The Roman Forum in Rome
The Roman Forum in Rome

Ancient History: Etruscans, Greeks, Romans

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.

As a modern unified country Italy was born only in 1861, after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, which united the various small states, duchies and kingdoms of the Italian regions and populations into a single, independent sovereign state.

But the Italian people’s history goes back much longer than that, lasting over 2,500 years, if we consider that the city of Rome was founded on 21 April 753 BC on the Palatine Hill by Romulus, who had defeated and killed his twin brother Remus in a duel for the privilege of being the founder of the new city, and who became its first king.

That means 753 years before the birth of Christ over 2,000 years ago. That 753 BC was the year from which the Romans were dating history: every year was calculated ab urbe condita, which in Latin means “from the founding of the City”, in the same way as we count years from the birth of our Lord and Saviour.

Even before the Romans, the Italian peninsula was inhabited by a people of great and ancient civilisation, which started in the 10th century BC: the Etruscans, who lived mostly in an area called Etruria, roughly corresponding to the modern regions of Tuscany, western Umbria and northern and central Lazio, but also inhabited some parts of northern and southern Italy.

The Etruscan civilisation had a profound influence on Roman civilisation, and later merged with it at the end of the first century BC, after a long process of cultural assimilation conventionally beginning with the Roman conquest of the Etruscan city of Veio in 396 BC.

Such was the influence and power of the Etruscans on Rome that, during the earliest period of Roman history, the age of in which Rome was a kingdom, of the seven kings of Rome the first four, of Latin origin, were followed by three kings of Etruscan origin: Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius and Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquinius the Proud).

The kingdom period in Roman history was followed by the age of the republic and then finally by the time of the empire.

Between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, people from classic Greece began to settle on the coasts of southern Italy and Sicily,  and this enormously advanced and refined civilisation gave rise to great philosophers, scholars, artists and scientists, from Pythagoras in Crotone (in the region of Calabria) to Archimedes in Syracuse (in the island of Sicily), and many more. Some Greek temples can still be seen in Magna Graecia (“Great Greece”), the Latin name for southern Italy at the time that expressed the Roman marvel at the richness and splendour of these regions.

In the 3rd century BC all these Greek colonies were absorbed in the Roman State.


Medieval History: from the Fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Discovery of America

In Italian this era is called “Medio Evo”, literally meaning “age in the middle” because it is situated between ancient and modern times.

Conventionally the Middle Ages comprise the very long and complex period of history between 476 AD (fall of the Western Roman Empire with the deposition of the last emperor Romulus Augustulus) and 1492 (discovery of America by the Italian – born in the great port city of Genoa – explorer Christopher Columbus).

The Middle Ages are then further subdivided into the High (or Early) Middle Ages (5th-10th centuries, up to the year 1000) and Low (or Late) Middle Ages (11th-15th centuries).

At the beginning of the early Middle Ages, events took place transforming and shaping ancient Italy, the heart of the Roman world, in ways that would remain the same for many future centuries and would form Medieval Europe. Roman Europe and Italy were Germanised by the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire, with the formation of the Roman-barbarian kingdoms.

The meeting between Roman tradition and the new Germanic culture was one aspect of the new era. Another, decisive for the destinies of civilisation, was the meeting between Christianity in irresistible ascent and paganism in the process of disappearing.

What have been erroneously called the Dark Ages would indeed have been dark because of the decline and fall of Roman civilisation were it not for Christianity. The Church continued the Roman education system of schools, created universities as high seats of learning and that new, exquisitely Christian invention, never heard-of before: hospitals.

The convention of dating the Middle Ages from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century was supported by Edward Gibbon, an influential English 18th-century historian, author of the masterpiece The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who postulated a Roman decline from a previous classic ideal.

A new theory has been advanced by the great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne who worked in the early part of the 20th century and elaborated what is now called Pirenne Thesis.

Pirenne challenged the idea that barbarian invasions had really caused the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe, as well as the view that the end of the Western Roman Empire coincides with the end of the office of emperor in Europe, which took place in 476. This empire did not end in 476, he says: it continued, maybe not as a political entity, but as a socio-cultural, and especially economic, entity.

The reason lies in the fact that Mediterranean unity was what defined the Roman Empire from its very beginning, and this was not disrupted by the barbarians, as shown by the continuing existence of Mediterranean trade and gold coinage.

This scholar believed that there was a continuity of the Roman structure inside the barbarian states, that the Roman way of life persisted immediately after the fall of Rome, and that the economy of the Roman Mediterranean even after the barbarian invasions was maintained according to the lines established by the Romans themselves.

Barbarian Goths came to Rome not to destroy it, Pirenne said, but to take part in its wealth and benefits; they tried to preserve the Roman way of life because to do so was good for them.

That barbarian leaders and military commanders were often educated in Rome and many were Romanised is undeniably true.

According to this theory, what ended Rome was not the collapse of the Western Empire; it was Islam.

The Middle Ages for Pirenne began in the 8th century when Muslim domination reached vast areas of Mediterranean coasts, including Palestine, Syria, parts of Turkey, North Africa, Spain and southern Italy, and Mediterranean unity was broken by Arab invasions, which separated and fractured the different parts of the Mediterranean Sea and put an end to Mediterranean trade.

Islamic conquests killed the once-flourishing commerce across the Roman Empire through the Mediterranean, from which Europe was now cut off. The end of the Mediterranean as gigantic economic hub gave rise to the birth of new centres, mostly in Northern Europe.

The recent historical periodisation that introduced the “Late Antiquity” era, acknowledging continuity in the transition from ancient to medieval worlds, is due to Pirenne’s insights.

But overall Pirenne was writing before the great archaeological work of the last century, which by and large refuted his Thesis by showing that there was still much trade in the Mediterranean after the Islamic invasions. But it is true that Islam broke Mediterranean unity into three different realms: Europe, North Africa and Asia.

For Italy, a period of Longobard (or Lombard) and Byzantine dominations followed. Part of Italy was occupied by the troops of the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly known as the Byzantine Empire.

The attempt by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) to unite Europe did not meet with success, but the system with which he organised his society, feudalism, will take root everywhere in Europe, including, but only for a short time, in Italy, where the cities of Roman origin were capable of recovering economically before the other urban centres.

Thus in the Middle Ages, while Europe saw the emergence of feudal monarchies and national states like France, England and Spain, in Italy municipal civilisation and regional powers developed, which will collide politically and militarily with the Holy Roman Empire of Germany. This period in Italian history is generally known as the age of the city-states and communes, often at war with each other.

There was a large number of them, including Ferrara and Modena, under the lordship of the Este dynasty; Mantua, first the Marquisate and then the Duchy of the Gonzaga family; Milan, ruled by the Viscontis and the Sforzas; Parma, ruled by the Farneses; Florence, whose lords were the Medicis; many republics, among which Siena, Lucca and the commercial port city of Genoa.

Thus, at the end of the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance – despite the high cultural level of both periods – small Italian powers were not be able to face the constant danger of foreign domination.

The splendour of Italian cities during the Renaissance is well known.

This fragmentation into many states was a cause of political and military weakness but also a situation that produced the great richness of Italian cities of importance and cultural achievement, because each of them was a capital.

Italy’s individual states were also haunted by internal divisions. The only exception to this rule was the Republic of Venice, where the Serenissima Republic of Saint Mark was capable of guaranteeing the welfare of its people and the honesty and good organisation of its administration, which, despite an iron-fist governance method, kept the population united and in peace.

An important phenomenon of this time was the birth of the bourgeoisie, the middle classes. In the powerful and rich cities and ports of northern Italy they enjoyed a particular position thanks to their wealth, and this new class that was forming nourished and promoted the rise of independent city state.

Commerce and trade prospered. Wealthy families and merchants such as the Medicis in Florence (who much contributed to the creation the banking system) and the Viscontis in Milan gained increasing influence and took control of their respective city governments.

Florence Cathedral - Brunelleschi's Dome
Florence Cathedral – Brunelleschi’s Dome

Modern History

In sum, Italy’s division into many small municipalities, city-states and lordships prevented for a long time the creation of a unitary state as elsewhere in Europe.

Therefore Italy had to compensate for the greater political and military strength of the European national states by the strategic intelligence of its political leaders.

A shining example of the latter was the Lord of Florence Cosimo de’ Medici, with good reason nicknamed Pater Patriae, or “Father of the Fatherland”, considered to be one of the main architects of the Florentine Renaissance. As future events will show, his foreign policy, aimed at maintaining a constant and subtle balance among the various Italian states, turned out to be prophetic in its ability to identify in Italian concord the key element to prevent foreign states from intervening in Italy by taking advantage of its divisions.

The importance of Cosimo’s strategy, continued by his grandson and successor in the government of Florence Lorenzo the Magnificent (who reigned after his father Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici), in his incessant search for an agreement among the Italian states able to make up for their lack of political unity, is not however understood by the other Italian princes, so such a strategy comes to an end with the death of Lorenzo in 1492.

After that Italy becomes the theatre of many foreign invasions: first by the French of Charles VIII, then by the Spanish troops of Charles V, starting a long period of foreign domination of Italy.

The years 1550-1620 are among the periods during which Italian civilisation left its strongest mark on western civilisation. They coincide with the predominance exerted in Italy by the Spanish monarchy, which maintained a situation of peace in the peninsula, preventing sea and land invasions and acting as a mediator and arbitrator of tensions among Italian states.

Italy’s cities flourished thanks to manufacturing and commercial activities, and in the financial sector Italians possessed a superior technical capacity. In the 16th century the economy takes off and with it the population grows, showing the groundlessness of the pessimistic theory of the Anglican cleric Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), because population growth urged people to devise new techniques of food production.

The years 1620-1730 see the wear and tear of the pax hispanica, following the Thirty Years War and the attempts by the Duchy of Savoy and the Republic of Venice to break the status quo in Italy. Wars, tax levies and the epidemics of 1630 and 1656 weaken the country’s economy and reduce its cultural influence in Europe.

Even after the peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, which sets the scene for a rather long period of peace, Italian production will not recover, due to a lack of flexibility which will only partially allow it to adapt to the challenges that came from new markets in Northern Europe, especially the English and Dutch ones.

The economic decline produces a demographic decrease, mainly due to the raising of the bridal age, and some subsistence crises, which weaken the immune system of people and expose them to the great contagions of the 17th century, to which, however, Italy responds with forms of prevention and assistance that had nothing to envy to those of other European countries: in fact Italy was the first country to free itself from the great epidemics of plague. As early as the 14th century northern Italy’s health authorities had established the importance of a 40-day quarantine period (“quarantine” derives from the Italian word for 4o, “quaranta”), which became the gold standard for continental Europe for the next 300 years but was not adopted in England until the 16th century.

In the period from 1620 to 1730 the Italian cultural and scientific worlds were very lively, thanks to the contribution of Catholics, especially the Jesuits gathered around the Roman College. This period started with the continuation of the centuries-old clash in the Mediterranean between Islam and Christianity and closes with the twilight of the Venetian empire, which remains almost the only force to contend to the Turks every island of the Aegean Sea and every possession in Greece and Dalmatia, proudly fighting the war of Candia, which culminates with the fall of the island in 1669.

From 1730 to 1800 we witness the end of Hispanic hegemony in Italy, where the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria and the Bourbons are beginning to take over.

All over the country, transformations are taking place, including the emergence of a new elite of business and administration, a society whose rules supplant the vision of the aristocratic world, the diminished incidence of traditional Catholicism in the name of a new efficiency. These changes, however, do not determine either a cultural revolution or significant de-Christianisation.

Austrian dominance in Italian politics is followed by the end of almost all the Italian family dynasties – the Gonzagas of Mantua, the Farneses of Parma, the Medicis of Florence and the Estes of Modena – and a long period of peace after 1748.

After the French Revolution in 1789, France’s dictator Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) invaded Italy. This ruthless and violent tyrant holds the infamous record of having imprisoned two popes, Pius VI and Pius VII, the latter of whom died in France during his imprisonment.

What is not often remembered by history books are the anti-Jacobin and anti-Napoleonic or, more accurately, counter-revolutionary insurgencies, which took place almost everywhere in the Italian peninsula between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th.

It was really a people’s event, unlike the process of forced unification of Italy led by the Savoy dynasty decades later.

During Napoleon’s twenty years of occupation many Italians rose against French domination, not so much because it was foreign, but because it tried to impose a forced change to the way of life of Italians, introducing compulsory military conscription, increasing taxes, prohibiting Christian processions, closing churches and even imprisoning the Pontiffs because they had dared to oppose the power of Napoleon’s empire.

At least one hundred thousand Italians die on the field.

It was a repetition of what had occurred in the Atlantic region of the Vendée in western France in 1794, at the height of the Reign of Terror, when a popular movement against the Revolution was ferociously repressed with a carnage.

Revolutionary soldiers killed everyone and everything they saw. Thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered in cold blood, farms and villages were torched.


Photo credits: Pixabay