Since earliest times, Italy has been impacted by cultural and political divisions resulting from the country’s contrasting geography and by circumstances that made Italy the theatre of many important struggles over power in Europe. Italy has been the epicenter of many important battles and has a rich and varied history. Here are just a few of the highlights.
Excavations throughout Italy and Sicily have surfaced evidence of human activity dating back to the Paleolithic period which began literally millions of years ago. The influence of other cultures was felt even then with the finding of painted vessels that seem to have been influenced by contemporary styles in Greece. These were excavated at Castellaro Vecchio on the island of Lipari.
The records of later Roman historians put the city of Rome being founded at 753 BC, probably by local Latins and Sabines who were ruled by Etruscan kings from 616 BC. After the expulsion of the last of these kings, the power of the Etruscans declined as the Romans began the unification of Italy. This process reached its final stage when the right of Roman citizenship was extended throughout Italy in 89 BC. This was also facilitated with the subsequent diffusion of Roman institutions and culture from the Alps to Sicily, and Latin as the general language.
The Roman Empire began effectively with Augustusâ€™ (the man who would later become Emperor) victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in 31 BC. In 330 AD, Emperor Constantine I transferred the capital from Rome to Constantinople. Italy’s administrative autonomy was lost shortly afterwards when two dioceses were joined with that of Africa to form a single prefecture. During the early middle Ages, Italian ties with the “New Rome” of the East (Constantinople) were at first threatened and later severed after a series of invasions happened from the west and north. The complete severing of ties with the East was confirmed by the emergence of the Papacy and the Italian cities as powers in their own right.
The (second) medieval revival of the Western Roman Empire, which is referred to as The Holy Roman Empire, lasted from 962 AD to 1806. By the year 1250, much of its power had vanished, and by about 1650 the empire had lost virtually all power. Nevertheless, the Empire continued to endure until 1806, when it was abolished by Emperor Francis II.
In this theatre of political fragmentation, many Italian cities began to assert their independence. During the 11th century an elaborate pattern of communal government began to develop under the leadership of a middle class grown wealthy in trade, banking, and such industries as woolen textiles. Many cities reflected these changes, especially Milan, Genoa, Venice, Florence, and Pisa, which became powerful and independent city-states. Resisting the efforts of both the old nobles and the emperors to control them, these communities promoted the end of feudalism in northern Italy and wanted to replace it with deeply rooted identification with the city as opposed to the larger region or country. Simultaneous with the weakening of papal and imperial authority, greater intellectual changes were taking place 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. Powerful families came to be hereditary rulers who used their wealth and power to control their chosen city-state. 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. Under the patronage of the Medici family, for example, Florence became the most magnificent and prestigious center of the arts in Italy. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Italian ideas and styles were to influence all of Europe.
Under progressive, liberal leadership in 1861 the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed. Only Venetia and Rome were not included in the new state (with Venice added in 1866 and Rome in 1870). Italians at last had their own country.
Between 1945 and 1948 a new Italian nation emerged from the disaster of Fascism and the Second World War. On June 2nd, 1946 a popular election abolished the monarchy in favor of a republic, and a new constitution was adopted the next year. With the help of 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 European Common Market in 1958.
During the 1960s the Italians saw their country lifted by continued prosperity and a lessening of tensions between right and left. Yet change was right around the corner as in the late 1970s and early 1980s labor unrest, frequent government scandals, and the violence of extremist groups all contributed to a volatile political situation.
The 1990′s saw a complete overhaul of the government in Italy as many corrupt leaders were weeded out with aggressive prosecution of those with Mafia ties. Italy looks to improve its economic outlook and boost tourism as it joins the world in the 21st century.
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