The City-States. The Breakthrough to
the Conception of Autonomous
Citizenship and Legal Order: Introduction
One of the most important types of political system that developed in many different places in human history is the city-state, which may be called the first, "archaic" stage of breakthrough from the primitive order, and it tended to persist in the imperial and feudal systems. The most famous in the Western tradition are the city-states of Greece and Rome, 1 but they certainly were not the only ones. In the Near East and Mediterranean regions there also developed many different types of city-states, such as the Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Phoenician, and Philistine. 2 In other parts of the world— Southeast Asia, India, 3 Mexico, and Peru 4—similar types of city-states developed and flourished for long periods. They were also prominent in parts of Europe, especially in the Low Countries, Switzerland, and Italy, 5 from the beginning of medieval times up to the first breakthroughs into the age of absolutism.
City-states developed from different origins: directly from different types of tribal settlement, from temples that existed in tribal federations, or from patrimonial regimes. Some of them, such as certain of the Philistine and Phoenician city-states, were very quickly absorbed into other types of political systems, such as tribal federations or more especially into patrimonial and imperial systems. Others continued in a sort of marginal existence in the interstices of such systems, as enclaves with little political autonomy, and without exerting any special influence of their own. Perhaps the best example of such cities are the "caravan cities." 6 Others might have persisted as enclaves with wider, autonomous, supranational orientations and influence. In only rather exceptional cases, of which Greece, Rome, and to some extent the city-states of medieval Italy are the most important illustrations, did the city-states (or especially groups of city‐ states) develop into relatively full-fledged, self-contained, autonomous political entities.
As in the case of tribal federations or patrimonial regimes, the development of city-states was contingent on the convergence of internal conditions— certain types of differentiation and settlement of the various primitive or nomad tribal groups—together with some broader "international" relations. While the initial impetus to the development of many of the city-states probably came from within the internal patterns of tribal settlement and differentiation, their persistence and development were very much contingent on constellations of external factors. Such international settings were especially important in determining whether the newly developing city-states would remain in positions of marginality in more encompassing systems or whether they would develop into relatively full-fledged, autonomous polities.
Thus, the Greek and Phoenician city-states have to be understood in the context of the Eastern Mediterranean political systems and imperial contexts, and the Italian in terms of the late medieval and early Renaissance political systems. Moreover, the patterns of continuity and discontinuity of these polities