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Italy is a historic region encompassing the Italian Peninsula and several areas adjacent to that pensinula, including the March of Verona and Lombardy. The island of Sicily is often considered a part of the region but is separated from the peninsula by the narrow Strait of Messina. The whole of the region, as well as the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, corerespond within the Order of Hermes to the Roman Tribunal

History of Italy[]

The ancient inhabitants of the Italian peninsula were the Etruscans, whose culture flowered by about 800 BC. Around this time, Greek colonies were established in Sicily and southern Italy, and began influencing the Etruscan culture.

Roman Italy[]

According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus and Remus, and was then governed by seven Kings of Rome. In 509 BC the last of them, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown, and the Roman Republic was formed. The Republic was ruled by two elected consuls at a time, while the Senate (formed by the most notable Patricians,) and a city assembly formed a sort of Parliament.

The institutions of the Roman republic, born for governing a city-state, were unfit to rule over such a large empire. Furthermore, there was discontent both inside Rome and between Rome and its Italic allies, and the tension favored military commanders, who started taking dictatorial powers. The first of these was Sulla, who prevented an overthrow of the republic by Gaius Marius but became a sort of "lord protector" of the Senate until his death in 78 BC. After him came Julius Caesar, who after conquering the Gauls won a civil war against Pompey but was assassinated by senators fearing he would start a monarchy, in 44 BC. He was avenged by his nephew Octavianus who first defeated the senatorial party with the help of Mark Antony, and later (in 31 BC) Antony himself (who was allied to the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra).

Octavius was awarded the titles of Augustus and Princeps by what remained of the Senate, and was proclaimed Imperator (which at the time only meant "supreme commander") by his Legions. Even if he was careful to abide the rules of the old republic, Octavius actually ruled as an Emperor, and the Roman Empire was born. This became apparent in 14, when he died and was succeeded by his adoptive son Tiberius.

The establishment of the empire brought substantial benefits to the provinces, which could now appeal to the emperor against rapacious administrators, rather than to the corrupt senatorial class to whom the administrators usually belonged. Furthermore, Roman citizenship was slowly extended to the provinces, and the rule of law became less arbitrary (although largely imperfect).

Despite its military strength, the empire made few efforts to expand its already vast extent; the most notable was probably the conquest of England by emperor Claudius in 47. In the 1st and 2nd century Roman legions were mostly employed in brief civil wars (e.g. in 68, the year of the four emperors) or suppressing insurrections (e.g. the Hebraic insurrection in Judea, ended with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70, and with the start of the diaspora).

The Decline of the Roman State[]

In fact, the internal situation was slowly deteriorating, and exploded in the crisis of the Third Century, when economic problems, barbarian incursions and civil wars led to a fragmentation of the empire as the regions tried to respond effectively to Persians and 'barbarian' invasions. The empire began to recover in the reign of the emperor Aurelian (270-275) and, stengthened, was saved by Diocletian (284-305) and Constantine (306-337), who split the empire into western and eastern parts, with Rome and Constantinopolis (founded by Constantine himself) as capitals. Constantine also stopped opposing the diffusion of the Christian religion (313, Edict of Milan), actually allying with the Christian church. Christianity became the only official religion of the empire in 380 under emperor Theodosius. Italy continued to be the center of the Roman empire in the West and Rome its capital, although through most of the fifth century the emperors resided at the more easily defensible Ravenna. The last resident western emperor was deposed in 476. Under Odoacer (476-489) and Theodosius (489-526) Italy enjoyed a brief revival economically and culturally until the damage done in the wars of Justinian (535-554), who wanted to recover Italy completely for the Empire, devastated the peninsula and destroyed the flourishing Christian Roman civilization that had survived along with the administrative and financial apparatus of the Late Roman Empire.

Italy was invaded by the Visigoths in the 5th century, and Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410. The last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed in 476 by an Eastern Germanic general, Odoacer. He subsequently ruled in Italy for seventeen years as rex gentium, theoretically under the suzerainty of the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno, but practically in total independence. The administration remained essentially the same as that under the Western Roman Empire, and gave religious freedoms to the Christians. Odoacer fought against the Vandals, who had occupied Sicily, and other Germanic tribes that periodically invaded the peninsula.

After the Fall[]

In 489 Emperor Zeno decided to oust the Ostrogoths, a foederatum living in the Danube valley, by sending them into Italy. On February 25, 493 Theodoric the Great defeated Odoacer and became the king of the Ostrogoths. Theodoric, who had lived long in Constantinople, was a thoroughly Romanized German, and ruled over Italy largely through Roman personnel. The Gothic minority, largely Arian Christians, constituted an aristocracy of landowners and militaries, but its influence over the country remained minimal; the Latin population was still subject to Roman laws, and maintained the freedom of creed received by Odoacer. The reign of Theodoric is generally considered a period of recovery for the country. Infrastructures were repaired, frontiers were expanded, and the economy well cared for. The Latin culture flourished for the last time with figures like Boethius, Theodoric's minister; the Italian Kingdom was again the most powerful political entity of the Mediterranean. However, Theodoric's successors were not equal to him.

The eastern half of the Empire, now centred on Constantinople, invaded Italy in the early 6th century, and the generals of emperor Justinian, Belisarius and Narses, conquered the Ostrogothic kingdom after years of warfare, ending in 552. This conflict, known as Gothic Wars, destroyed much of the town life that had survived the barbarian invasions. Town life did not disappear, but towns in the Dark Ages were smaller and considerably more primitive than they had been in Roman times. Subsistence agriculture employed the bulk of the Italian population. Wars, famines, and disease epidemics had a dramatic effect on the demographics of Italy. The agricultural estates of the Roman era did not disappear. They produced an agricultural surplus that was sold in towns; however slavery was replaced by other labour systems such as serfdom.

The withdrawal of Byzantine armies allowed another Germanic people, the Lombards, to invade Italy. Cividale del Friuli was the first main centre to fall, while the Byzantine resistance concentrated in the coast areas. The Lombards soon overran most of the peninsula, establishing a Kingdom with capital in Pavia, divided into a series of dukedoms. The areas in central-northern Italy which remained under Byzantine control (mostly Lazio and Romagna, plus a short corridor between Umbria that connected them, as well as Liguria) became the Exarchate of Ravenna. Southern Italy, with the exception of Apulia, current Calabria and Sicily, were also occupied by the two semi-independent Lombard duchies of Spoleto and Benevento. Under the Imperial authority remained also much of the ports, which eventually turned into actually independent city-states (Gaeta, Naples, Venice).

The Rise of the Church[]

The Church (and especially the bishop of Rome, the pope) had played an important political role since the times of Constantine, who tried to include it in the imperial administration. In the politically unstable situation after the fall of the western empire, the Church often became the only stable institution and the only source of learning. Even barbarians had to rely on clerics in order to administrate their conquests. Furthermore, the Catholic monastic orders, such as the Benedictines had a major role both in the economic life of the time, and in the preservation of the classical culture.

After the Lombard invasion, the popes (i.e. St. Gregory) were nominally subject to the eastern emperor, but often received little help from Constantinople, and had to fill the lack of stately power, providing essential services (ex. food for the needy) and protecting Rome from Lombard incursions; in this way, the popes started building an independent state.

Collapse of the Exarchate[]

By the end of the 8th century the popes definitely aspired to independence, and found a way to achieve it by allying with the Carolingian dynasty of the Franks: the Carolingians needed someone who could give legitimacy to a coup against the powerless Merovingian kings, while the popes needed military protection against the Lombards.

In 751 the Lombards seized Ravenna and the Exarchate of Ravenna was abolished. This ended the Byzantine presence in central Italy (although some coastal cities and some areas in south Italy remained under Byzantine control until the eleventh century). Facing a new Lombard offensive, the papacy appealed to the Franks for aid. In 756 Frankish forces defeated the Lombards and gave the Papacy legal authority over all of central Italy, thus creating the Papal States. However, the remainder of Italy stayed under Lombard or Byzantine control.

The Holy Roman Empire[]

In 774, upon a Papal invitation, the Franks invaded the Kingdom of Italy and finally annexed the Lombards; as a reward the Frankish king Charlemagne received papal support. Later, on December 25, 800, Charlemagne was also crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the pope, triggering controversy and disputes over the Roman name. A war between the two empires soon followed; in 812 the Byzantines agreed to recognize the existence of two Roman Empires in return for an assurance that the remaining Byzantine possessions in Italy would be uncontested.

Throughout this period, some coastal regions, and all of southern Italy, remained under Byzantine or Lombard control. The Imperial authority never extended much south of the Italian Peninsula. Southern Italy was divided amongst the two Lombards duchies of Spoleto and Benevento, who accepted Charlemagne's suzerainty only formally in 812, and the Byzantine Empire. Coastal cities like Gaeta, Amalfi, Naples on the Tyrrhenian Sea, and Venice on the Adriatic Sea, were Latin-Greek enclaves who were becoming increasingly independent from Byzantium. A conquest of Benevento, otherwise, would have meant the total encompassment of the Papal territories, and probably Charlemagne thought it was good for his relationships with the Pope to avoid such a move. The age of Charlemagne was one of stability for Italy, though it was generally dominated by non-Italian interests. The separation with the Eastern world continued to increase. Leo III was the first Pope to date his Bulls from the year of Charlemagne's reign (795) instead of those of Byzantine emperors. This process of isolation from the Eastern Empire and connection with the Western world of France and Germany, which had started three centuries before, was completed at the beginning of the 9th centuries. Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and the marine cities were the main exceptions to this rule.[citation needed]

With Charlemagne's conquest of 774, the north of Italy was politically separated from the south completely. Though the Byzantines had continued to hold most of Apulia and Calabria and the Lombard duchies of the south had been aloof of Pavian policies for a century, the situation was exacerbated by the loss of a centralising Lombard authority in the north. Immediately, the duke of Benevento, Arechis II, proclaimed himself a sovereign prince and set about opposing Charlemagne's assumption of Lombard kingship.

After the death of Charlemagne in 814 the new empire soon disintegrated under his weak successors. The equilibrium created through the great emperor's charisma fell apart. This crisis was due also to the emergence of external forces, including the Saracen attacks and the rising power of the marine republics. Charlemagne had announced his division of the Empire in 806: the Lombard-Frank reign, together with Bavaria and Alamannia, was to be handed over to his son Pepin of Italy.

After Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious died in 840, the treaty of Verdun in 843 divided the empire. Louis' eldest surviving son Lothair I became Emperor and ruler of the Central Franks. His three sons in turn divided this kingdom between them, and Northern Italy became the Kingdom of Italy under Louis II, Holy Roman Emperor in 839.

The first half of the 9th century saw other troubles for Italy as well. In 827, Muslim Arabs known as Aghlabids invaded and conquered Sicily; their descendants, the Kalbids, ruled the island until 1053 . In 846, Muslim Arabs invaded Rome, looted St. Peter's Basilica, and stole all the gold and silver in it. In response, Pope Leo IV started building the Leonine walls of the Vatican City in 847; they were completed in 853.In the late ninth century the Byzantines and the Franks launched a joint offensive against the Arabs in southern Italy; however, only the Byzantines won any territory in that campaign.[citation needed]

In 951 the thrones of Italy and Germany were united. The ruler of the new realm, Otto I, claimed that the union revived the empire of Charlemagne and received the title of Holy Roman Emperor in 962. Even the papacy went through an age of decadence, which ended only in 999 when emperor Otto III selected Sylvester II as Pope.

Major Cities of Italy[]

  • Genoa
  • Pisa
  • Rome
  • Venice
  • Verona
  • Syracuse