Not much space but significant status

Sovereign City

February 4, 2005

Whereas most of the world's political map comprises territorially defined nation-states, most of which occupy a significant section of space, there are some much smaller units such as Singapore.

These are city-states, single urban areas and their immediate hinterland with the same sovereign status as their larger contemporaries.

There are few contemporary city-states: Geoffrey Parker lists nine, but only four (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Singapore) qualify for UN membership. There were many more in earlier centuries, before the expansion of nation-states, their associated empires and hybrid groupings of semi-sovereign units.

Parker's purpose in this brief book (one of a series on Globalities) is to trace the development of the city-state as a geopolitical unit. The structure is chronological and spatial, with one or more chapters dealing in turn with Greece, Rome, Venice, Italy, Russia, Castile, the German Hanse and other claimed exemplars of the form. In effect, the book is a series of essays on the historical geography of parts of Europe, with special emphasis on the role of cities. Its overview of that history contains little depth of treatment, however.

The book has two main problems. The first is a lack of clarity regarding city-state operations, reflecting the absence of any explicit theoretical underpinning. Parker never explores the rationale for the state. The salient characteristics of the city-state are/were "size, participation, tolerance and freedom" and a goal of "making a better life for its citizens" within a non-ideological framework. But did they make their lives better simply by letting them (or some of them) participate in the city's government?

There is a great deal about the form of the city-states - the various levels in the hierarchy of governance - but virtually nothing about function. Venice, in many ways the archetypal city-state, flourished as a centre of trade. But what in the city-state format facilitated this? We are told that "merchants fostered and cherished those freedoms on which their prosperity was seen to be based", but not what that involved, let alone why this was apparently better achieved through a city-state than a territorial state.

Associated with this theoretical lacuna is an implicit assumption that the nature and role of the state has been constant over centuries, rather than evolving with economy and society: its forms and functions have changed substantially as its roles have expanded and become more complex. None of this penetrates Parker's book, whose history is thus somewhat ahistorical.

Until the 19th century, few states exerted much power over most aspects of subjects' or citizens' daily lives, in contrast to their 20th and 21st-century successors.

The second problem is that Parker's criteria for defining city-states are elastic, and in several chapters it is difficult to see that the cities he discusses are sovereign city-states. He virtually admits this: in the United Provinces (the Netherlands) "while Amsterdam and the other cities were the places where these freedoms were most in evidence, it was the province rather than the city that was the basic unit of government".

Overall, this book reminds me of the descriptive historical geographies I read as a student. A return to that genre illustrates their relative poverty: too much description, too little fundamental understanding.

Ron Johnston is professor of geography, Bristol University.

Sovereign City: The City-State through History

Author - Geoffrey Parker
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 253
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 86189 219 5

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.