Where Is the Oldest Surviving Republic in the World?
The tiny country of San Marino, a few miles from Rimini on the Adriatic coast and surrounded by Italy, set up its own government in the 10th Century. This makes San Marino the oldest surviving republic in the world. Although it wasn’t the first, San Marino lays claim to being the world’s oldest republic still in existence.
According to legend it was founded in the 301 AD by Marinus, a stone cutter from Dalmatia (now part of Yugoslavia). He fled to a mountain retreat, Monte Titano, to escape persecution by Roman Emperor Diocletian. Marinus bequeathed this retreat to his followers to remain evermore as an island of liberty in a tyrannical world. The republic’s capital, San Marino, is built around the three craggy tops of Monte Titano, which rises to a height of 2,425 feet almost in the centre of the country’s 24 square miles.
Forming a republic is admirable, but maintaining for so long is incredible. In 1463 Pope Pius II expanded Sammarinese territory by giving them some castles and several towns and almost 150 years later following various political threats, a treaty of protection was signed in 1602 with Pope Clement VIII. Despite being within reaching distance of the Romans, Ottomans, Austria-Hungary, and a fascist Italy, San Marino has maintained its independence throughout some of the world’s most important movements. Its strategic position on a mountain, numerous friendship agreements with Italy and, an albeit small, military have also contributed to its preservation.
Napoleon had offered this “model of a republic” additional territory in 1797, but San Marino declined to accept it. The inhabitants are of Italian origin but they have one big problem. Over the centuries the families of the republic became so inter-related that the citizens found it impossible to provide a completely impartial system of law enforcement. Because of this they decided to “import” their judges and police forces from Italy. In this way the San Marino families have avoided feuds and family charges of favoritism.
Over the centuries the republic has been invaded several times but has always regained its independence. In 1861, the people of San Marino, considerate of others, wrote to Abraham Lincoln expressing their concern over the troubles in America. An appreciative Lincoln wrote back: “Although your dominion is small, your state is nevertheless one of the most honoured in history.”
Perhaps, throughout history, its small size has been its greatest asset. Controlling less land, in some ways, has been an easier feat. Indefensible remote areas are non-existent and a geographic vantage point has always been an advantage. Anyone wishing to invade would have to create a supply chain through Italy first, difficult as the two nations are intrinsically linked. They share a language and cuisines, they’re trading partners and the border between the two is always open.
Ironically, San Marino’s biggest threat moving forward is the Italians. But their historical relationship as neighbours creates a strong bond. San Marino remained neutral during World War II, yet still hosted over 100,000 refugees from neighbouring regions of Italy. It seems highly unlikely that there will ever be a rift between the two, and the future of the world’s oldest republic appears to be safe. For as long as San Marino exists it will retain that very impressive mantle.
Apart from San Marino few other countries which could claim this title, depending upon the exact criteria. In order of chronology, there is:
Greece – The modern country of Greece dates to 1821, but democratic traditions in Greece date as far back as the 12th century BC. The region itself has been known by the name continuously since that time, although it has suffered through various periods of colonial rule, military dictatorships, and occupation.
Iceland – The Parliament of this country, known as the Althing, has been in mostly continuous operation since 930 AD.
Great Britain – This country stands a good chance of making a claim as one of the oldest republics in the modern world, with the current government stretching unbroken to 1066 AD. Although, in the early days of Britannia, the monarchy had a lot more power than today, bordering on dictatorship.
United States of America – Modern democracy, and the template for which most modern republics now follow, is generally agreed upon to have originated here in 1776 (although the country itself was not completely finished forming until the 1780s). Mention should also be made for several of the Native American confederations, some of which had existed for several hundred years beforehand.
Honorable Mention – Although existing as monarchies for some time, the oldest continuous countries in mainland Europe are Portugal (1139), Spain (1516) and Sweden (1523). All three are today democracies.