In my book I'm writing one half of the island is littered with city-states. I was wondering who would be in power there and what type of government there may be.

Here's some information that may help: The city-states are a good size, tentatively I say around 10,000. Most are on the coast but a few are in the mountains and grassy areas. Also, A few are near a kingdom that has a monarchy if that would change things? They also have a class system much like any other.


  • $\begingroup$ By "government" you mean the ruling body of men (roughly corresponding to the President + Cabinet + Senate + Chamber of Representatives + Supreme Court justices in the U.S.A.), or are you also curious about the actual government from tax collectors to public order to chief dog catcher? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 26, 2018 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP , by government I mean the ruling body of men, yes. The smaller roles are less important to what I was wondering. $\endgroup$ Mar 26, 2018 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ Look to the Italian city-states, which existed during the Medieval period. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_city-states $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Mar 26, 2018 at 14:48
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    – Secespitus
    Mar 26, 2018 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ There is an enormous list of potential governmental structures which could be used - this is enormously wide in scope and either needs clarification as to what the issue is or just take half a moment to look up some city states in history. $\endgroup$ Mar 26, 2018 at 15:52

3 Answers 3


All right, let's see. Medieval city states. Here are some examples of actual medieval city states.


  • The nominal head of state was the Gonfaloniere of Justice ("gonfaloniere" means roughly flag-bearer). He was one of the Priori (see below), and had the same vote as the other eight; but in addition he had command of the security forces. "To distinguish him from his other eight colleagues, his crimson coat, lined with ermine, was further embroidered with golden stars." (Wikipedia)

  • The government of the city was vested in the Signoria composed of nine members, called Priori, chosen at random every two months from the members of the guilds (one from each of the seven major guilds plus two for the minor guilds). (The Gonfaloniere was the ninth man to be chosen.)

    "Immediately after they were elected, the nine were expected to move into the Palazzo della Signoria, where they would remain for the two months of their office. There they were paid a modest sum to cover their expenses and were provided with green-liveried servants. The Priori had a uniform of crimson coats, lined with ermine and with ermine collars and cuffs." (Wikipedia)

  • The Signoria was expected to consult with the other representative bodies of the city. Two of those (the Dodici Buonomini, Twelve Good Men, and the Sedici Gonfalonieri, Sixteen Flag-Bearers) were permanent; the others, such as the Ten for War or the Six for Trade, were called when needed.

(Sources: Thomas Adolphus Trollope, A history of the Commonwealth of Florence, from the earliest independence of the Commune to the Fall of the Republic in 1531, vol. 1, London, 1865; the articles Republic of Florence and Signoria of Florence on Wikipedia.)


The Most Serene Republic of Venice was not really a city-state, as it held a considerable territory, both around Venice and overseas. But it certainly began as a city-state.

  • Venice was governed by an elected Duke of Venice (Doge, Italian pronounciation /ˈdɔːdʒe/, Venetian pronounciation ['dɔːze]) and the Great Council. Neither the Duke nor the Great Council could govern alone; they had to agree for any law to be passed or for any action to be taken. The Duke had executive authority, but the Great Council (or, in practice the much smaller Signoria) could veto him.

  • Membership in the Great Council was reserved to the families inscribed in the Golden Book (Libro d'Oro). (Those are conventionally called "noble" families.) All eligible males became members at the age of 25, plus 30 chosen by lot from those aged 20 to 25.

  • The preceding paragraph is not completely truthful. During the centuries there were several methods of choosing members of the Council. See for example, Serrata del Maggior Consiglio.

  • From time to time, usually in time of war, exceptionally rich families were co-opted into the Great Council and inscribed in the Golden Book. (Thus, they became noble.)

  • The Duke was elected by a reduced electoral college, selected by lot following a unique and complicated procedure.

    Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the Doge. None could be elected but by at least twenty-five votes out of forty-one, nine votes out of eleven or twelve, or seven votes out of nine electors. (Wikipedia)

  • In his executive attributions the Duke was aided by a Cabinet called the Collegio; all his actions were subject to approval by the Signoria representing the Great Council.

    (For those readers who know how the former Socialist countries of Europe worked, the Duke of Venice is comparable to the Secretary General of the Communist Party, the Great Council with the Central Committee, and the Signoria with the Political Bureau of the Central Committee.)


The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is a great example because it still is a city-state, one of the very few city-states remaining in the world.

  • Hamburg was governed by an unelected Senate composed of the richest citizens.

  • The actual administration of the city was executed by the Mayor, who was subordinated to the Senate.

  • At the beginning of the 15th century, the ordinary citizens fought for and obtained the right to elect a consultative Council of Sixty; the first Constitution of Hamburg required the rich men's Senate to consult with the popular Council in matters of war and peace. (The only thing which the Senate absolutely could not do without the approval of the Council was to grant a safe-conduct to a foreigner who owed money to a citizen of Hamburg.)


  • Lübeck was a typical garden variety German city-state. The city was governed by a City Council (Stadtrat) of burghers, selected by co-optation for a term of two or three years.

    The members of the Stadtrat were known as Ratmänner (singular Ratmann) or, in the official Latin of the time, consules. To be eligible for a place in the Stadtrat, a man had to be free, German by birth, an directly interested in the prosperity of the city; only merchants were admitted: persons who had gained their wealth in manufacture were not eligible.

  • After serving two terms, Stadtrat members became members of the consultative Altrat (Council of Elders or Senate).

  • Executive functions were exercised by officials appointed by the Stadtrat for a term of one year.

(Source: M. V. Clarke, The Medieval City State: An Essay on Tyranny and Federation in the Later Middle Ages, Routledge Revivals, 2015; the link goes to Amazon.)

In general

Medieval city states were oligarchic republics, where power belonged to a restricted body of rich, or at least well-off, men. In the north, city-states operated generally by consensus; in the south, city-states had complicated election laws, which commonly included some sort of sortition, intended to ensure that no faction ever gained the upper hand.

(Just to clear a common misconception: in the Middle Ages true autocratic power was quite rare. A few Byzantine emperors were true autocrats, although they all claimed the title. A very few western European kings. One or two Popes -- in the Middle Ages Popes did not even have ultimate authority in matters of faith. But by and large, medieval sovereigns were caught in the complex web of personal allegiances which is characteristic for the medieval society. I don't know of any medieval city state ruled by an absolute monarch for any length of time.)

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    $\begingroup$ What on earth is happening in that electoral college? Did they just roll dice a dozen times after a day of partying? $\endgroup$ Mar 26, 2018 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @AzorAhai: They first chose 9 men by lot. Then they ran three rounds of expansion by election followed by reduction by lot. And then, the final reduced group chose 41 electors who elected the duke. This way (a) in the end, there was an election, (b) the electoral college had some sort of legitimacy, but (c) the influence of any house or faction was massively diminished. A bit overkill, I agree, but it worked for half a millennium. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 26, 2018 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ @AzorAhai 75% forces concensus. Randomn reduction by lot makes power continuous (without it, majority is a dictator; with it, more people means more power but you cannot guarantee dictating results). Imagine if it was just 75% of the council; you can pre-arrange a 26% block to deadlock the Doge in exchange for concessions. With the above system, you'd have to hope you get 3/9 of the lot-reduced number to pull off the same tactic. And threatening to do that before hand gets your members eliminated from consideration in the iterative system if you fail to get 3/9. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Mar 26, 2018 at 20:48

In a fantasy world, the government could be practically anything you want. You just need the appropriate reasons to justify it.

However, there are two things you have to take into account when choosing your system of government:

  • Population: 10,000 is a fairly low population level. Looking at historical examples, Classical Athens had at least 10 times that. The Republic of Venice had a population of about 180.000 in 1490 and the Republic of Ragusa had 30.000 inhabitants in 1808. Population is, usually, on par with govern complexity. Not the same level of complexity, bureaucracy or institutions are needed to rule a city of 10,000 or a city of 180,000.
  • History, beliefs & economy: Systems evolve for a reason. The beliefs of the people of your world and its past history would have shaped their current form of government: why they're city-states and not kingdoms, republics and not a monarchies, for example. Or their form of government may have changed over time. Also, a city with a agrarian-based economy or a city with a commerce-based economy may have different forms of government due to the different interests of its citizens.

That said, let's take a look at some government options.

Democracy: Classic Athens

Classical Athens is a most well-known example of ancient democracy. However, it was not the kind of democracy we know today.

To start with, only adult males could vote. They were about 10% to 20% of the total population. Women, men with suspended rights, slaves and foreigners were not allowed to vote. It was also a direct democracy system. Any male with the right to vote had the duty to go to the assembly and vote. Vote could not be delegated.

Most officials were chosen by lots among those who nominated themselves, and magistrates held office for a year. Of course, not anybody could afford to nominate themselves. The full system was a bit more complicated, including councils and tribunals.

In you world: Fitting a Athenian-like type of democracy with the class system you mention would be easy. Just limit those who can vote with something like censitary suffrage, which basically means that only those who hold a minimum amount of money or land could vote.

Mixed system: Sparta

Another Greek example is Sparta. It was a mixed government system governed by a system of laws.

Sparta was ruled by two hereditary kings supposedly descendants of Heracles, with religious, judicial and military duties. The existence of the dual monarchy had usually legendary explanations.

They were not autocratic rulers. The Gerousia, the council of Elders, made up of 28 men over 60 and the two kings, made the decisions of high state policy. The Ephors shared the executive branch of government with the kings. The Apella was the assembly of citizens, that only could decide between the alternatives presented to them.

Oligarchies: Italian city-states

Until the end of the 18th century, there existed several city-states Republics in Italy and the Dalmatian coast. Though officially called "Republics", their governments were, in fact, oligarchies, with the power in the hands of a chosen few.

Venice is, perhaps, the best-known example. The Doge was the ruler of Venice, were elected for life by the city's aristocracy (of which the Dogo was also one) though a council of 40 members.

Early Doges were autocratic rulers (they held all the power), but their powers were later limited and shared with the Great Council, composed by members of the patrician families. With time, the Doge's power was limited again by the establishment of the Minor Council, with the power shifting mostly to the Council. There were also checks put on it to prevent the development of an hereditary monarchy.

The Doge also had a ritual role, symbolizing the marriage of the city with the sea (Venice was, after all, a thalassocracy).

Other examples: Republic of Genoa (1005-1797), Republic of Florence (1115-1532), Republic of Ragusa (1358-1808).

Autocracies: Monarchies/Principalities/Duchies/etc.

A city-state the size you propose could easily be ruled by a single ruler, that could be a (Sovereign) Prince or even a King. Other titles historically used were Grand Prince, Grand Duke, Count, Margrave, Landgrave, Count Palatine or even just Lord. You could also have a dual rule, a diarchy, with two kings, princes (see Andorra) or a prince and a religious leader (see Tibet).

Phoenician city-states were ruled by Kings. Principalities existed in Medieval and Modern Europe. Liechtenstein, Monaco and Andorra are the only surviving ones nowadays, with Luxembourg being a sovereign grand-duchy.

The lordship could be either hereditary or elective, where the king/prince/lord is usually chosen by a council of nobles or, in other cases, by the army. It can also be a mix of the two, with the council choosing from the members of a single family (for example, between the children of the previous ruler), or provisions may be put in place to prevent a single family from holding successive kingships.

Dukes and Counts also ruled independent territories in the Middle Ages. For example, the Catalan counties that broke off Charlemagne's empire or the Duchy of Milan.

In your world: A Prince may also be vassal of a king while remaining sovereign (see the history of Monaco). That option could work with the cities near a kingdom you mention. These cities could be sovereign, but required, for example, to pay some kind of tribute or have their foreign policy supervised or curtailed.


If religion has an important role in your world, the ruler of your city could easily be the High Priest(ess)/Pope, etc, ruling by "divine mandate".

The Papal States were a real-life theocratic elective monarchy and so it's the Vatican City nowadays.

The bottom line

The best system of government is the one that best fits the world you've created, whatever it has a real-world equivalent or not.

  • $\begingroup$ What do ancient Athens and Sparta have to do with the Middle Ages? Neither Athens nor Sparta was a city-state in the Middle Ages. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 26, 2018 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ I'm just giving him/her options. For what I gather, they're not writing a historical novel, but a fantasy one, so it doesn't need to follow real-life examples if he/she doesn't want to. The examples of Athens and Sparta could easily be adapted to a medieval setting if he/she wishes to. $\endgroup$
    – EGJ
    Mar 26, 2018 at 18:19

Sparta-like government

The population is about the same that your City-States. Two kings rules the city, with a 28-member 'council of elders' limiting their powers. These men are recruited from the highest social class, the aristocratic Spartiates.

Beneath is a middle class, called the Perioeci. Made up of farmers and artisans, the Perioeci pays taxes and can serve in the army, but they have no real political rights.

At the bottom are the helots: a slave class.

Classical Athens democracy

For a City-State, I would think of no better choice. But I believe your City-States are a bit... too small for this kind of government. I will leave this here in case you want to adjust the numbers and give you a second option.

Athenian Democracy

  • $\begingroup$ What do ancient Athens and Sparta have to do with the Middle Ages? Neither Athens nor Sparta was a city-state in the Middle Ages. And it is highly debatable whether helots were slaves; they had personal property, they participated in war, and they could gain Spartan citizenship. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 26, 2018 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Because most educated people during the Middle Ages looked back nostalgically to the Greek and Roman civilizations, a lot of institutions tried to copy what was seen as successful in those bygone days. Take a look at the architecture of government buildings in the Middle Ages, and you see a lot of Greco-Roman style. The "Senate" that serves as the upper body in many bicameral legislatures takes its name from the Roman Senate. $\endgroup$ Mar 26, 2018 at 21:06

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