What is a city-state?
A city-state is like a very small country, with just one city in it. The Greeks called a city-state a polis. (You pronounce it “poh-liss”.) That’s where our word politics comes from.
There are still some city-states in the world today. Monaco and Luxembourg are two modern examples. But in antiquity and the Middle Ages, city-states were very common. City-states could have different kinds of government. They could be democracies. Or they could have kings and queens and be monarchies. Or they could have a town council and be an oligarchy.
The first city-states
The first city-states were probably in West Asia. There were many city-states in West Asia all throughout the Bronze Age. Sometimes these states were unified under a leader like Sargon of Akkad, to make an empire. But sometimes they were independent. Uruk is one example of these Sumerian city-states.
Kings and queens ruled these city-states. They had councils of noblemen for advisors, as we see in the Epic of Gilgamesh. There were city-states in early Japan. Also, there may also have been city-states in India, and in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Brazil.
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. Then they unified under one chief in the 1700s AD.
Greece, in the Bronze Age, also formed 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 or queens.
Oligarchies, democracies, and republics
At the beginning of the Iron Age, many different people made new city-states all around the Mediterranean Sea. Some examples are 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.