Italy - History
Italy’s incredibly long and rich history makes it a wonder to travel to. In the following passage, we will detail Italy’s long history, starting with Rome and ending with the unification of the city-states as one country. This can act as a guide for your travels, and give you an insight into Italy before you even set foot in the country. When we’ve learned about a country’s history, the places we visit once we’re there become more meaningful than if we didn’t know anything about them at all. We recognize the locations like old friends after a long hiatus.
While Italy doesn’t have the oldest history, as compared to say China or ancient Iraq, it is certainly one of the most well-known and well-documented histories. The Indo-European people started to populate the modern Italian peninsula around 2000 B.C.E, and from around 1000 B.C.E. up until the third century B.C.E., the ancient Etruscans established city-states throughout central Italy, what is now modern-day Tuscany. Gene tests have confirmed that the ancient Etruscans were, in fact, indigenous to the peninsula. The Etruscans spread their influence from central Italy to the north and the south, and heavily influenced the early days of Rome – in fact, the word Rome itself is Etruscan. Eventually, the Etruscans succeeded power to the Romans who were fast becoming the most powerful civilization on the peninsula. The Etruscans were influenced heavily by the Greeks, and they eventually passed this onto the Romans. By 264 B.C.E., all of Italy south of Gaul (France) was led by the Roman state, except for the heel and toe of the boot, which was ruled by Greek tribes.
Rome prospered and spread from the north of Africa to the isles of the United Kingdom, this prosperity continued unabated for about seven centuries until inner mismanagement and constant raids and sieges by barbarians brought western Rome to her knees. After this point, the sixth century C.E., a number of peoples vied for control over the Italian peninsula, splitting it up into various segments. Italy would remain politically fragmented for years, with city-states like Venetia and Genova warring with one another. In the 13th – 16th century, Italy would become the centre once again of a cultural boom – the Renaissance.
The Renaissance was a period in which the Italian people, and indeed the people of Europe, came back in touch with the high art of ancient times. The thousand years preceding the Renaissance, known as the ‘dark ages’, are so called because they were a time with relatively little documentation, and so things were ‘dark’, historically speaking. Many people became illiterate during the dark ages, and very little was recorded from this period. The Renaissance was a time when people re-examined their roots in art, engineering, medicine, literature, trade, commerce; these were all highly appreciated facets of society during the Renaissance. Trade in particular linked countries in Europe with countries in Africa and Asia, and of course expeditions to the Americas were undertaken, further bolstering commercial prowess.
More on Rome:
In many ways, the history of Italy is really the history of Rome. Mythology tells that Rome was founded in 753 B.C.E. by two men, Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf mother, who found the two boys lost in the woods and brought them to power on her teat milk. Rome was a kingdom and its regal period was characterized by Etruscan dominance until around 509 B.C.E when Rome established itself as a republic and was governed by a group of senators. During this republican period, Rome expanded its control over the Italian peninsula, absorbing the Etruscan people and their culture into Rome’s. Over the next two hundred years, the Roman empire would fight its enemies on the Italian peninsula, Greek cities on the southernmost point of Italy’s boot – Heraclitus, Tarentum – they were all subjects of the city of Epirus, and the Pyrrhic wars would be fought between Rome and Epirus until 275 B.C.E when Pyrrhus was driven back to Epirus. These wars gave Rome full control over the peninsula, they then defeated the Italian Celts in Northern-Italy and set their sights on their maritime rivals, the Carthaginians, who had control over Sicilia, Sardinia and Corsica. Rome and Carthage went to war in what would be known as the first Punic Wars. They fought from 264 – 241 B.C.E. and Carthage would eventually be defeated and driven from the islands, back to their home in Carthage (modern-day Tunisia).
Carthage would rebuild and later conquer all of Spain. They became a serious threat in their leader Hannibal Barca and in 218 B.C.E they defeated Rome in Hispania in the Second Punic War. Hannibal famously crossed the Alps on elephants and laid siege to Rome for seven years. He would have to flee back to Carthage to defend against a Roman attack where he was defeated by Scipio Africanus. Carthage became a subject of Rome, as did many similar tribes and kingdoms. By 133 B.C.E. Rome had conquered North Africa, Spain, Greece, Macedonia and held a slippery hand on Anatolia (Turkey). By the time the year 50 C.E. rolled around, Rome was led by many great generals. They’d travelled and campaigned through Gaul (France) up to Brittanie (U.K.), and now had full control of Turkey. It was during this time that Caesar would march on Rome, and the republic that had stood for hundreds of years would become an empire with Julius Gaius Caesar as its dictator.
Caesar would be assassinated and replaced by his son Augustus, who is widely regarded as the greatest emperor to ever dictate the state. The Julio-Claudian dynasty of emperors of which Augustus was a part of would come to an end with the suicide of Nero.
Rome would plunge into civil war, and be steadied by the ‘adoptive’ emperors, so called because the emperor would adopt his greatest pupil to become the emperor next in line – referred to as the most peaceful and prosperous time to be alive during Rome’s long history. The city of Rome’s population boomed to 500,000. The relative peace and prosperity that Rome enjoyed during the 2nd century would be highly contrasted by the crisis of the third century when Rome would be plunged into civil war again, and constant attacks from barbarians, economic recessions and plague would see the Empire lose considerable ground. Rome would be split into three empires during this century, the Gallic empire – including Gaul, Brittanie and briefly Hispania (Spain), the Italian Empire, and the Palmyrene Empire (Turkey and further east). The losing would continue until the 4th century when the empire achieved complete reunification under the first Christian emperor Constantine, who established Constantinople, the capital of the east Roman empire.
Italy was sacked in 410 C.E. and the entire Italian peninsula was lost to Huns and Germanic tribes. In the mid-6th century emperor Justinian of Byzantium and Constantinople would reconquer all of Rome and attempt to bring the empire to its former glory. Justinian famously built the grand Christian cathedral The Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople (Istanbul); which would later be overrun by Ottomans and converted into a mosque. Justinian’s conquest and reunification of Rome was cut short by the outbreak of bubonic plague. Rome was officially divided and caput, and for the next few centuries would be overrun by Goths, Gauls, Lombard’s, Arabs and Persians.
In 810 C.E. Charlemagne would unify the Franks and the Lombard’s, conquering the Italian peninsula, much of France and Germany, while the Byzantine empire continued to rule in the east. A push and pull of power would continue on for the next several hundred years, with land won and lost between a succession of different Germanic, Frankish and Byzantine rulers, and led to the rise of the city-states of Italy, like Venice and Florence. This was made double-so by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. This marked the end of the dark ages and the start of the Renaissance.
The bubonic plague spread through Italy during the early 1600’s, it killed around 1,730,000 people, which was around 14% of Italy’s population at the time.
The Renaissance in Italy
The Renaissance began in Italy and the rest of Europe when a group of brave thinkers got together and declared that they were living in a time distinct from the dark one that had preceded it. The term renaissance means rebirth, and in many ways, the period that existed between the late 14th century and the late 17th century was a reconceiving of man's life on the planet, his role in the universe. In many ways, the people of the Renaissance tried to do away with the dogmatic and hyper-religious beliefs that had hindered growth during the middle-ages, they were philosophical and artistic and questioned everything about themselves. Many of the achievements of the Renaissance came from humanistic beliefs, but equally so, many great artworks were dedicated to God.
15th century Italy was divided into self-governing city states which operated independently of each other. Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance, and after London and Constantinople, was the third-largest financial centre in all of Europe. Wealthy bankers and magnates expressed their wealth by funding/commissioning artists and painters to do works for them, in this sense, there was great wealth invested in artistry in Renaissance Florence, and this culture was endemic to the peninsula. These thinkers, writers and painters were paid to do what they do best – create art and express new ideas. Rather than be setback by their day jobs, they were free to spend as much time as they needed innovating and expressing themselves. It was during this time that astronomers and scientists like Galileo were able to build telescopes and show people that the planets actually revolved around the sun, which was a star, and not god.
It was a time of incredible discovery. As you’d imagine it was also a time of mass-persecution, with thousands of people being put to death for sacrilege, and schisms through the church’s denominations causing wars between different countries. Like the Anglo-Spanish war between England and Spain in the late 16th century.
The finest works of the Renaissance are located in Italy, many of them you’ll see on your holiday. Michelangelo’s statue of David for instance, an anatomically correct statue built over four years and finished in 1504. The statue is now located in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. The statue stands over 5 metres tall and is meant to represent the biblical figure of David, a favoured figure by the Florentines. David represented the intellect of Florence versus the might of Rome (Goliath).
Another well-known artwork from the Renaissance period is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the painting is available to see in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Also available for viewing in the Uffizi Gallery is Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring, this painting is painted in the same style as Venus. In Milan, you’ll be able to find Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, one of the most well-known of the Renaissance’s paintings, next to the Mona Lisa (also Da Vinci) which is located in France.
Italy becomes a nation
Italy would become a nation on March 17, 1861. Rome would remain its own papal state for a decade while the rest of the peninsula was united under the rule of king Victor Emmanuel the 2nd. Rome was absorbed by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870. The Vatican City itself has remained and independent and autonomous state within the city of Rome, it has a population of around a thousand people. San Marino too is an autonomous state in Italy.
With the beginning of World War 1 in 1915, the Italian government complied in signing the London Pact, a declaration of war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They signed the agreement in exchange for several European territories (Trieste, Istria, Zadar etc.)
In 1922 Benito Mussolini took over Italy in 1922 and started a fascist dictatorship. He would ally himself with Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, the axis powers. Mussolini was eventually pushed out of Italy by the allies and was executed in 1945. Italy had had relatively instable governments since the end of the second world war.
Berlusconi came into government in 2001 and was affiliated with centre-right politics. He managed to stay in for a full five-year term. In 2006 Prodi held government for around 2 years, Berlusconi won the elections in 2008 and returned to government. Italy has remained politically and financially stable in recent years, with Milan being the third biggest economy in Europe after London and Paris.
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