A lot of people know that Dubrovnik used to be a city-state, but lack an understanding of what precisely the term means. Was Dubrovnik an independent country from Croatia? And if yes, how did it come under the Croatian flag? What is a city state, and does this form of government still exist in the world?
The answer is actually pretty straightforward. As the name suggests, a city-state is a sovereign political entity centered on a single urban settlement. Literally, it is city which behaves as an independent country. Yet, contrary to the common belief, the borders of city-states don’t have to be contained within the city boundaries.
At the contrary, most city states spread their influence over the neighboring region, uniting the populace under a common name, law and cultural identity.
Probably the best known example of a city-state is ancient Rome. This single city spread its power so far that it became an empire ruling over several continents. And while we can’t describe the later Roman Empire as a city state, the fact that its residents were referred to as Romans still has some weight.
Dubrovnik had a similar history to Rome. It functioned as an independent republic called Ragusa, initially formed in the 14th century. It spread its influence to neighbouring territories and islands, and became a notable power of the Mediterranean region. The Republic of Ragusa was known for its uniquely liberal laws and humanistic ideals.
The Dubrovnik city-state was one of the first governments in the world to abolish slavery as a barbaric practice, and was also the first country to recognize the independence of the United States of America. It has been estimated that, in its peak years, Ragusa numbered over 30,000 residents, about 5,000 living within the famous city walls.
Surrounded by much more powerful nations, including the Ottoman Empire, Dubrovnik often had to pay for its freedom through treaties and tributes. However, its independence was preserved for almost five centuries, before finally succumbing to the armies of Napoleon. As time passed, Dubrovnik became Croatian territory, mainly because it was always part of the nation’s cultural identity.
While the Republic of Ragusa is no more, several other city-states exist in the modern world, probably the best-known being Monaco and Singapore.