The Rise and Decline of Italian city-states
By Stephan R. Epstein
London School of Economics Working Paper (1999)
Also published in A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures, edited by H.M. Hansen (Copenhagen, 2000)
Introduction: The understanding of the institutional features of Italian city-states has suffered from a terminological and conceptual confusion between “city-state” and “commune”. The two terms have been used interchangeably, but they refer in reality to only partially overlapping entities.
Communes, as they became known by the thirteenth century, developed into municipal bodies engaged in local government, which depended on external seigneurial or monarchial authority for fiscal, military and trade relations and matters of high justice (applied to crimes entailing the death penalty). Most medieval and early modern European towns and cities were municipalities of this kind – and called themselves universitates (associations or corporations) as a consequence.
Communes gained these rights or liberties between the late eleventh and thirteenth centuries. In the same period, some of hem managed to turn limited into full sovereignty and transform themselves into independent city-states. City-states were a special kind of univesitas or commune that in addition to municipal self-rule practiced their own foreign policy, were fiscally independent, could raise and army and enforce the death penalty, and could mint coins, sign commercial charters with other independent states, and requisition foreign merchants’ goods.
Self-ruling urban communes were ubiquitous in the late medieval and early modern West; city-states were not. But as this fact makes clear, city-states were an institutional variant of a pattern of urban enfranchisement common to the whole of Europe, and by and large they played by the same rules. Conversely, the assumption that the rise of Italian city-states north of Rome was fundamentally different from urban developments in the Italian South and north of the Alps, has obscured the genuine differences between city-states and politically dependent communes. In particular, it has made it harder to explain why, despite its important political, institutional and economic achievements, the Italian city-state managed to survive as a sui generis organisation for a relatively short period of time.