views updated Jun 11 2018


CITY-STATE. City-states were autonomous, self-governing states led by a city. They controlled land outside the walls, from a few square miles, for many of the imperial free cities of Germany, to the huge land-and-sea empire of the Republic of Venice. All city-states had collective governments, usually a narrow or broad oligarchy. With the exception of the largely rural Swiss city-states, their economies were based on trade and manufacturing. A vital part of European politics, economy, and culture in 1500, city-states declined in importance in the next three centuries.

City-states rose in the Middle Ages in areas of Europe lacking strong territorial monarchies. North Italian towns won their independence from the Holy Roman Empire in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Geographical remoteness and mountains protected the Swiss city-states from outside rule. In Germany many towns had achieved the status of imperial free city by the end of the Middle Ages. They governed themselves but were expected to follow the lead of the Holy Roman Empire in foreign policy and to provide financial support when necessary.


Venice, Genoa, Florence, Siena, and Lucca were the best known, largest, and most important Italian city-states. Venice and Genoa were the leading trading powers of the Mediterranean Sea in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and Venice remained important through the seventeenth century. Trade led to manufacturing and banking. Venice was a printing and glass manufacturing center, while Genoese bankers lent money to monarchs, especially Spain. Florence was a commercial and banking center and a renowned wool manufacturer. Siena was an influential commercial city in central Italy, and Lucca had an important silk industry.

All five Italian city-states had republican forms of government. They viewed themselves and their institutions as the heirs of the city-states of ancient Rome and Greece, despite some considerable differences. A series of interlocking councils made major decisions in the Italian city-states. Leading adult male citizens, except for clergymen, were elected or chosen through lot to fill seats on executive and legislative councils. Terms of office ranged from two months to one year. The franchise and the right to hold office was broad but did not extend to all the inhabitants of the town. The Republic of Venice had a unique form of government. Only adult male nobles whose legitimate ancestry could be traced back to 1297 were eligible to hold office. But this still included about 2,0002,500 men in a total population of about 175,000 in the late sixteenth century. The gerontocratic nature of Venetian politics further encouraged consensus. A young noble began the climb to high political office in his early twenties under the watchful eyes of his elders and, if found able, reached the most important councils in his mid-fifties. In Genoa a number of prominent families shared governmental responsibility. Both Venice and Genoa elected doges to be ceremonial heads of government with limited authority. Florence was more democratic. In the years between 1498 and 1512, about 3,000 adult males were eligible for public office in a population of about 70,000. The smaller Siena and Lucca were ruled by relatively broad oligarchies drawn from the leading citizens. However, none of the Italian republican city-states offered significant political rights to the inhabitants of their subject territories outside the capital city.


Some sixty-five cities in what is now called Germany enjoyed the title and privileges of free imperial cities. Not ruled by prince or bishop, they were self-governing states who recognized only the remote overlordship of the Holy Roman emperor. Along with princes, prince-bishops, and knights, the free imperial cities had their own representation in the imperial diet, the consultative body which met periodically to discuss imperial affairs and to grant financial support to the emperor. The most important free cities were located in southwestern Germany. Augsburg had 50,000 people in the early sixteenth century and considerable importance as a commercial center, although its territory was small. Nuremberg had about 20,000 inhabitants inside the city walls and another 20,000 in over 400 villages in the fields and forests ruled by Nuremberg. Other important free cities included Magdeburg, Cologne, Frankfurt am Main, and Strasbourg. Ulm, much smaller in population than Augsburg, controlled some 500 square miles of territory outside its walls. Hamburg, with 20,000 inhabitants in 1550, which rose to about 60,000 in the late seventeenth century, was the most important city-state in northern Germany and a center for shipping, publishing, textile production, and banking. The Hanseatic League cities of Lübeck, Bremen, and Gdańsk (Danzig) were also imperial free cities in northern Germany and Poland.

Oligarchical city councils dominated by leading merchants and professional men from wealthy established families governed the free cities. Although some cities had limited-franchise elections, seats in the city council were often hereditary: When a council member died, his son or nephew succeeded him. By the sixteenth century artisan guilds had almost no formal role in government. Nevertheless, artisans made their views known, and city council members took them into account, because they feared civil unrest. Because both wealthy merchants and modest artisans saw their personal well-being dependent on that of the city, German free cities had a strong communal identity.


The thirteen independent cantons of the Swiss Confederation made up the third group. The Swiss Confederation grew from the three original forest cantons of Uri, Schwys, and Unterwalden, then added Lucerne (1332), Zurich (1351), Glarus (1352), Zug (1352), and Bern (1353). Solothurn and Fribourg were added in 1481, then Basel and Schaffhausen in 1501, and Appenzell in 1513. Geneva won its independence from the House of Savoy in the sixteenth century but did not become a member of the Swiss Confederation until the end of the eighteenth century. Swiss cities and towns were small in population: Geneva had 13,000 people, Basel had 10,000, and Zürich had 7,000 in the early sixteenth century. But compared with the German free cities, they controlled considerable surrounding territory. The cantons of Glarus, Grisons, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Uri, and Zug were rural, mountainous, and forested, with tiny, isolated populations. Some cantons ruled additional lands outside their borders, while the Swiss Confederation as a whole also held land. However, the Confederation was only a loose association organized to pursue common interests, such as defense against invaders, rather than a central government. It could not prevent wars between cantons. By 1500 the Swiss cantons enjoyed de facto independence from the Holy Roman Empire, a condition recognized in 1648. Councils composed of prominent citizens, either elected or semi-hereditary, ruled individual cantons. The independent city-state of Geneva elected its officials.


City-states approached religious matters collectively. Leaders and people believed that the entire city-state was responsible to God for the actions of its inhabitants. Plague, flood, and military defeat were seen as God's punishment on the city as a whole for its sins. Consequently, leaders and people sought agreement on religious issues.

This also meant that city-states approached the local church and its clergymen in a possessive way. They believed that the local church should be responsible to them more than to the papacy. In Italian city-states the leaders of the local church came from prominent local families. In Venice the Senate chose the Venetian patriarch, the leader of the local church. Occasionally the Senate chose a prominent member of the government, who, upon being designated patriarch, became a clergyman. Once in office, the patriarch was expected to follow the lead of the civil government in disputes with the papacy and matters affecting the civil government.

German and Swiss city-states had similar attitudes in different circumstances. Before the Protestant Reformation the bishop was often a non-resident outsider, rather than a member of the ruling group of the city. This produced disputes, anticlericalism, and a receptive audience for the first Protestant preachers. When townspeople began to support the preachers, city councils had to make decisions about the religious direction of the city-states. Since they wished to affirm the unity of the city-state before God and to keep the peace, they often moved the city-state into the Protestant camp. They moved cautiously, usually orchestrating a step-by-step, orderly, and reasonably peaceful transition to Protestantism. German and Swiss city-states were among the first states to embrace the Protestant Reformation. Zurich and Nuremberg are much-studied examples. Geneva won its independence from the House of Savoy and its bishop in the mid-1520s, then became Protestant between 1532 and 1536.

However, as religious differences generated warfare between Protestant and Catholic states, the German free imperial cities were vulnerable. Religious and political warfare was a three-way struggle between empire, princes, and cities. The cities that became Protestant were obliged to form alliances with German Protestant princes, who ruled stronger states and commanded larger armies. These alliances also incurred the vengeance of the emperor, who retaliated against Protestant cities. The free cities that remained Catholic also became weaker, because they had to rely on the emperor for protection and were bled white to support him. After the sixty-year truce following the Religious Peace of Augsburg of 1555, the free cities again suffered during the Thirty Years' War (16181648). An imperial army brutally sacked the free city of Magdeburg and murdered twenty thousand of its inhabitants in 1631. Münster and Erfurt, not imperial free cities even though their bishops exercised no control, lost their independence to nearby princes, and Strasbourg came under French domination in the later seventeenth century. The Swiss city-states retained their independence because they were difficult to invade.


Some city-states were already losing their independence in the sixteenth century. In 1532 the Florentine Republic became the Duchy of Tuscany, ruled by the Medici family. Spain conquered Siena in 1555 and then sold the city to Florence in 1557. Genoa became a subservient ally of Spain in 1528, a move that enabled it to survive until 1798. By the eighteenth century the remaining independent city-states were fewer in number and weaker in every way compared with their condition in 1500. When the Holy Roman Empire was formally abolished in 1806, the free German city-states hardly existed except in law. Venice, the largest and most important city-state, lost Cyprus in 1571 and Crete and the rest of its eastern Mediterranean Empire in a series of wars with the Turks between 1645 and 1718. But it remained independent and the ruler of a sizeable part of northeastern Italy. Although its commerce waned, Venice remained a major European cultural, intellectual, artistic, and musical center through the eighteenth century. Then in 1797 the twenty-eight-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte, no respecter of age, conquered the 1,000-year-old Most Serene Republic of Venice. The much smaller Lucca emerged from the Napoleonic period still an independent city-state in 1817, but it was ruled by members of the Bourbon family, until it voted to join the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. The Swiss city-states maintained their independence.

In 1500 the city-states played essential roles in European politics, economy, and culture. But they could not afford the money and manpower to defend themselves against aggressive territorial monarchies and princedoms. They could not compete against national economies. And with the exception of Venice, their artistic and intellectual greatness faded. The city-states were major losers in the centuries between the Renaissance and the French Revolution.

See also Cities and Urban Life ; Florence ; Frankfurt am Main ; Free and Imperial Cities ; Gdańsk ; Geneva ; Hamburg ; Hansa ; Holy Roman Empire ; Lübeck ; Nuremberg ; Reformation, Protestant ; Representative Institutions ; State and Bureaucracy ; Strasbourg ; Switzerland ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) ; Venice ; Zurich .


Berengo, Marino. Nobili e mercanti nella Lucca del Cinquecento. Turin, 1965. Classic study of the city-state of Lucca.

Friedrichs, Christopher R. The Early Modern City, 1450 1750. London and New York, 1995.

Grendi, Edoardo. La repubblica aristocratica dei genovesi. Bologna, 1987. Politics, trade, and poor relief in Genoa, 15001700.

Lane, Frederic C. Venice: A Maritime Republic. Baltimore and London, 1973. The best one-volume history of Venice.

Mackenney, Richard. The City State, 15001700: Republican Liberty in an Age of Princely Power. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1989. A brief account.

Moeller, Bernd. Imperial Cities and the Reformation. Edited and translated by H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards, Jr. Durham, N.C., 1982. First published in 1972. See pp. 41115 for the title essay. Argues for the importance of free imperial cities in the Reformation.

Monter, E. William. Calvin's Geneva. New York, 1967. Excellent short account of Geneva in the sixteenth century.

Strauss, Gerald. Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century. New York, 1966. Good history of all aspects of Nuremberg.

Walker, Mack. German Home Towns: Community, State, and General Estate, 16481871. Ithaca, N.Y., 1971. Classic, pioneering study.

Paul F. Grendler


views updated Jun 27 2018



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, city-states 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-states political significance has certainly waned in the contemporary worldit 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.

SEE ALSO Vatican, The


Parker, Geoffrey. 2005. Sovereign City: The City-State Ancient and Modern. London: Reaktion Books.

Sealey, Raphael. 1977. A History of the Greek City State, 700338 B.C. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Johnny Goldfinger


views updated May 14 2018

cit·y-state • n. chiefly hist. a city that with its surrounding territory forms an independent state.