If I say Italian history, what do you think about?
I bet the first answers include: the Roman Empire (the Republic seems to be not so popular, weirdly), Leonardo/Michelangelo/Renaissance, Mussolini/World War 2.
Well, it’s not a bad idea to have a global vision of Italian history – even if really short.
The idea of Italy as a nation is really old. Just few lands are as easily defined as it is. With the sea on three sides and the Alpi mountains on the North, Italy was shaped by Nature as one long land in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea.
The earliest history of Italy is not really easy to study – neither to summarize here. What we know for sure is that different people came from either the Mediterranean or central Europe (often moving along the Appennini mountains, the “spine” of the boot). Among the many people we will focus on two: the Greeks, who landed in Southern Italy starting from the 10th century BC, and the Samnites, who started to colonize the inner South from the 8th century BC.
Both the Greeks and the Samnites are considered by some historians the inventors of the name ITALIA.
Some scholars say that the Greeks called Italói the tribes living in Southern Calabria (the peninsula close to Sicily) because these people worshipped the Bull (or the Calf) as their totemic animal (like sooo many other people in the ancient world… think of the Minoans in Crete). So Italia basically meant “the land of the bull worshippers“. Sounds so much like Spain, doesn’t it?
On the other side, some historians say that the Samnites gave the name Viteliù to a confederation of tribes allied against the rising power of Rome, as proven by some coins (some of them depict a bull raping a shewolf, the symbol of Rome). Indeed the Bull was the symbol of their biggest and oldest tribe, the Pentri.
From Viteliù the Romans should have taken the word Italia, used to identify the territories of all the other tribes.
Either way, the word Italia was taken by the Romans and used to define a growing area, which eventually included all the peninsula.
In 476 AC Rome fell for many reasons: corruption, an excessive use of immigrants in the army, borders too big to be defended, an increasing pressure of the “barbarians” (the non-Romans) who wanted to live as the Romans did.
These people, after becoming more and more powerful in the army, took over the military power, ruling the Romans that once had submitted their ancestors.
Initially Italy was kept as a whole under the rule of a few kings: first Odoacer, who ruled over different “barbarians”, then Theodoric, Athalaric, Theodahad and Vitiges, leaders of the Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths). They all ruled under the consent of the Eastern Roman Empire, that had its capital in Costantinople, also known as Byzantium. That’s why the Eastern Roman Empire is also known as the Byzantine Empire.
Eventually, the Byzantines decided to reconquer Italy, which they managed to do with a long war (535 – 553 AC).
But just 15 years after the victory on the Ostrogoths, the Byzantine were defeated by the Lombards, a confederation of scandinavian and germanic tribes (including a number of Saxons) that took its name by the long beards of their warriors.
These belligerent, long bearded warriors managed to conquer most of Italy, but sadly not all of it. This led to a big problem: Italy was now (6th century AC) divided in different parts.
Two centuries after their arrival (8th century), the Lombards tried to conquer the rest of Italy, but the Popes, unwanting to be conquered by the Lombards – whom they never really liked, since they were still prone to the ancient religion – asked for help to the Franks.
In 774 most of the Lombard kingdom was conquered by the Frankish king Charlemagne, who took also the title of King of the Lombards. The only Lombards that managed to resist were the ones of the South, who had Benevento as their capital city. The Duke of Benevento, Arechis II, being the son-in-law of the last Lombard king, proclaimed himself Prince of the Lombards, calling to South all the Lombards that didn’t want to be ruled by the Franks.
From this point on the history of Italy follows different lines for different areas.
The North, after being under the rule of the Frankish kingdom (known as the Holy Roman Empire from the year 800 AC) became mostly independent, but divided in many small states, or even city-states. The most important were Venice and its territories in Eastern and Southern Mediterranean, Florence and his government on the whole Tuscany, Milan and its rule over Lombardia, and Piedmont (Turin and surrounding areas) that, after a slow beginning, managed to what the others failed to.
In the South, the Lombard Princes managed to resist for three more centuries, even if splitted in three groups: Benevento, Salerno and Capua. Other areas of the South were either under Byzantine or Arab rule. This situation ended in the 11th century, when the Normans arrived and briefly conquered the whole South, forming the big Kingdom of Sicily.
Later on this Kingdom was conquered by different people.
First the Germans, meaning the Holy Roman Empire, which tried to reunify Italy but were once again defeated by the Popes.
Then the French (the Angevin), allied of the Popes, who ruled on the whole kingdom for less than 15 years. Indeed, Sicily became separated from the peninsula in 1282 and came under the rule of Spain (Aragon). The peninsular territories now became knowns as the Kingdom of Naples.
Then the Spaniards (Aragon first and then the Spanish Empire) who ruled on both Sicily and Naples.
And then, after a brief Austrian rule, by the Spanish-Italian Bourbon dinasty (1734-1861), who ruled until Italy was unified by the Piedmontese and their many patriotic allies spread all over Italy.
Indeed, even if Rome fell in 476 AC, the idea of Italy didn’t die. It went on for centuries, and often intellectuals and scholars would write about Italy as a whole nation in their works. This slowly lead to a common sentiment of belonging to one ancient nation, and not many smaller states. As the world changed and the ancient powers (Monarchy, Papacy) were openly criticized and fought, the idea of Italy could come back to light.
Eventually, in 1861 most of Italy was unified. Rome was taken in 1870, and some of the northern territories had to be reconquered in World War 1. Other territories were conquered, then lost with World War 2 and Italy’s tragic alliance with Nazi Germany.
So we can say that Italy, as we see it today, is a result of World War 2!
So little time for such an ancient nation!