Make your own free website on

Italy - History

Famous People

Italy's Coat of Arms, from "Coat of Arms" by Wikipedia, 2006, Italy.

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of human activity in Italy dating back to the Paleolithic period and the Mesolithic period. During the Neolithic period (7000-2800 BC in Italy), an agricultural way of life and widespread use of stone tools and pottery replaced hunting as the chief form of subsistence. After this time, metalworking spread from Eastern Europe and Western Asia to southern Italy and Sicily. During the Bronze Age (c.1800-1000 BC), most of central and southern Italy developed large agricultural and pastoral settlements. Trading with the Mycenaeans may have started at this time as well. After c.1500 BC, the terramare culture rose in prominence and was known for building its villages on wooden piles, new techniques of bronze workings, and its cremation rites. By the beginning of the Iron Age (c.1000 BC), regional variations were well established.

The city of Rome was founded in 753 BC and ruled by Etruscan kings from 616 BC. The right of Roman citizenship was extended throughout Italy in 89 BC, while Roman institutions and culture were diffused throughout Italy, and Latin spread as the general language.

Augustus' victory, in 31 BC, over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, marked the beginning of the Roman Empire. Roman possessions outside Italy were greatly expanded through the following centuries, which resulted in a decline in the importance of Italy itself. During this time, an increasing number of emperors ruled who were born outside Italy and whose allegiances lay elsewhere. Caracalla

extended Roman citizenship to nearly all free provincials throughout the empire in 212 AD, and Italy's special status all but disappeared.

Between 270 and 284 AD, those that ruled were chosen by the army, and came to be known as the "barracks emperors". Numerianus died during a march and Carus was killed in battle; the other 5 emperors were killed by their own soldiers and generals. The emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD) established a succession process to end the chaos, and created two separate empires: the East and the West halves, with the Eastern emperor as senior. Diocletian in the East was joined by Maximian (286-305 AD) in the West in 286 AD. After 306 AD, the succession rule was bitterly disputed - 39 claims were made to the imperial title between 305 AD and 474 AD, but only 5 emperors ruled (Constantine I [312-337], Constantius II [350-361], Julian [361-363], Jovian [363-364] and Theodosius I [392-395]).

In 330, emperor Constantine I transferred the capital of Italy from Rome to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). Italy's administrative autonomy was lost when two dioceses joined with that of Africa. This was somewhat compensated for by the growing importance of Italy as a center of Christianity. Several bishoprics were founded in Rome, Milan, Ravenna, Naples, Benevento, and elsewhere, starting in the 2nd century AD. Romulus Augustus, the last Western emperor, was deposed by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer in 476 AD. Emperor Zeno (474-491 AD) then reunited the empire and continued to reign alone. Afterwards, the Ostrogothic king Theodoric (493-526 AD) came into power, and military control of Italy fell into barbarian hands. Italian political and social ties at this point were with the West, despite continuing ties with the Byzantine Empire. Internal feuds permitted the Byzantine emperor Justinian I to regain control in 553 AD.

The Lombards arrived in Italy in 568 AD and soon gained control from the north to Tuscany and Umbria, though much of southern and eastern Italy remained in Byzantine hands. The Lombards were heavily resisted by the popes, especially Gregory I (r. 590-604 AD), who acted as political, military, and ecclesiastical leaders, and held land stretching across the peninsula. Papal resistance forced the Lombards to consolidate their power in central and northern Italy, where they achieved political unification. Revolts broke out in the Byzantine centers of Rome, Naples, Venice, and other regions in the south. In spite of strong papal attempts to intervene, by 728 AD the Lombards (under Luitprand) extended their influence. During Liutprand's reign (712-744 AD), many of the Lombards converted from Arianism to Roman Catholicism, and accepted the Latin language and other Roman elements; their law and administration reflected both Roman and Germanic influences.

Their success was temporary, however. Pope Stephen II (r. 752-757 AD) persuaded the Franks to invade Italy under the pretense of restoring lost territiories to the papacy. They expelled the Lombards in 774 AD, and Lombard territory passed into the hands of the Frankish ruler Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor in Rome in 800 AD.

The Franks and Byzantines battled continually during the following century, which benefited the recently-arrived North African Saracens. The Saracens' original objective was to assist rebels against the Byzantine Empire, but the Saracens remained to conquer Sicily (827-878 AD), and establish outposts throughout southern Italy. They launched an attack on Rome itself in 846 AD. The Carolingian empire collapsed in the 9th century just as Byzantium resurged under the Macedonian dynasty, which caused a brief return to eastern influence.

The German king Otto I came to Italy on a papal invitation and was crowned Holy Roman emperor in 962 AD, ending the power struggles. This marked the beginning of The Holy Roman Empire. Following in rule were: Otto II (973-983 AD) and Otto III (983-1002 AD). The Ottonian dynasty fell shortly after 1000 AD to Henry III (1002-1024 AD), leaving a vacuum of power in the North. A communal government began to evolve under a class of small landowners and town merchants grown wealthy in trade, banking, and industries like woolen textiles. These "Comuni" (Commoners) wanted an end to the feudalism in northern Italy, and in resisting the efforts of the old nobles and the emperors to control them, their identification with the region or country was replaced by a deeply rooted identification with the city. Thus, many cities, including Milan, Genoa, Venice, Florence, and Pisa, became powerful and independent City-States, which contributed significantly to the economic, social, and cultural energy of Italy.

Insurrections in the south weakened the Saracens' hold on southern coastal cities, causing southern Italy to experience a significant consolidation. In 1045 AD, the Norman King, Guiscard, and his successors, expelled the Saracens and Byzantines and established power in Apulia Calabria, Campania, and Sicily. Papal overlordship became a formality in the 12th century, so in 1130 AD, when Roger II united the southern part of Italy with Sicily, he became King of Sicily.

A papal invitation to French Charles of Anjou in 1262 AD, to conquer Sicily, ended the papal-imperial conflict. Charles I ruled Naples and Sicily from 1266 AD, but French rule introduced feudalism to the South and caused a revolt in 1282, which resulted in the separation of Sicily from the mainland. Peter III was made King of Sicily. In the 15th century, Naples and Sicily came under Spanish ownership, and were reunited as the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

The Italian peninsula, c. 1494


The regions of Italy c. 1494, including the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Republic of Florence. (Click to view large size).
From "Italy 1494" by Wikipedia, 2006, History of Italy.

An intellectual revival came about during the 14th and 15th centuries, stimulated by the freer atmosphere of the cities and the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Latin writings, and spurred the humanist ideas and attitudes that formed the basis of the Renaissance. Around the same time, dictators called "signori" came to rule over many of the communal governments of the city-states, and hereditary ruling became the norm. The Visconti family rose to power in the 13th century in Milan, and was succeeded by the Sforza family in the 15th century, while the Medici family ruled Florence, and the Este family ruled Ferrara. The signori subverted the political institutions of the city-states but advanced the cultural and civic life within Italy. For example, Florence became reknowned as a center of the arts in Italy under the Medicis. The advancements in Italy went on to influence all of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries.

In 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy to subvert the Condottieri, mercenary leaders brought to Italy by the wars that arose when larger cities expanded and absorbed smaller cities, which complicated politics. Charles VIII's rule marked the beginning of a period of foreign occupation that lasted until the 19th century.

In 1796, troops under General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy. Between this time and 1814, when they withdrew, the entire peninsula was under French domination. Two decades of Napoleon's rule caused profound changes in Italy, and many Italians began to see the possibilities of forging a united country free of foreign control. In 1815, Italy consisted of the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont, Sardinia, Savoy, and Genoa); the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily); the Papal States; and Tuscany with a series of smaller duchies in north central Italy. Lombardy and Venetia were controlled by the Austrians.

The repressive policies imposed on Italy by the Austrians, and the expansion of Austrian control in Italy, stimulated anti-foreign sentiment. The Risorgimento movement came together, and revolutionaries and patriots began to work actively for unity and independence. Unsuccessful revolts led in the 1820s and 1830s provided the background for the Revolution of 1848. War was declared on Austria by Charles Albert, king of Sardinia (1831-49), and he gave Italy a constitution. Rome, Venice, and Tuscany were crushed by Austria in 1849, so Albert abdicated and his son, Victor Emmanuel II, retained the Sardinian constitution.

In 1859, Camillo Benso seized Lombardy, in alliance with Napoleon III of France, and in 1860 all of Italy north of the Papal States, except Venetia, was added to Sardinia. Giuseppe Garibaldi led an expedition of 1,000 "Red Shirts" to Sicily in the same year and seized the southern part of peninsular Italy, part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In 1861 the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed. Venetia was added to the new state in 1866 and Rome in 1870.

A large debt, few natural resources, almost no industry or transportation facilities, extreme poverty, a high illiteracy rate, and an uneven tax structure weighed heavily on Italy and its people. The pope also refused to recognize the Italian state in anger over the loss of Rome and the papal lands. During the 1880s, a socialist movement began to develop among workers in the cities. The gap between the impoverished south and the wealthier north widened, but parliament did little to resolve these problems. Throughout the Liberal Period (1870-1915), the nation was governed by coalitions of liberals to the left and right of center who were unable to form a clear-cut majority. Some economic and social progress took place before World War I, but Italy was a dissatisfied and crisis-ridden nation.

Italy joined Germany and Austria in the Triple Alliance in 1882 in an attempt to increase its international influence and prestige. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Italy remained neutral while the government negotiated with both sides. In 1915, after having been promised territories that it regarded as "Italia irredenta" (un-liberated Italy), Italy joined the Allies. The country was unprepared for a major war and Italy suffered serious losses of men, material, and morale. Additionally, the treaties that followed the war gave only Trentino and Trieste to Italy, a small part of the expected territories. This produced a powerful wave of nationalism against the Allies and the Italian government. The 1919 elections made the Socialist and the new Popular (Catholic) parties the largest in parliament.

In 1919, the former revolutionary socialist, Benito Mussolini, founded a new movement called "Fascismo". Shrewd political maneuvering and widespread violence perpetrated by Mussolini's Black Shirt squads increased the Fascists' support. In October 1922, Mussolini was named prime minister after the Fascists had marched on Rome. Mussolini became a dictator - he destroyed civil liberties, outlawed all other political parties, and imposed a totalitarian regime on the country by means of terror and constitutional subversion. Mussolini gained prestige through public works projects, propaganda, militarism, and the appearance of order.

Mussolini's aggresive and expansive foreign policy moved Italy closer to war during the 1930s. In 1936, Mussolini established the Rome-Berlin Axis with Adolf Hitler, the National Socialist dictator of Germany. In 1939, the two dictators concluded a military alliance known as the Pact of Steel. Nine months after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, in 1940, Italy entered the conflict on Germany's side.

In July 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily. Mussolini's government turned against him and forced him to resign. He escaped to northern Italy under German protection. In the south, the king and his new prime minister, Pietro Badoglio, surrendered to the Allies and then joined in the war against Germany. An anti-Fascist resistance movement fought in the German-occupied north for two years and were organized into the Committee of National Liberation (CLN). With great difficulty, the Allies pushed the German armies out of Italy, and in April 1945, the partisans captured and executed Mussolini.

A new Italian nation emerged from the disaster of Fascism and war. A popular election abolished the monarchy in favor of a republic on June 2, 1946, and a new constitution was adopted the next year. The Christian Democrats dominated the government after 1948, stressing industrial growth, agricultural reform, and cooperation with the US and the Vatican. The other leading political parties in the country were the Communists and the Socialists. Italy underwent a remarkable economic recovery, with the aid of the US, that saw rapid industrial expansion and a sharp increase in the standard of living. Italy joined NATO in 1949, the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and the European Common Market (European Community) in 1958. Prosperity and lessening political tensions continued in the 1960s and 70s. It didn't last long, as Italy experienced labor unrest, frequent government scandals, and the violence of extremist groups in the late 1970s and 80s. In the spring of 1994, Italian voters rejected the traditional parties when Silvio Berlusconi became premier under a fragile conservative coalition called the Alliance for Freedom.

See Sources: Arcaini; Wikipedia, Image: Coat of Arms; Wikipedia, History of Italy; Wikipedia, Italy; and Wikipedia, Image: Italy 1494.

Last Updated Jan. 12, 2006