History of Italy

A short potted history of Italy..
From Caesar to Mussolini….

History of Italy

To most of us in the world, Italy has always held an almost mystical fascination. Perhaps this stems from its enigmatic history, its deep-rooted culture and art, its grandiose position in the Religious world and its sometimes complex yet always fascinating people.

The very word “Italy” conjures up a rich spice of emotions ranging from food to Latin lovers, passion for life, dramatic landscapes, Leonardo de Vinci, fine wines, and so much more

Much can be explained by the fact that Italy never really existed as a fully-fledged country until recently. Indeed the very word “Italy” is thought to originate from a Greek term that referred only to southern Italy, not even as far up as Rome!

Today, whilst a member of Nato, Italy is certainly no military super power, one famous Italian comic remarked that Mussolini had to build 100 glass bottom boats to see what his air force was doing! Yet, less we forget, Italy is the birthplace of one of the greatest military machines ever to walk the earth. The Romans dominated European, Middle Eastern and even Asian culture for centuries.

At the time of Christ, Rome remained a pagan country and it was only in the second centuary AD that Rome had its first Christian Emperor (Constantine 1). Constantine’s much-discussed late change of heart from Paganism to Christianity is often put down to being as much a political necessity rather than a true belief. Indeed he was certainly not a role model as, after being converted to Christianity, Constantine put to death his wife, his son, a nephew and his wife, and had Licinius (his co-emperor) and his son strangled after promising them their lives. The City of Constantinople was founded and named after Constantine.

Long before this, during Emperor Nero’s rule, not known for his love of Christians, ancient tradition holds that Saint Peter himself was crucified upside down near Rome. It was Constantine who, on the same spot of his death, built the very first Saint Peters Basilica which formed the very heart of what was to become the worlds largest religion “Christianity”. The definition of the word “Catholic” actually is derived from the Greek adjective ‘katholikos’, meaning “general” or “universal”, which contradicts today’s split of Catholicism with the other branches of Christianity.

Such insights demonstrate the need to understand the turbulent history of Italy in order to make more sense of its modern day rich variety and culture.

Legend exists that Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who both claimed to be sons of Mars, the God of war, and to have been raised as infants by a she-wolf. Romulus and Remus fell out over the supposed naming of the new city (amongst other things) resulting in Romulus killing his brother and declaring himself the first king of “Rome”.

By 500 BC, Italy was a pot-puree of cultures. There were a number of small Greek colonies across southern Italy and Sicily. Gauls, (from modern day France) were in the mountains to the North. Etruscans in the centre.

In 509 BC the Roman Republic was formed. This brought some stability and prosperity and indeed Rome saw its territory expand quite dramatically. It was around this time that Greek culture infiltrated Rome through the adoption of many of the Greek gods.

But by the First Century BC, Rome was in crisis. Spartacus, a slave, led the common people in a revolt and although Rome was able to put down the rebellion, the Republic dissolved into a series of dictators that ended with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, who, having been nominated “Dictator for life”, gained much respect from the lower and middle class and many enemies for his unquestionable and unprecedented power..

In 29 BC, Octavius (Caesars heir and grandnephew) finally seized power and declared himself Emperor Augustus and so the Roman Empire was truly born. After dealing with Mark Antony, who had allied himself with Caesar’s lover Cleopatra in Egypt with the intent of taking the Roman empire for himself, Rome thrived for over 2 centuries ruling over a vast territory stretching from Britain and the Atlantic coast of Europe in the north and west to North Africa and the Middle East in the south and east.

This all came to an end in 180 AD with the death of Marcus Aurelius, Rome’s last great emperor. His son and successor Commodus, whilst less war like than his father, he was also less adept as a politician. He was also considered “abnormal” in his behaviour. An observer of the time (Cassius) remarked that Commodus oversaw “the kingdom of Gold to one of rust and iron”.

By the end of the Fourth Century AD, the Roman Empire split into two. Constantine 1 (272 -337) having moved the capital to The East, in the newly-built city of Constantinople, known today as Istanbul. This stronger half of the ex Roman Empire went from the strength to strength, eventually becoming the long-lasting Byzantine Empire. Whilst Rome, capital of the West, slid further into decline. The split of the Roman Empire also eventually gave rise to the split of the “Catholic” church and the creation of the orthodox religion, still prevalent today in the eastern part of Europe.

In 410 AD, Rome completely collapsed under invasion and miss-management and for the next thousand years, Italy once again became a patchwork of warring city-states, with Rome, home to the Catholic Church, being one of the most powerful. This long period of quiet stagnation was known as the Dark Ages.

This stagnation ended in the Fourteenth Century when individual city-states such as Florence, Milan, Pisa, Genoa, and Venice flourished becoming major trade centres. These cities also drew in culture and, funded by wealthy patrons, figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo made their mark on history by revolutionising the fields of art, literature, politics, and science. Italian explorers, such as Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, introduced Italy and Europe to the rest of the world. Italy was once again a shining light on the world stage.

Also around this time, a peculiar situation of having two popes arose …indeed this then led to three! At one stage the papacy was even seated in Avignon due to instability in Rome. This confusion and internal argument contributed to the later fragmentation of the church and the rise of Protestants.

For nearly two hundred years Italy was a European centre for many facets of the arts and sciences. However in the Sixteenth Century, trade routes moved northwards and the Protestant Reformation weakened the hold of the Catholic Church.

In this weakened state the prize jewel cities such as Venice, Milan, Florence etc became sitting ducks for conquest by Spain, France, and Austria. Hence Italy returned to its pre Christ structure as a patchwork of principalities controlled through proxy by various European powers.

In the Nineteenth Century, Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi l(1807-1882) together with other important people of the time such as Mazzini and Cavour, led a popular movement that took over much of Italy ending, after much fighting, in 1870 with the fall of Rome and complete unification of Italy.

But the new Kingdom of Italy was no Roman Empire, greatly weakened and still divided, it was only a matter of time until frustration took hold and a man stepped forward for the “greater good of Italy”. In 1922, a politician named Benito Mussolini and his supporters (called Fascists, derived from the Italian word Fascio loosely meaning bundle or union), became impatient with electoral politics, and so marched on Rome to seize power directly through a coup. The Italian king was too weak to argue and hence allowed Mussolini to become what was in effect, dictator of Italy.

Mussolini or “Il Duce” (meaning leader) did indeed spur on economic development but it was his dreams of leading a new Roman Empire that led to his downfall. In the 1930s, he invaded Ethiopia and Albania.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, whilst Italy and Germany remained “politically friendly”, Il Duce remained neutral. The fall of France however, convinced Il Duce that Germany would come out on top and so with great vigour Mussolini joined Hitler and immediately rushed off to invade Greece, the Balkans, and North Africa.

Over optimistic, overextended and unprepared, Italy quickly ran out of steam and in the end had to go cap in hand to ask Hitler’s help and military support. The Allies prised him out of Africa and then slowly out of southern Italy itself. A last ditch attempt to set up a northern republic failed. Alienated from Hitler, despised by many of his own people, he and his lover were captured and executed by Italian partisans.

After the Second World War, Italy abolished the monarchy and became a republic. Some great Political leaders of the time together with heavy investment by the United States Marshall Plan, allowed Italy to rebuilt its economy and to emerge once again as a major European force becoming a member of NATO and the European Community.

by Alex Reed