status as a single political kingdom was proclaimed in 1861.
Yet Venetia and Rome were not included in the new state until
1866 and 1870 respectively. Although Italy’s status
as a single political body is a relatively recent event, its
strategic geographical position in the Mediterranean made
it a scene of many important power struggles fairly early
on in the history of Europe.
Recent discoveries throughout Italy have revealed evidence
of settlers during the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods.
Circa 5000 BC or the beginning of the Neolithic period the
small communities of hunters of former times had been replaced
by agricultural settlements, with their breeding of animals
and prevalent use of stone and pottery. On the island of Lipari,
more specifically at Castellaro Vecchio, excavations have
revealed hand painted vessels that appear to have been influenced
by contemporary styles of Greece.
At the start of the Bronze Age around 2000
BC, new eastern immigrants had settled Italy and introduced
metalworking into southern Italy and Sicily; The Italian Polada
culture of the north has provided strong evidence of links
with cultures beyond the northern Alps. Much of central and
southern Italy had a unified culture known as the Apennine,
characterized by their large agricultural and pastoral settlements.
On the southeastern coast and in Sicily it is evidenced that
there were trading contacts with the Mycenaeans. In Po River
Valley to the north circa 1000 BC the terramara culture rose
to prominence with their techniques in bronze, wooden villages,
and cremation rites. By the time iron was introduced into
Italy around 1000 BC, disparate communities were well established.
The diverse cultural patterns of the early Iron Age were further
complicated in the late 8th century BC by the arrival of Greek
colonizers in the south and by the appearance of the Etruscans
in central Italy and the Po Valley. It is not known when or
where and to what degree the Etruscan culture settled on Italian
peninsula. Historians generally agree that they migrated from
the Aegeo-Asian or eastern area around the end of the 12th
century BC. What is well known about the Etruscans is that
they managed to create a flourishing civilization. The earliest
evidence of the Etruscan people in Italy was in the Villanovan
culture around 9th century BC which was centered on present-day
Further evidence of the Etruscans comes from
archaeological excavations of tombs and religious sanctuaries.
Their belief in the afterlife compelled them to perform burials
of the dead with everything that they might need in the life
after, such as food and drink, clothing, ornaments, and weapons.
Their painted tombs depicted scenes of everyday life, notably
those discovered near Rome at Tarquinia, provide important
knowledge of how the Etruscans lived. During the 7th and 6th
century Etruscans expanded their rule and were at the height
of their power. The nation was founded on many large city-states,
collectively known as the Etruscan League. The strength of
the Etruscans came form their ability to navigate and trade,
competing for markets in the Mediterranean against the Phoenicians
and Greeks. But as the Greeks became more powerful in the
5th century BC, they began to lose control of their trade
routes, and by the 4th century BC they had lost their northern
territories to Gallic invaders and their settlements in Campania
to the Samnites, confining Etruria to its original territories
in central Italy. While the Etruscans continued to flourish
during this time, its development was now determined by its
relationship with the growing power of Rome.
Three of the seven kings who ruled Rome
from 616 BC were Etruscans. But after the expulsion of the
last of these kings, Lucas Tarquinius Superbus in 510 BC,
and the foundation of the Roman republic in 509 BC, the power
of the Roman Empire began to unify and Etruscans declined
as the monarchy of Rome Italy. The Republic’s defeat
of Carthage (near present-day Tunis) and Hellenic Macedonia
during the three Punic Wars cleared the way for ultimate expansion
into Spain, Britain, North Africa and present-day Iraq. Meanwhile,
relative peace at home enabled the infrastructure of civilization
to spread - roads, aqueducts, cites. A slave-driven lifestyle
and economy triumphed over the concept of people power, and
the reins of the Republic were increasingly taken in hand
by the military and, ultimately, the dictatorship.
The empire grew so large; it was eventually
divided into eastern and western sectors. Already, however,
the bloodthirsty theatrics of regicide and intrigue were planting
the seeds of its eventual destruction. Constantine embraced
Christianity in 313, and the empire's capital was moved from
Rome to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). The western
arm of the empire was undone by plague, famine and tribal
incursions from the north, and was officially declared null
and void in 476 when Odovacar, a German warrior, dubbed himself
ruler. The Eastern Roman Empire clung on, even prospered in
fits and starts, until overrun by the Turks in 1453.
The Dark Ages
Italy entered a period peopled by Goths and forever ostracized
as the 'Dark Ages.' Successive waves of Lombards, Franks,
Saracens, Germans and Normans invaded the peninsula and claimed
in various degrees the lost title of empire and emperor, culminating
in Frankish Charlemagne's crowning as emperor in 800. The
south was dominated by Muslim Arabs until usurped by Normans.
This ethnic cocktail began to settle in the 12th century,
just when the next big chapter in textbook history was taking
shape. Powerfully combative and competitive city-states arose
in the north, supporting either the pope (power within the
peninsula vested in the papal states) or the emperor (usually
a foreign power). The rise of cities and a merchant class
culminated in the Renaissance of the 15th century. Painters,
architects, poets, philosophers and sculptors produced unsurpassed
works of genius, despite the turmoil of intercity warfare
and invasion by countries to the north. First Spain and then
Austria controlled the peninsula during the ensuing centuries,
followed briefly by Napoleon's imperial flourish.
The Italian Nation
The post-Napoleon shake-up led directly to the drive for unification
of the 19th century, led by Garibaldi, Cavour and Mazzini.
The Kingdom of Italy was declared in 1861, although Venice
was not prized away from Austria until 1866 and papal claims
remained an issue until 1870, when Rome officially joined
the young nation. No label of unity, however, could hide the
huge cultural and social differences that split the industrialized
north from the poverty-stricken south. Economic crisis and
fickle politics dogged the new nation in the ensuing decades,
as Italy muddled through WW I and became riddled with industrial
unrest in the early 1920s. In a memorably unwise employment
decision, the king asked one Benito Mussolini to take the
reins of government under the auspices of his Fascist Party.
Il Fusto soon became head of state, outlawed the opposition,
controlled the press and trade unions and cut franchise by
two-thirds. His relationship with Hitler soured after a series
of military disasters and an Allied invasion, eventually culminating
in a fatal dose of rough justice at the hands of partisans
in April 1945.
Post War Politics
The postwar years have been colored by extremism: the extreme
violence of terrorists such as the Brigatte Rosse, extreme
center-right politics, extreme economic boom and economic
crisis, extreme corruption and bribery in extremely high places
- and an extremely cynical and fatigued public. Italy's parliament
has a reputation for scandal and resignation, and at times
it has left Italy virtually ungoverned and utterly chaotic.