History of Italy

Brief history of Italy summarized

In this brief historical review we present, in an entertaining way, the summary of the history of Italy, cradle of the Roman Empire.

The Etruscans

The origin of Italy’s history begins with its first civilization, the Etruscans, which arose around 800 BC in central Italy. The Etruscans built cities according to a grid pattern. Some of these cities still exist (such as Arezzo, Chiusi, Cortona, Perugia and Cerveteri). The Etruscans were also engineers who drained swamps and built roads.

Furthermore, they were skilled artists. The Etruscans made terracotta sculptures and worked in bronze. Its artisans also made gold and silver jewelry. Etruscan artists painted frescoes on the walls of the tombs of the wealthy. They also painted pottery.

etruscan fresco painting

The upper class Etruscans lived in splendid houses with many rooms arranged around a courtyard. They had luxurious furniture. The Etruscans who were poor lived in simple wooden and brick huts.

The Etruscans were influenced by the Greeks, with whom they traded. Around 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 in mainland Italy such as Reggio Calabria.

In 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 gradually invaded the Etruscan territory. The last Etruscan city fell to the Romans in 265 BC, ushering in a key period in world history.

etruscan civilization map

The rise of Rome

In the middle of the 8th century BC there was a settlement in Rome. In the 6th century BC it was ruled by Etruscan kings. Kings were advised by the senate, a body consisting of Roman aristocrats or patricians. However, in 510 BC the Romans revolted and expelled the last king Tarquinius Superbus.

Later, Rome was governed by two officials called consuls who were chosen from among the senators. The consuls served for a period of one year. Working class Romans were called plebeians. In the sixth 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 get them back.

From the beginning Rome was an aggressive and expansionist state. At first the Romans conquered central Italy. In 396 BC C. they conquered the important Etruscan city of Veii. However, in the year 390 a. C. the Gauls captured and sacked Rome. However, Rome recovered and conquered southern Italy. In the year 272 BC almost all of southern Italy was in the hands of the Romans.

roman empire expansion map in italy

Rome then came into conflict with Carthage. The Phoenicians from Lebanon founded a colony in North Africa, which they called Carthage. Over 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 was mainly a naval war. It ended with the capture of Sicily by the Romans. Shortly after they also occupied Sardinia and Corsica.

The Second Punic War lasted from 218 to 202 BC. In 218 BC, Hannibal marched a large army of elephants from Spain, through southern France, and across the Alps to Italy. He defeated the Romans in several battles, Ticino and Trebia in 218 BC, Lake Trasimeno in 217 BC, and at Cannae in 216 BC However, Hannibal did not have the resources to completely destroy Rome and the Romans sent an army north from Africa. Led by Scipio, the Romans won a decisive battle at Zama in 202 BC.

Meanwhile, the Romans expanded north. Northern Italy was inhabited by Celts, but the Romans gradually conquered them. By 90 BC all of northern Italy was in the hands of the Romans. In addition, the Romans fought a series of wars with the Macedonians. The wars ended in 148 BC when Macedonia became a Roman province.

Some Romans became very wealthy as a result of these successful wars. Also, prisoners of war became slaves, so there was a huge influx of slaves into Roman territory. Some wealthy Romans made their fortune 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 places such as roads and temples were built. However, the dramatic social changes caused much unrest in Rome.

Meanwhile, the slaves sometimes rebelled. The first rebellion or servile war lasted from 135 to 132 BC when the slaves of Sicily rebelled. Sicilian slaves revolted again in 103 BC but were crushed in 99 BC Finally, Spartacus led a rebellion of Italian slaves in 73 BC

However, the rebellion was crushed in 71 BC Non-Roman Italians then rose up against Rome in the Social War of 91-89 BC They demanded certain rights and privileges. The Roman troops of Cornelius Sulla crushed the revolt. However, in 89 BC all free Italians were granted Roman citizenship.

In the first century BC the Roman republic slowly collapsed and power was increasingly in the hands of successful generals. In times of emergency, the Romans sometimes appointed a temporary dictator to take charge of the situation. In 83 BC Sulla became dictator. He ruled until 80 BC Then, in 67 BC, another powerful general, Gnaeus Pompey, waged a successful campaign against pirates in the Mediterranean.

In the years 66-62 BC it added parts of Turkey, Syria and its environs to the Roman Empire. In AD 60 he formed a triumvirate with two other men, Crassus and Julius Caesar. The triumvirate only lasted about a year, but was renewed in 56 BC However, Crassus died in 52 BC and Pompey was appointed sole Consul.

Meanwhile, the third member of the triumvirate, Julius Caesar, conquered Gaul. His military victories made him very popular among his men. However, in 49 BC the Senate voted that Caesar should relinquish command of the army and return to Rome without his troops.

Caesar refused and instead marched on Rome. Troops were lacking to defend the city. Pompey fled to Greece to raise an army. Caesar followed him and defeated him. Pompey fled to Egypt where he was assassinated. Julius Caesar was dictator of Rome until 44 BC when he was assassinated.

the death of cesar vincenzo camuccini

After his death another triumvirate took power. It was formed by Marco Antonio, Marco Lépido and Cayo Octavio, great-nephew of Julius Caesar. Lepidus was deposed in 36 BC and Octavian and Mark Antony soon fell. Octavian defeated Mark Antony at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC Octavian became the first Roman Emperor (in all but name). In the year 27 BC he was granted the title of ‘Augustus’. The Roman Republic was finished.

Italy under the Roman Empire

Augustus kept the senate, but had 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 AD 14 it was a peaceful and prosperous place. He was followed by his stepson Tiberius (14-37 AD).

The next emperor was Gaius or Caligula (AD 37-41), who ruled so poorly that 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 Great Britain. Next came Nero (54-68). Vespasian (69-79) built the Colosseum and under Trajan (98-117) and Hadrian (177-138) the Roman Empire was at its height.

maximum extension roman empire trajan 117

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 Emperor Severus Alexander was assassinated 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 succession struggle. Constantine was proclaimed emperor in 306, but was not in complete control of the empire until 324. Constantine introduced a policy of tolerance of Christianity.

He was baptized on his deathbed in the year 337. Diocletian divided the empire into two halves, western and eastern. Constantine united them in 324 but they parted again after his death. Gradually there was less and less cooperation between the two halves.

In the Western Roman Empire there was a relentless economic decline with galloping inflation. Meanwhile, the Germanic tribes across the border grew stronger.

In the 5th century, the Western Roman Empire gradually collapsed (although it continued in the West). In 406-407 the Germanic people invaded Gaul and in 407 the Roman army left Britain. Then in 410 Alaric the Gothic captured Rome. However, the Roman Empire survived for some time.

However, in 429-430 a people called the Vandals crossed from Spain into North Africa. This had serious consequences for the Romans, as they imported much of their grain from there. Worse still, in 455, the Vandals sacked Rome. Finally, the history of the Roman empire ends in the year 476, when the last Roman emperor in the west was deposed and a German named Odoacer became king of Italy.

Italy in the first half of 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 his command Germans and Romans coexisted peacefully in Italy.

Meanwhile, the eastern half of the Roman Empire continued to flourish. It was now called the Byzantine Empire. In 535 the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent an army to Italy under his general Belisarius. Thus began a long period of warfare that devastated much of Italy.

Belisarius marched north through Italy and captured Ravenna in 540. However, under their leader Totila (541-552), the Goths recaptured most of Italy. Only Ravenna and a few other coastal cities remained in Byzantine hands. The pendulum swung the other way.

Under their general Narses the Byzantines took back all of Italy by 562. Then, in 568, a people called the Lombards invaded northern Italy. Under their leaders Authari (584-590) and Agilulf (590-616), the Lombards forced their way south, but were stopped by the Byzantines in a line from Ravenna to Rome.

Little by little the Lombards intermarried with the native Italians and also adopted Italian customs. They also adopted the Italian language.

In 751 the Lombard king Astolfo took Ravenna and threatened Rome. The Pope asked the Franks for help. Under their leader Pepin III the Franks invaded northern Italy. They defeated the Lombards and Pepín handed over Ravenna and some territories in central Italy to the Pope. So the Popes came to rule their own state in central Italy. The Franks withdrew, but in 772 they invaded Italy again. This time they conquered the Lombard kingdom.

Map of the Lombard kingdom after Astolfo's conquests (751)

Charlemagne, leader of the Franks, confirmed the Pope’s rule over part of central Italy. After Charlemagne’s death in 814, the emperors 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 disintegrated. 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 southern Italy. Meanwhile, the disintegration of the kingdom of Italy allowed several city-states to emerge.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, trade in the Mediterranean boomed and the cities of northern and central Italy became rich and important. They were also independent. However, in the south, the Normans prevented the cities from becoming autonomous.

However, in the 12th century the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa attempted to restore German authority over the cities of northern Italy. In 1162 Barbarossa destroyed Milan. As a result, the northern Italians formed the Lombard League against him.

Barbarossa invaded Italy in 1174, but his army was defeated at the Battle of Legnano in 1176. Barbarossa was forced to recognize the independence of the northern Italian cities by the Peace of Constance in 1183. Frederick Barbarossa died in 1190.

Frederick Barbarossa with his children

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 rebelled. Pedro de Aragón (a kingdom in northern Spain) then captured the island of Sicily, which, for a time, became independent from the mainland.

Meanwhile, the populations of the cities of northern Italy grew rapidly. Their trade and prosperity also increased. The rise of the cities of northern Italy was temporarily interrupted by the Black Death disaster in 1348, which killed a third of the population. However, they recovered and at the end of the 14th century a new chapter in Italian history began.

Italy in the late Middle Ages

At the end of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries art flourished in Italy. This period in history produced great writers and artists. There was also a growing interest in the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Rich Italians patronized the arts. Meanwhile, the printing press was introduced to Venice in 1470.

the birth of venus botticelli

Meanwhile, Italian trade prospered. City-states flourished. In the fifteenth century Florence was ruled by the Medici, a banking family. (Florence was a republic ruled by an oligarchy, but the Medici 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 the 15th century, Italy fell prey to foreign powers. In 1494 the French king claimed the throne of Naples. That year he invaded Italy and entered Naples in February 1495. However, he was soon forced to withdraw.

Century XVI

In the 16th century the French and the Spanish fought for 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 Spanish 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 Spanish sent an army against the League, and in 1527 they sacked Rome. In 1529, the French were forced to give up their claims to Italy by the Treaty of Cambrai. However, they fought further wars with the Spanish until 1559, when the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis finally ended the French presence in Italy. Later, Italy was dominated by the Spanish.

During the fifteenth century, free thought and research flourished in Italy. However, things changed during the 16th century. The Inquisition cruelly persecuted Protestants in Italy. In 1600 they burned an astronomer named Giordano Bruno.

XVII century

In the seventeenth century the Italian economy entered a long recession. Commerce and industry declined. (This was due in part to the declining importance of Mediterranean trade and the increase in trade outside Europe.) Italian agriculture stagnated.

Poverty and banditry increased. Meanwhile, Italy was struck by the 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 town revolted. However, the rebellion was crushed in 1648. However, by the end of the 17th century, Spain was a power in decline. Finally, the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1713) ended the 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 exchanged it for Sicily. Also in 1720 the Duchy of Savoy (in northwestern Italy) became the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Century XVIII

In 1734 Spain captured Naples and Sicily from Austria. A Spanish prince, Carlos, became king of Naples and Sicily. Furthermore, in 1737 the Grand Duchy of Tuscany passed to Francis of Lorraine, one of the members of the Austrian royal family.

The 18th century was a time of enlightenment when the power of the church was curtailed. It was also a period when the Italian rulers carried out reforms. Naples suffered a terrible famine in 1764. Meanwhile, famine also hit Tuscany in 1763-1766.

Under Grand Duke Leopold (1765-1790) a series of reforms were introduced in Tuscany. Fiscal privileges were abolished, communal lands were sold, and Florentine guilds were abolished. In 1786, torture and capital punishment were abolished in Tuscany. At the end of the 18th century the brotherhoods were also abolished in Lombardy and the power of the church was curtailed. In Naples the Jesuits were expelled and the power of the church was reduced.

Italian states in 1796

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