Five centuries before the Roman Republic took control of the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans and Greeks were tussling for control of Italian ports and fertile farming land. Sicily’s magnificent Greek temples are testimony to the fact that the Greek states in Italy were once more powerful than their home government in Athens, but the growing might of the Roman Empire overwhelmed them - and much of Greece, Spain and North Africa – by the 2nd century BC. By 100 AD, Rome was the most powerful city in the Mediterranean with a population of 1.5 million, its streets lined with temples, bathhouses, theatres and libraries.
While the capital prospered, poverty was rife in the provinces and by AD 400 the unwieldy Empire was divided in two, with a second capital established at Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in 330. As Italy was overrun by the Germans and the French Lombards in the north, the Papacy established itself as a spiritual and secular force in Rome. While the south tended towards centralised rule, supporting the Papacy, powerful port cities such as Genoa, Pisa and Venice increasingly ignored edicts from Rome, while rich power centres like Milan, Florence, Bologna and Verona resisted Roman meddling in internal affairs, developing their own, new forms of government between the 12th and 14th centuries.
These rich and powerful city-states had both the wealth and independence to usher in a dynamic age of thinking known as the Renaissance. Artistic advances, new scientific discoveries, systems of governance and radical new literature were the order of the day from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Despite these advances, subsequent decades of war and plague were to fatally weaken powerful ruling dynasties like the Medici in Florence and the Sforza’s in Milan. In 1797, Napoleon conquered Venice ending 700 years of independence and creating the first Kingdom of Italy in 1805.
In less than 10 years, inspired by the success of the French Revolution, Italians began to agitate for a fully independent, unified nation. Led by Count Camillo di Cavour, prime minister to the Savoy monarchy in Turin who first negotiated the creation of a northern Italian kingdom in 1858, the Italians finally won national independence in 1861.
Not long after, at the dawn of the new century, Italy was embroiled in a devastating, although ultimately successful, territorial skirmish with Austria in WWI. Around 600,000 men died and the country was reduced to poverty. Frustrated by the peace settlement at Versailles, Benito Mussolini rose to power on a tide of discontent, leading the Fascist Party to power in 1924. The following alliance with the German Nazis in 1940, which brought Italy into WWII, ultimately left Italy shut out of any power positions in the latter half of the 20th century.
Despite decades of political turbulence, Italy grew into one of the world’s leading economies in the 1980s, becoming a founding partner of the eurozone in 2001. High unemployment, corruption, lack of structural and institutional reform and increasing national debt, however, culminated in crisis in 2008 and three years later rightwing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was finally toppled from office. He was replaced by Mario Monti in November 2011, who assumed the role of prime minister and Minister of Economy and Finance and is tasked with trying to resolve Italy’s economic woes.