A SURVEY OF THE 37 IDENTIFIED CITY-STATE CULTURES
by Mogens Herman Hansen
The Near East and Europe
The oldest known city-state culture is that of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia,
with Uruk, Ur and Lagash as three of the best known city-states. They were
city-states from c. 3100 to c. 2350 B.C., when Sargon of Akkad conquered Sumer.
The city-states arose again briefly after the collapse of the Akkadian dynasty
c. 2150, but the third dynasty of Ur (about 2100 to 2000) changed the
city-states again into provinces within a larger kingdom. When the third dynasty
of Ur collapsed there was yet another city-state period from c. 2000 to 1850
B.C. (Jean-Jacques Glassner in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 34-53;
Åge Westenholz in Six City-State Cultures (2002) 23-42).
In Syria in the third millennium B.C. there was a set of city-states, the best
known being Ebla. They were destroyed and disappeared c. 2300, but turned up
again as city-states in the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000-1700) and a third time in
the early Iron Age (c. 1000). (Ingolf Thuesen in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000)
In the periods 2900 to 2300 B.C. and again in 2000-1200 B.C. Palestine was
divided into a about 14 city-states of which Hazor was the most important. (John
Strange in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 57-76).
In the Old Assyrian Period c. 1950 to 1700 B.C. Assur was a city-state, as we
know especially from thousands of inscribed clay tablets found in Assur's
trading station, Kanesh, in Asia Minor. It is not known whether Assur was an
isolated city-state or whether it was the southernmost of a group of
city-states on both sides of the upper course of the Tigris. (Mogens Trolle
Larsen in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 77-87).
During the Early Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000 - 1650 B.C.) Central Anatolia was
divided into a large number of city-states, probably several hundred. They seem
often to have formed a network of leagues or federations, each consisting of one
hegemonic and a number of smaller dependent city-states. The best known are
Kanesh, Durhumit and Purushattum. (Gojko Barjamovic, A Historical Geography
of Ancient Anatolia in the Assyrian Colony Period (2005), unpublished
thesis, Copenhagen University).
In the course of the second millennium B.C. a set of city-states arose along the
coast of Phoenicia, including Arwad, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre; and in the first
millennium B.C. they founded a number of colonies in Cyprus and the Western
Mediterranean, of which the greatest was Carthage, and Carthage in turn founded
a set of colonies in Sardinia, Sicilia, North Africa and Spain. (Hans Georg
Niemeyer in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 89-115).
When the Hittite Empire broke up in c. 1200 B.C. its southern part gradually
split into a set of city-states which only disappeared when they were
incorporated into the Assyrian empire in the second half of the 8th century B.C.
The biggest of them was Karkamis on the Euphrates, the southernmost was Hama.
(Ingolf Thuesen in Six City-State Cultures (2002) 43-55).
After the collapse of the Kassite monarchy c. 1100 B.C. the countryside of
southern Mesopotamia became settled with Aramaic, Chaldean and Arab tribes
while many of the old cities became city-states once again. They formed, as it
were, a network of islands
separated by the tribal communities, and in the 9th to 7th centuries B.C. they
came under Assyrian overlordship. (Mogens Trolle Larsen in Thirty City-State
Cultures (2000) 117-27).
C. 1175 B.C. Ramesses III settled Philistines in five city-states in Palestine
from Ekron in the north to Gaza in the south. They disappeared in 605 B.C.
when they were conquered by the Neo-Babylonian empire and their inhabitants
were deported to Babylon. (John Strange in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000)
The ancient Greek city-state culture covered the eastern Mediterranean world
from c. 750 B.C. to A.D. 550. It comprised some 1500 city-states. Its centre was
in Greece and Asia Minor, but in the Archaic period c. 750 to 500 B.C. hundreds
of city-states were founded along the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black
Sea; and in the early Hellenistic Age (c. 330 to 200) several hundred new
city-states were founded in the Near East. (Mogens Herman Hansen in Thirty
City-State Cultures (2000) 141-87).
In Asia Minor there may well have been a host of local city-state cultures
before the whole region was Hellenised after Alexander the Great's conquest of
the Persian Empire. One such can probably be found in Lykia in the Dynastic
Period (c. 550 to 330 B.C.), when part of the population was settled in
self-governing city-states. In the Hellenistic period they were turned into poleis
and the Lykian
was an integral part of Greek city-state culture. (Mogens Herman Hansen and
Thomas Marksteiner in Six City-State Cultures (2002) 8-10 and 57-72).
The Etruscans were settled in 12 city-states including Caere, Tarquinia and
Vulci, until the whole region north of Rome was conquered by the Romans in the
3rd century B.C. (Mario Torelli in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000)
Rome itself was the largest of about twenty city-states in Latium; amongst the
others were Tibur and Praeneste. The Latin city-states were conquered by Rome
and turned into self-governing municipia, the last after the Social War
in 91-89 B.C. Rome was still a city state at the beginning of the 4th century
B.C. but changed over the following centuries into being the capital city of an
empire consisting essentially of dependent city-states: poleis in the
east and civitates in the west. (Tim J. Cornell in Thirty City-State
Cultures (2000) 209-28, cf. 614).
On the caravan route along the west coast of the Arabian peninsula there were a
set of small cities in the oases. The most important were Medina and Mecca. They
may have formed a city-state culture in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. (Jørgen
Bæk Simonsen in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 241-9).
Vikings from Norway colonised the east coast of Ireland in the 10th century A.D.
and established a set of cities, principally Dublin. The cities were
city-states; at first they were independent but they soon became dependencies
under Irish kings and were finally conquered by the English in 1171. (Poul Holm
in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 251-62).
(16) When the Carolingian kingdom of Louis II broke up in A.D. 875 the cities of northern Italy became city-states, most of them governed by the local bishop. From the end of the 11th century they changed into republics governed by elected consuls and councils: in the high Middle Ages there were about 300 such city-states in North Italy. In the course of the 15th century most of them fell under the control of the three biggest ones, Florence, Milan and Venice, which in that way became by conquest no longer city-states but small 'country-states'. (Stephan R. Epstein in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 277-93; Mogens Herman Hansen in Six City-State Cultures (2002) 17-18).
In the German Reich in the late Middle Ages there were c. 100 Reichsstädte
and Freie Städte (Peter Johanek in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000)
295-319), most of them in South Germany. There were also in the same region
episcopal states and dukedoms, but in the period c. A.D. 1350 to 1550 the cities
created a set of city-leagues and through the interaction of the cities in trade
and production they formed during these two centuries a city-state culture that
only disappeared for good with the end of the German Reich in 1806 (Björn Forsén
in Six City-State Cultures (2002) 91-105).
When the last duke of Zähringen died in 1218 Switzerland was freed from the
feudal form of government which otherwise dominated the whole of central Europe.
Eight Swiss Free Cities arose: they were city-states and formed a city-state
culture from the 14th century to 1848. (Martina Stercken in Thirty City-State
Cultures (2000) 321-42).
The Dutch Republic founded by the Union of Utrecht in 1579 was a confederation
of seven provinces, each province consisting of a number of self-governing
cities. The Union can quite reasonably be regarded as a city-state culture
consisting of 57 dependent city-states. (Maarten Prak in Thirty City-State
Cultures (2000) 343-58).
The Zhou monarchy in China came to an end in 771 B.C. and the state was broken
up into several hundred little states, most of them city-states. In the
Spring-and-Autumn period the city-state was the most important form of state in
central China, but a great many of them were swallowed up by their much bigger
neighbours, and in the Warring States Period (481-221 B.C.) the city-states had
all disappeared again. (Mark Edward Lewis in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000)
In central Asia where the Silk Route went north and south round the Tarim Basin
and on the edge of the Taklamakan desert there lay 47 little states, of which 25
were city-states. They arose in c. 200 B.C. and disappeared first definitely
A.D. 1800. At periods they were independent, but most of the time they were
dependent states under China or Tibet or the Mongols. (Nicola Di Cosmo in Thirty
City-State Cultures (2000) 393-407).
From the 7th to the 11th century A.D. there was in southern Sumatra a city-state
called Sriwijaia which exercised a hegemony. It controlled a set of dependent
city-states that lay along the rivers. Sriwijaya was a Malay city-state,
possibly to be identified with Palembang. (Pierre-Yves Manguin in Thirty
City-State Cultures (2000) 409-16).
In the same region there were a number of big harbour-cities, which created an
Islamic city-state culture in c. 1450-1625, e.g. Melaka, Aceh, and Brunei. They
were called negeri a Sanskrit word meaning 'city'
but which in modern Malay has come to mean 'state'.
(Anthony Reid in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 417-29).
Besides the Malay city-states there were in that region a number of other
city-states, which had as their common language Thai or Javanese or Makassarese.
The Thai city-states, at any rate, constituted a city-state culture from c. A.D.
800 to 1700. (Richard A. O'Connor in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000)
The valley of Kathmandu in Nepal was ruled, c. 1200, by the Malla dynasty. Down
until 1482 the whole valley was ruled by one king, but when Yaksa Malla died in
1482 his kingdom was divided between his three sons. For the next three hundred
years the valley was fragmented into three small city-states, until in 1768-69
the Gurkhas conquered the region and turned the biggest of the city-states, Kathmandu,
into the capital of the state of Nepal. (Gérard Toffin in Six City-State
Cultures (2002) 107-23).
The Mozabites are a Berber tribe, who settled in the 11th century A.D. in a
large oasis in the northern Sahara. They founded an Islamic city-state culture
with five, later seven, city-states. It lasted until 1882, when the whole region
came under French rule. (Farhat Jaabiri and Bahaiou Yahia in Thirty
City-State Cultures (2000) 445-62).
Along the east coast of Africa, in southern Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and
northern Mozambique there are a whole set of ancient 'stone
continuously occupied by a Swahili-speaking population. They arose c. A.D. 1000
and were self-governing city-states until the beginning of the 19th century.
There was close connection between the cities along the coast, and they can all
be regarded as part of the same city-state culture. (Paul Sinclair and N. Thoma
Håkansson in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 463-82).
On the grassy plain south of the Sahara and east of the river Niger live the
Hausa. From c. 1415 their territory was divided between seven larger city-states
and a lot of small ones, and all together they counted as an Islamic city-state
culture. But in 1804 the Hausa were defeated by the Fulani and the city-states
lost their independence and became provincial capitals in a new Caliphate.
(Robert Griffeth in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 483-506).
Before the European colonisation of West Africa the densest urbanisation south
and west of the Niger was that of the Yoruba between c. 1600 and 1900. Many of
their cities constituted a city-state culture. In the 17th century Oyo, the
largest of the city-states, conquered its smaller neighbours and was for a
longer period the centre of a small empire of city-states. (John D.Y. Peel in Thirty
City-State Cultures (2000) 507-17).
On the Gold Coast, in what is now Ghana, the Fante people lived in city-states.
They can be traced back to the 14th to 16th century and flourished in the 17th
and 18th, in which period they were organised in a federation led by Mankessim.
At the beginning of the 19th century the federation was overturned by the
Asante. (Ray A. Kea in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 519-30).
The twelve to fourteen city-states of the Kotoko have been mentioned above. In
the 17th century they fell under the Bornu Empire, but kept their
self-government, which still existed at the beginning of the 20th century.
(Mogens Herman Hansen in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 531-2).
From c. 1600 to 1800 the western delta of the Niger was divided between four
city-states, and the little city-state culture was a centre of the Atlantic
slave trade. It was still in existence in the 19th century but vanished with the
European colonisation of the area in the 1890s. (Kingta Irene Princewill in Thirty
City-State Cultures (2000) 533-45).
The Konso are a small people who inhabit a zone of ca. 300 km2 in the highlands of south-western Ethiopia.
They number ca. 55,000 persons who live in c. 35 close-set fortified towns.
They are agriculturalists who have their homes in the towns and their fields in
its hinterland. Until the end of the 19th century the towns were self-governing
political communities, each ruled by an elected council of elders. In 1897 the
Konso were subdued by the Abyssinians. (C.R. Hallpike, The Konso of Ethiopia
The decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs, combined with new excavations using
modern archaeological techniques, shows that in the Classic period (c. A.D.
250-900) there were about 30 Maya city-states on the Yucatan peninsula. The
cities disappeared in the course of the 10th century, and with them the
city-states, but when the kingdom ruled from Mayapan broke up c. 1450 Yucatan
was once more divided into city-states down to the Spanish conquest. (Nikolai
Grube in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 547-65).
North west of the Mayan territory lay Mixteca, a region organised as a
city-state culture in the post-classic period, c. A.D. 900-1521. It consisted of
over 100 city-states which were not reduced to mere cities until the end of the
16th century. From c. 1450 the Mixtec city-states were no longer independent,
but they remained self-governing throughout, though dominated first by the
Aztecs and afterwards by the Spaniards. (Michael D. Lind in Thirty City-State
Cultures (2000) 567-80).
And east of Mixteca lies the valley of Oaxaca, the Sierra Zapoteca and the
Isthmus of Tehuantepec, all in the region called Bènizàa. The state in the
Oaxaca valley which in the Classic period was ruled from Monte Alban broke up in
c. A.D. 800 and the region was divided into city-states. In the 15th century new
city-states were created as colonies in the Sierra Zapoteca and the Tehuantepec.
The city-state culture collapsed in the course of the 16th century after Spain's
seizure of power. (Michel R. Oudijk in Six City-State Cultures (2002)