe Since 1945: An Encyclopedia, Bernard A. Cook p.506, ISBN 0815313365
  47. Canton of Basel-Stadt Welcome
  48. Sante, Luc (2003). Low life: lures and snares of old New York (1st Farrar, Straus Giroux pbk. ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux. pp. 263. ISBN 0374528993. OCLC 53464289.
  49. Benjamin Sarlin, A Secession Plan Is Floated for New York City, New York Sun, 30 January 2008.

Further reading

  • Mogens Herman Hansen (ed.), A comparative study of thirty city-state cultures : an investigation conducted by the Copenhagen Polis Centre, Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2000. (Historisk-filosofiske skrifter, 21). ISBN 87-7876-177-8.
  • Mogens Herman Hansen (ed.), A comparative study of six city-state cultures : an investigation, Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2002. (Historisk-filosofiske skrifter, 27). ISBN 87-7876-316-9.