05-06-2009 20:34

Prehistory to Roman Empire

The Colosseum in Rome, perhaps the most enduring symbol of Italy.Excavations throughout Italy reveal a modern human presence dating back to the Palaeolithic period, some 200,000 years ago.[8] In the 8th and 7th centuries BC Greek colonies were established all along the coast of Sicily and the southern part of the Italian Peninsula. Subsequently, Romans referred to this area as Magna Graecia, as it was so densely inhabited by Greeks.

Ancient Rome was at first a small agricultural community founded circa the 8th century BC that grew over the course of the centuries into a colossal empire encompassing the whole Mediterranean Sea, in which Ancient Greek and Roman cultures merged into one civilization. This civilization was so influential that parts of it survive in modern law, administration, philosophy and arts, forming the ground that Western civilization is based upon. In its twelve-century existence, it transformed itself from monarchy to republic and finally to autocracy.

In steady decline since the 2nd century AD, the empire finally broke into two parts in 285 AD: the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire in the East. The western part under the pressure of Goths finally dissolved, leaving the Italian peninsula divided into small independent kingdoms and feuding city states for the next 14 centuries, and leaving the eastern part sole heir to the Roman legacy.

Middle Ages

The Iron Crown with which Lombard rulers were crowned.Following a short recapture of the Italian peninsula by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD from the Ostrogoths, a new wave of Germanic tribes, the Lombards, soon arrived in Italy from the north. For several centuries the armies of the Byzantines were strong enough to prevent Arabs, the Holy Roman Empire, or the Papacy from establishing a unified Italian Kingdom, but were at the same time too weak to fully unify the former Roman lands themselves. Nevertheless, during early Middle Ages Imperial dynasties such as the Carolingians, the Ottonians and the Hohenstaufens managed to impose their overlordship in Italy.

Italy's regions were eventually subsumed by their neighbouring empires with their conflicting interests and would remain divided up to the 19th century. It was during this vacuum of authority that the region saw the rise of the Signoria and the Comune. In the anarchic conditions that often prevailed in medieval Italian city-states, people looked to strong men to restore order and disarm the feuding elites. In times of anarchy or crisis, cities sometimes offered the Signoria to individuals perceived as strong enough to save the state, most notably the Della Scala family in Verona, the Visconti in Milan and the Medici in Florence.

Italy during this period became notable for its merchant Republics. These city-states, oligarchical in reality, had a dominant merchant class which under relative freedom nurtured academic and artistic advancement. The four classic Maritime Republics in Italy were Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi, listed in order of the temporal sequence of their dominance.