The Anarchist Republic of Cospaia

March 11th, 2015   Submitted by Anthony Caprio

AnarFlagThe next time one of your friends says “name one place where Anarcho-Capitalism has been tried,” you can proudly respond “The Republic of Cospaia.” For nearly four hundred years, this tiny republic thrived in central Italy with no government, no rulers, no military, no bureaucracy, and no taxes!

Cospaia’s success is an unlikely story that illustrates how remarkably little is required for prosperity. Although it’s called a “Republic” it’s only in the sense that a council of elders with no enforcement power occasionally met in the church. This landlocked territory had an area of only 330 hectares (815 acres), about the size of a large farm. The population varied over the centuries but was usually around 300 people, with less than 100 households. In the beginning the population was illiterate, with the exception of the parish priest. The republic was never invaded, or placed under the control of a foreign power, except for a brief period during the Napoleonic Wars (a conflict they survived). Despite being a landlocked territory, with a largely uneducated population, removed from major trade routes, Cospaia thrived and became the envy of its neighbors, because for neatly four hundred years they avoided the oppressive hand of government.

The story of Cospaia begins in 1440. During this period the Italian peninsula was composed of numerous small kingdoms. One of these kingdoms was known as the Papal States, and was ruled by the Pope in Rome. Its neighbor to the north was the Republic of Florence, ruled by the Medici Family. In 1431 Eugene IV was elected Pope and took out a loan of 25,000 gold Florins from Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, lead banker of the day and Chief Power broker of the Republic of Florence. This was not an era of central banking and fiat currencies, so even governments had to put up collateral if they wanted a loan. So, the Pope put up the town of Borgo Sansepolcro and its surroundings in the Upper Tiber Valley as collateral against the loan. Imagine President Obama putting up California as collateral to the Chinese to pay for Obama Care.

After 10 years the Papal States defaulted on their loan and surveyors from both Florence and the Papal States agreed that one of the new boundaries between the states would be a “Rio” (Latin for “river”) on the upper Tiber. But the surveyors made a mistake. There was more than one river in the region. An upper tributary split into two right where the village of Cospaia was located.

Even though the residents of Cospaia were illiterate, they realized right away their good fortune. Since they now found themselves outside the jurisdiction of both the Papal States and the Republic of Florence. The people of Cospaia quickly declared themselves an independent Republic. The rulers of both the Papal States and the Republic of Florence saw the value in having a “buffer state” between their lands, and neither pushed to have Cospaia incorporated into their states. Thus began 385 years of blissful anarchy.

In the beginning the economy of Cospaia was based on barter. Despite their lack of hard currency or education the people of Cospaia were better off than the neighboring villages under the rule of a state. As an Anarchist Republic they had no taxes to pay, no arbitrary rules imposed by rulers to benefit the well connected. The men of Cospaia were not conscripted to fight in wars for Rome or Florence, and since they had no rulers to represent them they had no one to get them involved in entangling alliances which could backfire and draw them into war. The inhabitants of Cospaia were free to pursue their trades and raise their families in the manner they saw fit. Being without rulers allowed people to pursue the most profitable use of their time and energy.

In 1574 the people of Cospaia discovered an extremely profitable use of their time and talent. A crop from the new world was introduced that influences the region to this day. The crop was tobacco. Tobacco has been extremely popular throughout history, everywhere it has been introduced, and Renaissance Italy was no exception. Cospaia soon became known for high quality tobacco. Adding to the demand for the crop were the restrictions imposed by states in the Italian peninsula on the cultivation and use of tobacco. Many people think that the prohibition of tobacco use is a 20th century invention, however the morality police were alive and well during the 17th century as well. In 1624 Pope Urban VIII issued a papal bull making the use of tobacco in any holy place punishable by excommunication. The prohibition remained in place until 1724 when it was abolished by Pope Benedict VIII. Of course the regulations against tobacco only helped the Cospaian economy, the decrease in supply and absence of any regulations or tariffs made Cospaia a hub of the tobacco trade. Soon warehouses were set up to take advantage of the lucrative trade. Many of these warehouse were run by Jews from Genoa, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Naples, and Ancona. Jews in Italy were a persecuted and closely watched minority by the surrounding states. At various times they were forbidden from owning property, and restricted from trading with Christians. So the laissez faire economy of Cospaia allowed this persecuted minority to survive and thrive despite the aggression of the surrounding states.

Throughout its history Cospaia had no rulers, no judiciary, and no written laws other than phrase “Perpetua et Firma Libertas,” which was inscribed over their church in 1610. Roughly translated, “Eternal and Firm Liberty.”

Disputes were handled by heads of families or the local priest. The arbitrators were chosen for their integrity rather than political connections. There’s no indication of Cospaia being a violent place. If it were, the inhabitants would have joined the Papal States or the Republic of Florence. Instead quite the opposite happened. People flocked to Cospaia because it afforded them opportunities not available in the neighboring states.

Cospaia is described as “lawless,” and inhabited by “smugglers,” of course these accusations are true. Cospaia had no law except Perpetua et Firma Libertas. Since nearly everything entering the Papal States or the Republic of Florence was taxed, everything leaving Cospaia was “smuggled.” By the 18th century Cospaia had grown from a harmless little hamlet into a hub of untaxed goods. Not only was it the tobacco capital of Italy, but textiles, groceries, and other goods circulated untaxed via Cospaia. The rulers of the surrounding states were naturally quite miffed that someone was making money and they weren’t getting a cut. They began calling Cospaia a “lawless den of smugglers.” There are reports that the Pope and the Grand Duke of Tuscany corresponded about how to take care of the “smuggling” problem. For most of Cospaia’s history they avoided the wrath of their larger neighbors because they were small, and the rulers of the surrounding states tended to have larger problems than the minor loss of revenue they suffered from Cospaia’s free market.

In 1826 the state had finally had enough of the unqualified success of Cospaia, and the Pope along with the Grand Duke of Tuscany starved out the small Republic and forced the remaining 14 heads of households to sign “the act of subjugation” ending 385 years of freedom and Anarchy. As a compensation, each region was allowed to grow a half million tobacco plants (their growth was prohibited elsewhere), the residents were also given a silver coin with the Pope’s image. The coin came to be called the “papetto” combining the Italian words for Pope and small, indicating how little they had received in exchange for their freedom. To this day the people of Cospaia hold an annual festival to celebrate the freedoms they once enjoyed. If you find yourself in Italy checkout The Feast of Cospaia.

It is tempting to ask ourselves what might have happened if Cospaia had remained free to the present day. Could they have survived into the modern era like San Marin or Lichtenstein? As tempting as these questions are, I think Cospaia still has important lessons to teach us. After all they were an Anarchist Republic that survived and thrived for 385 years. That’s 385 years with no taxes, wars, rulers, or regulations. I challenge anyone to name a country with a better record.

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35 Responses to “The Anarchist Republic of Cospaia”

  1. VanmindNo Gravatar says:

    Great stuff, Mr. Caprio, thanks.

  2. JohnNo Gravatar says:

    ^^ This North-Korea style alternate reality is what people mean when they say that Italian propaganda works to destroy the very idea of truth.

    • Anthony CaprioNo Gravatar says:

      Do your own research Cospaia is no piece of propaganda.

      • JohnNo Gravatar says:

        I took a quote by Roman Skaskiw (an author who writes on this site) and replaced “Russian” with “Italian” for experiment sake to see how much water this phrase would hold. My impression – just as much as with the other word.

        Sorry for trolling. So far I read 2 articles by you and I either liked them or do not disapprove.

  3. Nikos SakkasNo Gravatar says:

    Hello Anthony,

    I’ ve been wondering the recent years about how “size” can make anarchy models viable. Your case is an obvious good case; do you reckon however that such concepts have similar chances at a setting of many millions of people?

    My experience is that as size goes up, hierarchies are required to manage it. I say “experience” because I have professional background from multinational down to tiny SME levels. In these latter ones I have found it very much possible to set up flat and no-intermediary models. I am even convinced that these make the whole setting quite more efficient and competitive. But I would never really seriously consider expanding this model to larger ecosystems. I also tend to believe that technology is our best chance to increase the “effective size” of anarchy.

    Simply put my question is if you (and others) think that size really matters to our case?

    • VanmindNo Gravatar says:

      For any avatar out there unfamiliar with the following kind-of-related essay, go ahead and take a look.

      • Nikos SakkasNo Gravatar says:

        thanks for this!! I’ ve been searching for something like that for some time now! indebted!

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      One might think that Statism is easier to maintain the smaller the state actually. It seems to me that it would actually be easier to control a small group of individuals than a large group of individuals and keep an eye on them.

      • Nikos SakkasNo Gravatar says:

        interesting point; a bad guy would obviously stand more chances to impose on a small rather than a large environment. But statists would respond that state is not about imposition but about efficiency and coordination.

        As long as we lack successful anarchy experiences at a large scale this argument will be difficult to beat.

      • JohnNo Gravatar says:

        I can argue the other way. A small tribe is more likely to feel connected to its leaders than a large one. In the US, the FEDs are much more abusive than the local state powers. People feel like they can actually protest or engage a local government and be heard.

        Reducing the size of a tribe down to a small village, I think that people are going to put up with less crap.

        Here is an amusing anecdote that is not supposed to support one view or another. 978_and_the_Sealand_Rebel_Government

        • Don DuncanNo Gravatar says:

          See the work of L. R. White with regard to size/hierarchy. He suggests that authoritarianism begins when the group reaches 100-150 due to lack of personal accountability.
          I would guess that since Cospaia was religious there was a rigid family social structure but with a “pressure valve” of respected mediators for businesses. Perhaps this clan structure plus the unique birth of independence explains how they could be so successful in escaping being annexed (losing sovereignty) but still give up their sovereignty without a fight. They were not extremely free socially, and possibly they were not taxed/regulated much at first. Like the US they lost their freedom little by little, slipping into totalitarianism.

  4. Anthony CaprioNo Gravatar says:

    @ Nikos I think size is rather irrelevant when it comes to Anarchy. As Rothbard pointed out all nations exist in a state of Anarchy to one another. On the individual level millions and even billions of people exist in a state of anarchy with each other.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      What does it mean that “all nations exists in a state of Anarchy to one another”? That sounds illogical because all nations (including Sealand or maybe not) exists as states and thus are not in a “state of Anarchy”. Btw the phrase “state of Anarchy” is an oxymoron. Maybe condition of Anarchy is a better phrase. Just saying.

    • Nikos SakkasNo Gravatar says:

      Anthony, do explain a bit what you and Rothbard mean here; it is unclear to me

      • Anthony CaprioNo Gravatar says:

        From Chapter one of “Power and Market” “The Argentinian, for example, lives in a state
        of “anarchy,” of nongovernment, in relation to the citizen of
        Uruguay—or of Ceylon. And yet the private citizens of these
        and other countries live and trade together without getting into
        insoluble legal conflicts, despite the absence of a common gov-
        ernmental ruler.he Argentinian, for example, lives in a state
        of “anarchy,” of nongovernment, in relation to the citizen of
        Uruguay—or of Ceylon. And yet the private citizens of these
        and other countries live and trade together without getting into
        insoluble legal conflicts, despite the absence of a common gov-
        ernmental ruler.”

  5. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    There were many city-states and micro-states in what today is Italy that lasted 400 or more years. Many if not all of them were disbanded as states and republics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some lasted more than 700 years. Many were governed by a Doge which was what the head of the state or government was called. Cospaia may have been the only one that was pretty much without a state as such. People living in Pennsylvania in the 1680’s lived with out a formal government. There were some American Indians who lived relatively state free also. Cospaia would seem to have been an ideal place to live during it’s existence but suppose you can travel back to that time, would you live there? I for one would not because I value the technology that exists today more than the freedom that existed in Cospaia. In Cospaia radio, television, motion pictures, the internet, any kind of telephone, automobiles, and airplanes did not exist. People at that time were ignorant of the medical knowledge that is known and practiced today also. If you had a choice of living in the past in Cospaia or living in the 21st century which would you choose?

    • Anthony CaprioNo Gravatar says:

      Of course I would choose the 21st century. The point of the article is to provide a case study that Anarchy not only works but is preferable. To the state. A choice between the 21st century and the 18th century is not really a choice at all. The real comparison is between. 18th century Cospaia and 18th century Florence or Rome. Many people in the surrounding states chose Cospaia because it was better than what the state offered.

      • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

        I understood your point. I just thought it would be an interesting question to pose to those who visit this site.

  6. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent article! Thanks for the history lesson?

    The population started at 300. Any idea what its population was when it was captured?

    • Anthony CaprioNo Gravatar says:

      I am not really sure what size the population grew to. According to my research at one point every available building was used as a warehouse for tobacco or other tax free goods. I would think that this means there was a fairly high population of workers

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      I don’t know why that link doesn’t work. It should be in English. It is an article about the history of Cospaia.

      • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

        Although I typed en in the link when you click on the link type the en in the address before /lincredibile.

  7. MacianoNo Gravatar says:

    Anthony Caprio,

    You should check out this piece on Moresnet

    It was like lawless Deadwood, just not so much cowboys.

  8. PeterNo Gravatar says:

    Hi, I love this story and am translating it for publication on The Swedish Mises Institute web site. Hope that is OK. =)

    I spotted en error. Benedictus VIII wasn’t alive to abolish the prohibition of tobacco in 1724. However, Benedictus XIII was, and it seems that this might have been one of his first moves even.

    Keep up the good work!


  9. StatelessNo Gravatar says:

    This really isn’t a very good example. People want to see anarchy work on a massive scale.

    • Don DuncanNo Gravatar says:

      I don’t think the scale is nearly as important as the effectiveness. I would move to a successful community regardless of the size. As for a good example, we don’t know what the level of personal freedom/happiness was there. Or in the Amish and other religious communities that are not bothered much by govt.
      How do you measure community happiness? Has anyone devised a way? Some people would love to live in a group of painters/sculptors who were constantly innovating, some in a community where small inventions were everywhere, some where TV/movies were the focus, some where organic gardeners and holistic living was the focus.