by  Mogens Herman Hansen


The Near East and Europe

(1) 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).

(2) 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) 55-65).

(3) 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).

(4) 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).

(5) 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 (Gojko Barjamovic, A Historical Geography of Ancient Anatolia in the Assyrian Colony Period (2005), unpublished thesis, Copenhagen University).

(6) 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).

(7) 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).

(8) 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). 14.0pt>

(9) 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) 129-39).

(10) 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).

(11) 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 League 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). 14.0pt>

(12) 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) 189-208).

(13) 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).

(14) 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).

(15) 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).

(17) 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).

(18) 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).

(19) 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).


(20) 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) 359-73).

(21) 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).

(22) 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).

(23) 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). 14.0pt>

(24) 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) 431-43).

(25) 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).


(26) 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).

(27) Along the east coast of Africa, in southern Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and northern Mozambique there are a whole set of ancient 'stone cities', 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).

(28) 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).

(29) 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).

(30) 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).

(31) 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).

(32) 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).

(33) 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 (Oxford 1972)).

Central America

(34) 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).

(35) 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).

(36) 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) 73-90).

(37) The Aztecs invaded Mexico from the north in the course of the 12th century and straight away settled in cities which were politically run as city-states. The three largest, Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan, created in 1428 a triple alliance that extended its sway over large parts of Central America. When the Spaniards arrived in America in 1519-21 the triple alliance controlled c. 500 dependent states, of which the majority went on as tribute-paying city-states. (Michael E. Smith in Thirty City-State Cultures (2000) 581-95).