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 country 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 Mesopotamia (Ur, for example), but the best known examples are probably the polii of Ancient Greece (such as Athens and Sparta).

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 absorbed 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.



Game and Story Use

  • Very useful when added to a setting, assuming that the designer can figure out how it remains independent.
    • Works in the Bronze Age where, as noted above, the city state is the default form of civilisation. Arguably this is largely due to limits of control - a city claims as far as it can reach (or until it meets the boundaries of a peer) - extending beyond that reach means creating a colony, which, until some kind of identity greater than the city is created, will have a tendency to simply grow until it can become independent.
    • Other city states can simply be hard to reach by a conqueror - separated by distance and/or bad terrain from any rival strong enough to overcome them; or so powerful that they are not worth risk of attacking (either because they are a nation-state in all but name or due to economic power, so that attacking them would cause immense trade disruption); or contested by enough powers that any one invader would find itself at odds with enough of its peers to make the war non-viable. Patronage by a great power might also work - the city state is a protectorate of a much larger state (although not a colony or possession) and is therefore off limits to its neighbours.
  • 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.
  • The real trick in building a big city is food supply - you need to be able to acquire and deliver a lot of food, quickly, to keep a big city alive. Until the rise of rail this usually means water transport from a grain basin: Byzantium, obviously, was built on the Golden Horn and shipped grain from the whole Black Sea littoral, Rome drew grain from Egypt, Roman North Africa, Sicily and Sardinia via the port of Rome at Ostia and Babylon had the Euphrates to bring it grain from throughout the Fertile Crescent. A fantasy city of size will need to be planned with a breadbasket and a shocking set of docks.
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