Though we know little about the early history of the San Marino community, it is likely that major decisions were taken during meetings in which members of all the families took part, meaning that political powers were not delegated to anyone and that a direct-democracy system was operative.
In this meeting, historically known as “Arengo”, all the heads of family of the country took part and, until the 16th century, it was the power-wielding body of the tiny San Marino community.
We know that self-government was entrusted to the Arengo in the year 1000, and that the body detained all the legislative, executive and judicial powers previously wielded by the feudal bishop.
While the population remained small, the Arengo was operative and deliberative; when the population started to grow however, the need was felt to create other smaller and easier-to-convene political bodies, that could reach faster decisions.
The growth of the community called for the setting up of a large decision-making body: so it was that in the 13th century, political assemblies were created (the Council of the LX and the Council of the XII). In 1243, the role of Captains Regent (Heads of State) was introduced. Elected by the Arengo, they wielded executive and judicial powers. The first laws date back to 1263.
The Great and General Council was set up in the 15th century. This consisted of 60 members of the Arengo, who were assigned a number of the assembly’s prerogatives. The new institutional bodies gradually took over most of the Arengo’s privileges. The latter, though never officially abolished, but now powerless, was no longer convened after 1571.
The Council of the XII and the Council of the LX gradually took over the powers of the Arengo, but without ever officially abolishing it. On 8 October 1600, the first written Constitution was promulgated, the Leges Statutae Republicae Sancti Marini, which continues to remain at the bottom of the sources of San Marino Law.
Afterwards, the institutions underwent a process of deterioration. The Great and General Council, no longer under any form of control, became the instrument for protecting the interests of an increasingly smaller number of patrician families. The Council in fact ceased to be elected by the Arengo, but was renewed by co-option.
From that time, the Arengo, as a meeting of heads of family, was no longer convened until 25 March 1906, the date a big change came about thanks to a peaceful revolution which re-established the re-electability of the members of the Great and General Council.
On 25 March, the Arengo was convened to decide whether power should remain in the hands of the Council controlled by the oligarchy and whether the composition of the Council ought to be proportionate between the inhabitants of the countryside and those of the city. 805 heads of family out of a total of 1054 take part in the Arengo.
After the Arengo of 5 May 1906, an electoral law was passed requiring one third of the Council to be renewed every three years. This put a stop to its control by the oligarchy which, in the early part of the century was deprived of almost all its powers.
The Arengo took on a different role compared to the one it had had originally. In point of fact, it became a moment of community participation held twice a year, in April and October, at the same time as the election of the new Captains Regent.
Through the new Regents, each head of family could send petitions and requests of public interest to the Great and General Council. It therefore lost all its deliberating functions and all control over the other political assemblies and this opened the path to the oligarchy of the Council of the LX until 1906, when it was revived with referendary functions and, as has already been said, opened the way to a new political period for the Republic.
In this guise, the Arengo still exists today; twice a year, San Marino citizens can send the Council, always through the new Regents, the so-called applications of the Arengo, petitions of public interest by means of which anyone can submit to the San Marino parliament non-personal problems of interest to the community as a whole. Within one month, the Regents must decide whether such applications are acceptable. If they are, they must be debated by the Council within six months from their presentation.
The people of San Marino make widespread use of this institute by means of which the Great and General Council is prompted to address problems closely affecting the public.