Greeks settled in the southern tip of the Italian Peninsula in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. Etruscans, Romans, and others inhabited the central and northern mainland. The peninsula subsequently was unified under the Roman Republic. The neighbouring islands came under Roman control by the third century B.C. By the first century A.D., the Roman Empire effectively dominated the Mediterranean world. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century A.D., the peninsula and islands were subjected to a series of invasions, and political unity was lost. Italy became an oft-changing succession of small states, principalities, and kingdoms, which fought among themselves and were subject to the ambitions of foreign powers. Popes of Rome ruled central Italy and rivalries between the popes and the Holy Roman Emperors, who claimed Italy as their domain, often made the peninsula a battleground. This long period of quiet stagnation was known as the Dark Ages.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum - source

Prosperity did not return to Italy again until the Fourteenth Century, when city-states such as Florence, Milan, Pisa, Genoa, and Venice became centres of trade. The influx of wealth and increased trade contact with foreign lands, transformed Italy into Europe’s premier centre of culture. Funded by wealthy patrons, figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo, among others, revolutionized the fields of art, literature, politics, and science. Italian explorers, such as Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, introduced Italy and Europe to the rest of the world. Italy remained a centre of power until the Sixteenth Century, when trade routes shifted away from the Mediterranean. Weakened, the various Italian city-states became vulnerable to conquest by Spain, France, and Austria. Italy remained a patchwork of principalities controlled through proxy by various European powers until the Nineteenth Century, when the French leader Napoleon supported the unification of Italy as a way of creating a buffer state against his many enemies.

Fra Mauro map, Venice

Fra Mauro map, Venice - source

In 1861, Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy was proclaimed King of Italy. Rome was incorporated in 1870. From 1870 until 1922, Italy was a constitutional monarchy with a parliament elected under limited suffrage. During World War I, Italy renounced its standing alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary and, in 1915, entered the war on the side of the Allies. Under the post-war settlement, Italy received some former Austrian territory along the northeast frontier. In 1922, Benito Mussolini came to power and, over the next few years, eliminated political parties, curtailed personal liberties, and installed a fascist dictatorship termed the Corporate State. The king, with little or no effective power, remained titular head of state. Mussolini spent the next twenty years consolidating power and building up the Italian economy, but he never gave up on the idea of restoring Italy as a great power. Calling himself "Il Duce" (meaning Leader), Mussolini dreamed of leading a new Roman Empire. In the 1930s, he indulged his dreams of conquest, by invading Ethiopia and Albania.

Italian Carabinieri served in Palestine during the First World War

Italian Carabinieri served in Palestine during the First World War - source

When the Second World War broke out, Italy remained neutral at first. However, once it appeared (erroneously) through the Fall of France that Germany would win, Mussolini eagerly joined Hitler, a fellow Fascist and long-time ally, and rushed to invade Greece, the Balkans, and North Africa. Overextended and unprepared for such a large-scale effort, Italy quickly found that it could not maintain its military position and had to ask Germany for help. In the closing period of the ware, abandoned by a Hitler, Il Duce and his mistress were captured and executed by Italian partisans. After the Second World War, Italy abolished its monarchy and declared it a republic. With the strong support of the United States, Italy rebuilt its economy through loans from the Marshall Plan, joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and is a founding member of what is now the European Union, having signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957.