Rome , a settlement around a ford on the river Tiber in central Italy conventionally founded in BC, was ruled for a period of years by a monarchical system, initially with sovereigns of Latin and Sabine origin, later by Etruscan kings. The Italian Peninsula, named Italia , was consolidated into a single entity during the Roman expansion and conquest of new lands at the expense of the other Italic tribes , Etruscans , Celts , and Greeks. A permanent association with most of the local tribes and cities was formed, and Rome began the conquest of Western Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East.
In the wake of Julius Caesar 's rise and death in the first century BC, Rome grew over the course of centuries into a massive empire stretching from Britain to the borders of Persia , and engulfing the whole Mediterranean basin, in which Greek and Roman and many other cultures merged into a unique civilisation. The long and triumphant reign of the first emperor, Augustus , began a golden age of peace and prosperity.
Italy remained the metropole of the empire, and as the homeland of the Romans and the territory of the capital, maintained a special status which made it "not a province, but the Domina ruler of the provinces ". The Roman Empire was among the most powerful economic, cultural, political and military forces in the world of its time, and it was one of the largest empires in world history. At its height under Trajan , it covered 5 million square kilometres. The Western Empire , under the pressure of the barbarian invasions , eventually dissolved in AD when its last emperor, Romulus Augustulus , was deposed by the Germanic chief Odoacer.
The Eastern half of the Empire survived for another thousand years. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire , Italy fell under the power of Odoacer's kingdom , and, later, was seized by the Ostrogoths ,  followed in the 6th century by a brief reconquest under Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The invasion of another Germanic tribe , the Lombards , late in the same century, reduced the Byzantine presence to the rump realm of the Exarchate of Ravenna and started the end of political unity of the peninsula for the next 1, years. Invasions of the peninsula caused a chaotic succession of barbarian kingdoms and the so-called " dark ages ".
The Lombard kingdom was subsequently absorbed into the Frankish Empire by Charlemagne in the late 8th century. The Franks also helped the formation of the Papal States in central Italy. Until the 13th century, Italian politics was dominated by the relations between the Holy Roman Emperors and the Papacy, with most of the Italian city-states siding with the former Ghibellines or with the latter Guelphs from momentary convenience.
However, the conflict for the investiture controversy a conflict over two radically different views of whether secular authorities such as kings, counts, or dukes, had any legitimate role in appointments to ecclesiastical offices and the clash between Guelphs and Ghibellines led to the end of the Imperial-feudal system in the north of Italy where city-states gained independence.
It was during this chaotic era that Italian towns saw the rise of a peculiar institution, the medieval commune. Given the power vacuum caused by extreme territorial fragmentation and the struggle between the Empire and the Holy See , local communities sought autonomous ways to maintain law and order.
In a league of city-states, the Lombard League , defeated the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano , thus ensuring effective independence for most of northern and central Italian cities.
Italian city-states such as Milan, Florence and Venice played a crucial innovative role in financial development, devising the main instruments and practices of banking and the emergence of new forms of social and economic organization. They were independent thalassocratic city-states, though most of them originated from territories once belonging to the Byzantine Empire.
Mark in Venice. Near Usher Hall. The Franks also helped the formation of the Papal States in central Italy. In the early s, the first star to emerge from the Italian hip hop scene was singer Jovanotti. French
All these cities during the time of their independence had similar systems of government in which the merchant class had considerable power. Although in practice these were oligarchical, and bore little resemblance to a modern democracy , the relative political freedom they afforded was conducive to academic and artistic advancement.
Venice maintained enormous tracts of land in Greece, Cyprus, Istria and Dalmatia until as late as the midth century. Venice and Genoa were Europe's main gateway to trade with the East, and a producer of fine glass, while Florence was a capital of silk, wool, banks and jewellery. The wealth such business brought to Italy meant that large public and private artistic projects could be commissioned.
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The republics were heavily involved in the Crusades , providing support and transport, but most especially taking advantage of the political and trading opportunities resulting from these wars. In the south, Sicily had become an Islamic emirate in the 9th century, thriving until the Italo-Normans conquered it in the late 11th century together with most of the Lombard and Byzantine principalities of southern Italy.
In Sardinia , the former Byzantine provinces became independent states known in Italian as Judicates , although some parts of the island fell under Genoese or Pisan rule until the eventual Aragonese annexation in the 15th century. The Black Death pandemic of left its mark on Italy by killing perhaps one third of the population. Italy was the birthplace and heart of the Renaissance during the s and s. The Italian Renaissance marked the transition from the medieval period to the modern age as Europe recovered, economically and culturally, from the crises of the Late Middle Ages and entered the Early Modern Period.
The Italian polities were now regional states effectively ruled by Princes , de facto monarchs in control of trade and administration, and their courts became major centres of Arts and Sciences. The Italian princedoms represented a first form of modern states as opposed to feudal monarchies and multinational empires. Following the conclusion of the western schism in favor of Rome at the Council of Constance — , the new Pope Martin V returned to the Papal States after a three years-long journey that touched many Italian cities and restored Italy as the sole centre of Western Christianity.
During the course of this voyage, the Medici Bank was made the official credit institution of the Papacy and several significant ties were established between the Church and the new political dynasties of the peninsula. The Popes' status as elective monarchs turned the conclaves and consistories of the Renaissance into political battles between the courts of Italy for primacy in the peninsula and access to the immense resources of the Catholic Church.
The fall of Constantinople led to the migration of Greek scholars and texts to Italy, fueling the rediscovery of Greco-Roman Humanism.
Pico della Mirandola wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man , considered the manifesto of Renaissance Humanism , in which he stressed the importance of free will in human beings. The humanist historian Leonardo Bruni was the first to divide human history in three periods: Antiquity, Middle Ages and Modernity. Italian explorers and navigators from the dominant maritime republics, eager to find an alternative route to the Indies in order to bypass the Ottoman Empire, offered their services to monarchs of Atlantic countries and played a key role in ushering the Age of Discovery and the European colonization of the Americas.
The most notable among them were: Christopher Columbus , colonizer in the name of Spain, who is credited with discovering the New World and the opening of the Americas for conquest and settlement by Europeans;  John Cabot , sailing for England, who was the first European to set foot in "New Found Land" and explore parts of the North American continent in ;  Amerigo Vespucci , sailing for Portugal, who first demonstrated in about that the New World in particular Brazil was not Asia as initially conjectured, but a fourth continent previously unknown to people of the Old World America is named after him ;   and Giovanni da Verrazzano , at the service of France, renowned as the first European to explore the Atlantic coast of North America between Florida and New Brunswick in ; .
Following the fall of Constantinople, the wars in Lombardy came to an end and a defensive alliance known as Italic League was formed between Venice, Naples, Florence, Milan, and the Papacy. Lorenzo the Magnificent de Medici was the greatest Florentine patron of the Renaissance and supporter of the Italic League. He notably avoided the collapse of the League in the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and during the aborted invasion of Italy by the Turks.
During the High Renaissance of the s, Italy was therefore both the main European battleground and the cultural-economic centre of the continent.
Popes such as Julius II — fought for the control of Italy against foreign monarchs, others such as Paul III — preferred to mediate between the European powers in order to secure peace in Italy. In the middle of this conflict, the Medici popes Leo X — and Clement VII — opposed the Protestant reformation and advanced the interests of their family. The end of the wars ultimately left northern Italy indirectly subject to the Austrian Habsburgs and Southern Italy under direct Spanish Habsburg rule. The Papacy remained independent and launched the Counter-reformation.
The Italian economy declined during the s and s, as the peninsula was excluded from the rising Atlantic slave trade. Following the European wars of succession of the 18th century, the south passed to a cadet branch of the Spanish Bourbons and the North fell under the influence of the Habsburg-Lorraine of Austria.
The Congress of Vienna restored the situation of the late 18th century, but the ideals of the French Revolution could not be eradicated, and soon re-surfaced during the political upheavals that characterised the first part of the 19th century. The birth of the Kingdom of Italy was the result of efforts by Italian nationalists and monarchists loyal to the House of Savoy to establish a united kingdom encompassing the entire Italian Peninsula.
Following the Congress of Vienna in , the political and social Italian unification movement, or Risorgimento , emerged to unite Italy consolidating the different states of the peninsula and liberate it from foreign control. A prominent radical figure was the patriotic journalist Giuseppe Mazzini , member of the secret revolutionary society Carbonari and founder of the influential political movement Young Italy in the early s, who favoured a unitary republic and advocated a broad nationalist movement.
His prolific output of propaganda helped the unification movement stay active. The most famous member of Young Italy was the revolutionary and general Giuseppe Garibaldi , renowned for his extremely loyal followers,  who led the Italian republican drive for unification in Southern Italy. However, the Northern Italy monarchy of the House of Savoy in the Kingdom of Sardinia , whose government was led by Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour , also had ambitions of establishing a united Italian state.
In the context of the liberal revolutions that swept through Europe, an unsuccessful first war of independence was declared on Austria. In , the Kingdom of Sardinia became an ally of Britain and France in the Crimean War , giving Cavour's diplomacy legitimacy in the eyes of the great powers.
In —, Garibaldi led the drive for unification in Naples and Sicily the Expedition of the Thousand ,  while the House of Savoy troops occupied the central territories of the Italian peninsula, except Rome and part of Papal States. Teano was the site of the famous meeting of 26 October between Giuseppe Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel II , last King of Sardinia, in which Garibaldi shook Victor Emanuel's hand and hailed him as King of Italy; thus, Garibaldi sacrificed republican hopes for the sake of Italian unity under a monarchy.
Cavour agreed to include Garibaldi's Southern Italy allowing it to join the union with the Kingdom of Sardinia in This allowed the Sardinian government to declare a united Italian kingdom on 17 March Finally, in , as France abandoned its garrisons in Rome during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War to keep the large Prussian Army at bay, the Italians rushed to fill the power gap by taking over the Papal States.
Italian unification was completed and shortly afterward Italy's capital was moved to Rome.
The new Kingdom of Italy obtained Great Power status. The Constitutional Law of the Kingdom of Sardinia the Albertine Statute of , was extended to the whole Kingdom of Italy in , and provided for basic freedoms of the new State, but electoral laws excluded the non-propertied and uneducated classes from voting. The government of the new kingdom took place in a framework of parliamentary constitutional monarchy dominated by liberal forces. As Northern Italy quickly industrialised, the South and rural areas of the North remained underdeveloped and overpopulated, forcing millions of people to migrate abroad and fuelling a large and influential diaspora.
The Italian Socialist Party constantly increased in strength, challenging the traditional liberal and conservative establishment. Starting from the last two decades of the 19th century, Italy developed into a colonial power by forcing Eritrea , Somalia and later Libya and the Dodecanese under its rule. In , male universal suffrage was adopted. The pre-war period dominated by Giovanni Giolitti , Prime Minister five times between and , was characterized by the economic, industrial and political-cultural modernization of Italian society.
The country gave a fundamental contribution to the victory of the conflict as one of the " Big Four " top Allied powers. The war was initially inconclusive, as the Italian army got stuck in a long attrition war in the Alps, making little progress and suffering very heavy losses.
However, the reorganization of the army and the conscription of the so-called ' 99 Boys Ragazzi del '99 , all males born in who were turning 18 led to more effective Italian victories in major battles, such as on Monte Grappa and in a series of battles on the Piave river. Eventually, in October , the Italians launched a massive offensive, culminating in the victory of Vittorio Veneto. The Italian victory    marked the end of the war on the Italian Front, secured the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was chiefly instrumental in ending the First World War less than two weeks later.