Key Events in Italian History

Some books on Italian history start after the Roman era, leaving that to historians of ancient history and classicists. But ancient history gives a far fuller picture of what happened in Italian history.

Etruscan Civilization at its Height 7–6th Centuries BCE

Etruscan Painted Sarcophagus, Caere, Italy: Procession on the Base
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A loose union of city-states spreading out from the center of Italy, the Etruscans—who were probably a group of aristocrats ruling over the "native" Italians—reached their height in the sixth and seventh centuries CE, with a culture blending Italian, Greek and Near Eastern influences alongside wealth gained from trading in the Mediterranean. After this period the Etruscans declined, pressured by Celts from the north and Greeks from the south, before being subsumed into the Roman Empire.​

Rome Expels its Last King c. 500 BCE

Tarquinius Superbus making himself King
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About 500 BCE—the date is traditionally given as 509 BCE—the city of Rome expelled the last of a line of, possibly Etruscan, kings: Tarquinius Superbus. He was replaced with a Republic governed by two elected consuls. Rome now turned away from Etruscan influence and became a dominant member of the Latin League of cities.

Wars for the Domination of Italy 509–265 BCE

Throughout this period Rome fought a series of wars against other peoples and states in Italy, including hill tribes, the Etruscans, the Greeks and the Latin League, which ended with Roman dominion over the whole of peninsular Italy (the boot shape piece of land which sticks out from the continent.) The wars concluded with each state and tribe converted into "subordinate allies," owing troops and support to Rome, but no (financial) tributes and some autonomy.

Rome Creates an Empire 3rd–2nd Century BCE

Hannibal crossing the Rhone engraving 1894
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Between 264 and 146, Rome fought three "Punic" wars against Carthage, during which Hannibal’s troops occupied Italy. However, he was forced back to Africa where he was defeated, and at the conclusion of the Third Punic War Rome destroyed Carthage and gained its trading empire. In addition to fighting the Punic Wars, Rome battled against other powers, subduing large parts of Spain, Transalpine Gaul (the strip of land which connected Italy to Spain), Macedonia, the Greek states, the Seleucid kingdom and the Po Valley in Italy itself (two campaigns against the Celts, 222, 197–190). Rome became the dominant power in the Mediterranean, with Italy the core of a huge empire. The Empire would continue to grow until the end of second century CE.

The Social War 91–88 BCE

In 91 BCE tensions between Rome and its allies in Italy, who wanted a more equitable division of the new wealth, titles and power, erupted when many of the allies rose in revolt, forming a new state. Rome countered, first by making concessions to states with close ties like Etruria, and then defeating the rest militarily. In an attempt to secure peace and not alienate the defeated, Rome expanded its definition of citizenship to include all of Italy south of the Po, allowing people there a direct route to Roman offices, and speeding up a process of “Romanization,” whereby the rest of Italy came to adopt Roman culture.

The Second Civil War and the rise of Julius Caesar 49–45 BCE

Julius Caesar sculpture

Lvova/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

In the aftermath of the First Civil War, in which Sulla had become dictator of Rome until shortly before his death, a trio of politically and militarily powerful men arose who banded together to support one another in the “First Triumvirate.” However, their rivalries could not be contained and in 49 BCE a civil war broke out between two of them: Pompey and Julius Caesar. Caesar won. He had himself declared dictator for life (not emperor), but was assassinated in 44 BCE by senators fearing a monarchy.

The Rise of Octavian and the Roman Empire 44–27 BCE

Statue of the Roman Emperor Augustus, 1st century BC.
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Power struggles continued in the aftermath of Caesar’s death, chiefly between his assassins Brutus and Cassius, his adopted son Octavian, the surviving sons of Pompey and former ally of Caesar Mark Anthony. First enemies, then allies, then enemies again, Anthony was defeated by Octavian’s close friend Agrippa in 30 BCE and committed suicide along with his lover and Egyptian leader Cleopatra. The sole survivor of the civil wars, Octavian was able to accrue great power and have himself declared “Augustus.” He ruled as the first emperor of Rome.

Pompeii Destroyed 79 CE

Close-Up Low Angle View Of Sky
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On August 24th, 79 CE the volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted so violently it destroyed nearby settlements including, most famously, Pompeii. Ash and other debris fell on the city from midday, burying it and some of its population, while pyroclastic flows and more falling debris increased the covering over the next few days to over six 20 feet (6 meters) deep. Modern archaeologists have been able to learn a great deal about life in Roman Pompeii from the evidence found suddenly locked away beneath the ash.

The Roman Empire Reaches its Height 200 CE

View from the Roman Acropolis at Carthage, Tunisia

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After a period of conquest, in which Rome was rarely threatened at more than one border at once, the Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent around 200 CE, covering much of western and southern Europe, northern Africa and parts of the near east. From now on the empire slowly contracted.

The Goths Sack Rome 410

395 BC Visigoth King Alaric

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Having been paid off in a previous invasion, the Goths under the leadership of Alaric invaded Italy, eventually camping outside Rome. After several days of negotiations, they broke in and sacked the city, the first time foreign invaders had looted Rome since the Celts 800 years earlier. The Roman world was shocked and St. Augustine of Hippo was prompted to write his book "The City of God." Rome was sacked again in 455 by the Vandals.

Odoacer Deposes Last Western Roman Emperor 476 CE

Romulus Augustulus Surrenders To Odoacer
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A "barbarian" who had risen to commander of the imperial forces, Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 and ruled instead as King of the Germans in Italy. Odoacer was careful to bow to the authority of the Eastern Roman emperor and there was great continuity under his rule, but Augustulus was the last of the Roman emperors in the west and this date is often marked as the fall of the Roman Empire.

Rule of Theodoric 493–526 CE

Theodoric (454 - 526), king of the Ostragoths (center, under flag), returns to Rome after succesfully defeating the Germanic armies under Odoacer where his is greeted by Pope Symmachus (right, with bowed head), 500.

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In 493 Theodoric, leader of the Ostrogoths, defeated and killed Odoacer, taking his place as the ruler of Italy, which he held until his death in 526. Ostrogoth propaganda portrays themselves as people who were there to defend and preserve Italy, and Theodoric’s reign was marked by the mixture of Roman and German traditions. The period was later remembered as a golden age of peace.

Byzantine Reconquest of Italy 535–562

Mosaic of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and his court, 6th century.
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In 535 Byzantine Emperor Justinian (who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire) launched a reconquest of Italy, following on from successes in Africa. General Belisarius initially made great progress in the south, but the attack stalled further north and turned into a brutal, hard slog which finally defeated the remaining Ostrogoths in 562. Much of Italy was ravaged in the conflict, causing damage later critics would accuse the Germans of when the Empire fell. Rather than returning to be the heart of the empire, Italy became a province of Byzantium.

The Lombards Enter Italy 568

Last Banquet of Alboin king of the Lombards, 6th Century
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In 568, a scant few years after the Byzantine reconquest had finished, a new German group entered Italy: the Lombards. They conquered and settled much of the north as the Kingdom of Lombardy, and part of the center and south as the Duchies of Spoleto and Benevento. Byzantium retained control over the very south and a strip across the middle called the Exarchate of Ravenna. Warfare between the two camps was frequent.

Charlemagne Invades Italy 773–774

Charlemagne receives Alcuin, 780. Artist: Schnetz, Jean-Victor (1787-1870)
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The Franks had become involved in Italy a generation earlier when the Pope had sought their assistance, and in 773–774 Charlemagne, king of a newly united Frankish realm, crossed over and conquered the Kingdom of Lombardy in northern Italy; he was later crowned by the Pope as Emperor. Thanks to Frankish support a new polity came into being in central Italy: the Papal States, land under papal control. Lombards and Byzantines remained in the south.

Italy Fragments, Great Trading Cities Start to Develop 8–9th Centuries

San Marco Basin, Venice, 1697, Gaspar van Wittel

Gaspar van Wittel/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

During this period a number of Italy’s cities such as Venice and Florence began to grow and expand with the wealth from Mediterranean trade. As Italy fragmented into smaller power blocs and control from imperial overlords decreased, the cities were well placed to trade with a number of different cultures: the Latin Christian west, the Greek Christian Byzantine East and the Arab south.

Otto I, King of Italy 961

Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor and Berengar

 Creators of the Chronicle of Bishop Otto of Freising/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In two campaigns, in 951 and 961, German king Otto I invaded and conquered the north and much of the middle of Italy; consequently, he was crowned King of Italy. He also claimed the imperial crown. This began a new period of German intervention in the north of Italy and Otto III made his imperial residence in Rome.

The Norman Conquests c. 1017–1130

In September 1066, William of Normandy, also known as William the Bastard, set off across the Channel in his fleet of longboats.
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Norman adventurers came first to Italy to act as mercenaries, but they soon discovered their martial ability would allow more than simply aiding people, and they conquered the Arab, Byzantine, and Lombard south of Italy and all of Sicily, establishing first a countship and, from 1130, a kingship, with the Kingdom of Sicily, Calabria, and Apulia. This brought the whole of Italy back under the aegis of Western, Latin, Christianity.

Emergence of the Great Cities 12–13th Centuries

As Imperial dominance of north Italy declined and rights and powers trickled down to the cities, a number of great city-states emerged, some with powerful fleets, their fortunes made in trade or manufacturing, and only nominal imperial control. The development of these states, cities such as Venice and Genoa who now controlled the land around them—and often elsewhere—was won in two series of wars with the emperors: 1154–1183 and 1226–1250. The most notable victory was perhaps won by an alliance of cities called the Lombard League at Legnano in 1167.

War of the Sicilian Vespers 1282–1302

Farragut Delivering Manuscript to Charles of Anjou
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In the 1260s Charles of Anjou, younger brother of the French king, was invited by the Pope to conquer the Kingdom of Sicily from an illegitimate Hohenstaufen child. He duly did so, but French rule proved unpopular and in 1282 a violent rebellion broke out and the king of Aragon was invited to rule the island. King Peter III of Aragon duly invaded, and war broke out between an alliance of French, Papal and Italian forces versus Aragon and other Italian forces. When James II ascended to the Aragonese throne he made peace, but his brother carried on the struggle and won the throne in 1302 with the Peace of Caltabellotta.

The Italian Renaissance c. 1300–c. 1600

Villa Rotonda (Villa Almerico-Capra), near Venice, Italy, 1566-1590, Andrea Palladio

Massimo Maria Canevarolo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Italy led the cultural and mental transformation of Europe which became known as the Renaissance. This was a period of great artistic achievement, mostly in urban areas and facilitated by the wealth of the church and the great Italian cities, which both harked back to and was influenced by the ideals and examples of ancient Roman and Greek culture. Contemporary politics and Christian religion also proved an influence, and a new way of thinking emerged called Humanism, expressed in art as much as literature. The Renaissance, in turn, influenced the patterns of politics and thought.

War of Chioggia 1378–1381

The decisive conflict in the mercantile rivalry between Venice and Genoa occurred between 1378 and 1381 when the two fought over the Adriatic sea. Venice won, banishing Genoa from the area, and carried on collecting a large overseas trading empire.

Peak of Visconti Power c.1390

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The most powerful state in northern Italy was Milan, headed by the Visconti family; they expanded during the period to conquer many of their neighbors, establishing a powerful army and a large power base in northern Italy which was officially transformed into a dukedom in 1395 after Gian Galeazzo Visconti basically purchased the title from the Emperor. The expansion caused great consternation among rival cities in Italy, especially Venice and Florence, who fought back, attacking Milanese possessions. Fifty years of war followed.

Peace of Lodi 1454 / Victory of Aragon 1442

Two of the most prolonged conflicts of the 1400s finished in the middle of the century: in north Italy, the Peace of Lodi was signed after wars between the rival cities and states, with the leading powers—Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples, and the Papal States—agreeing to honor each other’s current borders; several decades of peace followed. In the south, a struggle over the Kingdom of Naples was won by Alfonso V of Aragon, a patron of the Borgia family.

The Italian Wars 1494–1559

In 1494 Charles VIII of France invaded Italy for two reasons: to assist a claimant to Milan (which Charles also had a claim on) and to pursue a French claim on the Kingdom of Naples. When the Spanish Habsburgs joined the battle, in alliance with the Emperor (also a Habsburg), the Papacy and Venice, the whole of Italy became a battleground for Europe’s two most powerful families, the Valois French, and the Habsburgs. France was driven out of Italy but factions continued to fight, and the war moved to other areas in Europe. A final settlement only took place with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559.

The League of Cambrai 1508–1510

Pope Julius II ordering work on the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica
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In 1508 an alliance formed between the Pope Julius II, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, the kings of France and Aragon and several Italian cities to attack and dismember Venice’s possessions in Italy, the city-state now ruling a large empire. The alliance was weak and soon collapsed into, first, disorganization and then other alliances (the Pope allied with Venice), but Venice did suffer territorial losses and began to decline in international affairs from this point on.

Habsburg Domination c.1530–c. 1700

The early phases of the Italian wars left Italy under the domination of the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family, with Emperor Charles V (crowned 1530) in direct control of the Kingdom of Naples, Sicily and the Duchy of Milan, and deeply influential elsewhere. He reorganized some states and ushered in, along with his successor Philip, an era of peace and stability which lasted, albeit with some tensions, until the end of the seventeenth century. At the same time, the city-states of Italy morphed into regional states.

Bourbon vs. Habsburg Conflict 1701–1748

In 1701 Western Europe went to war over the right of a French Bourbon to inherit the Spanish throne in the War of the Spanish Succession. There were battles in Italy and the region became a prize to be fought over. Once the succession was ​finalized in 1714 conflict continued in Italy between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs. Fifty years of shifting control were ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which concluded a different war entirely but transferred some Italian possessions and ushered in 50 years of relative peace. Obligations forced Charles III of Spain to renounce Naples and Sicily in 1759, and the Austrians Tuscany in 1790.

Napoleonic Italy 1796–1814

Napoleon I haranguing his troops before the attack of Augsburg by Claude Gautherot
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French General Napoleon campaigned successfully through Italy in 1796, and by 1798 there were French forces in Rome. Although the republics which followed Napoleon collapsed when France withdrew troops in 1799, Napoleon’s victories in 1800 allowed him to redraw the map of Italy many times, creating states for his family and staff to rule, including a kingdom of Italy. Many of the old rulers were restored after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, but the Congress of Vienna, which redrew Italy yet again, ensured Austrian domination.

Mazzini Founds Young Italy 1831

The Napoleonic states had helped the idea of a modern, united Italy coalesce. In 1831 Guiseppe Mazzini founded Young Italy, a group dedicated to throwing out Austrian influence and the patchwork of Italian rulers and creating a single, united state. This was to be il Risorgimento, the "Resurrection/ Resurgence." Highly influential, Young Italy influenced numerous attempted revolutions and caused a reshaping of the mental landscape. Mazzini was forced to live in exile for many years.

The Revolutions of 1848–1849

Giuseppe Garibaldi in Aspromonte
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A series of revolutions broke loose in Italy in early 1848, prompting many states to implement new constitutions, including the constitutional monarchy of Piedmont/Sardinia. As revolution spread across Europe, Piedmont tried to take the nationalist imitative and went to war with Austria over their Italian possessions; Piedmont lost, but the kingdom survived under Victor Emanuel II and was seen as the natural rallying point for Italian unity. France sent troops to restore the Pope and crush a newly declared Roman Republic partly ruled by Mazzini; a soldier called Garibaldi became famous for Rome’s defense and the revolutionary’s retreat.

Italian Unification 1859–1870

In 1859 France and Austria went to war, destabilizing Italy and allowing many—now Austrian free—states to vote to merge with Piedmont. In 1860 Garibaldi led a force of volunteers, the "red-shirts", in the conquest of Sicily and Naples, which he then gave to Victor Emanuel II of Piedmont who now ruled the majority of Italy. This led to him being crowned King of Italy by a new Italian parliament on March 17, 1861. Venice and Venetia were gained from Austria in 1866, and the last surviving Papal States were annexed in 1870; with a few small exceptions, Italy was now a unified state.

Italy in World War 1 1915–1918

World War I Battle in the mountains of Tyrol

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Although Italy was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the nature of their entry into the war allowed Italy to remain neutral until worries about missing out on gains, and the secret Treaty of London with Russia, France, and Britain, took Italy into the war, opening a new front. The strains and failures of war pushed Italian cohesion to the limit, and socialists were blamed for many problems. When the war was over in 1918 Italy walked out of the peace conference over their treatment by the allies, and there was anger at what was considered a deficient settlement.

Mussolini Gains Power 1922

Italian Premier Benito Mussolini (1883 - 1945) leaving for Tripoli, 13th May 1926. His nose is bandaged after an assassination attempt on 26th April by Violet Gibson, who shot him with a revolver at close range.

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Violent groups of fascists, often ex-soldiers and students, formed in post-war Italy, partly in response to the growing success of socialism and the weak central government. Mussolini, a pre-war firebrand, rose to their head, supported by industrialists and landowners who saw fascists as a short-term answer to the socialists. In October 1922, after a threatened march on Rome by Mussolini and black-shirted fascists, the king gave into pressure and asked Mussolini to form a government. Opposition to the central government led by Mussolini was crushed in 1923.

Italy in World War II 1940–1945

Hitler In Italy
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Italy entered World War 2 in 1940 on the German side, unprepared but determined to gain something from a swift Nazi victory. However, Italian operations went badly wrong and had to be propped up by German forces. In 1943, with the tide of war turning, the king had Mussolini arrested, but Germany invaded, rescued Mussolini and set up a puppet fascist Republic of Salò in the north. The rest of Italy signed an agreement with the allies, who landed on the peninsula, and war between allied forces supported by partisans against German forces supported by Salò loyalists followed until Germany was defeated in 1945.

The Italian Republic Declared 1946

Celebration and Military Parade For The 70th Anniversary Of The Italian Republic
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King Victor Emmanuel III abdicated in 1946 and was replaced briefly by his son, but a referendum that same year voted to abolish the monarchy by 12 million votes to 10, the south voting largely for the king and the north for the republic. A constituent assembly was voted in and this decided upon the nature of the new republic; the new constitution came into effect on January 1st,1948 and elections were held for parliament.

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Wilde, Robert. "Key Events in Italian History." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, Wilde, Robert. (2021, July 30). Key Events in Italian History. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Key Events in Italian History." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 5, 2023).