Prehistory. Neanderthal humans roam Italy; around 10,000 b.c., Cro-Magnon shows up.
*   1200 b.c. Etruscans begin to emigrate from Asia Minor, settling in Tuscany.
*   800 b.c. Greeks colonize Sicily and the peninsula’s boot (collectively “Magna Graecia”).
*   753 b.c. Romulus, says legend, founds Rome. In fact, Rome grows out of a strategically located shepherd village.
*   700 b.c. Etruscans rise in power, peaking in the 6th century b.c., and make Rome their capital.
*   509 b.c. Republic of Rome is founded; power is shared by two consuls.
*   494–450 b.c. Office of the Tribune established to defend plebeian rights. The Twelve Tablets stating basic rights are carved, the foundation of Roman law.
*   279 b.c. Romans now rule all of the Italian peninsula.
*   146 b.c. Rome defeats Tunisian power in Carthage; the Republic now controls Sicily, North Africa, Spain, Sardinia, Greece, and Macedonia.
*   100 b.c. Julius Caesar born.
*   60 b.c. Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus share power in the First Triumvirate.
*   51 b.c. Caesar triumphs over Gaul (France).
*   44 b.c. March 15, Caesar assassinated, leaving all to his nephew and heir, Octavian.
*   27 b.c. Octavian, now Augustus, is declared emperor, beginning Roman Empire and 200 years of peace and prosperity.
*   a.d. 29 (or 33) Jesus is crucified in Roman province of Judea.
*   64–100 Nero persecutes Christians; a succession of military commanders restore order; Trajan expands the empire.
*   200 Goths invade from the north; the empire begins to decline.
*   313 With the Edict of Milan, Emperor Constantine I grants Christians freedom of religion. By 324 it is declared the official religion. Constantine also establishes Constantinople as the eastern capital, splitting the empire in half.
*   410-76 Waves of northern barbarian tribes continue to overrun Italy and sack Rome itself, eventually setting up their own puppet "emperors."
*   476 Last emperor deposed; the empire falls; the Dark Ages begin.
*   590–604 Church asserts political control as Pope Gregory I "The Great" brings some stability to the peninsula.
*   774–800 Frankish king Charlemagne invades Italy and is crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. Upon his death, Italy dissolves into a series of small warring kingdoms.
*   962 Holy Roman Empire founded under Otto I, king of Saxony; serves as the temporal arm of the church’s spiritual power.
*   11th century Normans conquer southern Italy and introduce feudalism. The first Crusades are launched.
*   1309–77 Papacy abandons Rome for Avignon, France.
*   1350 The Black Death decimates Europe, reducing Italy’s population by a third.
*   1450 City-states hold power; Venice controls much of the eastern Mediterranean. The Humanist movement rediscovers the art and philosophy of ancient Greece and gives rise to the artistic Renaissance.
*   c.1500 Peak of the High Renaissance. Italian artists working at the turn of the 15th century include Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna, and Titian.
*   1519–27 Carlos I Hapsburg of Spain is crowned Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V in 1519. He wages war against the French, and the pope scurries back and forth, supporting first one side then the next as their wars are played out largely in Italy over Italian territories. In 1527, Charles V marches into Rome and sacks the city while Pope Clement VII escapes. Charles occupies nearly all of Northern Italy, divying it up amongst his followers.
*   1535 Francesco II Sforza of Milan dies, leaving the Duchy in Spanish Hapsburg hands.
*   1545–1563 Council of Trent takes a hard line against the reformist Protestant movements sweeping Europe north of the Alps, launching the Counter-Reformation and, as an unexpected consequence, ultimately reducing the pope's power as a secular ruler of Europe to merely a prince of central Italy.
*   17th–18th century Italy’s darkest hour: brigands control the countryside, the Austrians and Spanish everything else. By the mid–18th century, wealthy Northern Europeans begin taking the Grand Tour, journeying to Italy to study ancient architecture and Italian Old Masters (as well as taking advantage of the sunny clime and low-cost living). Italy's tourism industry has begun.
*   1784 The French Revolution sparks Italian nationalism.
*   1796–1814 Napoléon sweeps through Italy, installing friends and relatives as rulers.
*   1814 Napoléon’s defeat at Waterloo.
*   1830 Beginning of the Risorgimento political movement in Turin and Genoa, which will culminate in Italian nationalism, accompanied by a new Renaissance of literature and music.
*   1861 Kingdom of Italy is created under Vittorio Emmanuele II, Savoy king of Piedmont (Piemonte), and united through the military campaign of General Garibaldi. Turin serves briefly as interim capital.
*   1870 Rome, last papal stronghold, falls to Garibaldi. Italy becomes a country, Rome its capital.
*   Late 19th century Mass emigration to America and other foreign shores, though mostly from the impoverished, agricultural south.
*   1915 Italy enters World War I on Allied side.
*   1922 Mussolini marches on Rome and puts his Fascist Blackshirts in charge of the country, declaring himself prime minister.
*   1935 Mussolini defeats and annexes Ethiopia.
*   1939 Italy enters the war by signing an alliance with Nazi Germany.
*   1943 Italy switches sides as Allied troops push Nazis north up peninsula; by 1945, Mussolini and mistress executed by partisans, strung up at a Milan gas station and pelted with stones by the crowds.
*   1946 A national referendum narrowly establishes the Republic of Italy.
*   1950–93 Fifty changes of government but also the “economic miracle” that has made Italy the world’s fifth leading economy.
*   1993–2000 Italy’s Christian Democrat–controlled government dissolves amid corruption allegations. Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition holds power for a few months, followed by center–left wing coalitions that introduce the most stable governments in decades under prime ministers Romano Prodi, Massimo d’Alema, and Giuliano Amato.
*   1993–97 Series of disasters rock Italy’s cultural roots: 1993 Mafia bombing of Florence's Uffizi Galleries, January 1996 fire at Venice’s La Fenice opera house; April 1997 conflagration in Turin’s cathedral; September 1997 earthquakes in Umbria, which destroyed priceless frescoes in Assisi.
*   2001 The first cases of BSE (“Mad Cow Disease”) in Italy are confirmed; beef consumption plummets over 70%, and the government temporarily bans many kinds of steak on the bone.
*   2001 Silvio Berlusconi and his right-wing Forza Italia alliance regains power and Berlusconi, freshly acquitted of dozens of corruption charges, takes back the prime minister's seat.
*   2002 Italy joins the bulk of Western Europe in dropping the lira and adopting the Euro, the new single European currency. For better or worse, the economies of Western European countries are now locked together. In its 3,000 years of history, Italy has endured emperors and kings, duchies and despots, fools and knaves, popes and presidents. Italy has been a definer of democracy, has fallen prey to dictators, and has sagged into anarchy. Italy knows triumph, and it knows loss, but above all, it knows how to survive.


Findings in caves around Isneria in the Abruzzi suggest that humans settled in Italy about a million years ago. Neanderthal man made a brief appearance, and Cro-Magnon, who knew how to fish and domesticate animals, showed up about 18,000 years ago.
Though prehistoric early cultural groups such as the Ligurians (Neolithic rulers of northwestern Italy—not just Liguria, but Piedmont and Lombardy as well—from 2400[nd]1800 b.c.), Remedello (Copper Age folks centered around Brescia in 1800[nd]1600 b.c.), Veneti (Bronze Age Illyrians settling the Veneto region around 1000 b.c.), and Villanovans (an influential Iron Age people of 1000[nd]800 b.c. from the area around Bologna) inhabited parts of Northern Italy, most of the peninsula's early action took place in central and southern Italy. Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) controlled Sicily and southern Italy all the way up to Naples. The Etruscans, probably a people who emigrated from Asia Minor between the 12th and 8th centuries b.c., settled into central Italy, ruling Tuscany, Umbria, and, as the Tarquin dynasty, acted as kings of a small Latin village atop hills at a bend in the Tiber River called Rome.


Leaving aside the famous legend of a she-wolf nursing the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus (the former kills his brother and founds a village called Rome) and Virgil’s Aeneid (Aeneas of Troy flees the burning city at the end of the Trojan War, makes his way to Romulus’s little village, and turns it into an ancient superpower), Rome probably began as a collection of Latin and Sabine villages in the Tiber Valley. It was originally a kingdom ruled by the Etruscan Tarquin dynasty. In 509 b.c., the last Tarquin king raped the daughter of a powerful Roman. After the girl committed suicide, infuriated Romans ejected the king and established a republic ruled by two consuls (chosen from among the patrician elite) whose power was balanced by tribunes elected from among the plebian masses.
The young Roman Republic sent its military throughout the peninsula and by 279 b.c. ruled all of Italy. Rome’s armies trampled Grecian colonies throughout the Mediterranean, and after a series of brutal wars defeated Carthage (present-day Tunisia), a rival sea power and once Rome’s archenemy. By 146 b.c., Rome controlled not only all of the Italian peninsula and Sicily but also North Africa, Spain, Sardinia, Greece, and Macedonia.
Still, Rome wanted more. It invaded Gaulish lands to the north and added what we now call France and Belgium to its realm. Rome even crossed the English Channel and conquered Britain all the way up to the Scottish Lowlands (Hadrian’s Wall still stands as a testament to how far north the Roman army got). However, so much military success so distant from Rome itself resulted in a severely weakened homefront. With war booty filling the coffers, Rome ended taxation on its citizens. So much grain poured in from North Africa that the Roman farmer couldn’t find a market for his wheat and simply stopped growing it. The booty had an additional price tag: corruption. Senators advanced their own lots rather than the provinces ostensibly under their care. Plebeians clamored for a bigger share, and the slaves revolted repeatedly. More reforms appeased the plebes while the slaves were put down with horrific barbarity.


At the end of the 2nd century b.c., the Republic, sped along by a corrupt Senate, was corroding into near-collapse. Julius Caesar—successful general, skilled orator, and shrewd politician—stepped in to help maintain control over Rome’s vast territories, but from the day Caesar declared himself “dictator for life,” Rome, as a Republic, was finished. After sharing governmental power with others in a series of Triumvirates, Caesar became the sole consul in 44 b.c.
Caesar rose in popular influence partly by endearing himself to the lower classes through a lifelong fight against the corrupt Senate. As his power crested, he forced many immoral senators to flee Rome, introduced social reforms, inaugurated the first of many new public building programs in the center of Rome (still visible as the Forum of Caesar), and added Gaul (France) to the dying Republic. But Caesar’s emphasis on the plebians and their concerns (as well as his own thirst for power) did little to endear him to the old guard of patricians and senators. On March 15, 44 b.c., Caesar strolled out of the Baths of Pompey to meet Brutus, Cassius, and other “friends” who lay in wait with daggers hidden beneath their togas.
Caesar left everything to his nephew and heir, the 18-year-old Octavian. From the increasingly irrelevant Senate, Octavian eventually received the title Augustus, and from the people, lifetime tribuneship. And so Octavian became Emperor Augustus, sole ruler of Rome and most of the Western world.


Augustus’s long reign ushered in Pax Romana, 200 years of peace under Roman rule. The new emperor, who preferred to be called “First Citizen,” reorganized the military and the provincial governments and reinstituted constitutional rule. Succeeding emperors weren’t so virtuous: deranged Tiberius and Caligula, henpecked Claudius I, and Nero, who in a.d. 64 persecuted the Christians of Rome with a viciousness easily equal to the earlier slave repressions. Several of the military commanders who became emperors were exceptions to the tyrant mold. Late in the 1st century, Trajan expanded the empire’s eastern boundaries and constructed great public works, including a vast series of markets (recently reopened to visitors in Rome).
At this peak, Rome knew amenities not to be enjoyed again in Europe until the 18th century. Citizens were privileged to have police protection, fire fighting, libraries, sanitation, huge public baths such as the Caracalla by the Appian Way, and even central heating and running water—if they could afford them.
The empire’s decline began around a.d. 200. After sacking the city several times, Goths and other Germanic tribes set up their own leaders as emperors and were more interested in the spoils of an empire than in actually running one. And while Gibbon’s famous opus The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire takes up an entire bookshelf to explain Rome’s downfall, in the end it all boils down to the fact that the empire had gotten just too big to manage.
After embracing Christianity in his famous 313 Edict of Milan, Emperor Constantine I tried to resolve the problem by moving the capital of the empire from Rome to the city of Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople and today known as Istanbul). The Roman empire was irrevocably split in half: a western Roman Empire comprising most of Europe and North Africa, and an eastern Roman Empire filling southeast Europe and the Near East.


In 476, the last emperor (ironically, named Romulus) fell from power and the Roman Empire collapsed. It would be 1,500 years before Italy was once again united as a single nation. As the 6th century opened, Italy was in chaos. Waves of barbarians from the north poured in while provincial nobles engaged in petty bickering and Rome became the personal fiefdom of the papacy. The Goths continued to rule the "Western Roman Empire" nominally from Ravenna, but were soon driven out by Constantinople. It was the Roman Catholic church, beginning with Pope Gregory I "the Great" late in the 6th century, that finally provided some stability. In 731, Pope Gregory II renounced Rome’s nominal dependence on Constantinople and reoriented the Roman Catholic church firmly toward Europe—in the process finalizing the empire’s division into east and west.

During the Dark Ages, some inhabitants of the Veneto flatlands, seeking some degree of safety from the barbarian hordes, slowly moved out onto the islets of the north Adriatic's wide, marshy lagoon. The villages they founded eventually grew into the fairy-tale city of Venice. In 564, another Germanic tribe called the Lombards clambered over the Alps and swept through much of Italy, conquering a good two-thirds of the peninsula ruled from their base at Pavia. By 599, Pope Gregory I "the Great" had begun flexing the secular power of the papacy (beginning a policy that would eventually set the pope at the head of Europe's power structure), negotiating a peace between Constantinople and Italy's new Lombard rulers.

The Lombards weren't satisfied, though, and by 752 had conquered Ravenna itself. The pope cast around for a new ally against the Lombards and settled on the powerful king of another Barbarian tribe, Pepin the Short of the Franks. In 754, Pepin invades Italy and thrashes the Lombards; 20 years later, his famous son Charlemagne follows suit. Not satisfied with merely the Lombard crown, the French king continued to Rome and convinces the Pope to crown him as a new emperor, the so-called Holy Roman Emperor, on Christmas day in the year 800. This new imperial office would become the plum of Western European monarchies for nearly a millennium, and further helped cement the relationship between the papacy and the secular titular head of Western Europe.

During the Middle Ages, northern Italy fragmented into a collection of city-states. The Lombards had to be content with a reduced duchy filling the Po Valley south of the Alps and Italy's large lakes, wedged between the eastern territory of the Republic of Venice and the western Duchy of Savoy in Piedmont as well as the coastal territory ruled by the maritime Republic of Genoa. Plenty of principalities, duchies, republics, and smaller city-states filled in the cracks, with Austrian Hapsburg rulers snaking their influence down the Adige River valley into the Dolomites, as well as across the eastern Alps to the coastline curving around the Northern Adriatic, founding the port of Trieste. This put them in constant conflict with the territories of Venice, and the line dividing the realms of Venice's Republican Doges and Austria's Hapsburg Emperors continued to shift, expand, and retreat well into the 20th century.


Though the Hapsburgs were never Italian, their imperial shenanigans frequently impacted Northern Italy as they played out their power struggles with France on Italian battlefields, using Italian territories and duchies as pieces in a giant, prolonged, often bloody chess match.

The Hapsburg name confuses some, though. It began with the 13th century rulers of Swabia, in southern Germany.

The family's main man in the early 16th century was Carlos of Ghent, who became king of Spain and, in 1519, changed his name to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

When he abdicated in 1556, he left the Spanish crown to his heirs—the Spanish Hapsburgs—but left the family's Austrian/Bavarian lands, as well as the imperial title, to little brother Ferdinand I, whose heirs kept the title, and the Austro-Hungarian dynasty, for centuries.

Meanwhile, the papacy’s temporal power—the Papal States—slowly but inexorably shrank, eventually encompassing only Rome and portions of central Italy's provinces. Its political concerns turned to arguing with the German and Austrian emperors over the office of Holy Roman Emperor, which became increasingly irrelevant to daily affairs as the Renaissance dawned.

In the mid–14th century the Black Death ravaged Europe, killing a third of Italy’s population. Despite such setbacks, northern Italian cities grew wealthy from Crusade booty, trade with one another and with the Middle East, and banking. These wealthy principalities and pseudorepublics ruled by the merchant elite flexed their muscles in the absence of a strong central authority.


The Renaissance peaked in the 15th century as northern cities bullied their way to city-state status. Even while warring constantly with one another to extend their territories, such ruling families as the Medicis in Florence, the Estes in Ferrara, and the Sforzas and Gonzagas in Milan grew incredibly rich and powerful.
The princes, popes, and merchant princes who ruled Italy’s city-states, spurred on by the Humanist philosophical movement, collectively bankrolled the explosion of poetic and artistic expression we now call the Renaissance (see “Italy’s Artistic Heritage,” below). But with no clear political authority or unified military, Italy was easy pickings and by the mid[nd]16th century, Spain, courtesy of Charles V, occupied nearly all of the country.


From the mid–16th century until the end of the 18th century, Italy suffered economic depression and foreign domination. As emphasis on world trade shifted away from the Mediterranean, Italy’s influence diminished. Within Italy itself, Spanish Bourbons controlled the kingdoms of the south, the Pope the center, and Austria and France fought over rule of the north, using Italy's realms—from the large Lombard duchy of Milan to tiny principalities like Mantua—as pawns in their power struggles. The only notable free state was the mighty Republic of Venice (though the extent of its land-lubbing provinces in the Veneto, Dolomites [Dolomiti], and Friuli slowly shrank). These foreign overlords kept raising taxes, farming declined, the birthrate sank, and bandits proliferated. The 18th century is viewed as Italy’s nadir. In fact, only Europe’s eager ear for Italian music and eye for art and architecture kept the Italian profile haughty and its cultural patrimony resplendent.
It was the late-18th-century French Revolution and the arrival of Napoléon that lit Italy’s nationalistic fire, although it would be the mid–19th century before the Risorgimento movement and a new king could spread the flame.


Italians initially gave Napoléon an exultant benvenuto! when he swept through the peninsula and swept out Italy’s 18th-century political disasters (along with the Austrian army). But Napoléon, in the end, neither united Italy nor provided it with self-government—he merely set up his own friends and relatives as new princes and dukes. Many Italians, however, were fired up by the Napoleonic revolutionary rhetoric. The Risorgimento(resurgence) nationalist movement—an odd amalgam of radicals, moderate liberals, and Roman Catholic conservatives—struggled for 30 years to create a single, united Italy under a constitutional monarchy.
You’ll find Risorgimentoheroes’ names recalled in streets and piazze throughout Italy: Giuseppe Mazzini provided the intellectual rigor for the movement; the political genius of noble-born Camillo Cavour engineered the underpinnings of the new nation (he served as its second prime minister); and General Giuseppe Garibaldi and his “Redshirt” soldiers did the legwork by conquering reluctant or foreign-controlled territories. In 1861, Vittorio Emanuele II of the southern French House of Savoy, previously king only of Piedmont and Liguria, became the first king of Italy. By 1871, Garibaldi finally defeated the papal holdout of Rome and the great city once again became capital of a unified Italy.


A united nation? On paper, yes, but the old sectional differences remained. While there was rapid industrialization in the north, the south labored under the repressive neo-feudal agricultural ways of the late 19th century, creating a north/south division and mutual mistrust that still pervades Italian society. The north views the south as indolent, a welfare state sucking dry the money made in the industrial north; the south sees the north as elitist and arrogant, constantly proposing or enacting laws to keep the south economically depressed. Many southerners escaped economic hardship and political powerlessness by emigrating to the industrialized north, or to greener pastures abroad in America, South America, or northern Europe.
Italy entered World War I on the Allied side in exchange for territorial demands, and to vanquish that old foe, Austria. In the end the Austro-Hungarian Empire was defeated, but at the Paris Peace Conference, Italy was granted much less territory than had been promised (though it did receive Trieste), which compounded the country’s problems. As southerners abandoned the country in droves, the economy stagnated, and what remained of Italy’s world importance seemed to be fading rapidly, along came Benito Mussolini, promising to restore national pride and bring order out of the chaos.


Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922, forced the king to make him premier, nicknamed himself Il Duce (The Duke), and quickly repressed all other political factions. He put his Fascist “Blackshirts” in charge of the entire country: schools, the press, industry, and labor. Seeking, as Italian despot-hopefuls throughout history have done, to endear himself to the general populace, Mussolini instituted a vast public works program, most of which eventually failed. Mussolini fancied himself a second Caesar and spent some time excavating the archaeological remains of ancient Rome—not always with the most stringent scientific methods—to help glorify his reign and lend it authority. The Great Depression of the 1930s made life considerably more difficult for Italians, and, to divert attention from his shortcomings as a ruler, Mussolini turned to foreign adventures, defeating and annexing Ethiopia in 1935.
Mussolini entered Italy into World War II as an Axis ally of the Nazis, but the Italian heart was not really in the war, and most Italians had little wish to pursue Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. Armed partisan resistance to the official government forces and to the Nazis remained strong. By 1945, the Italian people had had enough. They rose against Mussolini and the Axis, and the Fascists were disbanded. King Victor Emmanuele III, who had collaborated with the Fascists without much enthusiasm during the past 2 decades, appointed a new premier. At the end of the war, Mussolini and his mistress were pictured in the world press hanging by their heels at a Milanese gas station after being shot by partisans.


After the war, Italians narrowly voted to become a republic, and in 1946 a new republican constitution went into effect. Various permutations of the center-right Christian Democrat party ruled in a succession of more than 50 governments until 1993, when the entire government dissolved in a flurry of corruption and graft. The country’s leaders were prosecuted (and many jailed) by what became known as the “Clean Hands” judges of Milan. The two main parties, the Christian Democrats and the Communists, both splintered in the aftermath, giving rise to some 16 major political parties and countless minor ones. The parties formed various coalitions, leading to such strange political bedfellows as the Forza Italia alliance, headed by media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, which filled the national power vacuum during 1994. It included both the nationalist Alleanza Nazionale party (the modern incarnation of the Fascist party) and the Lega del Nord, the separatist “Northern League,” which wanted to split Italy in half, making Milan capital of a new country in the north called “Padania” and leaving Rome to govern the poor south. In 2000, though, the Lega changed its tune to become more palatable and is now calling for devolution, a decentralized government with more power going to individual regions.
In 1994, the center-left Olive Tree coalition swept the national elections and Italy enjoyed a novelty: three years of stable rule under the government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, replaced by a center-left government of Massimo D’Alema. Interestingly, given the stereotype among fellow Europeans of Italy as a nation prone to graft and political chaos, Prodi—an economist before becoming prime minister and the man who reigned in Italy’s debt to qualify the country for the European Union—was later named to head the European Commission to restore its status after a humiliating scandal.
By 2001, Berlusconi had fought off of the dozens of legal charges of corruption (though courts in Spain, trying him for corporate crimes relating to his business relations in Iberia, found him guilty), and in April of that year he and his right wing Forza Italia partners came back into power, just in time to shepherd Italy through the switch-over from the lira to the euro in 2002 (originally a left-wing initiative).
Politically, though, some things never change in Italy. The same mistrust among factions continues: Cities are still paranoid about their individuality and their rights, and the division between north and south is as sharp as ever. The Mafia had by the late 19th century become a kind of shadow government in the south, and to this day controls a staggering number of politicians (including senators and even prime ministers), national officials, and even judges, providing one scandal after another.
Economically, it’s a different story. The “economic miracle” of the north has worked around the political chaos (and often has even taken advantage of it) to make Italy the world’s fifth largest economy. Even the south, while continuing to lag behind, isn’t in the desperate straits it once was. The outsider looks and wonders how the country keeps going amid the political chaos, Byzantine bureaucracy, and deep regional differences. The Italian just shrugs and rolls his eyes. Italians have always excelled at getting by under difficult circumstances and making the most of any situation. If nothing else, they’re masters at survival.


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