February 4, 2023

The Italian City-Republics Were the Manhattan of the Twelfth Millennium

The shift from feudalism to the fairly free capitalist societies happened slowly, beginning with the introduction of the city-states in Italy in Medieval Europe

The beautiful Italian language town of Bologna is known for its vast historical middle full of medieval buildings, castles, churches, and elegant  porticoes .

The visitor can be left speechless by the leftover twenty-two towers out of about 180 erected between the 12th and thirteenth centuries. The  Asinelli tower , the tallest of them at 97 meters, compares to the normal height of a modern skyscraper. It is truly amazing that will in the early Middle Ages, Bologna’s spectacular towers made it appear very much  like Manhattan   nowadays.

Such towers were built in many north Italian towns by wealthy families for defensive purposes when rivalries between oligarchic clans turned deadly. They were also a  standing symbol , and their  construction , which was quite onerous, bears witness to the economic miracle that will took place in that period. Beginning with the fourteenth century, numerous towers were demolished, yet others simply collapsed. The rise and fall of the systems illustrate very well the early Ancient experiment of independent Italian city-republics with capitalist and democratic institutions.

Breaking from the Oppressive Feudal System

The  feudal economic system   was rigidly based on people’s established status in the feudal hierarchy in terms of obligations and rewards. The majority of the population was engaged in subsistence agriculture around self-sufficient manors, and most of the agricultural workers were bound to the particular land in a system of serfdom. Wages and prices had been set by the political plus religious authorities or by towns’  guilds , which restricted free competition. There was limited room regarding entrepreneurship, and economic development was dismal.

Starting from the eleventh centuries, cracks opened in the feudal system, and many European towns started to develop as  major centers   of trade and manufacturing. The so-called free cities or independent city-states purchased  charters   granting various degrees of self-government from their sovereigns through negotiations, which sometimes implied chaotic uprisings.

Impartial cities prospered from free trades and greater labor department, gradually lifting the countryside economy too. The totally free towns also became directly involved in the liberation of serfs in the surrounding countryside. They began to dominate economically plus militarily.

Ralph Raico   and  Robert Higgs   underlined several factors contributing to the emergence of merchant capitalism in Europe. Unlike other excellent civilizations, especially the Chinese language, Indian, and Islamic types, Europe was decentralized right into a system of divided powers plus jurisdictions, such as kingdoms, principalities, city-states, and ecclesiastical domains. The constant rivalry among nobleman, feudal nobility, and the powerful Catholic church reduced the rulers’ capacity to oppose the struggle for the independence of the townspeople.

Christianity and Christian  philosophers   mitigated serfdom and justified the legitimacy of resistance to unjust rulers, recognizing the meaning superiority of natural over positive law. In addition , the  Italian city-states   benefitted from the tough terrain of the Alps, which usually prevented the Holy Roman Empire from defeating them  militarily .

Sovereigns were limited by charters, such as  the Magna Carta , granting political and economic rights to their subjects and strengthening the rule of law. Already by the 12th century, many communes experienced issued elaborate legislative codes protecting property rights and free trade. This activated capital accumulation and technological progress, unlike in  imperial China , where a feudal bureaucracy suppressed entrepreneurship and the use of inventions within market production. Florence plus Venice also played a  crucial innovative role   in financial and in the development of instruments intended for trade and finance, like double-entry bookkeeping, bills of exchange, insurance, and commercial law and courts.

The advance of merchant capitalism in northern Italy led to a  swift increase in population , which doubled from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. A substantial migration from the countryside resulted in the emergence of large cities of over one hundred thousand inhabitants such as Venice, Florence, and Milan. North Italy was the most urbanized and literate society in the world at that time and the economic capital of Western Europe. The maritime republics Venice plus Genoa became international trading hubs and acquired vast naval empires in the Mediterranean sea and Black seas. Structures, town planning, arts, tradition, science, and  training   also flourished.

Inspections on Oligarchic and Complete Power

Major advances in terms of financial and political freedom required appropriate governance systems. Early democratic forms of government emerged: the so-called “ communes ” based on the broad political participation of the towns’ citizens and in particular of the rising middle class.

Initially, the communes struggled to replace the earlier lay lord and episcopal specialists by designating some “ law-worthy men” ( boni homines ) to perform various jobs. As time passes, the boni homines produced a permanent executive called the “ consulate. ” The consuls were elected either directly by the town’s general assembly of the people or not directly by electors from the numerous strata of the population, which includes non-nobles. The main purpose in the  selection of the particular consuls   has been to “ hinder the particular domination of city politics by cliques. ”

In smaller cities, it was feasible to hold conferences with all the citizens. In larger towns, a great council counting four hundred to four thousand members acted like a parliament ( arengo ), sometimes helped by a smaller council of around forty members that directly supervised the work of the executive. Given the relatively small size of a town’s human population, a large share of it, such as the majority of the wealthy individuals, was directly involved in decision-making. A lot of administrative duties were undertaken by the citizens by themselves in their free time, strengthening the civic spirit and politics accountability, as well as reducing data corruption.

Many cities were de facto ruled by oligarchies of the wealthy families. As the communes been successful in asserting their exterior autonomy, it became an increasingly to prevent internal conflicts among oligarchs (vendettas). To mitigate this, many communes employed an independent head consul (podesta) from outside of the town to serve as chief justice with police powers. In addition , common people organized themselves into  associations   called “ societas populi” or even “ popolani. ” Their particular members were “ vendors, craftsmen and men between wealth and poverty, ” broadly equivalent to today’s middle class. Manual workers and people in very humble situations, who could have been easily purchased or intimidated by the nobles, were not accepted into these types of political groups. In many cities, the “ popolani” can raise an infantry of the thousand to two thousand men against the nobles. This institution played an important part in checking violent vendettas and preventing the commune from being captured by vested interests.

Other private protection associations emerged as well. “ Consorzeria” was an alliance meant for private defense, both in conditions of mutual military assistance and judicial support, that was accessible to nobles and common people alike. It was very helpful in  dealing   with the violent quarrels of communal life plus settling disputes among their own members. Its main functions resemble those of private protection agencies that could operate in the libertarian society, according to  Murray Rothbard .

Decline of Democratic Institutions

Eventually internal conflicts among oligarchs and external warfare brought incessant military and fiscal downturn that undermined the democratic forms of government. The communes turned for protection to a strong man, either a local lord or a foreign king, granting them temporary particular powers. In many cases, the specific powers were prolonged consistently, leading to a regime of a single ruler (signoria).

Other communes grew to become heavily indebted to lords and were subdued by means of economic means or were taken over by nobles top mercenary troops (condottieri). By the end of the fourteenth century, most cities became “ signorie. ” Republican regimes made it longer in very few city-states, most notably in Venice, which was de facto ruled simply by numerous patrician families developing the  Great Authorities .

In principle, “ signoria” failed to usher in tyrannies, but the nobility got the upper hands again in suppressing the common people. Although the difference in between a commune under a limited oligarchy and a “ signoria” proper was not always that will large, a considerable  expansion in the power of governments   happened from the fourteenth century on. The productive wealth had been increasingly diverted into bureaucratic institutions, military expenditures, as well as the pockets of the oligarchs. The particular fiscal burden increased by means of new and more onerous fees, forced loans on rich citizens ( prestanze ), and a surge in state debts.

In Florence, for example , revenues rose from around 130, 000 florins within the 1320s to more than 400, 000 florins in the 1360s. Expenditures varied greatly and multiplied in periods of wars, recording a significant  increase over time   as well.


The successful break of Italian city-republics through feudalism illustrates the crucial role played by economic freedom and participatory democracy in fostering prosperity and human development. Key contributors had been the decentralized powers within Europe and the people’s struggle to gain and preserve politics and economic liberties by means of active civic and political participation.

However within two centuries, individual ruling families rose in order to power and captured the democratic and market organizations. This is a useful lesson showing how unchecked domestic violence, militarism, and external wars can result in the aggrandizement of the authorities and loss of freedom.

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