What is a city-state? Definition

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

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

What is a city-state?

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. City-states might have any of a number of different forms of government.

The first city-states

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 council meeting

Cherokee council meeting

Native American city-states

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.

Greek theater at Epidauros (200 BC)

Greek theater at Epidauros (200 BC

Ancient Greece

Greece, in the Bronze Age, also was organized into many small city-states. Homer’s Iliad lists them: MycenaeSparta, Pylos, Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Ithaca, and so on. These city-states also had kings.

Oligarchies, democracies, and republics

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.

Medieval 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. In the Middle Ages, city-states like Florence, Genoa, Pisa, and Venice were rich and powerful, controlling Mediterranean trade with the Silk Road, Egypt, and India.

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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By |2018-04-23T06:36:29+00:00June 29th, 2017|Government, Greeks|9 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is a city-state? Definition. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 29, 2017. Web. January 20, 2019.

About the Author:

Dr. 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, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. ANNABETH CHASE August 31, 2018 at 11:55 am - Reply


  2. Kiersten April 25, 2018 at 10:11 am - Reply

    Thank you so much I guess Kings are a type of government! 🙂

    • Karen Carr April 25, 2018 at 10:12 am

      Glad I could help.

  3. donald duck April 24, 2018 at 5:18 am - Reply


    • Karen Carr April 24, 2018 at 7:49 am

      Hi Donald! How’s it quacking?

  4. Kiersten April 23, 2018 at 6:14 am - Reply

    I thought City-States were run by a government not Kings. Were they ever run by a government?

    • Karen Carr April 23, 2018 at 6:36 am

      Kings are a kind of government, right? But yes, city-states can have any kind of government. Sparta had two kings. Athens had first an oligarchy and then a democracy.

  5. estrella April 6, 2018 at 9:31 am - Reply

    What group of people are usually the rulers of the city-states and why?

    • Karen Carr April 6, 2018 at 7:06 pm

      That sounds like a homework question? But it’s in the article.

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