Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 480-483
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A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures
A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures. Edited by MORGENS HERMAN HANSEN. Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2000. Pp. 632. $50.00 (cloth).
This handsomely produced book has a central theme, despite the fact that more than thirty authors contributed to it: Some thirty cultures in world history had a political and socioeconomic organization that can be called a city-state culture. This is a system of city-states where the participants are in close contact with one another and occupy the same region. Although there have been city-states in the modern period, these are individual occurrences that interact with other types of states, mainly nation-states, so they do not qualify for the investigation. The unity of work derives from the editor, Morgens Hansen. He organized the conference in 1999 that was the basis of the book, and wrote the introduction and conclusions in which he formulates the concept of the city-state culture. He himself is a scholar of ancient Greek history and is associated with The Copenhagen Polis Centre, but the city-state as he defines it is not equated with the polis.
Two items are studied in detail: city-state and city-state culture. For both, Hansen devises a Weberian ideal type as a heuristic concept that further research can modify in order to fit examples better. He needs to take a flexible stance, as his study is global and has to incorporate highly divergent cases. Important in the definition of city-state is the fact that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the city and [End Page 480] the state. Hansen lists a number of characteristics (pp. 17-19); I will pick out only some for comment. Its size is small: he calls it a micro-state and contrasts it to a macro-state, a term he prefers to territorial state. Since it requires a face-to-face society, a city-state's territory cannot extend beyond the distance that can be covered in one day. In most pre-industrial societies that is only some thirty kilometers. This criterion forces him to deny that certain urban cultures had city-states. For instance, the Indus Valley civilization of c. 2600-1900 B.C. had five large-sized cities, but these were at such a great distance from one another that their hinterlands would have ranged from 100,000 to 170,000 square kilometers; that is more than the size of England, and so cannot make a city-state. This assumes, however, that their territories had to be contiguous, which does not seem necessary to me. If the same criterion were applied to the Tarim Basin city-states, for instance, wouldn't their territories also have been too large?
Most controversial is Hansen's idea that "a city-state is a self-governing polity, but not necessarily an independent and autonomous state" (p. 18). This is explicitly rejected by one of his contributors, Peter Johanek, who argues that a city-state requires more than "internal sovereignty" (p. 308). Hansen himself seems to be somewhat of two minds on this question. On the one hand, he states that city-states could be dependent on other polities, a stance with which I agree. How many Greek polis, for instance, can be regarded as truly independent? On the other hand, he excludes certain cultures from his discussion because they had no independent cities, for example, the medieval Flemish cities, which were integrated into a feudal system of representation (p. 25). The problem here is the same as for so many other definitions: there is a continuum between full dependence and full independence. Scholars have to set a cut-off point where the degree of dependence becomes too great for something to qualify as a state. And that cut-off point remains variable and subjective. This aspect adds a contemporary concern to the work. Hansen argues that it is possible for...