Vatican City

A city-state is an independent or autonomous entity whose territory consists of a city which is not administered as a part of another local government.


Historical city-states

Historical examples include the oldest known Sumerian cities of Mesopotamia (burned city in Sis tan and Blochestan in Iran and Babylon in old Iranian empire] and Ur), the Phoeniciain cities of Canaan (such as Tyre and Sidon), 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 great power, the Maya of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (including sites such as Chichen Itza and El Mirador), the central Asian cities along the Silk Road, Venice and many others and Croatian city-state of Ragusa (Dubrovnik).

Within the transalpine part of the Holy Roman Empire the Free Imperial Cities enjoyed a considerable autonomy, buttressed legally by the Lübeck law which was emulated by many other cities. Some cities — though also members of different confederacies at that time — officially became sovereign city-states in the 19th century — such as the Canton of Basel City (1833–48), the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen (1806–11 and again 1813–71), the Free City of Frankfurt upon Main (1815–66), the Canton of Geneva (1813–48), the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (1806–11 and again 1814–71) and the Free and Hanseatic City of Lübeck (1806–11 and again 1813–71). Another city-state, though lacking sovereignty, was West Berlin (1948–90), being 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 held close ties to the West German Federal Republic of Germany, it was legally never part of it. A number of the aforementioned city-states — though partly with altered borders — continue to exist as city-states within today's Federal Republic of Germany and today's Swiss Confederation (see below: 'Cities that are component states of federations').

Among the most well-known periods of city-state culture in human history include ancient Greek city-states, and the merchant city-states of Renaissance Italy, who organised themselves in small independent centres. The success of small regional units coexisting as autonomous actors in loose geographical and cultural unity, as in Italy or Greece, often prevented their amalgamation into larger national units. However, such small political entities often survived only for short periods because they lacked the resources to defend themselves against incursions by larger states. Thus they inevitably gave way to larger organisations of society, including the empire and the nation state.[1]

Contemporary city-states

Today there are only a handful of cities that exercise authority akin to a sub-regional state, and even fewer that are sovereign states in their own right.

Sovereign city-states


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. On 28 June 1919, a treaty was signed providing for limited French protection over Monaco. The treaty, part of the Treaty of Versailles, established that Monegasque policy would be aligned with French political, military, and economic interests. Only in 1993 did Monaco become a member of the United Nations, with full voting rights. In 2002, a new treaty between France and Monaco clarifies that if there are no heirs to carry on the dynasty, the principality will remain an independent nation rather than revert to France (which were the terms of the previous arrangement). Monaco's military defence, however, is still the responsibility of France. Monaco did not receive its first foreign ambassador, the French ambassador, until 16 February 2006.


Singapore is an island city-state in Southeast Asia. About 5 million people live and work within 700 square kilometres (270 sq mi), making Singapore the 3rd-most-densely populated country in the world. The entire island functions as a single metropolitan area. The city centre near the south of the island is surrounded by satellite towns, parks, reservoirs and industrial estates, which are connected to the centre and each other by a dense network of roads, expressways and metro railway lines dubbed MRT by locals. Singapore has a highly centralised, unitary government with a unicameral legislature (the City Council and the Rural Board were abolished in the 1960s). While there are town councils and mayors in Singapore, these are essentially property managers in charge of the maintenance of public housing within their constituency boundaries. They do not represent local authorities with any legislative or executive autonomy from the national government.

Prior to the 19th century, Singapore was a minor part of various regional empires, including Srivijaya, Majapahit, Malacca and Johor. From 1826 to the Battle of Singapore in 1942, Singapore was the capital of the Straits Settlements, a British colony that included the Settlements of Malacca and Penang along the Straits of Malacca. After the Second World War, Singapore was hived off as a separate colony while the other two Settlements joined the Malay States to form the Federation of Malaya. In 1963, Singapore merged with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia. However, because of a number of problems, Singapore was expelled from the federation in 1965, becoming an independent republic.

Since 1965, Singapore rapidly industrialised and modernised, becoming one of the four "Asian Tigers". In addition to the substantial absolute and per-capita size of its economy, Singapore maintains a significant armed forces. It ranks highly in terms of defence spending and troop size.

Despite its small land area, Singapore has a population, economy and armed forces that place it in a similar league to small, but full-fledged nations like New Zealand, Ireland, Israel and the Nordic countries (i.e., Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), rather than semi-dependent microstates. Singapore also maintains a diplomatic corps and has memberships in international organizations such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Singapore places emphasis on self-sufficiency in basic needs, like water. The government also stockpiles other key resources, such as sand and oil. In this way, Singapore tries to avoid overdependence economically, politically or militarily on larger entities. Accordingly, Singapore may represent the most-complete contemporary example of a city-state, meeting the full definitions of both a city and a fully sovereign state.

Vatican City

Until 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 leader 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, it is by far the smallest sovereign country in the world.

Non-sovereign city-states

Some cities or urban areas, while not sovereign states, may nevertheless enjoy such a high degree of autonomy that they function as "city-states" within the context of the sovereign state that they belong to.

Cities under international supervision


After the Second World War, 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.

Cities that are component states of federations

Some cities or metropolitan areas are component states of federations. Examples include:

Federally-administered cities

A federal country may also have one or more cities that are federally administered:

Washington, D.C.
The John A. Wilson Building houses the offices of the mayor and council of the District of Columbia.

Not being part of any U.S. state, Washington, D.C.'s government operates under authority derived from the U.S. federal government. The city (generally referred to as the District of Columbia) is run by an elected mayor and a city council. The council is composed of 13 members: one elected from each of the eight wards and five members, including the chairman, elected at-large. The council conducts its work through standing committees and special committees established as needed. District schools are administered by a chancellor, who is appointed by the mayor; in addition, a superintendent of education and a board of education are responsible for setting some educational policies. There are 37 elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners that provide the most direct access for residents to their local government. The commissioners are elected by small neighborhood districts, and their suggestions are given "great weight" by the city council and city agencies. However, the U.S. Congress has the ultimate plenary power over the District. It has the right to review and overrule laws created locally and has often done so. The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reserves to states all rights not belonging to the federal government, does not apply to the District. Residents of the District have one non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress.

Autonomous cities in unitary states

In nations without a federal administrative structure, i.e. as unitary states, cities may sometimes enjoy a greater degree of autonomy, e.g.:

Hong Kong and Macao

Because of Hong Kong's and Macao's long histories as colonies of the British and Portuguese empires, respectively, and the unique "one-country, two-systems" policy, the two city-states continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy even after their return to the China. Having legal systems, police forces, monetary systems, customs policies, immigration policies, national sports teams, official languages, postal systems, academic and educational systems, and certain degrees of international representation that are different or independent from the People's Republic of China, make their status almost equivalent to independent nations.


  1. ^ Sri Aurobindo, "Ideal of Human Unity" included in Social and Political Thought, 1970.

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.

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