While Italy's status as a single political entity is relatively
recent (1861), its strategic Mediterranean position made it a target
for colonisers and opportunists fairly early on in human history.
The Etruscans were the first people to rule the peninsula, arriving
anywhere between the 12th and 8th centuries BC. They were eventually
subsumed within the mighty Roman empire, leaving little cultural
evidence, other than the odd tomb.
The Ancient Greeks, their contemporaries, set up a few colonies
along the southern coast, which became known as Magna Graecia and
developed into independent city states. Thus the greater glory which
was Rome was itself the offspring of Etruscan and Greek cultures.
The first Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC, setting in motion
the dogma of democracy, the linguistic nightmare of Latin and one
of the largest empires the world has ever seen.
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
civilisation 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
in the hands of the military and, ultimately, dictators. The empire
grew so large, it had to be divided into eastern and western sectors
just to be administered.
Even so, the bloodthirsty theatrics of regicide and intrigue were
planting the seeds of its eventual destruction. Christianity was
embraced by Constantine 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, and prospered, until overrun
by the Turks in 1453. Italy entered a period peopled by Goths and
forever ostracised 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, when the
next big chapter in textbook history was about to begin.
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 led directly to cultural adulthood,
culminating in the Renaissance of the 15th century.
Dubbed the world's 'living art gallery', Italy has more 'culture'
than you can shake a baton, paintbrush, quill or chisel at. Whether
it's a broken pillar rising up through the linoleum floor of a train
station or a baroque church overlooking a cracked antique pediment
in the forum, history and culture surround you.
Outside there are Etruscan tombs, Greek temples, cat-infested Roman
ruins, Moorish architecture and statue-filled baroque fountains
to gawp at; inside you can swoon to Roman copies of Hellenic sculptures,
Byzantine mosaics, beatific Madonnas from Giotto to Titian, gargantuan
baroque tombs and trompe l'oeil ceilings.