The story goes like this. Stone mason and sometimes preacher Marinus of Arba and his life-long pal Leo were forced by some political upheaval to leave their home of Rab, a Roman colony on the island of Arba in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of what is now Croatia. The two young men settled in the northern Italian city of Rimini to find work reconstructing the city’s ruined walls. But there they ran afoul of the infamous persecution of Christians ordered by the Emperor Diocletian and had to flee the city.
At the same time some of Marinus’s sermons as an ordained Deacon were found somehow at odds with the not-yet codified tenets of the Church so he could find no refuge. The pair fled to the rugged, remote, and unpopulated Apennine Mountains determined to live as monastic hermits equally free of the Emperor and the Pope. By tradition on September 3, 301 CE Marius began laying the stones of a chapel and the establishment of a monastic community.
A much later German etching depicting Saint Marinus the Stone Cutter building his monastery.
Marinus died many years later in 366 with the words Relinquo vos liberos ab utroque homine—I leave you free from both men—meaning the Emperor and the Pope. By then his community had grown and prospered and the monastery high on the top of Monte Titano had become a haven for refugees persecuted by both. It would remain so through the centuries.
Eventually Marinus would be canonized as San Marino and the community that sprang up around his Hermitage would become known as the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. The tiny nation, occupying less than 24 square miles, has maintained its independence ever since and celebrates September 3 not only as Marinus’s Feast Day, but as foundation date of the Republic.
That makes San Marino easily the oldest surviving continuously sovereign state in the world, and because it never came under the rule of even a local nobleman or feudal governance by the Abby, also the oldest Republic. This was made possible by its isolation, the terrain so rugged that it was said there was hardly a square inch of level ground, location away from traditional trade routes and invasion corridors, sometimes surprising friends in High Places, and just plain dumb luck.
In its earliest years San Marino was informally ruled by the hermit monks of Church of St. Agatha on the top of Monte Titan. This hardly was governance of any meaningful kind. In the early 400’s with Rome near collapse eight neighboring towns joined with San Marino seeking protection from invading Goths. These communes became the along with the original settlement became San Marino’s nine municipalities. With the expanded territory and population, the heads of families established themselves as ruling council known as the Arengo which governed from the 5th Century to 1243. By then it had grown to representatives of more than 50 extended families and had become a cumbersome body and was riven by feuds and rival cabals.
The Sammarinese, as citizens are known, fed up by oligarchic rule established their own Grand and General Council which Pope Innocent IV, the titular head of state, in one of the first acts of his Papacy, recognized as the country’s ruling body. Every six months the Grand and General Council elected two Captains Regent to co-hold executive power. They were not eligible for re-election, but could be returned to the position on later occasions. Traditionally the pair of Regents were drawn from opposing factions on the Council and since the adoption of a two party system, from each of the political parties. This form of governance was molded after the Senate and Consuls of the old Roman Republic. This arrangement was codified the Leges Statutae Republicae Sancti Marini—Constitution of San Marino—recorded in a series of six books written in Latin in the late 1600. In 1631the Papacy waived its light claims on San Marino and recognized its independence from the Papal States.
The Constitution of San Marino was codified and published in 1600.
If maintaining essential independence for nearly 1400 years from the declining years of the Roman Empire, through the Dark Ages, and the Renaissance when intrigue and war spread across the Italian Peninsula as the Papacy, ambitious city states, and various leagues and alliances struggled for supremacy was hard, the challenges of the Napoleonic era, clash of Empires, and the rise of the European nation state was even more daunting.
In 1797 San Marino’s independence was threatened when Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Army was rampaging through Italy. Somehow Antonio Onofri, one of the two serving Captains Regent, managed to befriend the General and impress him with his tale of San Marino’s long independence as a republic. Napoleon at this stage of his career was still an ideologically committed Republican himself. Not only did he offer to guarantee and protect San Marino’s independence, but he offered to award the country territory from adjacent states. The grateful Grand and General Council politely refused that off rightly fearing that accepting a land grab would alienate more powerful neighbors and lead to attacks when the French would inevitably eventually leave Italy.
An even greater challenge was the long struggle of Italian unification that began after the final fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and continued up to the final surrender of the Papal States and the location of a capital at Rome for the Kingdom of Italy. San Marino began the period completely surrounded by the Papal States. But in 1859 the rapidly expanding Kingdom of Sardinia extended its borders over Central Italy and San Marino lay astride the border between that Kingdom and the Papal States. In accordance to its traditions, San Marino became of place of refuge for many fleeing the fighting, but especially for refugees from pro-unification areas. In December 1860 the Papal province of Marche adjacent to San Marino was incorporated in the Kingdom of Sardinia.San Marino was often blessed with friends in high places like the great Italian unifier Giuseppe Garibaldi.
That made San Marino an island in an area aflame for unification. In gratitude and in recognition of the tiny nation’s long resistance to Papal rule, unification leader Giuseppe Garibaldi prevailed upon the soon-to-be King of Italy, Victor Emanuel II who had led the Sarndinian-Piedmontese forces which had captured Marche, to respect the traditional independence of San Marino.
San Marino was not immune from its own domestic crisis. By the turn of the 20th Century the citizenry had become restive under the Grand and General Council which had become increasingly oligarchic. In a bold and unusual move in 1906 the Sammarinese Socialist Party agitated for and achieved a call to meeting of the ancient Arengo, where the heads of families, under some public duress, voted to authorize universal manhood suffrage for the first time in elections to the General Council. The Socialists took advantage of the change to assume leadership of a majority coalition in the Council. The oligarchs formed a counter-party and bided their time for a chance to resume power.
The eruption of World War I interrupted the internal political struggles and put independence once again at risk. Italy initially entered the war on the side of Austria-Hungary, honoring old treaty obligations. Then in May of 1915, Italy changed sides, declaring war on its former ally in hopes gaining territory along the frontier between the countries. San Marino, however, declared its neutrality, which was taken as hostile by Italy which feared that the small state could become a nest of Austrian spies and agents and that the country’s powerful new radio transmitter atop Monte Titano could be used by the enemy.
Italy tried to force the occupation of San Marino by units of the Carabinieri paramilitary police which the Republic refused and resisted. In retaliation Italy cut San Marino’s telephone lines and established a partial blockade. The Italians did not, however, invade the country.
Still within San Marino there was some popular support for the Italians. Small numbers of Sammarinese formed a volunteer unit to fight with the Italians. Another volunteer group set up a Red Cross field hospital. This was regarded as hostile by the Austrians who broke diplomatic relations and threatened the country should the front move its way.
The Italians fared poorly in a brutal campaign that turned into retreat and then stalemate. The Sammarinese once again offered shelter to refugees.
In the aftermath of World War I the old oligarchic faction reorganized under Giuliano Gozi, one of the volunteers with the Italian army and then serving as both Foreign Minister—effectively the leader of the Cabinet—and Interior Minister which put him in control of the Army and police forces. Gozi founded the Sammarinese Fascist Party, modeled on the Italian Party, in 1922 and used street thugs to intimidate the Socialists and syndicalists—unionists. In 1923 Gozi was elected the first Fascist Captain Regent. After 1926 all other parties were banned and until the end of World War II both Captains Regents were Fascist in contradiction to the ancient Constitution. Although San Marino had become a single party state, Fascist power was not absolute, however, and independents continued to hold a majority in the Grand and General Council until 1932. After that a split in Fascist ranks weakened the Party.
Despite cordial relations with Mussolini and the Italian Fascists, San Marino once again declared its traditional neutrality with the outbreak of a general European War in 1939. It had already not followed the Italian Party’s lead in adopting Anti-Jewish legislation in 1938. It had a small, but long-standing Jewish population, and after persecution began in Italy some Jews found refuge in San Marino. During the war anti-fascist Italian Partisans also occasionally found secret refuge there, although the local Fascists expelled those who were discovered.
In 1940 the New York Times erroneously reported that San Marino had declared war on Britain. The Sammarinese government scrambled to wire London denying entering the war. With the fall of Mussolini in Italy in July of 1943 and the subsequent official separate peace with the Allies, the Sammarinese Fascist Party lost power, although they were briefly restored in 1944. The Fascists reiterated neutrality in April of 1944 but the British bombed the country on June 26 believing it was a repository for military supplies for the Germans. The government denied allowing munitions of any nation to be stored on its territory.
Indian troops passing the grave of a German soldier. After they cleared out the Nazis in the Battle of San Marino in 1944 the British withdrew their troops from the tiny nation.
In early September the Germans forcibly occupied the country, the first and only time the country was overrun by a hostile power. The Germans were already in general retreat in Italy. On September 17 the 4th Indian Infantry Division attacked the Nazis and ousted them in the brief Battle of San Marino. After driving the Germans out the Indians quickly withdrew and left the country in the control of its own armed forces.
The German occupation effectively finished the Fascists as a political force in San Marino. Multi-party parliamentary government was restored and in 1945 a coalition led by the Communists achieved a majority and ruled until 1957. It was the first time anywhere in the world that Communists formed an elected government.
The Grand and General Council was for years split between multiple parties, some of them quite small, a mirror of the situation in Italy. In 2008 a new election law put restrictions on small parties forcing most of them out of existence or to join coalitions. There were two main opposing coalitions, the Pact for San Marino, led by the Christian Democratic Party, and the United Left, led by the Party of Socialists and Democrats, a merger of the Socialist Party and the former communist Party of Democrats. Today the center-right party coalition is the Republica Futura which was formed by fusion of the Popular Alliance (AP) and the Union for the Republic (UPR). The other side has reformed as the Democratic Socialist Left. The frequent turn-over of Captains Regents has resulted in San Marino having more recognized female heads of state than any other nation in the world—15, including three who served twice.In April 2017 two women, Mimma Zavoli and Vanessa D'Ambrosio were elected Captains Regent of San Marino. At age 29 D'Ambrosio was the youngest head of state in the world.
Today San Marino is the smallest member of the Council of Europe but it is not a member of the European Economic Union or the European Parliament. None the less, it is by agreement allowed to use the Euro as currency and as is customary has its own national images printed on the obverse side of notes, most of which are snapped up by collectors.
With an economy relying heavily on finance, technical services, and tourism, the approximately 35,000 residents enjoy the highest per capita income in Europe and are the only country on the continent with more automobiles than people. Its citizens are also among the most highly educated in Europe. Unlike many small nations with substantial finance industries, San Marino does not rely on being a tax shelter. There is a corporate profits tax rate of 19 percent. Capital gains are subject to a five percent tax, and interest is subject to a 13 percent withholding tax. Foreigners use San Marino banks for their renowned stability and the high level of technical and personal services.The Guard of the Rock on parade, one of the major units of the San Marino regular Army.
By agreement Italy is responsible for the general defense of San Marino, but the country maintains a fairly sizable military establishment for its size. This includes colorful units with largely ceremonial duties including the Crossbow Corps, Guard of the Rock (also a combat unit and border patrol), and Guard of the Council Great and General (which protects the government). In addition every family with more than adult two males is required to provide a member of the Company of Uniformed Militia. Participation is so popular that it is over subscribed.