America is a great country. It's also a big country - there are nearly 380 million square miles of it with 328 million people living here.

Those are some big numbers, but when it comes to age, we are relatively young - 243, to be exact. There are countries far older than us and one of them is also one of the smallest - the fifth smallest in the world, in fact.

The country may be small, but it has a big name: The Most Serene Republic of San Marino. It covers less than 24 square miles, has fewer than 35,000 people living in it, and has no flat land because it's on a mountain top.

Despite its small size, San Marino has been around since the year 301; in fact, the country celebrated its 1,718th birthday last week with a public holiday on Sept. 3. It can claim to be the oldest constitutional republic in the world and, if you're wondering where this ancient republic is located, the answer is Italy - quite literally Italy because, despite the fact it's an independent state, it is completely surrounded by Italian territory. It's one of only three countries in the world that are like this; another is The Vatican and the third is Lesotho in South Africa.

So, how did such a small place come to exist and, more importantly, how has it managed to survive for so long in Europe where countries have been fighting each other and exchanging territory for at least the last thousand years?

It all started because of one man. Marinus was a Roman. He was a stonemason who lived on the island of Rab, which is now part of Croatia. In the year 297, the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, ordered the reconstruction of the wall of the port city of Rimini, which had been destroyed by pirates. Marinus was one of those who answered the call for help, but he was a Christian and the Emperor worshiped the old Roman gods.

Marinus was ordained by the Bishop of Rimini and there are two stories about what happened next. One is that he was caught preaching to Christian slaves and had to flee from the persecution of Diocletian. The other story is that a crazy woman accused him of being her husband and he fled from her. Whichever is true, he moved inland to Mount Titano where he built a chapel and decided to live the life of a hermit.

Other Christians followed him, and the chapel grew into a monastery. That expanded and the owner of the mountain, a lady from Rimini, gave it to him as a gift.

Marinus was later canonized for his faith and the place he'd founded was named after him - and so San Marino was born.

Turbulent times followed. The Roman empire was fast coming to its end, the legions were withdrawing and soon Europe entered the era known as "the dark ages." San Marino survived this period, partially because it was isolated on a mountain in an area surrounded by mountains and partially through good government.

For the first thousand years it remained as the tiny community founded by Marinus; then, in 1320, the neighboring commune of Chiesanuova asked to join it. Four other local villages also applied and were absorbed in 1463 and the country's borders have remained unchanged since that date.

Since the year 1243, San Marino's government has consisted of an elected Grand and General council, whose members in turn elect two people named "Captains Regent" to run the government and be the heads of state. These two Regents are in office for just six months and cannot stand for election again for three years after serving a term.

In the early days, the state maintained its independence by playing off those warlords and neighbors that threatened it against each other and by this method they managed to survive through the medieval period.

One of the biggest dangers to San Marino's sovereignty came in 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte's armies were rolling through Europe, winning battles and taking over other states no matter what their size. San Marino was saved from this fate because one of its Regents, Antonio Onofri, met Napoleon and not only gained his respect, but also his friendship. The Frenchman was so impressed by Onofri that he wrote a letter guaranteeing to protect the independence of the republic and even offering to assist the state in expanding its borders. Wisely, the Regents declined the offer, fearing retaliation from their neighbors once Napoleon was gone.

During our Civil War, the republic made Abraham Lincoln an honorary citizen and he in turn praised it for demonstrating that government based on republican principles could endure.

In both World Wars San Marino declared itself to be neutral although, in the Great War, they did supply a small medical corps to the Italian army after Italy accused them of harboring Austrian spies.

In World War II, despite being surrounded by Fascist Italy, they took in more than 100,000 Jewish and other refugees and kept them safe. It was briefly occupied by German soldiers in late 1944 and suffered an RAF bombing raid the same year, but they refused to become involved and managed to stay mainly out of the conflict.

Apart from being one of the smallest and definitely the oldest republics in the world, San Marino has other claims to fame. It was the first country to do away with capital punishment; there hasn't been an execution there since 1468, and the next earliest was over 300 years later. It is the only country on the planet where the vehicles outnumber the people and it has one of the world's strongest economies, with no national debt and a surplus of income every year. Its main industries are banking and tourism so, if you ever find yourself on vacation on the northeast coast of Italy, be sure to pay it a visit. The food is good, the wine is good and the people are very friendly.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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