A BRIEF HISTORY OF ITALY FROM ANCIENT TIMES TO TODAY
By Tim Lambert
The first civilisation 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 jewellery 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.
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.
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.
Italy Under The Roman Republic
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.
Middle and 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 labour 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.
Italy Under The Roman Empire
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.
Marcus Aurelius 169-180 followed the philosophy of stoicism and he wrote a famous book Meditations. However he died in 180 in a terrible plague that killed many people throughout the empire. He was succeeded by his unworthy son Commodus (180-192).
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.
Crucially Constantine introduced a policy of tolerating Christianity. He was baptised 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. That is usually regarded as the end of the Roman empire.
Read more about barbarians
Life in Rome
ITALY IN THE MIDDLE AGES
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 symbolised 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 recognise 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 a great cultural change came over Italy. It is called the Renaissance, which means 'rebirth'. In the Middle Ages education was mostly controlled by the church for the church. In the late 14th century there were an increasing number of secular educated men in Italy. There was also an increasing interest in the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. At the time Greek scholars (from the Byzantine Empire) came to Italy.
The Renaissance benefited from the printing press, which was introduced into Venice by 1470. Furthermore rich Italians patronised the arts.
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.
ITALY IN THE 16th CENTURY
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.
ITALY IN THE 17th CENTURY
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.
ITALY IN THE 18th CENTURY
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.
ITALY IN THE 19th CENTURY
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 popularise 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 an allocution 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 favour of his son.
In 1852 Camillo Cavour became Prime Minister of Piedmont. In 1855 he led Piedmont into a war with Russia, alongside Britain and France. The war ended with Russian defeat in 1856.
Then, in 1858, Cavour and the French emperor, Napoleon III agreed to fight a war to drive the Austrians out of Italy. However neither wanted a united Italy. Cavour wanted to enlarge Piedmont by taking northern Italy. The two men also agreed to create a central Italian kingdom. In the south the kingdom of Naples (which had been renamed the kingdom of the Two Sicilies) would remain the same.
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 at Villafranca 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 referenda 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.
Meanwhile a rebellion occurred in Palermo. On 6 May Garibaldi and his men sailed to support the rebels. They landed unopposed and Garibaldi declared the king of Piedmont Victor Emmanuel king of Italy. The Neapolitan king sent an army, which was defeated at Calatafimi. Joined by many new supporters Garibaldi and his men captured Palermo in June and crossed the Straits of Messina in August. They marched into Naples on 7 June.
However Cavour was alarmed by Garibaldi's success. He feared that Garibaldi would enter the Papal States and take Rome, which would enrage the Catholic powers. Cavour decided to act first. He sent an army to occupy the Papal States - but not Rome. Finally in October 1860 King Victor Emmanuel met Garibaldi. At the meeting Garibaldi surrendered all his powers to the king.
In January 1861 a parliament was held for the new united Italy. In March it declared Victor Emmanuel king of Italy.
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.
In the late 19th century Italy was still a pre-industrial society. Other parts of Europe were being transformed by the industrial revolution. However it did not reach Italy until the very end of the century. In the late 19th century most Italians worked in agriculture.
Italy also suffered from grinding poverty, especially in the south. Peasants in southern Italy lived in squalid huts with thatched roofs. They shared their homes with their animals (if they had any). Illiteracy was common. (Compulsory primary education was introduced in 1877 but in the south truancy was common). In the late 19th century many Italians emigrated, hoping for a better life overseas.
Ominously in 1882 a writer named Pasquale Turriello claimed that liberal government was not working in Italy. Instead strong government was needed.
Francesco Crispi (1819-1901) was prime minister from 1887 to 1891 and from 1893 to 1896. Under him Italian government gradually became more authoritarian.
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.
ITALY IN THE 20th CENTURY
In 1900, King Umberto was assassinated at Monza. He was succeeded by Vittorio Emanuele III.
Meanwhile in the years 1896-1915 the Italian economy boomed. Northern Italy rapidly industrialised and many ordinary Italians saw a rise in their standard of living. Fiat was founded in Turin in 1899. Other Italian car manufacturers soon followed it. Other industries such as chemicals, textiles and sugar production also boomed. However southern Italy remained poor and backward.
At that time Giovanni Giolitti introduced social reforms including, in 1902 a law banning children under 12 from working. Women were limited to 11 hours work a day. (Despite these measures socialism continued to grow in Italy). In 1912 all literate men over 21 were given the vote.
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.
Italy in the First World War
When the First World War began in 1914 Italy at first remained neutral. However Britain and France persuaded Italy to join their side by offering her territory from Austria-Hungary. In April 1915 Italy signed the Treaty of London, in which she promised to join the war within one month. In return she was promised Austrian territory including the port of Trieste.
When the war began a Socialist called Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who was editor of the newspaper Avanti! opposed Italy joining the war. However he soon changed his mind. By October 1914 Mussolini decided Italy should join. He resigned from Avanti! and founded his own newspaper called Popo d'Italia. In November 1914 he was expelled from the Socialist Party.
However Italy declared war on Austria on 23 May 1915. However the war proved to be a long and terrible one for Italy. In the following three and a half years 5 million Italians served in the army and more than 600,000 were killed. For two and a half years there was stalemate. However in October 1917 the Germans and Austrians launched an offensive at Caporetto. The Italians were severely defeated and over 250,000 men were taken prisoner. However the Italians finally rallied at the River Piave.
By October 1918, bolstered by allied troops, the Italians were advancing rapidly. On October 30 1918 the Italians won a great victory at Vittorio Veneto. Finally the Austrians surrendered on 4 November 1918.
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 Italy suffered a severe economic crisis. There was mass unemployment as soldiers were laid off and war production ceased. There was also high inflation.
There was unrest among the peasants and workers. Many poor peasants had believed that the government would give them their own land after the war. When it did not some simply occupied uncultivated land and the government did nothing to stop them. Meanwhile in northern Italy there were many strikes among industrial workers in 1919. Finally in September 1920 the workers occupied shipyards and factories. The government refused to use force to move them and instead negotiated with them. Eventually the old management were allowed to return but the unrest among the workers and peasants alarmed the upper and middle classes and they were willing to support right wing movements to stop them.
Meanwhile in 1919 Mussolini founded the Fasci di Combattimento. 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.
In 1923 Mussolini also passed a law which stated that whichever party got most votes should get two thirds of the seats in parliament. In the event, in April 1924 the Fascists won 64% of the vote so the new law was hardly needed.
However on 10 June 1924 Giacomo Matteotti, the leader of the Socialists disappeared. His body was found in August and it was clear that the Fascists murdered him. The press accused Mussolini of being involved in the murder.
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.
Mussolini then created a dictatorship in Italy. Between 1926 and 1929 the Fascist party was purged. Meanwhile in October 1926 all opposition parties were banned. The Fascists also gained control of the press by persuading newspaper owners to sack anti-Fascist editors and replace them with friendly ones.
The police were given much greater powers and a secret police force the Opera Vigilanza Repressione Antifascismo or OVRA was formed.Mussolini also created the 'cult of the Duce'. (He called himself Il Duce). Mussolini was praised to the skies in the press and his slogans were painted everywhere. They included 'believe, obey, fight' and 'Mussolini is always right' (possibly the stupidest slogan ever invented).
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 recognised the kingdom of Italy for the first time and he accepted that Rome was now the capital of Italy.
Italy was helped by a world economic recovery in 1922-1929. The Italian economy benefited and for some (though not all) Italians some degree of prosperity returned.
However in 1927 Mussolini revalued the Italian currency. As a result it was overvalued and Italian industry had difficulty exporting goods. Unemployment rose.
Meanwhile in 1927 Mussolini launched the so-called battle of the births to increase Italy's population. It consisted of propaganda and some financial incentives to try and persuade women to have more children. A special tax was placed on single men and in 1934 family allowances were introduced. Nevertheless the Italian birth rate continued to fall. The population of Italy did increase but only because of a fall in the death rate.
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.
Ultimately Mussolini led Italy into disaster. In November 1935 he ordered an invasion of Ethiopia. The Ethiopians had little chance against a modern army and bomber planes. The Fascists also used poison gas and Ethiopia was soon overrun. The League of Nations (forerunner of the UN) imposed economic sanctions but they had little effect. Instead they just drove Mussolini into Hitler's arms.
In the late 1930s Italy was increasingly dominated by Germany. Eventually Italy became a German satellite and Mussolini became a puppet ruler.
In 1938 there was a sign of increasing German influence when Mussolini introduced anti-Semitic laws. Italian Jews were banned from marrying non-Jews. They were also banned from joining the Fascist party and from working in the public sector. Jews were also forbidden to own more than 50 hectares of land.
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.
In October 1940 the Italians invaded Greece. However the Greeks easily defeated them. Meanwhile in September 1940 the Italians invaded British Egypt from Libya. However in December 1940 the British counterattacked. The Italians were routed and by January 1941 the British had taken 133,000 prisoners. The British would have taken all of Libya but the Italians were 'rescued' by the Germans. Hitler sent troops under General Rommel to North Africa.
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.
Furthermore when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 Mussolini sent troops to support them. The Italian troops in Russia suffered terrible losses.
At the end of 1941 Italy and Germany declared war on the USA. The British won a great victory at El Alamein in November 1942. At the beginning of 1943 the Russians were victorious at Stalingrad. The Germans and Italians) were now clearly losing the war.
In March 1943 there were strikes in Turin and Milan. Fascism was crumbling. Then on 10 July 1943 the allies landed in Sicily. Finally Mussolini agreed to allow the Fascist Grand Council to meet. It met on 24 July and voted that the king should resume all his constitutional powers. On 25 July 1943 Mussolini visited the king and was arrested. The king and parliament took power again.
The king appointed Marshal Pietro Bagdolio prime minister. Publicly Bagdolio said that Italy would continue to fight but secretly he sought an armistice with the allies.
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 favour 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.
Italy was also a founder member of the EEC (forerunner of the EU) in 1957.
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 labour unrest began in the north and there were many strikes.
However labour 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%.
Meanwhile church attendance fell rapidly as the Catholic Church lost its grip on Italy. In 1956 70% of adults attended church regularly. By 2007 the figure was only 23%.
Furthermore some reforms were introduced in Italy. In 1970 a new law allowed divorce. (The measure was approved by a referendum in 1974). In 1978 limited abortion was allowed in Italy. (This measure was approved by a referendum in 1981).
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.
In 1999 Italy joined the Euro. However the decision to join the Euro proved to be disastrous today unemployment is high.
Today the north of Italy is highly industrialised 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
Last Revised 2013