City State
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Basic Information

A city state consists of an independent, sovereign city and its dependant territories, forming a nation in its own right. Very similar things can also occur in cities that are direct vassals of an empire (as opposed to being part of a vassal nation). Presumably a city transitions from being a city state to the capital of a nation when it gains control of at least one other city - although places such as Imperial Rome and Venice demonstrate that it can take a long time for culture to adjust to this idea.

City states tend to rely on an absence of nearby hostile nation states - typically a nation state will be able to overcome a single city eventually, so it is necessary for such neighbours either not to exist, or to be at least neutral. Historically, many of the earliest recorded cities were city states - with the city controlling the amount of territory necessary for its own support but unable or unwilling to expand further … such things were found in Ur, but the best known examples are probably the polii of classical Greece.

The fall of the Roman empire then lead to the various medieval city states - most typically in Northern Italy - and an assortment of very similar "Free Cities" in places like the Holy Roman Empire … free, in the sense that they were direct vassals of the Emperor and answered to him alone. Less famous examples also existed, including Norse colony cities such as Dublin and Yorvik.

Several of the medieval city states persisted into the modern era (some, such as Monaco, still do) whilst the various imperial powers also planted a few of the "direct vassal city" colonies (like Singapore and Hong Kong) … although most of these were later adsorbed into larger nations (Hong Kong was … although it seems to have been transferred as a vassal as much as adsorbed … Singapore became independent as a city state in its own right). Another notable city state is the Vatican City1 … and presumably, any putative micronation which may evolve in the future would have similar characteristics.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Very useful when added to a setting, assuming that the designer can figure out how it remains independent.
  • Actually quite common in fantasy settings, especially in the sort of world that is mostly wilderness with the occasional sprawling city…
  • Could actually be a setting - an impressive enough city can provide plenty of scope for adventures.
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