The Malta Independent 21 May 2024, Tuesday
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The oldest constitutional republic in the world

Mark Said Sunday, 12 November 2023, 07:15 Last update: about 7 months ago

Let us first specifically locate San Marino, one of the smallest countries in the world. It is a landlocked enclave in Italy, on the border between the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Marche. It covers an area of approximately 61.2 square kilometres. It is the third-smallest country in Europe, with only Vatican City and Monaco being smaller. Furthermore, as one of the European microstates, San Marino has the smallest population (33,600) of all the members of the Council of Europe, having joined the Council in 1988. However, it is not in the EU but does use the euro, despite not officially being in the Eurozone. However, San Marino's ultimate goal is to become a full-fledged member of the EU. It was only in 1992 that this republic joined the United Nations.


It is the oldest constitutional republic in the world, founded in September 301 by Marinus of Rab, a Christian stonemason fleeing the religious persecution of Roman Emperor Diocletian, and has a constitution dating back to 1600, making it the world's oldest written constitution still in effect.

According to legend, Saint Marinus died in the winter of 366, and his last words were: "Relinquo vos liberos ab utroque homine." ("I leave you free from both men"). This somewhat mysterious phrase is most likely to refer to the two "men" from whose oppressive power he had decided to separate himself, becoming a hermit on Mount Titano, namely the Emperor and the Pope. This affirmation of freedom (first and foremost fiscal franchise) from both the State and the Church, however legendary, has always been the inspiration of the tiny republic.

In the Lombard age, San Marino was a fief of the Dukes of Spoleto (linked to the Papal States), but the free comune dates to the tenth century. The original government structure was composed of a self-governed assembly known as the Arengo, which consisted of the heads of each family (as in the original Roman Senate, the Patres).

At this stage, it is pertinent to elaborate on some constitutional aspects of this unique country. By the 12th century, San Marino had developed into a commune ruled by its own statutes and consuls. The commune was able to remain independent despite encroachments by neighbouring bishops and lords, largely because of its isolation and its mountain fortresses. Against the attacks of the Malatesta family, who ruled the nearby seaport of Rimini, San Marino enjoyed the protection of the rival family of Montefeltro, who ruled Urbino. By the middle of the 15th century, it was a republic ruled by a Grand Council of 60 men taken from the Arengo, or Assembly of Families.

The San Marino constitution, originating from a series of six books referred to as the Statutes of 1600, provides for a parliamentary form of government. The Great and General Council (Parliament) has 60 members, elected every five years by all adult citizens. It has legislative and administrative powers, and every six months it nominates the two captains regent (capitani reggenti), who hold office for that period and may not be elected again until three years have elapsed.

The Great and General Council is headed by the captain’s regent, who is the head of state and of the administration. The Congress of State, a council of ministers, is composed of 10 members, elected by the Great and General Council from among its members, and constitutes the central organ of executive power. Each member has charge of a ministerial department. The practice of having two heads of state, like Roman consuls, chosen in frequent elections derives from the customs of the Roman Republic.

How about mentioning some little-known facts and oddities about this small republic state? Archaeological finds suggest there was a settlement as early as the 5th century BC. San Marino was officially consolidated as a political entity in the late 1200s, during the Age of the Commune. This republic resembles a fortified dwelling and was subjected to many invasions over the centuries but always managed to maintain its sovereignty.

Former American President Abraham Lincoln expressed his admiration for San Marino in a letter to the Captains Regent in 1861, saying, ‘Although your dominion is small, nevertheless your State is one of the most honoured throughout history." In response, they granted him citizenship.

It has offered unconditional political sanctuary throughout the centuries. Apparently, the country has never refused asylum to the persecuted. Most notably, Giuseppe Garibaldi sought safety within the fortress walls of San Marino in 1849 when he found himself surrounded by three enemy armies. Garibaldi later helped ensure San Marino’s exclusion from formal Italian unification in 1867. San Marino remained neutral during World War II but gave shelter and asylum to 100,000 evacuees from the surrounding areas of Italy that were being bombed.

It was probably the first country in the world to establish a regular postal service. In 1607, a paid postal service was opened to all residents. In 1877, the first postage stamps of the Republic were issued, and since then, San Marino stamps have paid tribute to its cultural and historical events and personalities. Due to the limited production of San Marino stamps, the state has been a big draw for philatelists for hundreds of years, just as it has been for collectors of rare coins.

San Marino residents (Sanmarinese) speak Italian and Romagnol, the old dialect of the surrounding Emilia-Romagna region. Even though they inhabit the same peninsula and have a shared ethnicity, the people of San Marino prefer to be called Sammarineses instead of Italians since they are proud of the fact that they belong to an independent republic.

The GDP of San Marino is equal to those of the most developed nations in the entire world and superior to that of Italy, so it is normal to expect very high prices, but you will be surprised to know that food and transportation are actually very cheap. The only expensive aspect of the country is lodging.

One last thing: if you have been tantalised into visiting this small country with an old and rich history, make sure you do not miss out on the Maranello Rosso two museums, one featuring Abarths and the other significant Ferraris, located in this tiny Republic close to the Imola racetrack.


Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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