By Tim Lambert
The first civilization in Italy was the Etruscan, which arose about 800 BC in central Italy. The Etruscans built cities on a grid pattern. Some these cities still exist (including Arezzo, Chiusi, Cortona, Perugia and Cerveteri). The Etruscans were also engineers who drained marshes and built roads. They were also skilled artists. The Etruscans made terracotta sculptures and worked in bronze. Their craftsmen also made jewelry of gold and silver. Etruscan artists painted frescoes on the walls of rich people's tombs. They also painted pottery. Upper class Etruscans lived in splendid houses of many rooms arranged around a courtyard. They had luxurious furniture. Poor Etruscans lived in simple huts of wood and brick.
The Etruscans were influenced by the Greeks, with whom they traded. About 750 BC the Greeks established a colony on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. Later they created colonies in Sicily such as Catania and Messina. They also founded colonies on mainland Italy such as Reggio Calabria. By 600 BC the Etruscans came to rule central Italy, including Rome. They also had a powerful navy. However in 510 BC the Romans rebelled and they gradually encroached on Etruscan territory. The last Etruscan city fell to the Romans in 265 BC.
There was a settlement at Rome by the mid-8th century BC. In the 6th century BC it was ruled by Etruscan kings. The kings were advised by the senate, a body that consisted of Roman aristocrats or patricians. However in 510 BC the Romans rebelled and expelled the last king Tarquinius Superbus. Afterwards Rome was ruled by two officials called consuls who were elected from among the Senators. The consuls served for a period of one year. Working class Romans were called plebeians. In the 6th century there was antagonism between the two classes. Finally in 494 BC the plebeians left Rome and founded their own settlement on the Aventine Hill. The patricians were forced to make concessions to win them back.
From the beginning Rome was an aggressive and expansionist state. At first the Romans conquered central Italy. In 396 they conquered the important Etruscan city of Veii. However in 390 the Gauls captured and sacked Rome. Yet Rome recovered and conquered southern Italy. By 272 BC almost all the south of Italy was in Roman hands.
Rome then came into conflict with Carthage. The Phoenicians from Lebanon founded a colony in North Africa, which they called Carthage. In time Carthage became very powerful, ruling North Africa, Sardinia, Corsica and part of Spain. The wars between Rome and Carthage are called the Punic wars. The first lasted from 264 to 241 BC and it was mainly a naval war. It ended with the Romans capturing Sicily. Shortly afterwards they also occupied Sardinia and Corsica.
The second Punic War lasted from 218 to 202 BC. In 218 Hannibal marched a great army including elephants from Spain, through southern France and over the Alps into Italy. He defeated the Romans in several battles, Ticinus and Trebia in 218 BC, Lake Trasimeno in 217 and at Cannae in 216. However Hannibal did not have the resources to completely destroy Rome and the Romans sent an army to North Africa. Led by Scipio the Romans won a decisive battle at Zama in 202 BC.
Meanwhile the Romans expanded northwards. North Italy was inhabited by Celts but the Romans conquered them piecemeal. By 90 BC all of northern Italy was in Roman hands. Furthermore the Romans fought a series of wars with the Macedonians. The wars ended in 148 BC when Macedon became a Roman province. Some Romans became very rich as a result of these successful wars. Furthermore prisoners of war were made slaves and so there was a huge influx of slaves into Roman territory. Some wealthy Romans made fortunes by using slave labor on large estates. However many peasants were forced to leave the land and move to the cities. Fortunately there were plenty of jobs for them. As Rome grew more and more prosperous many public were built such as roads and temples. However the dramatic social changes caused much unrest in Rome.
Meanwhile the slaves sometimes rose in rebellion. The first rebellion or servile war lasted from 135 to 132 BC when slaves in Sicily rebelled. Sicilian slaves rebelled again in 103 BC but they were crushed in 99 BC. Finally Spartacus led a rebellion of Italian slaves in 73 BC. However the rebellion was crushed in 71 BC. Then non-Roman Italians rose against Rome in the Social War of 91-89 BC. They demanded certain rights and privileges. Roman troops under Cornelius Sulla crushed the revolt. Nevertheless in 89 BC all free Italians were granted Roman citizenship.
In the first century BC the Roman republic slowly broke down and power was increasingly in the hands of successful generals. In times of emergency the Romans sometimes appointed a temporary dictator to take charge. In 83 BC Sulla made himself dictator. He ruled until 80 BC. Then, in 67 BC another powerful general, Gnaius Pompey waged a successful campaign against pirates in the Mediterranean. In 66-62 BC he added parts of Turkey, Syria and the surrounding area to the Roman Empire. In 60 AD he formed a triumvirate with two other men Crassus and Julius Caesar. The triumvirate only lasted about one year but it was renewed in 56 BC. However Crassus died in 52 BC and Pompey was made sole Consul.
Meanwhile the third member of the triumvirate, Julius Caesar conquered Gaul. His military victories made him very popular with his men. However in 49 BC the Senate voted that Caesar should give up command of the army and return to Rome without his troops. Caesar refused and instead marched on Rome. Lacking troops to defend the city Pompey fled to Greece to raise an army. Caesar followed and defeated him. Pompey fled to Egypt where he was murdered. Julius Caesar was dictator of Rome until 44 BC when he was assassinated. After his death another triumvirate took power. It was made up of Marcus Antonius (Mark Anthony), Marcus Lepidus and Gaius Octavius (Octavian), Julius Caesars great-nephew. Lepidus was deposed in 36 BC and Octavian and Mark Anthony soon fell out. Octavian defeated Mark Anthony at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC. Octavian became the first Roman emperor (in all but name). In 27 BC he was granted the title 'Augustus'. The Roman republic was at an end.
Augustus kept the senate but he held the real power. He controlled the army and the civil service. Augustus managed to restore order to the Roman Empire and when he died in 14 AD it was peaceful and prosperous. He was followed by his stepson Tiberius (14-37 AD). The next emperor was Gaius or Caligula (37-41 AD), who ruled so badly he was assassinated by his bodyguard, the praetorian guard. He was succeeded by his uncle Claudius (41-54 AD). During his reign the Romans conquered Britain. Next came Nero (54-68). Vespasian (69-79) built the coliseum and under Trajan (98-117) and Hadrian (177-138) the Roman Empire was at its peak.
In 212 the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free people in the empire. By then the Roman Empire was beginning to decline. When the emperor Severus Alexander was murdered in 325 there were decades of political instability. Between 235 and 284 there were 22 emperors. Order and prosperity were temporarily restored by Diocletian (284-305). He abdicated in 305 and there was a struggle for the succession. Constantine was proclaimed emperor in 306 but he was not in complete control of the empire until 324. Constantine introduced a policy of tolerating Christianity. He was baptized on his deathbed in 337. Diocletian split the empire into two halves, western and eastern. Constantine united them in 324 but they split again after his death. Gradually there was less and less co-operation between the two halves. In the Western Roman Empire there was a relentless economic decline with raging inflation. Meanwhile the Germanic tribes beyond the border were growing stronger and stronger.
In the 5th century the Roman empire collapsed piecemeal. In 406-407 Germanic people invaded Gaul and in 407 the Roman army left Britain. Then in 410 Alaric the Goth captured Rome. Nevertheless the Roman Empire survived for some time afterwards. However in 429-430 a people called the Vandals crossed from Spain to North Africa. That had serious consequences for the Romans because they imported much of their grain from there. Worse in 455 the Vandals sacked Rome. Finally in 476 the last Roman emperor was deposed and a German called Odoacer made himself king of Italy.
Life in Rome
However for most people in Italy life went on as usual. The Germanic kings respected Roman culture and laws. Odoacer was followed by Theodoric the Ostrogoth in 493. He ruled until 526 and under him Germans and Romans in Italy lived together peacefully. Meanwhile the eastern half of the Roman Empire was still flourishing. It was now called the Byzantine Empire. In 535 the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent an army to Italy under his general Belisarius. So began a long period of warfare which devastated much of Italy.
Belisarius marched north through Italy and he captured Ravenna in 540. However under their leader Totila (541-552) the Goths recaptured most of Italy. Only Ravenna and some other coastal towns stayed in Byzantine hands. The Pendulum then swung the other way. Under their general Narses the Byzantines took all of Italy again by 562. Then in 568 a people called the Lombards invaded north Italy. Under their leaders Authari (584-590) and Agilulf (590-616) the Lombards fought their way south but they were halted by the Byzantines at a line from Ravenna to Rome. Gradually the Lombards intermarried with the native Italians and they also adopted Italian customs. They also adopted the Italian language.
In 751 the Lombard king Aistulf took Ravenna and threatened Rome. The Pope appealed to the Franks for help. Under their leader Pepin III the Franks invaded northern Italy. They defeated the Lombards and Pepin handed Ravenna and some territory in central Italy to the pope. So the Popes came to rule their own state in central Italy. The Franks then withdrew but in 772 they invaded Italy again. This time they conquered the Lombard kingdom. Charlemagne, leader of the Franks, confirmed the pope's rule over part of central Italy. After Charlemagne died in 814 the emperor's of Germany continued to rule Italy and were called its kings. However they had little power and in the 10th century the 'kingdom' of Italy broke up. Finally in 1024 the people of Pavia burned the royal palace. That symbolized the end of the German 'kings of Italy'.
During the 11th century the Normans took control of southern Italy. Then in 1061-1091 they conquered Sicily and in the 12th century they created a strong state in Sicily and south Italy. Meanwhile the breakdown of the kingdom of Italy allowed several city-states to emerge. In the 11th and 12th centuries trade in the Mediterranean boomed and cities in north and central Italy grew rich and important. They were also independent. However in the south the Normans prevented cities from becoming autonomous.
However in the 12th century the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa tried to restore German authority over the cities of northern Italy. In 1162 Barbarossa destroyed Milan. As a result the north Italians formed the Lombard League against him. Barbarossa invaded Italy in 1174 but his army was soundly defeated at the battle of Legnano in 1176. Barbarossa was forced to recognize the independence of the north Italian cities by the Peace of Constance in 1183. Frederick Barbarossa died in 1190. His successor Henry VI conquered Sicily from the Normans. However the Germans did not hold Sicily for long. In 1266 the French conquered the kingdom of Sicily (which included a large part of southern Italy as well as the island). However in 1282 the people of Palermo rose in rebellion. Peter of Aragon (a kingdom in northern Spain) then captured the island of Sicily, which, for a time became independent of the mainland.
Meanwhile the populations of north Italian cities grew rapidly. Their trade and prosperity also increased. The rise of the north Italian cities was temporarily interrupted by the disaster of the Black Death in 1348, which killed about one third of the population. However they recovered and in the late 14th century a new chapter in Italian history began.
In the late 14th and 15th centuries art flourished in Italy. The period produced great writers and artists. There was also an increasing interest in the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Rich Italians patronized the arts. Meanwhile the printing press was introduced into Venice by 1470.
Meanwhile Italian trade and commerce prospered. The city-states flourished. In the 15th century Florence was ruled by the Medicis, a family of bankers. (Florence was a republic ruled by an oligarchy but the Medicis managed to control it). The greatest Medicis were Cosimo who ruled from 1434 to 1464 and Lorenzo the Magnificent who ruled from 1469 to 1492. However at the end of 15th century Italy fell prey to foreign powers. In 1494 the French king claimed the throne of Naples. He invaded Italy that year and he entered Naples in February 1495. However he was soon forced to withdraw.
In the 16th century the French and Spanish fought over Italy. Instead of uniting against the invaders the Italian states split into two factions supporting either France or Spain.
In 1515 the French captured Milan. However in 1519 Charles V became emperor of Spain and other parts of Europe. In 1521 the Spaniards took Milan from the French. At the battle of Pavia in 1525 the French were decisively defeated. However the French then formed an alliance with some Italian states called the league of Cognac. The Spaniards sent an army against the League and in 1527 they sacked Rome. In 1529 the French were forced to renounce their claims to Italy by the treaty of Cambrai. However they fought more wars with the Spanish until 1559 when the treaty of Cateau-Camresis finally ended the French presence in Italy. Afterwards Italy was dominated by the Spaniards.
During the 15th century free thought and inquiry flourished in Italy. However things changed during the 16th century. The Inquisition cruelly persecuted Protestants in Italy. In 1600 they burned an astronomer called Giordano Bruno.
In the 17th century the Italian economy entered a long recession. Trade and industry declined. (This was partly due to the decreasing importance of Mediterranean trade and the rise of trade outside Europe). Italian agriculture stagnated. Poverty and banditry increased. Meanwhile Italy was struck by plague. Once the most advanced part of Europe Italy became a relatively backward part.
Meanwhile the Spanish continued to rule southern Italy. However in 1647 the people rose in rebellion. Yet the rebellion was crushed in 1648. Nevertheless by the end of the 17th century Spain was a declining power. Finally the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1713) ended Spanish domination of Italy. Spain was replaced by Austria. The Austrians took Naples (southern Italy) in 1707. They also gained Sardinia but in 1720 they swapped it for Sicily. Also in 1720 the Duchy of Savoy (in northwest Italy) became the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.
In 1734 Spain captured Naples and Sicily from Austria. A Spanish prince, Carlos, became king of Naples and Sicily. On the other hand in 1737 the Grand Duchy of Tuscany passed to Francis of Lorraine, one of the Austrian royal family.
The 18th century was an age of enlightenment when the power of the church was curtailed. It was also a period when Italian rulers carried out reforms. Naples suffered a terrible famine in 1764. Meanwhile famine also struck Tuscany in 1763-1766. However under Grand Duke Leopold (1765-1790) a number of reforms were introduced in Tuscany. Tax privileges were abolished, communal land was sold and the Florentine guilds were abolished. In 1786 torture and capital punishment were abolished in Tuscany. In the late 18th century guilds were also abolished in Lombardy and the power of the church was restricted. In Naples the Jesuits were expelled and the power of the church was reduced.
In 1796 Napoleon led a successful invasion of Italy. Afterwards he re-drew the political map. he created a new state out of Bologna, Ferrara and Milan. It was called the Cisalpine Republic. At first Venice was neutral but in May 1797 Napoleon declared war. In October 1797 he placed Venice under Austrian control. Then, in 1798 Napoleon captured the mainland part of the kingdom of Naples. (The kingdom included Sicily. The king and queen fled there and it remained outside French control).
However in 1799 the Austrians and Russians drove the French out of Italy. Yet in 1800 Napoleon won a great victory at Marengo. This time Piedmont was absorbed into France. The Cisalpine Republic was restored and renamed the Italian Republic. In 1805 Napoleon turned the Italian Republic into the Italian kingdom - with himself as king. In 1806 the French took the mainland part of the kingdom of Naples again. Napoleon made his brother the king of that part of Italy. However after Napoleon's defeat in 1815 the old order returned.
The old kingdoms were restored but the republics of Venice and Genoa were not. Genoa was taken by Piedmont. However there was much discontent in Italy and many people joined secret societies such as the Carbonari. In 1820 the Carbonari led a rebellion in Naples. They led another rebellion in Piedmont in 1821. However the Austrians intervened to crush both rebellions. In 1831 there were other rebellions in Italy but they too were suppressed by the Austrians.
Enter Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872). Mazzini was a great Italian nationalist and he did much to popularize the idea of a united Italy. Mazzini was involved in the rebellion in Piedmont in 1831 and he was forced to flee to France, where he formed an organisation called Young Italy. From 1837 Mazzini lived in Britain where he continued to stoke the fire of nationalism in Italy. Then in 1848 revolutions broke out all over Europe. The first was in Palermo in January. The king of Naples was forced to grant a constitution. In March public pressure forced the king of Piedmont to grant a constitution. Also in March 1848 Venice became an independent republic again. The king of Piedmont decided to take Lombardy from the Austrians and he declared war. Another army was sent from Naples. Meanwhile Giacomo Durando commanded the army of the Papal States. The Pope ordered him to defend the border. However he exceeded his orders by marching to fight the Austrians.
Many people hoped the Pope would lead the Italians to independence and unity. However on 29 April the Pope issued a statement making it clear he had no intention of fighting the Austrians. Worse on 25 May the King of Naples used Swiss mercenaries to stage a coup and restore his power. Finally the Austrians crushed the Piedmontese at Custozza on 24 July. However in the autumn of 1848 the Pope was forced to flee from his home. Rome became a republic. Its army was led by Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882). Unfortunately the French sent an army to crush the Roman Republic and restore the Pope. In March 1849 Piedmont went to war with Austria again but was quickly defeated at Novara. The king of Piedmont abdicated in favor of his son.
The war with Austria began in 1859 and the French won the battles of Magenta and Solferino. However Napoleon III, fearing Prussian intervention, decided to end the war. Without consulting Cavour he made peace with Austria on 11 July 1859. As a result of the peace Piedmont was given Lombardy. That was much less than Cavour hoped for and he resigned rather than accept the peace. He became Prime Minister again in January 1860. Nevertheless the Italians themselves decided their future. The people of Romagna, Modena, Parma and Tuscany all demanded unification with Piedmont. In 1860 Cavour arranged for referendums in these states. All voted to join Piedmont. However in order to obtain Napoleon III's agreement Cavour was obliged to give him Savoy and Nice. Garibaldi was enraged by the loss of Nice and he gathered a force on the coast near Genoa in 1860. With his force of 1,000 Garibaldi planned to prevent the French annexation. However he was persuaded not to.
However the Austrians still controlled Venice. In 1866 Italy joined Prussia in a war with Austria. The Italians were defeated in a land battle at Novara and in a naval battle at Lissa. However Prussia won the war. Afterwards Italy gained Venice. Meanwhile the French still had troops stationed in Rome. However in 1870 France was defeated by Prussia. Needing every man they could get the French withdrew their troops from Rome. The Italians took advantage of French weakness to liberate Rome.
At the end of the 19th century Socialism was growing in Italy. There was unrest among the Sicilian peasants, which Crispi ruthlessly crushed. Under his rule one man came to control the government more and more. However Crispi was destroyed by his foreign policy. In 1885 the Italians took the port of Massawa on the Red Sea Coast. However in January 1887 an Italian force was massacred by the Abyssinians at Dogali. The Italians tried to capture Abyssinia (Ethiopia) again. However on 1 March 1896 an Italian army was annihilated at Adowa.
Meanwhile in 1908 Sicily suffered a terrible earthquake. About 75,000 people died in and around Messina. Then in 1911-1912 the Italians conquered Libya.
After the war Italy gained Trieste and the South Tyrol. However the Italians had also been promised part of the Dalmatian Coast. Yet the Americans had not signed the treaty of London and they refused to be bound by it. In the end the Dalmatian Coast went to Yugoslavia. The Italians also wanted the Adriatic port of Fiume although were not promised it in the treaty of London. However they were not given it. The Italians were deeply disappointed by the eventual peace treaty with Austria and were very angry at their treatment. Then in September 1919 a poet named Gabriele d'Annunzio decided to take Fiume regardless of the Italian government. He led 2,000 Italian nationalists who occupied the city for over a year. Finally in December 1920 the Italian Prime Minister, Giolitti, sent in the navy and d'Annunzio surrendered. Italy formally annexed Fiume in 1924.
Meanwhile in 1919 Mussolini founded the Fascists. Mussolini's Fascists were thugs who acted as strike breakers and committed arson. They also beat up Socialists and forced them to drink castor oil. The Fascists claimed they were acting to restore law and order and were saving Italy from Communism. The police and the army turned a blind eye.
The Fascist movement grew rapidly and in May 1921 35 Fascist deputies were elected. Finally at a mass rally in Naples on 24 October 1922 the Fascists demanded a march on Rome to take power by force. So on 28 October 1922 a force of Fascists marched on Rome (although Mussolini remained in Milan in case anything went wrong). At first the king planned to use the army to resist the Fascists. However at the last moment he changed his mind and refused to sign an order placing Italy under martial law. Instead he summoned Mussolini to be Prime Minister. Mussolini traveled from Milan and arrived in Rome to take up the post on 29 October 1922. Mussolini gradually strengthened his grip on Italy, although his first cabinet was made up of Fascists and members of other political parties. In 1923 Mussolini formed the Fascist militia as an 'auxiliary' army. He also gained the support of the Roman Catholic Church by making religious education compulsory in primary schools.
Mussolini now faced a crisis. However the opposition responded weakly by simply withdrawing their MPs from parliament. Yet Mussolini became increasingly isolated and faced attacks from the press. Finally on 3 January 1925 Mussolini called his opponent's bluff. He made a speech in which he said 'I and I alone assume the political, moral and historical responsibility for all that has happened'. His opponents did nothing.
Finally in 1929 the Fascists made an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church. It was called the Lateran Pact. The Vatican was made a sovereign state and in Italy religious education was extended to secondary schools. The Pope recognized the kingdom of Italy for the first time and he accepted that Rome was now the capital of Italy.
In the 1930s Italy suffered from the worldwide depression. The Fascists responded by increasing public spending. New public buildings were erected. Roads and other public works were created. Nevertheless southern Italy remained very poor. Crime also remained rife although the south's problems were covered up by the Fascist regime. From 1925 Mussolini also campaigned to make Italy self sufficient in grain. The so-called battle of the grain did succeed in increasing grain production. However much Italian land was not well suited to growing wheat. It was better suited to growing other crops such as olives or grapes. Nevertheless some of it was used to grow wheat, which made no economic sense.
When the Second World War began in 1939 Italy stayed neutral. However in 1940 Germany overran Norway, Holland and Belgium and invaded France. Like a vulture Mussolini declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940, hoping to gain overseas territory from them. However when Italian forces attacked France the French army easily held them at bay.
However in May 1941 the British liberated Ethiopia from the Italians. Meanwhile in November 1940 the British utterly defeated the Italian navy at Taranto. Italy had proven to be a broken reed. The ordinary Italian soldiers were not interested in Mussolini's foolish dream of a 'new Roman Empire'. Worse from 1940 Italy suffered air raids. By 1943 60% of Italy's industrial production was destroyed by bombing.
Italy surrendered on 8 September 1943. On 9 September the allies landed at Salerno. The Germans then poured troops into Italy. On 11 September they captured Rome. They also kidnapped Mussolini and made him puppet ruler of northern and central Italy, which they called the Salo Republic.
The allies were in control of southern Italy but they advanced slowly. They captured the monastery of Monte Cassino in May 1944 and they entered Rome on 4 June 1944. Meanwhile the Germans retreated to the north. As well as the allied army the Germans were faced with a force of Italian partisans acting behind their lines. In 1945 the partisans liberated Milan, Turin and Genoa. They also captured Mussolini and shot him on 28 April 1945. The German army in north Italy surrendered on 2 May 1945.
The task of reconstruction then began. In May 1946 the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, abdicated in favor of his son. However on 2 June 1946 a referendum was held and the majority of Italians voted for a republic. On the same day elections were held for a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution. It came into effect on 1 January 1948. The first president of Italy was Luigi Einaudi.
From 1949 to 1953 Italy was helped by Marshall Aid from the USA. Furthermore in the 1950s and early 1960s Italy experienced an 'economic miracle'. Italian industry boomed and living standards rose sharply. However there was still acute poverty in the south of Italy and many southern Italians migrated to the north in search of jobs. During the rest of the 1960s living standards continued to rise. Nevertheless at the end of the decade unrest began in Italy. In 1967-68 there were demonstrations and sit-ins in Italian universities. Then in 1968-69 labor unrest began in the north and there were many strikes.
However labor unrest in Italy declined in the early 1970s as wages grew rapidly and the government introduced some reforms. (In 1965 less than 50% of households had a TV. By 1975 the figure was 92%). Furthermore some reforms were introduced in Italy. In 1970 a new law allowed divorce. (The measure was approved by a referendum in 1974).
Unfortunately in the 1970s Italy suffered from terrorism both right and left wing. In 1978 left wing terrorists kidnapped and murdered the leader of the Christian Democrats, Aldo Moro. In 1980 a bomb planted by fascists killed 84 people in Bologna railway station. Fortunately in the early 1980s terrorism declined. In the early 1980s Italy, like the rest of the world, suffered a recession. However by 1983 it was over and the decade was one of prosperity for most (not all) Italians. Poverty persisted in the south.
Today the north of Italy is highly industrialized but the south is still relatively poor. Italy also has an important fishing industry. Wine is also an important export. However in recent years service industries such as tourism, education and finance have become the most important ones in Italy. Today the population of Italy is 61 million.
A timeline of Italy
A brief history of Malta
A brief history of France
A brief history of Venice
A brief history of the city of Rome
A brief history of Naples
Last Revised 2013