Why Does Monaco Exist?

You’re reading my newsletter, Terra Nullius, on the weird and interesting intricacies of the countries and places that make up our world. It currently goes out to around 1,000 people every week. You can subscribe here: 

This week, I walked the length of a country. As much as I would like you to imagine that I have completed some great feat of athleticism, it should be made clear that the country in question was Monaco.

You all know Monaco. It’s the fabulously rich principality on the southern coast of France. A sovereign state with 30,000 residents and no arable land, oil wells, or income tax. There are 500 police officers who I watched zealously give out tickets to visiting French motorists speeding through its two miles of roads, as there is no other real petty crime to deal with.

Of the 30,000 or so residents, only 6,000 are actually citizens, the Monégasque. The rest are wealthy foreign residents keen to take advantage of its lenient tax system. The few real Monégasque reap the benefits as the state subsidises their rent and helps them find jobs. They are, however, banned from playing in the country’s most famous attraction, the Monte Carlo Casino.

I only spent a few hours in Monaco, mostly spent eating pistachio ice cream and trying to understand why it exists. The reason is quite simple, and must be credited to the ruling Grimaldi family who seized Monaco in the 13th century disguised as Franciscan monks hiding swords under their habits. From then on the Grimaldis convinced each European hegemon in turn let them stay in charge.

Not being a gambler, I went to Monaco because it’s a microstate and microstates fascinate me. Others in the club include places like San Marino, Liechtenstein, and Andorra. Stubborn places too small to worry about as the world streamlined. These microstates are survivors of the otherwise forgotten nations that once littered Europe and the world. The great irony, though, is that while Monaco and her sister microstates’ freedom depended on their absurdity in the eye of the world’s great powers, they have outlasted them all.

Monaco was granted sovereignty in the 1860s by Emperor Napoleon III of France, deposed a few years later. San Marino received its independence from the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, while Andorra was split off from the long forgotten Kingdom of Aragon in the 13th century. None of these great potentates would ever have imagined that the tiny stubs of countries they took pity on would have legacies much longer than their own. Yet today, San Marino competes in Eurovision and the Roman Empire does not.

Thinking about it in this way, it becomes much easier to see the possibility of say, an independent Scotland, or a political federation of states in Europe. While considered fantasy by their critics, both were realities incredibly recently.

In his fantastic book Vanished Kingdoms, Norman Davies says that “the lifespan of the even the mightiest state is finite.” Every single country we take for granted now may pass, and before we may even realise. But whatever happens, I am sure Monaco and its pistachio ice cream will survive.


The best Wikipedia article I have read this week

Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln – Easily one of the most fascinating men in history. At various different times, Trebitsch-Lincoln was a Gestapo agent, a Buddhist abbot in Shanghai, and the MP for Darlington.

Books I am reading

Please note the below are Amazon affiliate links because it will help me buy more books

  1. Science Fictions, by Dr Stuart Ritchie – A gripping book on the ever growing threat of bad science and how everyone seems to be turning a blind eye to it.

  2. Arts and Minds, by Dr Anton Howes – It tells the story of the Royal Society of the Arts, and how it is responsible for vast swathes of British history. Crystal Palace? The RSA did it. Blue plaques? The RSA did it. Putting weird stuff on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square? The RSA’s idea.

  3. A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carré – One of the few Le Carré books I hadn’t read. It’s a modern one, set with the background of the war on terror and increasingly secretive government. Although, I notice that no matter how modern Le Carré is set, it still feels like the 60s.

Thank you to Sam Bowman, Anton Howes, Nick Whitaker and others for their help proofreading and setting up the newsletter.

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