Italy has a very long civilised history, by which I mean history as a nation not just of sheer existence but also of highly developed civilisation.
This history has always centred around the Mediterranean, which the Romans called “Mare Nostrum” (our sea).
Italy’s history is so long that in this article I can only give some glimpse of it through general descriptions and a few episodes, particularly the lesser known or forgotten. In no way it can be considered complete, but just a general skeleton or sketch. If you desire more in-depth information and analysis, visit the relevant pages of this section of the website.
We start with the first pre-Roman Italic settlements of various peoples, Celts, Greeks, Etruscans, and then in 753 BC the foundation of Rome, whose might prevailed all over the country through successive wars with the other populations.
Roman history went through three main stages: the Kingdom, or time of the seven Kings of Rome, followed by the Republic and finally the Empire.
Rome has had an enormous influence on the whole world. One of its greatest gifts to civilization has been the concept and rule of law, according to which all citizens had rights, unlike the Eastern cultures founded on despotism.
This is the reason why Jesus Christ was incarnate during the Roman Empire, to fulfil the prophecies according to which He would come to the world when the times were full, specifically when the peoples of the civilized world were united under one great empire and had a concept of, in modern parlance, “human rights”: these were the conditions in which the world was ready to receive His message.
During Imperial Rome Christianity triumphed.
In 395 AD, on the death of Emperor Theodosius, the Roman Empire was divided into two parts: the Eastern Roman Empire with Constantinople (now Istanbul) as its capital, which continued to exist until 1453, and the Western Roman Empire, with Mediolanum (modern-day Milan) as capital, which did not resist the attacks of the barbarian invasions.
The word “barbarian”, in this context, does not have a necessarily negative connotation. It stems from the ancient Greek term “barbaros” referred to all those who did not speak Greek, apparently because the sound of their talking resembled “bar bar bar” to Greek ears. The word was then adopted by the Romans to indicate all foreigners, particularly without Greek or Roman culture.
Rome was repeatedly conquered and in 476 Odoacer, the king of the barbarian tribe Heruli, deposed Romulus Augustulus, considered as the last Western Roman emperor.
With this we enter the Middle Ages of Italy.
Italy first experienced a long period of domination by barbarians on one hand and Byzantines on the other, during which cities, culture, economy and population declined.
Then, from the 11th century, a strong recovery began, especially in the Center-North’s free Municipalities (“Comuni”).
The Church had a decisive role in preserving the highly-developed education system inherited from the Romans. It also maintained Italy’s cultural unity.
After Italy had fallen into the hands of barbarians, the Ostrogothic king Theodoric gave birth to the Roman-barbarian kingdoms, in which barbarians accepted the influence of Roman civilization, aspiring to become part of it. This was successful, in particular in the case of the Longobards, or Lombards, a north Germanic tribe who have since had a central role in Italian history. A northern Italian region, Lombardy, whose main city is Milan, testifies to that kind of amalgamation.
To this day Italy has, in a manner of speaking, two “capitals”, of the north (Milan) and the south (Rome), in constant rivalry with each other.
A period of Lombard domination followed, during which Venice, created by populations fleeing from the new barbarian invaders, was established as a politically autonomous entity governed by its own doges.
The rise of the Franks under the king Charlemagne put an end to the Lombard domination in 774. On 25 December 800, in Rome, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. The Holy Roman Empire was born.
In the late Middle Ages up to the modern age, rose powerful northern Italian city-states with their own governments such as Venice, Florence, Genoa and Milan, where trade flourished. Wealthy families like the Medici in Florence and the Visconti in Milan gained influence and political control.
The cultural pre-eminence of Italy in Europe and beyond remained constant even amidst these turbulent political times. Many universities were established in Italy, including the oldest university in the world still in operation, the University of Bologna, active since the 11th century.
The Church was responsible for funding not only schools, universities and centres of learning, but also the greatest art the world has ever seen, in painting, sculpture and architecture. Philosophers and scientists were men of the clergy. Italian churches and cities were splendid, and from Italy the Renaissance conquered all of Europe.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, thanks not just to the Renaissance but also to a remarkable economic prosperity, Italy became in many ways the major center of European civilization. However, it showed a very serious political and military weakness in the face of the expansionism of the great national monarchies of France and Spain: Italy became a battleground between them, and its regional states could only follow one or the other.
Paradoxically, the discovery of America in 1492, despite being the incredible feat of the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, caused the relative loss of importance of Mediterranean trade currents with negative repercussions on Italy’s economy.
The French Revolution in 1789 and the consequent invasion of Italy by France’s dictator Napoleon Bonaparte spelled disaster, and led to the looting by the tyrant of many Italian art treasures.
The 1800s was the century of the Italian Risorgimento, a series of insurrections and bloody wars for the unification of the many states that were constituting Italy at the time into one liberal monarchy. On 17 March 1861 Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy was proclaimed king of Italy.
The First World War, atrocious for the numbers of deaths among young men, meant for Italy the completion of its national reunification by the acquisition from the Austro-Hungarian Empire of Trentino-Alto Adige, Venezia Giulia, Istria and some still unredeemed territories of Friuli. However, Italy will not see the territorial rights on Dalmatia and Croatia, parts of which are historically Italian, acquired under the London Pact, with which it had negotiated its entry into war, recognized.
In the period following the Great War, anarchists, socialists and communists were becoming increasingly violent in Italy and many feared another Red October, a repetition of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia which established a communist tyrannical regime.
For many years Italy has had the strongest Communist Party in Western Europe.
Italian communists were hoping to follow in the footsteps of Lenin and then Stalin and, although current reputed historians don’t think their “dream” would have been realized, that this could be accomplished was a common perception among many at the time and generated what was called “the Great Fear”.
In September 1920, 500,000 metalworkers throughout Italy occupied the factories. It was the high point of a revolutionary process, known as the “Red Biennium” (“Two Red Years”), which in 1919–1920 had been devastating the country.
Only a few years earlier, in October 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, had just stormed the Winter Palace, and intended to export the revolution and communism all over the world, which was part of Marx theory’s program: Marxism has always been internationalist.
The year 1920 saw almost daily strikes of mail, telegraphy and telecommunications, railways, textile industry, farms, as well as general strikes in solidarity with all the other sectors’ strikes, subversive assaults on police stations, socialist attempts to destroy Catholic circles, socialist violent conflicts with police and killings of policemen, railway trains attacked with guns by strikers. There were cases of track sabotage, demolition of power lines and bomb attacks.
The year 1921, preceding Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome of 1922, was terrifying, with the country constantly paralyzed by incessant strikes and terrorized by daily acts of violence of the far Left.
Mussolini himself had been a prominent leader of the Italian Socialist Party and editor of the party’s newspaper L’Avanti.
The country was in nearly total chaos. This is the scenario in which fascism was born.