Perhaps one of the most interesting and unusual countries in the world today is the Republic of San Marino. Spanning a little over 23 square miles (roughly equal to one-third the size of Washington, D.C.) with a population of around 33,000, it is one of the smallest independent countries in the world, and is located entirely within Italy. Yet despite its size (or perhaps because of it), San Marino is one of the most successful nations in the world.
For starters, it was founded in the early fourth century, making it one of the oldest continuously existing countries in the world. Its quasi-legendary founder, Marinus, was a stonemason who fled from a Roman colony and sought to establish a monastic order governed along the same lines as the Roman Republic.
To that end, San Marino is the oldest republic still in existence, with a unique form of government lifted straight from ancient Rome’s “diarchy” tradition: it has two heads of state known as the Captains Regent, who each represent different parties are elected every six months by the Grand and General Council, the country’s legislature and true source of political power (which in turn is modeled on the Roman Senate).
San Marino also lays claim to possibly having the world’s oldest constitution still in use. It consists of six books written in Latin that date back to the late 16th century. After being made an honorary citizen, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln remarked that San Marino was proof that “government founded on republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.”
Indeed, if anyone is wondering how a microstate completely surrounded by another country managed to remain independent for over a millennium, much of that came down to its leaders being cleverly, cunning, or charismatic enough to get out of any threats to sovereignty. For example, one its leaders managed to strike up such a friendship with Napoleon that the French Emperor not only refrained from annexing the republic – as he had done to so many much larger states – but even offered to help them expand their territory (which they declined).
To top it all off, San Marino has one of the world’s wealthiest and longest-lived citizens, among the lowest unemployment rate, no national debt, and a budget surplus (granted, that is not too difficult given the small population and heavily specialized economy). Despite its adherence to centuries-old traditions, the country is markedly progressive in many respects: it was one of the first nations to elect a physically disabled person as head of state, and it has had more female heads of state than other country.