Independent city states are the most ancient form of social organization. Their disappearance in the 16th century is a recent - and modern - phenomenon. Now, with the re-emergence of charter cities, studying the past of city states is more important than ever.
Academic focus on the nation state has created a form of historical myopia. The lessons of the last 1000 years have been discarded in favor of the lessons of the past 100 years. In order to better manage the emergence of charter cities, the growth of city states like Singapore, the proliferation of Special Economic Zones, and the great reset triggered by COVID-19, policy makers need to take a deep breath and reflect.
The Parthenon from the North End of the Eastern Portico of the Propylae,
John Fulleylove ca. 1895
Democracy first appeared in city states. Athens is the traditional birthplace of democracy. Its ideas would influence many future democratic experiments in places as diverse as the Roman Empire, Medieval Iraq, Florence in the renaissance, and, eventually, the United States.
How did our ancestors deal with the problems of communal organization? How has governance changed throughout time? How have laws evolved alongside the nation state? How has trade changed? How will the future reflect the past?
Many modern assumptions about governance are challenged when taking a deep dive through history. Historians long assumed that standardized legal codes required centralized states.
Holstengate, Lubeck, Germany, circa 1890
Library of Congress
The Holsten Gate is a city gate marking off the western boundary of the old center of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. Built in 1464, the Gothic brick construction is one of the relics of Lübeck’s medieval city fortifications and one of two remaining city gates, the other being the Citadel Gate (“Burgtor”).
When, in the 14th century, Lubeck created a legal code, Lubeck Law, it sparked a revolution. The legal code would be copied throughout the Baltic region - despite the lack of a strong centralized state. Instead, it set the stage for the creation of the decentralized Hanseatic League.
In this Charter Cities Atlas, we detail 12 examples of self-governing cities throughout history. We draw examples from different regions of the world and from different historical periods. Each city took a unique path to success, figuring out how to overcome their unique challenges to become successful. Despite massive differences, they similarly were able to govern effectively and take advantage of regional trade.
Some of our examples, like Athens, are independent city-states. Others, like Lubeck, are part of a larger political structure. The unifying factor is that these cities have high degrees of autonomy that allow them to respond quickly and effectively to ever-changing market conditions.