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History of Italy

Italy, history of since earliest times the history of Italy has been influenced by cultural and political divisions resulting from the peninsula's disparate geography and by circumstances that made Italy the scene of many of Europe's most important struggles for power.


Human activity in Italy started during the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods. By the beginning of the Neolithic period (c.5000 BC), the small communities of hunters of earlier times were disappearing and people started to have agricultural settlements, with some stock breeding and widespread use of stone implements and pottery. Painted vessels that seem to have been influenced by contemporary styles in Greece have been found at Castellaro Vecchio on the island of Lipari.

The Bronze Age
About 2000 BC, metalworking was introduced into southern Italy and Sicily by new immigrants from the east; the northern Italian Polada culture of the same period left evidence of strong links with cultures from north of the Alps. During the Bronze Age (c.1800-1000 BC), much of central and southern Italy had a unified culture known as the Apennine, characterized by large agricultural and pastoral settlements; on the southeastern coast and in Sicily evidence indicates trading contacts with the Mycenaeans. After c.1500 BC, in the Po Valley to the north, the terramara culture--with its villages constructed on wooden piles, its advanced techniques of bronze working, and its cremation rites--rose to prominence. By the time of the introduction of iron into Italy (c.1000 BC), regional variations were well established.

The Etruscans
In the late 8th century BC Greek colonizers arrived in the south and in Sicily; while in central Italy and the Po Valley came the ETRUSCANS. The diverse cultural patterns of the early Iron Age were further complicated. Historians generally agree that Etruscan culture was the result of outside (probably eastern) influence on indigenous peoples; the source, degree, and chronology of that outside influence remain uncertain. By the end of the 7th century BC, LATIUM and part of CAMPANIA had joined central Italy under Etruscan rule. As the Etruscans expanded their rule, many city-states were founded by the Italians.


According to later Roman historians, the city of ROME, founded in c.753, probably by local LATINS and SABINES, was ruled by Etruscan kings from 616 BC. But after the expulsion of Lucius TARQUINIUS SUPERBUS in 510 BC, the last of the Etruscan kings, and the foundation of the Roman republic in 509, the power of the Etruscans declined as the Romans began the unification of Italy. This process reached its final stage in 89 BC, when the right of Roman citizenship was extended throughout Italy, with the consequent diffusion of Roman institutions and the Latin language and culture from the Alps to Sicily.

The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire began effectively in 31 BC with the defeat of Mark ANTONY and CLEOPATRA by GAIUS OCTAVIUS, a grandnephew of Julius Caesar, who later became known as Emperor AUGUSTUS. In 330, Emperor CONSTANTINE I transferred his capital from Rome to Constantinople, built on the site of Byzantium. Italy's administrative autonomy was lost shortly afterwards when two dioceses were joined with that of Africa to form a single prefecture. The loss of temporal power, however, was to some degree compensated for by the growing importance of Italy as a center of Christianity: starting in the 2nd century AD several bishoprics were founded in addition to that of Rome: in Milan, Ravenna, Naples, Benevento, and elsewhere. After 476, when the Germanic chieftain ODOACER deposed the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus (r. 475-76), military control of Italy passed into barbarian hands. Under the Ostrogothic king, THEODORIC (r. 493-526; see GOTHS), in practical terms Italian political and social ties were with the West, in spite of continuing theoretical ties with the BYZANTINE EMPIRE. By 553, however, internal feuds permitted the Byzantine emperor JUSTINIAN I to regain control. Peninsular Italy was administered from its capital at RAVENNA as merely one division of the empire, although the Byzantines gradually and grudgingly admitted the ecclesiastical primacy of Rome in the West.

During the early Middle Ages, Italian ties with the "New Rome" of the East (Constantinople) were first threatened and later severed after a series of invasions from the west and north into Italy. The severing of ties with the East was confirmed by the eventual emergence of the PAPACY and the Italian cities as powers in their own right.

The Lombards
After the Ostrogoths, another Germanic people, the LOMBARDS, arrived in Italy in 568. Although much of southern and eastern Italy remained in Byzantine hands, the Lombards' control soon spread from the north to Tuscany and Umbria. The Lombards were resisted chiefly by the popes--most notably GREGORY I (r. 590-604)--who acted as de facto political and military as well as ecclesiastical leaders and held a band of land stretching across the peninsula that later became the PAPAL STATES. By the end of the 7th century, papal resistance had induced the Lombards to consolidate their power in northern and central Italy, where they achieved a high degree of political unification. Meanwhile, the unrest in the Byzantine centers in the south reflected the disturbances taking place in Byzantium itself (ICONOCLASM), and popular revolts broke out in Rome, Naples, Venice, and elsewhere. Thus by 728 the Lombards, under Liutprand (r. 712-44), were able to extend their influence in spite of further papal attempts at intervention. During Liutprand's reign, many of the Lombards converted from ARIANISM to Roman Catholicism. By this time they were accepting many other elements of Roman culture, including the Latin language; their law and administration reflected both Roman and Germanic influences.

The Franks
The success of the Lombards was temporary. Under the pretense of restoring to the papacy its lost territories, Pope Stephen II (r. 752-57) invited the FRANKS, another Germanic tribe, to invade Italy. In 774 the Franks expelled the Lombard rulers; Lombard territory passed into the hands of the Frankish ruler CHARLEMAGNE, who was crowned emperor in Rome on Dec. 25, 800. The following century was characterized by continual feuding between Franks and Byzantines, the chief beneficiaries being the SARACENS, newly arrived from North Africa. These Arabs originally came to assist rebels against the Byzantine Empire. The Saracens remained to conquer (827-78) Sicily, however, and to establish outposts in southern Italy; in 846 they launched an attack on Rome itself. The collapse of the Carolingian empire in the 9th century, at the same time as the resurgence of Byzantium under the Macedonian dynasty, caused a brief return to eastern influence.

The Ottonians
This constant alternation of power was temporarily ended by the arrival in Italy, once again by papal invitation, of the German king OTTO I, who was crowned Holy Roman emperor in 962. The Ottonian dynasty fell shortly after 1000, leaving in the north a vacuum to be exploited by the local small landowners and town merchants. Meanwhile, local insurrections weakened the Saracens' hold on the southern coastal cities, although the Arabs remained strong in Sicily.

The Rise of the Italian City-States
In this climate of political and social fragmentation, individual Italian cities began to assert their autonomy. During the 11th century an elaborate pattern of communal government began to evolve under the leadership of a burgher class grown wealthy in trade, banking, and such industries as woolen textiles. Many cities, especially FLORENCE, GENOA, PISA, MILAN, and VENICE, became powerful and independent CITY-STATES. Resisting the efforts of both the old landed nobles and the emperors to control them, these COMMUNES hastened the end of feudalism in northern Italy and spawned deeply rooted identification with the city as opposed to the larger region or country. The cities were often troubled by violent and divisive rivalries among their citizens, the most famous being the papal-imperial struggle between the GUELPHS (supporters of the popes) and the GHIBELLINES (supporters respectively of the emperors. But despite such divisions the cities contributed significantly to the economic, social, and cultural vitality of Italy.

The Kingdom of Sicily
Unlike the north, with its network of vigorously independent urban centers, southern Italy experienced a significant consolidation after its conquest by the NORMANS. Bands of these invaders arrived in Italy early in the 11th century. Starting c.1046, ROBERT GUISCARD and his successors expelled the Saracens and Byzantines and carved a powerful domain out of APULIA CALABRIA, Campania, and Sicily. Although the Norman territories remained a fief of the papacy, papal overlordship became a mere formality in the 12th century especially after 1127, when ROGER II united the southern part of the peninsula with Sicily; he assumed the title of king of Sicily in 1130. While the Normans were consolidating their rule in southern Italy, the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire continued their struggle for dominance in northern and central Italy.

In 1077 Pope GREGORY VII was successfully in making Holy Roman Emperor HENRY IV bow to papal authority at Canossa (INVESTITURE CONTROVERSY). Later, Pope ALEXANDER III successfully supported an alliance of northern cities known as the Lombard League against the efforts of Emperor FREDERICK I of the HOHENSTAUFEN dynasty to impose imperial authority over them. Early in the 13th century the Hohenstaufen FREDERICK II succeeded in uniting the thrones of German and Norman Sicily. Although Pope INNOCENT III (r. 1198-1216) opposed the emperor and advanced far-reaching claims of political and religious supremacy, Frederick established one of the wealthiest and most powerful states in Europe, centering on his brilliant court at PALERMO with its great cultural innovations.

The papal-imperial conflict culminated in 1262 with a papal invitation to Charles of Anjou, brother of King Louis IX of France, to conquer Sicily. Charles, the founder of the ANGEVIN dynasty of Naples, ruled from 1266 as CHARLES I, king of Naples and Sicily. French rule, which introduced feudalism to the south at a time when it was weakening elsewhere, was highly unpopular, and in 1282 a successful revolt (the SICILIAN VESPERS) resulted in the separation of Sicily from the mainland. PETER III of Aragon was made king of Sicily while the former Norman domains on the mainland remained under Angevin rule as the Kingdom of Naples. In the 15th century both kingdoms became Spanish possessions; they were then reunited under the title Kingdom of the TWO SICILIES.

After 1300 both the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire turned their attention away from Italy. The emperors concentrated on German affairs while the popes met increasing resistance especially from the French as they tried to assert their authority in Europe. For much of the 14th century the papacy was situated at Avignon, in southern France.

The weakening of papal and imperial authority accompanied great intellectual changes in Italy. An intellectual revival, stimulated in part by the freer atmosphere of the cities and in part by the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Latin writings, gave rise to the humanist attitudes and ideas that formed the basis of the RENAISSANCE. About the same time, many of the communal governments of the city-states fell under the rule of dictators called signori, who curbed their factionalism and became hereditary rulers. In Milan the VISCONTI family rose to power in the 13th century, to be succeeded by the SFORZA family in the mid-15th century, a few decades after the MEDICI family had seized control of Florence. Meanwhile the ESTE family ruled Ferrara from the 13th through the 16th century. Although they subverted the political institutions of the communes, the signori (who became known as principi, with royal titles) were instrumental in advancing the cultural and civic life of Renaissance Italy. Under the patronage of the Medici, for example, Florence became the most magnificent and prestigious center of the arts in Italy. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Italian thought and style influenced all Europe.

As the larger cities expanded into the surrounding countryside, absorbing many of the smaller cities, they involved themselves in the complex international politics of the age. The frequent wars between city-states brought to Italy the mercenary leaders known as the CONDOTTIERI and ultimately resulted in foreign intervention. In 1494, CHARLES VIII of France invaded Italy (ITALIAN WARS), signaling the beginning of a period of foreign occupation that lasted until the 19th century. By 1550 almost all Italy had been subjugated by the Habsburg ruler CHARLES V, who was both Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain; when Charles abdicated in 1555-56, dividing the Habsburg territories between his brother Emperor FERDINAND I and his son PHILIP II of Spain, Italy was part of the latter's inheritance. Spain remained the dominant power in Italy until Austria replaced it after the War of the SPANISH SUCCESSION (1701-14).

In the 18th century some areas of Italy achieved independence. SAVOY (the Kingdom of Sardinia after 1720) annexed SARDINIA and portions of LOMBARDY; in 1735 the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies became an independent monarchy under the junior branch of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty. Italy itself, however, no longer played a central role in European politics.


In the 18th century, as in the Renaissance, intellectual changes began to break down traditional values and institutions. Enlightenment ideas from France and Britain spread rapidly, and from 1789 the French Revolution excited liberal Italians.

The Napoleonic Era in Italy
Europe was soon involved in a series of wars that eventually involved Italy. Between 1796, when troops under General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy, and 1814 when they withdrew, the entire peninsula was under French domination. Several short-lived republics were proclaimed early in the period. After two decades of Napoleon's modern but often harsh rule, profound changes took place in Italy; many Italians began to see the possibilities of forging a united country free of foreign control. Following the restoration of European peace in 1815, Italy consisted of the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont, Sardinia, Savoy, and Genoa); the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (including Naples and Sicily); the Papal States; and TUSCANY and a series of smaller duchies in north central Italy. Lombardy and Venetia were now controlled by the Austrians.

The Risorgimento
The repressive and reactionary policies imposed on Italy by the Austrian leader Klemens, Furst von METTERNICH, and the Congress of Vienna aggravated popular discontent, and the expansion of Austrian control in Italy stimulated intense antiforeign sentiment. These conditions gave rise to the Italian unification movement known as the RISORGIMENTO. Revolutionaries and patriots, especially Giuseppe MAZZINI, began to work actively for unity and independence. A series of unsuccessful revolts led in the 1820s by the CARBONARI, a conspiratorial nationalist organization, and in the 1830s by Mazzini's Young Italy group, provided the background for the REVOLUTIONS OF 1848. These affected al major Italian cities and throughout Europe. Charles Albert, king of Sardinia (1831-49), declared war on Austria and along with some other Italian rulers, gave his people a constitution; but both the war of liberation and the revolutionary republics set up in Rome, Venice, and Tuscany were crushed by Austria in 1849. Charles Albert abdicated in favor of his son VICTOR EMMANUEL II, who retained the Sardinian constitution.

Under the progressive, liberal leadership of Camillo Benso, conte di CAVOUR, Sardinia led Italy to final unification. In 1859, after gaining the support of France and England, Cavour, in alliance with the French emperor NAPOLEON III, seized Lombardy; in 1860 all of Italy north of the Papal States--except Venetia--was added to Sardinia. Giuseppe GARIBALDI, a popular hero and guerrilla leader, led an expedition of 1,000 "Red Shirts" to Sicily in the same year and subsequently seized the southern part of peninsular Italy, which with Sicily constituted the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Garibaldi turned his conquests over to Victor Emmanuel, and in 1861 the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed. Only Venetia and Rome were not included in the new state (the former was added in 1866 and the latter in 1870). Italians at last had their own country.


The new nation faced many serious problems. A large debt, few natural resources, and almost no industry or transportation facilities combined with extreme poverty, a high illiteracy rate, and an uneven tax structure to weigh heavily on the Italian people. Regionalism was still strong, and only a fraction of the citizens had the right to vote. To make matters worse, the pope, angered over the loss of Rome and the papal lands, refused to recognize the Italian state. In the countryside, banditry and peasant anarchism resulted in government repression, which was often brutal. Meanwhile during the 1880s a socialist movement began to develop among workers in the cities. The profound differences between the impoverished south and the wealthier north widened. Parliament did little to resolve these problems: throughout this so-called Liberal Period (1870-1915), the nation was governed by a series of coalitions of liberals to the left and right of center who were unable to form a clear-cut majority. Despite the fact that some economic and social progress took place before World War I, Italy during that time was a dissatisfied and crisis-ridden nation.

In an attempt to increase its international influence and prestige, Italy joined Germany and Austria in the TRIPLE ALLIANCE in 1882. In the 1890s Italy unsuccessfully tried to conquer Ethiopia; and in 1911 it declared war on Turkey to obtain the North African territory of Libya. After the outbreak of WORLD WAR I in 1914, Italy remained neutral for almost a year while the government negotiated with both sides. In 1915, Italy finally joined the Allies, after having been promised territories that it regarded as Italia irredenta (unliberated Italy). The country was unprepared for a major war, however; aside from a few victories in 1918, Italy suffered serious losses of men, material, and morale. Moreover, despite the efforts of Vittorio Emmanuele ORLANDO at the PARIS PEACE CONFERENCE, the treaties that followed the war gave Italy only Trentino and Trieste, a small part of the territories it had expected. These disappointments produced a powerful wave of nationalist sentiment against the Allies and the Italian government.


Italy was plunged into deep social and political crisis by the war. Veterans, unemployed workers, desperate peasants, and a frightened middle class demanded changes, and the 1919 elections suddenly made the Socialist and the new Popular (Catholic) parties the largest in parliament. While extreme nationalists agitated for territorial expansion, strikes and threats of revolution unsettled the nation.

The Rise of Fascism
In 1919, in the midst of these unsettled conditions, Benito MUSSOLINI, a former revolutionary socialist, founded a new movement called FASCISM. Through a combination of shrewd political maneuvering and widespread violence perpetrated by Mussolini's BLACKSHIRT squads, the Fascists gained increasing support. In October 1922, after the Fascists had marched on Rome, King VICTOR EMMANUEL III named Mussolini prime minister. Within four years, Mussolini had become a dictator, destroying civil liberties, outlawing all other political parties, and imposing a totalitarian regime on the country by means of terror and constitutional subversion. Public works projects, propaganda, militarism, and the appearance of order gained Mussolini considerable prestige, and the LATERAN TREATY with the papacy in 1929 gave the duce (as he was called) a wide measure of popularity.

Fascist Expansionism
Mussolini's foreign policy, based on aggression and expansion, moved Italy closer to war during the 1930s. In 1935-36 the Italian army invaded and conquered ETHIOPIA, and in 1936, Italy sent troops to support Francisco Franco in the SPANISH CIVIL WAR. Later that year Mussolini and Adolf HITLER, the National Socialist dictator of Germany, established the Rome-Berlin AXIS; in 1939, Italy took Albania, and the two dictators then concluded a military alliance known as the Pact of Steel. In June 1940, 9 months after the outbreak of WORLD WAR II in Europe, Italy entered the conflict on Germany's side.

World War II
Mussolini's war effort met with setbacks and defeats on all fronts; in July 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily. The Fascist leadership turned against Mussolini, and the king forced him to resign. Rescued by German paratroopers, Mussolini escaped to Salo in northern Italy, where he established a puppet government, the Italian Social Republic under German protection. In the south, the king and his new prime minister, Pietro BADOGLIO, surrendered to the Allies in September and then joined in the war against Germany. A fierce and heroic anti-Fascist resistance movement fought in the German-occupied north for two years while underground political leaders organized the anti-Fascists into the Committee of National Liberation (CLN). The Allies pushed the German armies out of Italy with great difficulty, and in April 1945 the partisans captured and executed Mussolini.


Between 1945 and 1948 a new Italian nation emerged from the disaster of fascism and war. In June 1946 a popular election abolished the monarchy in favor of a republic; a new constitution was adopted the next year. The Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists became the strongest political parties in the country. The largest of these parties, the Christian Democrats, first under the leadership of Alcide DE GASPERI, dominated the Italian government after 1948. De Gasperi stressed industrial growth, agricultural reform, and close cooperation with the United States and the Vatican. With massive U.S. aid, Italy underwent a remarkable economic recovery that saw rapid industrial expansion and a sharp increase in the standard of living. Italy joined the NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY ORGANIZATION in 1949, the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and the Common Market EUROPEAN COMMUNITY in 1958.

The 1960s were marked by continued prosperity and a lessening of tensions between right and left. In the early 1970s the Italian Communists, led by Enrico BERLINGUER, became prominent advocates of Eurocommunism, a doctrine stressing independence of the USSR.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Italy, along with other Western nations, experienced chronic inflation and unemployment. Labor unrest, frequent government scandals, and the violence of extremist groups, especially the left-wing Red Brigades terrorists, all contributed to a volatile political situation.

In 1981 the Christian Democrats relinquished the premiership for the first time since World War II when a Republican, Giovanni Spadolini, became prime minister. The economy which had suffered during the turbulent 1970s experienced a new resurgence under the leadership (1983-87) of Socialist Bettino CRAXI, a strong premier who remained in office longer than any of his postwar predecessors. The Craxi government was succeeded by two short-lived coalitions and then by the government of Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti, which took office in July 1989.

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Anika Devi received her Bachelor’s degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University in 2012. She began freelancing for Business Solutions BD in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor.
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