Created By: Maklodes on August 26, 2011 Last Edited By: Maklodes on January 29, 2012

Free City

An urban, commercial city-state with republican institutions

Name Space:
Page Type:
Typically a thriving metropolis, at least by Medieval Stasis standards, the Free City may answer to a monarch in some sense, but if so its charter provides it with a lot of autonomy, or it may answer to no monarch at all, being a city-state, possibly joined in a loose confederation. In lieu of royal leadership, don't expect democracy, though. Perhaps it is ruled by an aristocratic senate, perhaps the city is run by a group of guilds (which is to say well-off masters within those guilds, not struggling apprentices or journeymen), perhaps it is run by a wealthy Big, Screwed-Up Family, or perhaps it is ruled by a tyrant who assumes no royal titles while being no less an autocrat. (The tyrant could actually be more benevolent toward the ordinary people of the city than the oligarchic rule of a hereditary senate or elite guild council.) Democracy isn't impossible either, but it isn't to be expected.

Expect the inhabitants of the city to be less obsessed with honor, religious piety, and tradition than the rural, monarchic societies around them, and more interested in getting rich and enjoying cultural creativity. Free Cities may be, loosely, a Fantasy Counterpart to The Republic, and might be the home of a Proud Merchant Race. A Free City also has a good chance of being a Merchant City.

However, while The Republic is often the protagonist-state in more modern settings, the Free City is more morally ambiguous: rarely as evil as The Empire, but often showing a certain corrupt, venal, cowardly aspect compared to the heroic knights of The Kingdom.



Tabletop Games
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, Waterdeep and Ravens Bluff in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting and the Free City of Greyhawk in the Greyhawk setting.
  • In GURPS, Tredroy.
  • In 7th Sea, Freiburg. The feudal prince who nominally reigns is a figurehead.
  • In "Warhammer", the Free City of Marienburg: a rich port city which bought its independence from the Empire during the reign of a weak Emperor who was deposed shortly afterwards.

Video Games
  • In Dragon Age II, the Free Marshes are a loose confederation of Free Cities.


Western Animation
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Omashu. Yes its ruler is called the king, but said king is a benevolent tyrant who reigns over a fairly advanced city.
    • It's implied that the entire Earth Kingdom is a loose collection of such cities.

Real Life
  • The city-states ("poleis") of Ancient Greece (mostly Delian League cities rather than Sparta)
  • The imperial free cities of the Holy Roman Empire, especially those in the Hanseatic League
  • The cantons of medieval Switzerland
  • the city-states of Italy in The Renaissance. (as well as Venice, a republican city-state from the midst of the Dark Ages.)
  • Novgorod prior to Russian annexation. (Although documentation on this instance is a little spotty.)
  • The seafaring, mercantile Kalinga republic prior to its conquest by Ashoka and the Mauryan Empire. (Documentation on this is even spottier.)

Rolling Updates
Community Feedback Replies: 24
  • August 26, 2011
    The Free Marshes in Dragon Age II is a loose confederation of such cities.
  • August 26, 2011
    In civilized Gor the basic governmental unit is the city-state a la Greece, with some cities becoming more state-like a la Rome.
  • August 26, 2011
    • Omashu from Avatar The Last Airbender. Yes its ruler is called the king, but said king is a benevolent tyrant who reigns over a fairly advanced city.
      • It's implied that the entire Earth Kingdom is a loose collection of such cities.
  • August 26, 2011
    dalek955, I'm provisionally adding Omashu, but the benevolence of the king is neither here nor there. Benevolent kings often reign in The Kingdom too. In fact, a Free City's leadership is often more gray compared to the white of The Kingdom and the black of The Empire. I'm not familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I assume you are, so I'm deferring on that one, but if Omashu seems to qualify as a Free City even though it is actually a monarchy, then it is on grounds other than the king's benevolence. (Late Update: New Crobuzon's mayor in Perdido Street Station, for example, was on the borders of Complete Monster territory)
  • August 27, 2011
    Ephebe also appears in Pyramids, though there's less discussion of its political set-up there and more focus on its philosopher epidemic.
  • August 27, 2011
    Tredroy in Gurps
  • September 6, 2011
    • The Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser series featured the powerful central city of Lankhmar, which not only had its own independent ruler, it even had its own gods.
  • September 6, 2011
    In [1], Undertown is a city created specifically as a haven of freedom and civilization, although it's ruled by corrupt merchants.
  • September 7, 2011
    In the Elenium, the city of Chyrellos is a free city (the fantasy equivalent of Vatican City)
  • September 7, 2011
    I think this one is good enough for launch.
  • September 7, 2011
    No, the description is to me both vague and restrictive at the same time. Eg, there is no need to limit this to works of historical fiction and fantasy. Singapore is a current, real-world example. I'm also not really sure about the title.

    Compare also Merchant City.

    Some more possible examples:


  • September 7, 2011
    The appropriately-named Freiburg in Seventh Sea. Technically ruled by a feudal prince, but the guy does not do anything political, period.
  • September 8, 2011
    • Ravens Bluff in Forgotten Realms. Executive power goes to Mayor appointed by Council of Lords, the rest is split between Council of Lords itself, Merchant Council, Clerical Circle (all officially accepted faiths) and Ministry of Art (though in a jurisdiction conflict with the Wizards Guild). Beyond that, guilds mostly run their parts.
  • September 10, 2011
    The Free City of Marienburg in Warhammer, which bought its free city status during the reign of a weak Emperor who was deposed shortly afterwards.
  • September 10, 2011
    kjnornen, thanks for the thoughts. I suppose it doesn't need to be limited to historical or fantasy, although that's the context (especially fantasy) in which I usually see it, so I removed that from the laconic. As for the title, what don't you like about it, and what would you suggest? I'm open to suggestions and critiques, although I actually do think the title is pretty good (If I may say so myself), especially since it'll be so easy to work into works pages like the ASOIAF, Forgotten Realms, etc works pages naturally with no need for potholes or interrupting the flow of writing.
  • September 11, 2011
    The title is actually the lesser problem. It's more a feeling I have.

    As for the description, there is the following:

    The last paragraph is made up of examples. Move those to the real life section. I'm not sure a city-state in a culture dominated by city-states should count - eg the Republic of Venice held great possessions both in Italy and around the Mediterranean, it was more of a combination of a Merchant City and Capital City. The description is also very rambling.

    Here's a stab at it:

    The Free City is a city which governs itself, and either stands largely independent from the countries and realms that surround it, or has been granted a charter of autonomy from the ruler of the country. In fiction, the former type is more common, while in real life the latter is the dominant type.

    It is large, wealthy, and thriving compared to the rest of the realms around it, since these are the requirements to get and keep the independence. It is likely ruled as an oligarchy, with elements of republicanism.

    The free imperial cities of Germany are good examples. They were only subservient to the Holy Roman Emperor, not the territorial princes, and had the right to make their own laws, freedom from taxes, and no duty to raise troops for military campaigns. The status of a free city varied depending on the wealth the city could command and the power of the surrounding territorial realms.

    Often a Merchant City. Contrast Capital City.
  • September 11, 2011
    An urban, commercial city-state with republican institutions

    A "Free City" does not need to have republican institutions. The idea is that it is "free" of any surrounding nation, not that it is "free" of a monarchy.
  • October 17, 2011
    Fanra writes: "A "Free City" does not need to have republican institutions. The idea is that it is "free" of any surrounding nation, not that it is "free" of a monarchy."

    Wouldn't every Land Of One City kingdom be a free city then?

    Lately, I've been thinking about this, though, and I'm wondering what role the free city has in fantasy, rather than its particular institutions and the like. If The Kingdom is what the heroes must defend and which occasionally helps them, and The Empire is what they must defend against, what's the free city in terms of its narrative role, or is there any commonality in how it has appeared from Lake-Town in Lord of the Rings to Braavos in ASOIAF?
  • October 19, 2011
    A free city is a good place for the heroes to hide and heal their injuries and/or obtain resources away from their foes. The powers that be in the free city may join the heroes, or may wish to pursue their own agenda. Thus, the help the heroes get here may be of limited duration, come at a high price, or both. Expect any threat to its wealth to alter the stance of its leaders.

    If the setting's feudalism includes serfdom, expect runaway serfs to go there to become free people (see the Cadfael short story "The Price of Light"). For this reason, and because of the urban population numbers, free cities are also beacons of promise to people who generally find their circumstances too limited. There will be some restrictions, but perhaps not as many as elsewhere, or those that are in place might be less onerous.
  • October 26, 2011
    Needs a better definition. Still mixing at least half a dozen of concepts, including historical meanings of this term.
  • November 5, 2011
    I moved the digression on historical inspirations to a "real life" folder instead of the main body of the trope, but I'm still not sure on how to come up with a clear definition.
  • November 7, 2011
    Tabletop RPG
    • Shadowrun. In the California Free State supplement both Redding and Los Angeles are described as Free Cities, independent of the California state government.
  • November 7, 2011
    • Another real-life example: In Germany, Hamburg continues to exist as city that is locality in itself. It is known as the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, from when it was a city-state and part of the Hanseatic League that controlled commerce in Northern Europe.

    • Several crop up in the The Malazan Book Of The Fallen. The Seven Cities are a significant example, though in the backstory they have been conquered by the Malazan Empire. They rise up in rebellion during the books, and perhaps uniquely, are ruled by their religious leaders. Darujhistan is another major example, on the continent of Genabackis and another target of conquest by the Malazans. It is ostensibly ruled by a council of powerful individuals forming an oligarchy.
  • November 7, 2011
    • In the book The Dispossessed, Anarres doesn't have a formal government. However, people organize into self-governing guilds that are responsible for directing work. So, there might be a plumber's guild that anyone who is interested in being a plumber might join. The guild will train them, and also provide a way for citizens to report plumbing problems. The guild will send the trained plumbers out when problems are reported.