How did European tiny states, like San Marino, Monaco, Andorra and Liechtenstein (excluding the Vatican, whose survival is clearly connected to religious reasons) manage to not be absorbed by bigger national states, in the heyday of their respective expansions?

  • 4
    1) please check Wikipedia, 2) please define "tiny state" and "respective expansion" 3) List questions are problematic for H:SE; stack exchange works best when there is one, objective, authoritative answer, and works less well when the answers are non-exclusive subjective lists.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 22:39
  • 2
    If you would remove the “etc.” and limit the question to European microstates with the exception of the Vatican, I think the scope would be clear enough and there are sufficient commonalities to write an answer.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 7:47
  • 2
    @Relaxed: thanks for your remark. I edited my question accordingly.
    – Filippof
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 8:30

3 Answers 3


The individual reasons for the survival of the European microstates can be read from their histories on their respective wikipedia pages but in general it comes down to two main factors; firstly by the 19th Century they were already protectorates of larger neighbours and, secondly, they were too small to bother with.

As an example of the first point, both Andorra and Monaco were effectively French protectorates and had been for centuries. Liechtenstein was initially part of the HRE, briefly under French control as part of the Confederation of the Rhine and then a protectorate of the Austrian Empire.

In almost all cases, these were states with little or no military power and so posed no direct threat to their neighbours. They had few natural resources and they had correspondingly small populations, neither of which were worth invading to exploit.

The exceptional microstate was Malta. After its capture from the French, it lost its independence and became part of the British Empire, remaining so until 1964. The difference being that Malta had great strategic value as a base in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

  • 1
    Aren't they all in mountainous terrain as well? One would think that's likely not a coincidence.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 13:29
  • 2
    @T.E.D. Three out of the six are, so difficulty in reaching them would be an additional factor towards avoiding invasion. However, if they had held greater strategic or economic value, I'm sure that accessibility problem would have been overcome.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 13:42
  • Also: Liechtenstein is a tax haven (like the Channel Islands). Monaco is a gambling den (like Macao).
    – fdb
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 17:20
  • 2
    I think the influence of mountains is that it provided for well defined borders and limits communication. If you are the lord of a town in a plain, you can always try to extend your influence one more meter away, then two meters... until reaching the next town. There will be also regular trade with the neighbour towns, up until they are all quite similar. High mountains (or a sea) means that the zone has less communications with the outside world and is less prone to be involved in other regions affairs, wars and dinastyc issues. And of course, high mountains made agricultural production low.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 18:53
  • 2
    I bring it up because there was a few months back question in WorldBuilding, wherein I shared an observation that nations without any military at present mostly seem to be Mountainous, or Island nations. Microstates are not synonymous with military-free of course, but it seems like there's a lot of overlap. (Particularly since we are talking about their survival, which is a largely military question)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 19:21

There is a usefulness in having a micro-state closely allied to your larger country, though still technically independent (like a small protectorate).

These still exist to a certain extent today. The UK gets to use Jersey and the British Virgin Islands as tax havens. The Chinese have Macao and Hong-Kong special administrative regions as economically outside the main Chinese control, to their benefit. Macao (again) and Monaco exist as gambling and banking venues for the protector state for behaviours which are illegal in the country proper.

The older micro-states in Europe are still fully independent, though the more modern ones (Macao, Gibraltar, even Guantanamo Bay sort of) have a fuzzier definition, but serve the same purposes.

Since having these satellite micro-states is useful, they survive.


Monaco is a playground for Europe's ruling class; an occupation would be anathema to this group. Likewise, the Vatican for religious reasons.

San Marino, Andorra and Liechtenstein are all city-sized states in mountainous areas; densely populated, easy to defend, and not particularly valuable otherwise (the main assets can disappear on their feet), therefore not worth conquering.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.