What Is a City State? Definition and Modern Examples

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Vatican City.

Sylvain Sonnet / Getty Images

Simply stated, a city-state is an independent country that exists completely within the borders of a single city. Originating in late 19th century England, the term has also been applied to the early world superpower cities such as ancient RomeCarthageAthens, and Sparta. Today, MonacoSingapore, and Vatican City are considered the only true city-states. 

Key Takeaways: City State

  • A city-state is an independent, self-governing country contained totally within the borders of a single city. 
  • The ancient empires of Rome, Carthage, Athens, and Sparta are considered early examples of city-states. 
  • Once numerous, today there are few true city-states. They are small in size and dependent on trade and tourism. 
  • The only three agreed upon city-states today are Monaco, Singapore, and Vatican City.

City State Definition 

The city-state is a usually small, independent country consisting of a single city, the government of which exercises full sovereignty or control over itself and all territories within its borders. Unlike in more traditional multi-jurisdictional countries, where political powers are shared between the national government and various regional governments, the single city of city-state functions as the center of political, economic, and cultural life.

Historically, the first recognized city-states evolved in the classical period of Greek civilization during the 4th and 5th centuries BCE. The Greek term for city-states, “polis,” came from the Acropolis (448 BCE), which served as the governmental center of ancient Athens.

Both the popularity and prevalence of the city-state flourished until the tumultuous downfall of Rome in 476 CE, which led to the near annihilation of the form of government. City-states saw a small revival during the 11th century CE, when several Italian examples, such as Naples and Venice, realized considerable economic prosperity.

Characteristics of City-States 

The unique characteristic of a city-state that sets it aside from other types of government is its sovereignty or independence. This means that a city-state has the full right and power to govern itself and its citizens, without any interference from outside governments. For example, the government of the city-state of Monaco, though located totally within France, is not subject to French laws or policies. 

By having sovereignty, city-states differ from other forms of government establishments such as “autonomous regions” or territories. While autonomous regions are functionally political subdivisions of a central national government, they retain varying degrees of self-governance or autonomy from that central government. Hong Kong and Macau in the People’s Republic of China and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom are examples of autonomous regions. 

Unlike ancient city-states such as Rome and Athens, which grew powerful enough to conquer and annex vast areas of land around them, modern city-states remain small in land area. Lacking the space necessary for agriculture or industry, the economies of the three modern city-states are dependent on trade or tourism. Singapore, for example, has the second-busiest seaport in the world, and Monaco and Vatican City are two of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. 

Modern City-States 

While several non-sovereign cities, such as Hong Kong and Macau, along with Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, are sometimes considered city-states, they actually function as autonomous regions. Most geographers and political scientists agree that the three modern true city-states are Monaco, Singapore, and Vatican City.

Monaco

Monte Carlo, Monaco
Elevated view of Monte-Carlo and harbor in the Principality of Monaco, Western Europe on the Mediterranean Sea. VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Monaco is a city-state located on France’s Mediterranean coastline. With a land area of 0.78 square miles and an estimated 38,500 permanent residents, it is the world’s second-smallest, but the most densely populated nation. A voting member of the UN since 1993, Monaco employs a constitutional monarchy form of government. Though it maintains a small military, Monaco depends on France for defense. Best known for its upscale casino district of Monte-Carlo, deluxe hotels, Grand Prix motor racing, and yacht-lined harbor, Monaco’s economy depends almost entirely on tourism.   

Singapore 

singapore-skyline
Singapore skyline. Getty Images/seng chye teo

Singapore is an island city-state in Southeast Asia. With about 5.3 million people living within its 270 square miles, it is the second most densely populated country in the world after Monaco. Singapore became an independent republic, a city and a sovereign country in 1965, after being expelled from the Malaysian Federation. Under its constitution, Singapore employs a representative democracy form of government with its own currency and full, highly-trained armed forces. With the fifth-largest per capita GDP in the world and an enviably low unemployment rate, Singapore’s economy thrives from exporting a vast variety of consumer products.

Vatican City

Vatican City
An aerial view of St. Peter's Square and Via della Conciliazione in the Vatican City.(2014). Massimo Sestini / Getty Images)

Occupying an area of only about 108 acres inside Rome, Italy, the city-state of Vatican City stands as the world’s smallest independent country. Created by the 1929 Lateran Treaty with Italy, Vatican City’s political system is controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, with the Pope serving as the legislative, judicial, and executive head of government. The city’s permanent population of around 1,000 is made up almost entirely of Catholic clergymen. As a neutral country with no military of its own, Vatican City has never been involved in a war. Vatican City’s economy relies on sales of its postage stamps, historical publications, mementos, donations, investments of its reserves, and museum admission fees.  

Sources and Further Reference  

  • City-state. Vocabulary.com Dictionary.  
  • Parker, Geoffrey. (2005). Sovereign City: The City-State Through History. University of Chicago Press. ISBN-10: 1861892195. 
  • Nichols, Deborah. .The City-State Concept: Development and Application Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. (1997). 
  • Kotkin, Joel. 2010. ?A New Era for the City-State Forbes. (December 23, 2010).