In many ways, the history of Italy is the history of the modern world. So many pivotal moments in our collective past have taken place in Italy that it can be considered Europe’s historical keystone. In this section, learn about the great and not so great moments in Italian history, from the grandeur of Rome to the Renaissance, the Risorgimento and the battlefields of World War II.
Brief History of Italy
By 500 BC, a number of peoples of different ethnicity and origin shared Italy. Small Greek colonies dotted the southern coast and the island of Sicily. Gauls, ancestors of today’s modern French, roamed the mountainous north. While the Etruscans, a group originally hailing from somewhere in western Turkey, settled in central Italy, establishing a number of city-states, including what is now modern-day Bologna. Little is known about the Etruscans except that they thrived for a time, creating a civilization that would pass down a fondness for bold architecture (stone arches, paved streets, aqueducts, sewers) to its successor, Rome.
According to legend, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC by Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who claimed to be sons of the war god Mars and to have been raised as infants by a she-wolf. Romulus saw himself as a descendant of the defeated army of Troy, and wanted Rome to inherit the mantle of that ancient city, if not surpass it. When Remus laughed at the notion, Romulus killed his brother and declared himself the first king of Rome.
Rome went through seven kings until 509 BC when the last king was overthrown and the Roman Republic was formed. Rome then came to be ruled by two elected officials (known as consuls), a Senate made up of wealthy aristocrats (known as patricians), and a lower assembly that represented the common people (plebeians) and had limited power. This format of government worked well at first, but as Rome expanded beyond a mere city-state to take over territory not just in Italy, but overseas as well, the system of government came under severe strain.
By the First Century BC, Rome was in crisis. Spartacus, a slave, led the common people in a revolt against the rule of the aristocratic patricians. Rome was able to put down the rebellion, but at great cost, as the Republic dissolved into a series of military dictatorships that ended with the assassination of Julius Caesar.
In 29 BC, after a long power struggle, Julius Caesar’s nephew, Octavius, seized power and declared himself Emperor Augustus. The Roman Empire was born. For the next two hundred years, Rome thrived, ruling over a vast territory stretching from Britain and the Atlantic coast of Europe in the north and west to North Africa and the Middle East in the south and east.
This Pax Romana, a time of peace, ended in 180 AD with the death of Marcus Aurelius. A combination of economic problems, barbarian invasions, domestic instability, and territorial rebellions, combined with a lack of strong leadership, resulted in the slow and gradual decline of Rome. In 380 AD, after three hundred years of persecution, Christianity became the one and only official religion. By the end of the Fourth Century AD, the Roman Empire split into two. The East, based out of the newly-built capital of Constantinople, in what is now Turkey, thrived, eventually becoming the long-lasting Byzantine Empire. Rome, capital of the West, continued to decline.
In 410 AD, Rome itself was sacked by barbarian hordes. The Eastern Empire invaded but failed to restore order and had to withdraw. The Roman Empire in the West completely collapsed by the end of the 5th AD century. For the next thousand years, Italy once again became a patchwork of city-states, with Rome, home to the Catholic Church, being the most powerful. This long period of quiet stagnation was known as the Dark Ages.
Prosperity did not return to Italy again until the 14th Century, when city-states such as Florence, Milan, Pisa, Genoa, and Venice became centers of trade. The influx of wealth and increased trade contact with foreign lands, transformed Italy into Europe’s premier center of culture. Funded by wealthy patrons, figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo, among others, revolutionized the fields of art, literature, politics, and science. Italian explorers, such as Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, introduced Italy and Europe to the rest of the world.
Italy remained a center of power until the 16th century, when trade routes shifted away from the Mediterranean and the Protestant Reformation resulted in the Catholic Church, which was based in Rome, losing influence over much of Northern Europe. Weakened, the various Italian city-states became vulnerable to conquest by Spain, France, and Austria. Italy remained a patchwork of principalities controlled through proxy by various European powers until the 19th century, when the French leader Napoleon supported the unification of Italy as a way of creating a buffer state against his many enemies. With the backing of France, Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi led a popular movement that took over much of Italy in 1861 and would be ending in 1870 with the fall of Rome and complete unification of the country.
Plagued by internal political divisions and with an economy devastated by war, the new Kingdom of Italy was no Roman Empire. In 1919, frustrated that Italy had received few gains despite having been a victor in the First World War, a politician named Benito Mussolini launched a movement that called for the restoration of Italy as a great power. In 1922, impatient with electoral politics, Mussolini led his supporters, known as Fascists, on a march on Rome to seize power directly through a coup. Spooked, the Italian king did not put up a fight and allowed Mussolini to become supreme ruler of Italy.
Mussolini spent the next twenty years consolidating power and building up the Italian economy, but he never gave up on the idea of restoring Italy as a great power. Calling himself “Il Duce” (meaning Leader), Mussolini dreamed of leading a new Roman Empire. In the 1930s, he indulged his dreams of conquest, by invading Ethiopia and Albania. When the Second World War broke out, Italy remained neutral at first. However, once it appeared through the Fall of France that Germany would win, Mussolini eagerly joined Hitler, a fellow Fascist and longtime ally, in the war effort and rushed to invade Greece, the Balkans, and North Africa. Overextended and unprepared for such a large-scale effort, Italy quickly found that it could not maintain its military position and had to ask Germany for help. Before long, Mussolini saw himself losing control of North Africa, the Mediterranean, and eventually his very own country to the Allies. Fleeing Rome, Mussolini tried to set up a puppet state in Northern Italy but failed. Abandoned by a disgusted Hitler, Il Duce and his mistress were captured and executed by Italian partisans.
After the Second World War, Italy abolished the monarchy and declared itself a republic. With the strong support of the United States, Italy rebuilt its economy through loans from the Marshall Plan, joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and became a strong supporter of what is now the European Union. Today, Italy is one of the most prosperous and democratic nations in Europe.