Five centuries before the Roman Republic conquered the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans and Greeks were tussling for control of Italian ports and fertile farming land. Despite the increasing power of the Greek states in Italy, the growing might of the Roman Empire overwhelmed them by the 2nd century BC. By 100 AD, Rome was the most powerful city in the Mediterranean.
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 Northern Italy was overrun by the Germans and the French Lombards, 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 forms of government between the 12th and 14th centuries.
These powerful city-states had both the wealth and independence to usher in a dynamic age of thinking known as the Renaissance. Despite the advances of this era, subsequent decades of war and plague were to fatally weaken the ruling dynasties. In 1797, Napoleon conquered Venice ending 700 years of independence and creating the first Kingdom of Italy in 1805.
Inspired by the success of the French Revolution, Italians began to agitate for a fully independent, unified nation, and finally won national independence in 1861.
At the dawn of the 20th 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 and the Fascist Party rose to power on a tide of discontent. The following alliance with the German Nazis in 1940, which brought Italy into WWII, ultimately left the country 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. High unemployment, corruption and increasing national debt, however, culminated in crisis in 2008 and three years later Silvio Berlusconi was finally toppled from office. In 2014, 39-year-old Matteo Renzi, the youngest Italian prime minister in history, was sworn in.
Did you know?
• Tourists fling an estimated €3,000 (£2,210) into the Trevi Fountain every day. This money is collected and donated to charity.
• Italy is home to three active volcanoes: Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius. Etna is the world’s most active volcano and has been erupting on and off for the past 3,500 years.
• With 51 UNESCO World Heritage Sites to its name, Italy has more than any other country in the world.