In 301 A.D., a stonemason and Christian named Marinus from a small Adriatic island fled the rantings of a woman gone mad claiming him as her husband, and founded a chapel and monastery on an Apennine mountain to live out his life as a hermit. Marinus became Saint Marinus, and the mountain grew into San Marino, the oldest extant independent sovereign state in the world.
Somehow, through centuries of Duchies and Popes, Borgias and Mussolinis, San Marino has retained its independence, with periods of brief occupation in 1503 and 1739. Even Napoleon never conquered the place. Wholly surrounded by Italy, the Sammarinese number less than 35,000 speak Romagnol and Italian, and are almost all Roman Catholic. And though never even a regional powerhouse, it must have done some things right for its flag to wave over Monte Titano through the centuries.
In fact, San Marino’s diplomatic maneuverings with the French tyrant Napoleon illustrate the wisdom that modern statesmen too often lack. In 1797, with Napoleon’s armies awash over Europe, advancing through northern Italy toward the San Marino’s longtime ally the Papal States, San Marino felt the growing pressure of both the rock and the hard place. The French demanded the arrest of the anti-French Bishop of Rimini. Showing the smiling duplicity essential to successful diplomats, Antonio Onofri, one of the two Captains Regent of San Marino – the offices vested with ruling authority over San Marino since 1243 – promised General Berthier San Marino would do all they could to help the French, even as the bishop fled across the border to safety.
But it was San Marino’s next decision that offers the real lesson. Napoleon was so impressed by Onofri and by San Marino, he sent his personal friend and emissary, the scientist Gasparre Monge, to San Marino with a letter that not only guaranteed its independence, but offered to extend San Marino’s borders – at the expense of San Marino’s neighboring Italian provinces.
San Marino, having befriended the great French conqueror, now had the chance to grow, to gain new land, new people, new riches. This is how the great grow ever greater, isn’t it?
The Captains Regent of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino turned Napoleon down. They would gain no new territory for their friendship. They wisely saw that Napoleon’s conquests might prove short-lived, and those he defeated might yet regain the advantage – and take their revenge on not only Napoleon, but Napoleon’s friends. By accepting Napoleon’s offer, the Captains Regent rightly saw it, perhaps as only the rulers of a state founded by a Catholic saint could, as a devil’s bargain: what might appear as San Marino’s triumph could by the very thing to risk its independence.
San Marino stayed content with its mountaintop, and today, after two more centuries of Italian revolutions, fascist takeovers, Nazi occupation, and communist infiltration, its borders remain unchanged since 1463, and San Marino remains independent.
Would any of our leaders today show such wisdom? To decline conquest, when tempted with it? Come Election Day, will any of the victors show the wisdom to know that, as the Eastern sage put it, “this too shall pass.”