The Oldest Country in the World

La Rocca tower in the foreground is the oldest of three guard towers that overlook the city and independent country of San Marino.
Maremagnum / Getty Images

There are many countries with impressively long histories, but to determine which country is the oldest, one must first differentiate between countries and empires. Not doing so could produce incorrect and contradictory answers.

Empire Vs. Country

Empires are defined as political units whose rule covers wide expanses and encompasses several territories. Countries are defined as sovereign states with their own territory, population, and government. One of the key differences between empires and countries is that empires have less clearly defined territory geographically than countries and countries are independent and separate from other entities. Empires are more like groups of countries that share a government.

Empires

Empires existed in ancient China, Japan, Iran (Persia), Greece, Rome, Egypt, Korea, Mexico, and India, but were not, of course, as we know these nations today. Their starting dates do not correlate with their modern namesakes. These empires had central governments ruling over their vast territories.

The makeup of ancient empires largely consisted of agglomerations of city-states or fiefdoms whose jurisdictions overlapped that of the imperial government. Much of an empire's territory was temporary (with fluid boundaries) and often won through war or marriage alliances of monarchs. Because of this, many city-states did not function as unified entities, even if they came to be considered part of the same empire.

Countries

Empires were far from the modern nation-state or sovereign country, which emerged in the 19th century, and the two entities did not coexist for long. In fact, many times an empire's downfall became a nation-state's beginning. Often, today's nation-states arose from the dissolution of empires and were formed around communities that shared common geography, language, and culture.

Ultimately, it is not possible to definitively say what country is the oldest, but the following three are most often cited as the world's oldest countries.

San Marino

By many accounts, the Republic of San Marino, one of the world's smallest countries, is also the world's oldest country. The tiny country that is completely landlocked by Italy was founded on September 3rd in the year 301 BCE. A monastery at the top of Mount Titano, likely the center of the community, was constructed in sixth century BCE. However, the nation wasn't recognized as independent until CE 1631 by the pope, who controlled much of central Italy politically at the time.

San Marino's continued independence was made possible by its isolated position amid fortresses in high, mountainous terrain. San Marino's constitution, written in the year 1600, is the world's oldest.

Japan

Japan's history as both an empire and a country can be confusing. According to Japanese history, the colonial empire's first emperor, Emperor Jimmu, founded the country of Japan in 660 BCE. However, it was not until at least eighth-century CE that Japanese culture and Buddhism spread across the islands.

Over its long history, Japan has seen many different types of governments and leaders. While the country celebrates 660 BCE as the year of its founding, it wasn't until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 that modern Japan emerged.

China

The first recorded dynasty in Chinese history existed over 3,500 years ago when the feudal Shang dynasty ruled from 17th to 11th century BCE. However, the modern country of China celebrates 221 BCE as the date of its founding, the year Qin Shi Huang proclaimed himself the first emperor of China. But China went through many more changes and dynasties to become the country it is today.

In third-century CE, the Han dynasty unified Chinese culture and tradition. In the 13th century, the Mongols invaded China and decimated its population and culture. China's Qing dynasty was overthrown during a revolution in 1912, spurring the creation of the Republic of China. Finally, in 1949 the Republic of China itself was overthrown by Mao Tse Tung's communist rebels and the People's Republic of China was created. This is China as the world now knows it.

More Old Countries

Modern countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Greece, and India bear so little resemblance to their ancient counterparts that their founding is technically considered recent. Many of these countries trace their modern roots only as far back as the 19th century and that is why their names do not appear in lists of very old countries.

However, some modern countries have remained more unchanged and can trace their roots much further back. See this list for other old countries and their dates of origin.

  • France (CE 843)
  • Austria (CE 976)
  • Hungary (CE 1001)
  • Portugal (CE 1143)
  • Mongolia (CE 1206)
  • Thailand (CE 1238)
  • Andorra (CE 1278)
  • Switzerland (CE 1291)
  • Iran (CE 1501)