Prehistory and Antiquity
Excavations throughout Italy have shown that Neanderthal man lived as early as the Palaeolithic period, about 200,000 years ago, while modern man arrived about 40,000 years ago. The ancient peoples of pre-Roman Italy – such as the Umbrians, Latins (from whom the Romans descended), Volscians, Oscans, Samnites, Sabines, Celts, Ligurians and many others – were Indo-European peoples. The main historical peoples whose heritage may not be Indo-European are the Etruscans, the Elymians and Sicans of Sicily, and the prehistoric Sardinians, which include the Nuragic civilisation. Other ancient Italian peoples of indeterminate language families, but possibly of non-Indo-European origin, are the Raetians and the Cammuni, known for their rock carvings.
Between the 17th and 11th centuries BC, the Mycenaean Greeks established contacts with Italy. In the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Greek colonies were founded all along the coast of Sicily and the southern part of the Italian peninsula became known as Magna Graecia. The Phoenicians also founded colonies along the coasts of Sardinia and Sicily.
Rome, a colony conventionally founded in 753 BC around a ford on the Tiber River, developed over the centuries into a vast empire stretching from Britain to the borders of Persia and encompassing the entire Mediterranean basin, where Greek, Roman and many other cultures merged into a single civilisation. The Roman heritage profoundly influenced Western civilisation and shaped much of the modern world. In a slow decline since the third century AD, the empire split in two in 395 AD. Under pressure from barbarian invasions, the Western Empire finally dissolved in 476 AD when its last emperor was deposed by the Germanic ruler Odoacer, while the Eastern half of the empire survived for another thousand years.
The Middle Ages
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Italy was conquered by the Ostrogoths, followed in the 6th century by a brief reconquest under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The invasion of another Germanic tribe, the Lombards, at the end of the same century reduced the Byzantine presence to a rump kingdom (the Exarchate of Ravenna) and marked the end of the peninsula’s political unity for the next 1,300 years. The Lombard kingdom was then incorporated into the Frankish Empire by Charlemagne at the end of the 8th century. The Franks also contributed to the formation of the Papal States in central Italy. Until the 13th century, Italian politics was dominated by relations between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy, with most Italian city-states siding with the former (Ghibellines) or the latter (Guelfs) for momentary convenience.
In this chaotic period, a special institution emerged in Italian cities: the medieval commune. Faced with the power vacuum created by extreme territorial fragmentation and the struggle between the Empire and the Holy See, local communities sought autonomous means to maintain public order. In 1176, a league of city-states, the Lombard League, defeated the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano, securing the effective independence of most cities in northern and central Italy. In the coastal and southern regions, the maritime republics developed, the most important of which were Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi, which were heavily involved in the Crusades to eventually dominate the Mediterranean and monopolise the trade routes to the east.
In the south, Sicily became an Islamic emirate in the 9th century, which flourished until the Italo-Normans conquered it at the end of the 11th century, along with most of the Lombard and Byzantine principalities of southern Italy. Through a complex sequence of events, southern Italy developed into a unified kingdom, first under the House of Hohenstaufen, then under the Capetian House of Anjou, and from the 15th century under the House of Aragon. In Sardinia, the former Byzantine provinces became independent states known as Giudicati, although parts of the island were under the control of the Genoese or Pisans until the Aragonese conquered them in the 15th century. The Black Death pandemic of 1348 left its mark on Italy, killing perhaps a third of the population. However, the reappearance of the plague led to a resurgence of cities, trade and commerce, allowing humanism and the Renaissance to flourish and spread throughout Europe.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, northern central Italy was divided into several warring city-states, while the rest of the peninsula was occupied by the great Papal States and the Kingdom of Sicily, here called Naples. Although many of these city-states were often formally subject to foreign rulers, as in the case of the Duchy of Milan, which was officially a constituent state of the Holy Roman Empire, the city-states generally managed to maintain their de facto independence from the foreign rulers who had seized the Italian lands after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The strongest of these city-states gradually absorbed the surrounding territories, giving rise to the signories, regional states often led by merchant families who founded local dynasties. Wars between the city-states were commonplace and were mainly fought by mercenary armies called condottieri. These were bands of soldiers from all over Europe, especially Germany and Switzerland, led largely by Italian captains. After decades of fighting, Florence, Milan and Venice finally prevailed and accepted the Peace of Lodi in 1454, which brought relative peace to the region for the first time in centuries. This peace was to last for the next forty years.
The Renaissance, a period of vibrant revival of art and culture, emerged in Italy thanks to several factors, such as the great wealth accumulated by the trading cities, the patronage of the ruling families such as the Medici of Florence, and the migration of Greek scholars and texts to Italy after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. The Italian Renaissance reached its peak in the mid-16th century, when foreign invasions plunged the region into the turmoil of the Italian Wars. The ideas and ideals of the Renaissance quickly spread to northern Europe, France, England and much of Europe. At the same time, the discovery of America, the new routes to Asia discovered by the Portuguese and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, all of which undermined traditional Italian dominance in trade with the East, caused a long economic decline on the peninsula.
After the Italian Wars (1494-1559), triggered by the rivalry between France and Spain, the city-states gradually lost their independence and came under foreign rule, first under Spain (1559-1713) and then under Austria (1713-1796). In 1629-1631, a new wave of plague affected about 14% of the Italian population. As the Spanish empire began to decline in the 17th century, so did its possessions in Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and Milan. Southern Italy in particular became impoverished and was cut off from the mainstream of European activity. In the 18th century, after the War of the Spanish Succession, Austria replaced Spain as the dominant foreign power, while the House of Savoy became a regional power, expanding into Piedmont and Sardinia. In the same century, the two centuries of decline were interrupted by economic and state reforms carried out by the ruling elites in several states. During the Napoleonic Wars, north-central Italy was conquered and reorganised into the new Kingdom of Italy, a client state of the French Empire, while the southern half of the peninsula was administered by Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, who was crowned King of Naples. The Congress of Vienna in 1814 restored the situation of the late 18th century, but the ideals of the French Revolution could not be eradicated and quickly resurfaced during the political upheavals that characterised the first part of the 19th century.
The emergence of the Kingdom of Italy was the result of the efforts of Italian nationalists and monarchists loyal to the House of Savoy to establish a united kingdom encompassing the entire Italian peninsula. In connection with the liberal revolutions of 1848 that swept through Europe, an unsuccessful war was declared against Austria. In the Second Italian War of Independence of 1859, the Kingdom of Sardinia, with the help of France, again attacked the Austrian Empire, which led to the liberation of Lombardy.
In 1860-61, General Giuseppe Garibaldi led the unification campaign in Naples and Sicily, allowing the Sardinian government under Count de Cavour to proclaim a unified Italian kingdom on 17 March 1861. In 1866, Victor Emmanuel II allied with Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War and led the Third Italian War of Independence, which allowed Italy to annex the Veneto. While France finally abandoned its garrisons in Rome during the devastating Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Italians rushed to fill the power vacuum by taking control of the Papal States.
The constitutional law of the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Albertine Statute of 1848, was extended to the whole Kingdom of Italy in 1861 and provided for the basic freedoms of the new state, but the electoral laws excluded the propertyless and uneducated classes from the right to vote. The government of the new kingdom took place within the framework of a parliamentary constitutional monarchy dominated by liberal forces. In 1913, universal suffrage for men was passed. While northern Italy rapidly industrialised, the south and rural areas of the north remained underdeveloped and overpopulated, forcing millions to emigrate abroad, while the Italian Socialist Party continued to grow in strength, challenging the traditional liberal and conservative establishment. From the last two decades of the 19th century, Italy became a colonial power, exercising its authority over Somalia, Eritrea and later Libya and the Dodecanese.
In 1915, Italy, officially allied with the German Empire and Austria-Hungary in the Triple Alliance, joined the Allies in the war with the promise of substantial territorial gains that included western Inner Carniola, the former Austrian coast, Dalmatia and parts of the Ottoman Empire. The war was initially inconclusive as the Italian army made little progress in a long war of attrition in the Alps and suffered very heavy losses. Finally, in October 1918, the Italians launched a massive offensive that culminated in the victory of Vittorio Veneto. The Italian victory marked the end of the war on the Italian front, securing the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and helping to end the First World War less than two weeks later.
During the war, more than 650,000 Italian soldiers and as many civilians died, and the kingdom was close to bankruptcy. According to the peace treaties of St. Germain, Rapalloand Rome, Italy received most of the promised territories, but not Dalmatia (except Zara), which allowed the nationalists to define the victory as “mutilated”. Italy also annexed the Hungarian port city of Fiume, which was not part of the territories promised to London but had been occupied by Gabriele D’Annunzio after the end of the war.
The fascist regime
The socialist unrest that followed the devastation of the Great War, inspired by the Russian Revolution, led to counter-revolution and repression throughout Italy. The liberal establishment, fearing a Soviet-style revolution, began to support the small National Fascist Party led by Benito Mussolini. In October 1922, the Blackshirts of the National Fascist Party attempted a coup d’état (the “March on Rome”), which failed, but at the last minute King Victor Emmanuel III refused to declare a state of siege and appointed Mussolini prime minister. In the following years, Mussolini banned all political parties and restricted individual freedoms, establishing a dictatorship. These actions attracted the attention of the international community and eventually inspired similar dictatorships, such as Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain.
In 1935, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, which led to international alienation and caused Italy to withdraw from the League of Nations. Italy allied itself with Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan and strongly supported Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, Italy annexed Albania, which was a de facto protectorate for decades. On 10 June 1940, Italy entered the Second World War. After first advancing into British Somaliland and Egypt, the Italians were defeated in East Africa, Greece, Russia and North Africa.
After the attack of Germany and Italy on Yugoslavia, the suppression of the resistance of the Yugoslav partisans and the attempts at Italianisation led to Italian war crimes and the deportation of about 25,000 people to Italian concentration camps, such as Rab, Gonars, Monigo, Renicci di Anghiari and others. After the war, due to the Cold War, there was a long period of censorship, disinterest and denial regarding the Italian war crimes and the murders of the Yugoslav faith. Meanwhile, some 250,000 anti-communist Italians and Slavs fled to Italy during the Istrian exodus.
In July 1943, an Allied invasion of Sicily began, leading to the collapse of the fascist regime and the fall of Mussolini on 25 July. Italy capitulated on 8 September. The Germans quickly gained control of northern and central Italy. The country remained a battlefield for the rest of the war as the Allies slowly advanced from the south.
In the north, the Germans established the Italian Social Republic (RSI), a Nazi puppet state headed by Mussolini. The post-war period saw the rise of a large anti-fascist movement, the Resistenza. Hostilities ended on 29 April 1945 when German forces in Italy surrendered. Almost half a million Italians (including civilians) died in the conflict and the Italian economy was virtually destroyed; per capita income in 1944 was at its lowest level since the beginning of the 20th century.
Italy became a republic after a referendum on 2 June 1946, which has since been celebrated as Republic Day. It was also the first time that Italian women had the right to vote. Victor Emmanuel III’s son, Umberto II, had to abdicate and go into exile. The Republican Constitution was adopted on 1 January 1948. Under the peace treaty with Italy in 1947, most of the Julian Marches were lost to Yugoslavia, and later the free territory of Trieste was divided between the two states. Italy also lost all its colonial possessions, officially marking the end of the Italian Empire.
Italian voters’ fears of a possible communist takeover proved decisive in the first election result under universal suffrage on 18 April 1948, when the Christian Democrats led by Alcide De Gasperi won a landslide victory. As a result, Italy became a member of NATO in 1949. The Marshall Plan helped revive the Italian economy, which experienced a period of sustained economic growth until the late 1960s, commonly referred to as the “economic miracle”. Italy was a founding member of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957, which became the European Union (EU) in 1993.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the country went through the Leaden Years, a period characterised by economic crisis (especially after the 1973 oil crisis), widespread social conflict and terrorist massacres perpetrated by opposing extremist groups with the alleged involvement of American and Soviet intelligence agencies. The Leading Years culminated in the assassination of Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro in 1978 and the Bologna railway station massacre in 1980, in which 85 people were killed.
In the 1980s, for the first time since 1945, two governments were led by non-Christian Democrat prime ministers: a liberal (Giovanni Spadolini) and a socialist (Bettino Craxi); however, the Christian Democrats remained the main party in government. Under Bettino Craxi’s government, the economy recovered and Italy became the fifth largest industrialised nation in the world and joined the G7 group. As a result of spending policies, however, Italian public debt soared during the Craxi era and soon exceeded 100% of GDP.
In the early 1990s, Italy faced major challenges as voters – disillusioned by political paralysis, massive public debt and the extensive system of corruption (known as Tangentopoli) exposed by the Clean Hands poll – demanded radical reforms. The scandals affected all the major parties, but especially those in the ruling coalition: the Christian Democrats, who had ruled for almost 50 years, fell into a serious crisis and eventually disintegrated, splitting into several factions. The communists reorganised themselves into a social democratic force. In the 1990s and 2000s (decade), the country was alternately ruled by centre-right coalitions (dominated by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi) and centre-left coalitions (led by university professor Romano Prodi).
In the late 2000s, Italy was hit hard by the Great Recession. From 2008 to 2015, the country suffered 42 months of GDP recession. The economic crisis was one of the main problems that forced Berlusconi to resign in 2011. The government of the conservative prime minister was replaced by the technocratic cabinet of Mario Monti. After the 2013 general elections, the Democratic Party’s deputy secretary Enrico Letta formed a new government at the head of a grand coalition of the right and the left. In 2014, challenged by the new PD secretary Matteo Renzi, Letta resigned and was replaced by Renzi. The new government launched important constitutional reforms such as the abolition of the Senate and a new electoral law.