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Between the 18th and 17th centuries BC, the Bronze Age, Arcadians migrated by sea from the Aegean towards Southern Italy led by their mythical king Oenotro. The result of their expansion and integration with the local populations was the Ausonians, the Chones, the Morgetes, the Itali, and the Siculians. The Latins descended from the Oenotrians, but the Pelasgi, the Aegean-Asianic type, were thought to be the first inhabitants of the Palatine, the hill on which Rome would later be built.

The Itali lived in the southern part of present-day Calabria, that is, within the "toe" of the "boot" which is now called Italy. Their name came from Vitulus, meaning veal or calf, since the area was rich with bovine. In the times of the Magna Grecia, following the Greek colonisation of the territory, the coastal regions were renamed Italoi, the Greek word for Vitulus.

When the Romans in their turn conquered the territory, which extended all the way down to the southernmost tip of the peninsula, they continued to use the name "Italoi". By the 8th and 7th centuries BC Etruscans, Romans, and others inhabited the central and northern mainland with the Greeks settled in the southern tip of the Italian peninsula. The peninsula subsequently was unified under the Roman Republic. Remaining political unity was lost after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in the 5th century AD, and the peninsula and islands changed under a series of invasions.

Then the period began when Italy became a succession of small states, principalities, and kingdoms, in constant change, fighting among them and swayed by the ambitions of foreign powers. The centre of Italy was ruled by the Popes in Rome and the rivalries between the Popes and the Holy Roman Emperors, who had assumed Italy as their empire, caused the peninsula to be in a permanent state of war. These rivalries became controlled and reduced by the rise and the commercial prosperity of northern and central Italian cities, beginning in the 11th century.

The Holy Roman Empire was the second medieval revival of the Western Roman Empire, which lasted from 962 AD to 1806, but by the year 1250, much of its power had vanished and by the 1650's the empire had lost all its power. The empire endured until 1806 when it was abolished by Emperor Francis II who ruled from then on as Francis I of the Austrian Empire, which itself had been established in 1804. The emperors were normally also King of Germany, to be the title of most prestige as soon as the pope crowned him.

The influence of the Renaissance also helped to dampen the impact of the medieval political rivalries and although Italy's decline began from the 16th century, the idea of a single Italian nationality had been strengthened by the Renaissance. The nationalist movements developed in the early 19th century and led to the reunification of Italy, except for Rome, in the 1860's with the proclamation as King of Italy of Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy in 1861. The Risorgimento, as it is known today, was largely achieved thanks to the efforts of Cavour and Garibaldi. Rome became part of the unified Italy in 1870.

From 1870 until 1922, Italy was a constitutional monarchy with a parliament elected under limited suffrage. Between 1796, when General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy, and 1814 when the troops withdrew, the entire peninsula was under French domination. Several short-lived republics were proclaimed early in the period.

After two decades of Napoleon's modern but harsh rule, profound changes took place in Italy; many Italians began to see the possibilities of forging a united country free of foreign control. By 1815, Italy consisted of the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont, Sardinia, Savoy, and Genoa); the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (including Naples and Sicily); the Papal States; and Tuscany and a series of smaller duchies in north central Italy. The Austrians once controlled Lombardy and Venetia.

In 1915, Italy entered the First World War on the side of the Allies, renouncing its standing alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, receiving some former Austrian territory along the north-east frontier under the post-war settlement. In 1922, Benito Mussolini came to power and, over the next few years, eliminated political parties, cut personal liberties, and set up a fascist dictatorship termed the Corporate State while the King, with little effective power, remaining titular head of state.

In 1940, Italy allied with Germany and declared war on the United Kingdom and France. In 1941, Italy, as an ally of the other Axis powers, Germany and Japan, declared war on the United States and the Soviet Union. The war caused deep social and political crisis in Italy with changes demanded by unemployed workers, hungry peasants, and a frightened middle-class, and the 1919 elections suddenly made the Socialist and the new Popular (Catholic) parties the largest in parliament. While extreme nationalists agitated for territorial expansion, strikes and threats of revolution unsettled the nation.
Following the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, the King dismissed Mussolini and appointed Marshal Pietro Badoglio as Premier whose government then declared war on Germany, which quickly occupied most of the country and freed Mussolini, who led a brief regime in the north until he was caught and murdered by the people.

In 1946, a plebiscite ended the monarchy, and a constituent assembly was elected to draw up plans for the republic. Under the 1947 peace treaty, minor adjustments were made in Italy's frontier with France, the eastern border area was transferred to Yugoslavia, and the area around the city of Trieste was designated a free territory.

In 1954, the free territory, which had remained under the administration of U.S.-U.K. forces (Zone A, including the city of Trieste) and Yugoslav forces (Zone B), was divided between Italy and Yugoslavia, principally along the zoned boundary. This arrangement was made permanent by the Italian-Yugoslav Treaty of Osimo, ratified in 1977 (currently being discussed by Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia). Under the 1947 peace treaty, Italy also relinquished its overseas territories and certain Mediterranean islands.

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