What is a City-State? Definition
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City-States

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

April 2016 - 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. There were city-states in early Japan. There may also have been city-states in India, and in Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil.

cherokee men sitting in a circle
Cherokee council meeting

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.

Theater at Epidauros
Greek theater at Epidauros (200 BC)

Greece, in the Bronze Age, also was organized into many small city-states. Homer's Iliad lists them: 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. Oligarchies or democracies ruled most of these city-states.

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.

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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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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