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Italy - History

It is believed that modern humans only arrived in Italy around 40,000 years ago, though excavations conducted across the country point towards Neanderthal presence that dates back to the Paleolithic period. The Mycenaean Greeks developed their contacts with Italy between the 17th and 11th centuries BC. Around the 8th & 7th centuries BC, Italy’s southern area was called Magna Graecia.

The modest community of Rome, which is conventionally thought to have been founded in the year 753 BC, developed into a massive empire over the next few centuries. It stretched from Britain to the borders of Persia, encompassing the entire Mediterranean basin, forming a unique civilization that merged Greek and Roman cultures.

In the following millennia, the Roman Imperial legacy had a major impact on Western civilization. However, a gradual decline began towards the end of the second century, and in 395 AD the empire was divided into two. The Eastern half of the empire went on to survive for another thousand years, but the Western Roman Empire dissolved in the year 476 AD.

During the middle ages, Italy underwent a chaotic era, as it was seized by the Ostrogoths, reclaimed by Byzantine emperor Justinian, invaded by the Lombards (a Germanic tribe) and absorbed by the Frankish empire. Sicily, which had turned into an Islamic emirate in the 9th century, was conquered by the Italo-Normans in the 11th century, along with the southern Byzantine and Lombard principalities. A complex series of events led to the development of southern Italy as a unified kingdom, under the House of Hohenstaufen first, then under the House of Anjou, and then under the House of Aragon.

During the 14th and 15 centuries, the northern and central parts of Italy were divided into several warring city-states. The rest of the peninsula was occupied by Papal States as well as the Kingdom of Sicily. Over a period of time, the stronger city-states absorbed their surrounding territories, which gave birth to regional states, the Signorie. War broke out among these city states, and after decades of fighting, Milan, Venice and Florence emerged as the dominant players. In 1454, they signed the Peace of Lodi and relative calmness was experienced by the region for the next 40 years.

The Renaissance period, an era known for its significant revival of art, originated in Italy because of various factors. Even as foreign invasions plunged the peninsula into the war turmoil, the Italian Renaissance reached its peak and its ideas spread across Europe. However, soon after that, certain developments around the world negatively affected Italy’s dominance in trade with the East, which then led to a decline in the country’s economy.

After the Italian wars, the city-states lost their independence and fell under the domination of Spain from 1559 to 1713, and Austria from 1713 to 1796. Because of several events, which included an outbreak of plague, Southern Italy was impoverished. This region was also eliminated from the mainstream of events in the European continent.

In the 18th century, the War of Spanish Succession saw Spain being replaced by Austria as the main foreign power, and the House of Savoy became the regional power in Italy. The economic and state reforms adopted by the ruling elites in many Italian states also brought an end to the two-century long decline. When the Napoleonic wars took place, north-central Italy was re-founded as a client state by the French Empire, and it was called the new Kingdom of Italy. The southern half of the Italian peninsula was governed by Joachim Murat. Though the Congress of Vienna changed the situation in 1814, the ideals of the French Revolution couldn’t be eradicated. In the 1850s, the Head of Government of the State of Sardinia, the Earl of Cavour, discussed the creation of a Northern Italian state with Austrians in Veneto and Lombardy. When the formation of the country took place, other Central and Southern Italian states also joined in.

March 17, 1861 is regarded as the Italian Independence Day or Unification Day. On that day, General Giuseppe Garibaldi created the Kingdom of Italy and Vittorio Emanuele II was made King. However, Veneto and Latium were not a part of the kingdom, because they were still under the rule of the Austrian Empire and the Pope. In 1866, after Italy won a war against Austria, Veneto was made a part of the kingdom. Latium was won by Italian soldiers in the year 1870, after the Pope’s power was taken away.

During the World War I, Italy joined the Allied Powers (with Great Britain, Russian and France) to fight the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria). A majority of Italy’s fighting took place on the Eastern border, close to Austria. When the Central Powers surrendered in 1918, Italy gained the Trentino-South Tyrol, which was formerly owned by Austria.

Though Italy was on the ‘winning side’ in the First World War, it suffered a great deal of social turmoil and economic crisis. Soon after that, a new Italian Government known as the National Fascist Party, was founded in 1922, which was ruled by Benito Mussolini, also known as ‘Duce’ or “Leader”. By the end of the year 1927, Mussolini was regarded as the dictator of Italy. Because of Mussolini’s ties with German dictator Adolf Hitler, Italy entered World War II in 1940 as an ally to Germany (and Japan) and fought against Great Britain, France and Russia. Most of the Mediterranean Sea was controlled by Italy throughout the war.

In 1943, after Mussolini was deposed, Italy’s participation in the war as an ally of German came to an end. The dictator’s attempt at creating another Northern Italian Fascist State called the Republic of Salo wasn’t successful either. Italy gained freedom on April 25, 1945. A year later, the Italians ended the Savoia Dynasty and moved towards a republican form of government.

Italy became a republic on June 2, 1946. For the first time in the history of this country, women were given the right to vote. Italy entered into a peace treaty with the Allies in February 1947. However, it lost all its colonies, along with certain territorial areas, which included parts of Dalmatia and Istria.

Since then, Italy has not only joined NATO, but was also one of the founding members of the European Community. Today, Italy is regarded as one of the 7 largest industrial economies across the world.

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