By 700 BC, when Italy first appears in (Greek) written records, most of its inhabitants lived as farmers or herders in villages or small towns, and spoke an Indo-European language. Colonists from Greece had already established several city-states in the south of Italy and in Sicily. These have brought Greek civilization to the peninsula, and with it the alphabet, Greek styles of art and architecture, and other Greek ways. Another sophisticated civilization - that of the Etruscans - has emerged, under Greek influence; it is centred on a group of wealthy city-states in central Italy. At around this time their power reaches its peak with the establishment of outposts in the Po valley, in the north. By 500 BC, other Italian peoples are living in city-states, and that distinctively Greek political form, the republic, is taking root in the peninsula.
In central Italy, the small city of Rome is even now winning its independence from Etruscan domination and becoming one of these new-fangled city-republics.
Read more about early Rome here
The area of modern France is inhabited by warlike Celtic tribesclick to view France 500BC
A great civilization has emerged in Greece, based on hundreds of small city-statesclick to view Greece and the Balkans 500BC
The great trading city of Carthage is located in North Africaclick to view North Africa 500BC
The centuries between 500 and 200 BC have seen huge changes to the political map of Italy. The Etruscans, having reached a peak of power in around 500 BC, were pushed out of the Po valley, in northern Italy, by Celtic tribes coming in from Gaul. There they settled, and their raiding parties penetrated deep into the peninsula, sacking Rome in around 390 BC.
The Romans recovered from this disaster, and by the end of the fourth century were expanding their power across central and southern Italy. Long, fierce wars ended in Sabine, Samnite and Umbrian hill tribes, and Etruscan and Greek city-states, all falling under Roman domination. Pursuing a far-sighted policy, Rome did not treat defeated opponents as conquered peoples, but formed them into a confederation of allies under her leadership. A network of roads and colonies underpinned Roman control of the peninsula.
Rome's Italian allies provided troops for the great wars Rome fought with Carthage in the third century (264-241 BC and 218-202 BC), and mostly held firm in their loyalty to the Romans in the face of Hannibal's devastating invasion of Italy.
click to view The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire 200BC
The Greek city-states are buffeted by the great powers of the regionclick to view Greece and the Balkans 200BC
The area of modern France is now dominated by the Celtic La Tene cultureclick to view France 200BC
The city of Carthage has had its power weakened by Romeclick to view North Africa 200BC
Troops provided by Rome's Italian allies played their full part in Rome's wars of conquest in the second century BC. Wherever Roman power spread throughout the Mediterranean, moreover, Italian businessmen followed. More and more wealth flowed into the cities of Italy. The second century was a time of peace and prosperity for the whole of Italy.
As its overseas empire grew, however, Rome behaved more and more arrogantly towards her allies in Italy. This led the Italians to demand full Roman citizenship, and finally, in 90 BC, to take up arms in this cause. The Roman senate quickly granted full citizenship to all Italians south of the Po valley, although the war dragged on in places until 82 BC.
Italy was then caught up in the sequence of Roman civil wars, with a stable peace only being restored in 30 BC.
By this time, Latin culture has come to predominate over the numerous local cultures of previous centuries. The Roman army and administrative institutions are staffed by men drawn from all over Italy, and, with the old Roman families dwindling in number, many Roman senators have their roots in Italian towns.
The Greek city-states and kingdoms have fallen under the power of Romeclick to view Greece and the Balkans 30BC
The whole of the area of modern France has been conquered by the Romansclick to view France 30BC
North Africa has now largely fallen under the power of Romeclick to view North Africa 30BC
Italy has seen more than two centuries of almost unbroken peace. Cities throughout Italy have sent their sons to sit in the Roman senate, pursue good careers in the imperial administration and enter the Roman army on a fast track to promotion to centurion rank. The peninsula is very much the metropolitan core of the Roman empire.
On the other hand, Italy's traditional industries have been increasingly challenged by new industries springing up in the provinces. Also, Italy's population seems unable to replace itself properly, which has alarmed the imperial government – special schemes to support orphans have been set up throughout Italy to help promote population growth. Some towns show signs of economic strain, perhaps due to the preponderance of great senatorial estates in the peninsula (Roman senators are required to have at least a quarter of their property in Italy) which thus puts large amounts of economic resources beyond the reach of local governments.
The Greek cities are in decline, though their glorious past is still reveredclick to view Greece and the Balkans 200AD
Roman civilization has become deeply entrenched throughout the area of modern Franceclick to view France 200AD
North Africa is one of the most prosperous and Romanized parts of the Roman empireclick to view North Africa 200AD
Although the peninsula did not experience many large-scale invasions in the troubled third century, new taxation (which Italy had virtually escaped during the first two centuries of the empire) hit Italy hard. In the fourth century, Italy was divided into provinces, putting it on the same administrative footing as the rest of the empire, and Italians lost their privileged status in the imperial administration and army.
In the fifth, despite several major barbarian invasions, Roman administration and society remained largely intact here. The emperors, by now resident at Ravenna, were more or less cyphers, with real power in the hands of German military commanders. Finally, in 476, the last emperor in the west was despatched to Constantinople.
A German tribe, called the Ostrogoths, invaded Italy in 489 and now rule here. They are Arian Christians, and a gulf of suspicion separates them from the Roman population, who are Catholics. Nevertheless, civil government is still in the hands of the Roman governing class, and Roman law and administration carry on much as before.
Gaul is now divided amongst German-ruled kingdoms, but much of the old Roman civilization enduresclick to view France 500AD
click to view North Africa 500AD
The Balkans have been lost to Byzantine rule, and Slavs and Bulgars have settled the region.click to view Greece and the Balkans 500AD
In 535 the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, emperor, Justinian, ordered his forces to bring Italy back under imperial control. The resulting wars between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths lasted almost twenty years, and were a disaster for Italy. The Roman cities of Italy, above all Rome itself, suffered terribly, and most (including Rome) shrank to a fraction of their former size. These decades effectively marked the end of Roman Italy.
Further disaster came when another German tribe, the Lombards, conquered much of the peninsula (568-605), since which time Italy has been divided between the Lombards and the Eastern Romans (or Byzantines, as we shall now call them).
The Lombard kingdom is divided amongst powerful dukes; those in southern Italy have become practically independent. The Byzantine part of Italy is governed from Ravenna, in the north, but the local areas have much autonomy. The bishop of Rome, the pope, is by now the effective ruler of that city, as he has the support of the populace, whilst the Byzantine governor does not.
The Lombards continue to pose a potent threat to the Byzantines in Italy, and their army is now threatening Rome.
In the 770's, most of Italy was conquered by the Frankish king Charlemagne. With the break-up of his empire under his successors, the peninsula fragmented into three main parts. In the north, an independent kingdom of Italy emerged, which was later conquered by the German king, Otto, in the 950's, and became a part of the huge new political entity he founded, the Holy Roman Empire.
In Central Italy, Charlemagne gave much of the Lombards' territory to the pope, thus founding the principality known as the Papal State. With the decline in Frankish power, this has emerged as an independent state, with the pope as its ruler.
In southern Italy, the Lombard duchy of Benevento has fragmented into several states which fight continually with each other, and with the Byzantine garrisons still in control of the far south.
Apart from these three main political regions within Italy, the maritime city of Venice has emerged as an effectively independent state under its duke (doge) and ruling council. It is experiencing great commercial expansion in this period, coming to dominate the Adriatic trade.
Internal disorder and Viking raids have brought chaos to the land of the west Franks, as royal authority declines and the power of local lords risesclick to view France 979AD
The Byzantines and the Bulgarians now compete for control of the Balkansclick to view Greece and the Balkans 979AD
The German tribes have come under the rule of the newly-founded Holy Roman Empireclick to view Germany 979AD
The northern cities of Italy remain within the Holy Roman Empire - but they have taken advantage of the long civil wars within the empire and the decline in imperial authority to become self-governing communities. They have experienced a vigorous expansion of trade and industry - for example Venice and Genoa now dominate the Mediterranean sea routes, and Milan and Florence are developing trade contacts across Europe. The growing commercial prosperity of the region has increased the economic power and self-confidence of the merchants and other urban classes.
In southern Italy, bands of Normans, first coming as mercenaries to fight in the unceasing conflicts between the south Italian principalities, seized control there, and went on to found the kingdom of Sicily (1127). Sicily has became a centralized and wealthy state, and one where Byzantine, Arab and Latin elements have fused to produce a brilliant culture. The kingdom has passed, by inheritance, into the hands of the Holy Roman Emperors, members of the German Hohenstaufen family (1190).
Several able kings have gradually expanded royal authority within France, at the expense of the regional lordsclick to view France 1215AD
The rivalry between the Byzantine empire and the Bulgars has continued, only ending with the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade 1204.click to view Greece and the Balkans 1215AD
The unity of the Holy Roman Empire has been undermined by civil warsclick to view Germany 1215AD
The economy of northern and central Italy has continued to expand, with the development of large-scale international commerce and banking. Florence, Venice and Genoa take the lead. This wealth has helped to fund the increasing number of mercenary armies which fight the inter-city wars of the period. The Black Death caused huge loss of life, but only temporarily disrupted the prosperity and economic power of the north Italian city-states. Milan, Florence (by now under the domination of the Medici family) and Venice have expanded their territories to become substantial regional powers, while Venice and Genoa, bitter commercial rivals, continue to dominate the sea-lanes of the Mediterranean. It is the wealth and competitive spirit of these northern Italian city-dwellers that has fuelled the launch of that cultural movement later known as the Renaissance.
The Papal States have fallen into near-anarchy as local tyrants have seized power from papal officials. In the south, Frederick II (1212-50) brought the government of the kingdom of Sicily to a peak of centralized administrative efficiency, quite unknown elsewhere in Europe. After him, weakness and instability set in, and the state fell to foreign domination. The Spanish kingdom of Aragon now rules here.
The kingdom of France has emerged victorious from the 100 Years Warclick to view France 1453AD
The Balkans are falling under the rule of the Ottoman Turksclick to view Greece and the Balkans 1453AD
The Holy Roman Empire has now become a collection of hundreds of virtually independent statesclick to view Germany 1453AD
The intense rivalry between the Italian states drew in neighbouring powerful states and Italy became the battleground between the French and Hapsburg monarchies (1494-1559), with consequent misery (notably the terrible sack of Rome by Hapsburg troops in 1527) and loss of independence for Italian states. The treaty of Cateau-Cambresis (1559) imposed Spanish Hapsburg dominance in Italy. Since then the Spanish have dominated Italy, including the kingdom of Naples. The only significant states which retain their independence are Tuscany (now a Grand Duchy under the Medici), the Dukedom of Savoy, and the Republic of Venice.
The Republic of Venice remains an important Mediterranean power, but its position in the Eastern Mediterranean is being progressively whittled down by the Ottoman Turks. At one time it looked as though the Ottoman navy would dominate the entire Mediterranean Sea, but at the decisive battle of Lepanto (1571) the Spanish, Venetian and Papal forces checked Ottoman naval expansion.
The kingdom of France is now ruled by a highly centralized monarchyclick to view France 1648AD
The Balkans are now ruled by the Ottoman empireclick to view Greece and the Balkans 1648AD
Germany has experienced the terrible 30 Years Warclick to view Germany 1648AD
At the beginning of the 18th century Austria replaced Spain as the major power in Italy, gaining Milan and Naples in 1713, and Sicily in 1720. This situation was partially reversed when, in 1734, the Spanish Bourbons received Naples and Sicily (the kingdom of the Two Sicilies). In compensation, the Austrian Hapsburgs gained Tuscany. The only two Italian states to retain their independence under native rulers are Savoy, whose duke has been made king of Piedmont-Sardinia, and the Venetian Republic.
During the 18th century, Italy has become a magnet for European aristocrats, visiting the country for its Roman remains and Renaissance heritage on the "Grand Tour".
France is on the verge of Revolution!click to view France 1789AD
The Balkans remain under the rule of the Ottoman Turksclick to view Greece and the Balkans 1789AD
Prussia has emerged to challenge Austria as the leading state in Germanyclick to view Germany 1789AD
At one time or another during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1793-1815), all of Italy except Sicily came under French rule.
The settlement of 1815 confirmed Austria’s pre-war dominance of northern Italy, and added Venice and its territories to its pre-war possessions. Southern Italy and Sicily remained under the rule of the Bourbon monarchy. The only state left under rulers of native Italian origin is that of the house of Savoy, kings of Piedmont-Sardinia.
The period since 1815 has seen a rise in pan-Italian - and anti-Austrian - feeling. Revolutionary groups such as the Carbonari have become active, and a number of insurrections occurred throughout Italy in the 1820's and 30's. All were suppressed when the local rulers called in Austrian troops.
After a period of comparative peace in Italy, a wave of revolutions broke out throughout the Peninsula in 1848. All were crushed the following year, mostly by Austrian forces.
The failure of these revolutions brought the prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia, Cavour, to centre stage: he was to perform a similar role in Italy as Bismark was to fulfil in Germany. By skillful diplomacy, he brought France into a war against Austria alongside Piedmont-Sardinia (1858-9), which ended up with Piedmont-Sardinia in control of most of northern and central Italy.
The next year (1860) a rag-tag army under the inspirational Garibaldi landed in Sicily and swept all before it as it occupied that island and then marched on Naples. The king of Piedmont-Sardinia, Victor-Emmanuel, then marched south with his army and joined forces with Garibaldi near Naples. The kingdom of Italy was then officially proclaimed (1861), with Victor-Emmanuel as king.
In 1866 Italy was rewarded for being an ally of Prussia in the Franco-Prussian war of that year, by being given Venetia; and in 1870, the Italian army annexed Rome and the Papal States. These additions have given Italy roughly its modern boundaries, and the city of Rome has been made the Italian capital.
France has been defeated in a war with Prussiaclick to view France 1871AD
Greece has won its independence from the Ottoman empireclick to view Greece and the Balkans 1871AD
Prussia has united the other German states within the new German Empireclick to view Germany 1871AD
Since its unification, Italy has been ruled by parliamentary system under a constitutional monarchy. Italian politics has been turbulent, including the assassination of its king, Umberto I, in 1900. Nevertheless, the economy has expanded greatly and Italy has built up a comprehensive railway network, a modern army and an excellent navy.
Italy entered World War 1 on the Allies’ side in 1915. As a result, her territory was extended with the acquisition of the Trentino area in the north and Istria at the head of the Adriatic. The end of the war was followed by economic contraction, industrial unrest and political turmoil. In these conditions, Benito Mussolini organized the Fascist movement into a disciplined, quazi-military force and, threatening to march on Rome, was asked by the king to form a government (1922). He soon consolidated his power so that, although the king still reigned as a figurehead, Il Duce (as Mussolini had himself called) eliminated all opposition and gained complete control of the state.
Under Mussolini, Italy built up a large army and navy, conquered Ethiopia (1935-6) and Albania (April 1939), and entered into a formal partnership with Nazi Germany. However, World War 2 brought defeat, humiliation, destruction and foreign occupation by both Allies and Germans. Mussolini was killed by partisans. In 1946, King Victor Emmanuel III abdicated and Italy became a Republic.
Post-war Italy has witnessed a series of weak, short-lived governments, and Italian public life has been characterized by repeated corruption scandals. However, this has not prevented the Italian economy from expanding rapidly, especially in the industrial north. Moreover, Italy plays a full part on the international stage as a member of NATO and the European Common Market.
France has experienced the full brunt of two world warsclick to view France 1960AD
After defeat in two world wars Germany is now divided into a communist East and a democratic Westclick to view Germany 1960AD
Most of the Balkans is under communist ruleclick to view Greece and the Balkans 1960AD
The Italian Republic is a member of the EU and of NATO. The country has witnessed periods of recessions, as well as episodes of political terrorism and natural disaster. These, however, have not prevented it from continuing to grow its economy and play its part as a major nation on the world stage.
France is a leading member of the EUclick to view France 2005AD
Germany has become a united country again, its economy the most powerful in Europeclick to view Germany 2005AD
The Balkans have experienced bitter fighting between different ethnic groupsclick to view Greece and the Balkans 2005AD
Hover MAP for summary and tap to zoom. MAP < and > buttons change date. TIMELINE icons jump to date. See below for historical summary.