What is a City-State? Definition

Quatr.us answers questions: an online encyclopedia of history and science


Standard of Ur
The Standard of Ur, from West Asia (2000 BC)

A city-state (what the Greeks called a polis, which is where our word politics comes from) is like a very small country, with just one city in it. There are still some city-states in the world today, like Monaco or Luxembourg. But in antiquity and the Middle Ages, city-states were very common. Ciy-states might have any of a number of different forms of government.

The first city-states were probably in West Asia, where there were many city-states throughout the Bronze Age, sometimes unified under a leader like Sargon of Akkad, and sometimes not. Uruk is one example of these Sumerian city-states. These city-states were ruled by kings, with councils of noblemen for advisors, as we see in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Theater at Epidauros
Greek theater at Epidauros (200 BC)

Greece, in the Bronze Age, also was organized into many small city-states, which are listed in Homer's Iliad: Mycenae, Sparta, Pylos, Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Ithaca, and so on. These city-states also had kings.

At the beginning of the Iron Age, many different people made new city-states all around the Mediterranean Sea: the Etruscans, the Romans, the Greeks, and the Phoenicians. Most of these were ruled by oligarchies or democracies.

cherokee men sitting in a circle
Cherokee council meeting

But by about 300 BC, most of the city-states had been swallowed up into big empires. Empires were stronger and more peaceful than living in city-states. It was not until the High Middle Ages, about 1000 AD, that city-states appeared again in northern Italy and Spain.

In North America, many people lived in city-states as well. Cherokee people, for instance, lived in many different city-states until after the European invasion, when they unified under one chief in the 1700s AD.

Learn by doing: What if your city were an independent country? How would your life change?
More about Greek city-states

Bibliography and further reading about city-states:

More about ancient Sparta
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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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