Lack of space prevents us from writing about the long, glorious and tormented history of Italy, whose role in the progress of mankind has been immeasurable.
Italy has been a united nation only since 1861; before this Italy was only a geographical name designating the peninsula inhabited by people using Italian as a common language.
Throughout history, Etruscan, Greek and Latin civilizations flourished in what is now known as Italy. The Greeks began colonizing Sicily and parts of the south in the 8th century B.C., while the Etruscans built up a powerful empire in the central part of the country, which was later conquered by Rome. According to tradition, Rome itself was founded in 753 B.C. and through continuous wars, developed an Empire that extended from Britain to the Sahara and from Spain to the Caucasus.
In the 5th century, Italy fell prey to foreign, Barbarian invasion. Following the Visigoth invasion of Rome, Odoacer, a German warrior, made himself Emperor, marking the end of the Western Empire. The Ostrogoths and the Lombards followed until the year 800, when Charlemagne became Emperor of the West, and the Holy Roman Empire was created.
Charlemagne's Empire and that of the Germanic kings who followed him lacked force and unity. Italy divided itself into competing states which were subjected to the growing national rivalries of the countries of Western Europe, while the Papacy, which was an important international force, exercised its influence in the peninsula and played off one great power against the other.
The most important of these were France, Spain and Austria, each retaining in turn a temporarily dominant position. The lack of central authority fostered, for the most part, the development of a spirit of independence which saw the flourishing of industry, commerce, art and learning, especially during the Renaissance.
By the 19th century, rivalry was reduced principally to that between France and Austria.
The collapse of the Napoleonic regime left Austria as the dominant power from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to the unification. Prior to the unification, there were 11 separate states, the most important of which were the Kingdom of Piedmont, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Papal States. Beginning in 1849, some of the Italian states, under the leadership of Piedmont and with the uncertain support of the Papacy, sought to throw off the Austrian yoke in the north.
The effort failed but was taken up again in 1859 and 1866. In the meantime, Italy was partially unified by Cavour, the great Piedmontese statesman, with the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Unification was completed in 1870 when Rome was occupied by the Piedmontese and became the capital. Italy's unification movement was led, in addition to Cavour, by the great patriot Mazzini and by the legendary soldier-patriot Garibaldi.
Italy was a limited monarchy until the Fascist dictatorship of Mussolini in 1922. At the end of World War I, Istria and Trentino were incorporated; Trieste, part of Dalmatia, and some of the islands in the Adriatic were added in 1924 through a special treaty with Yugoslavia. Italy entered World War II against the Allies in 1940, alongside Germany and in 1943 was fully conquered by the Germans. Liberation occurred in April 1945 when Mussolini was executed by Italian anti-Fascists. In June 1946 a popular referendum proclaimed Italy a Republic. The current President is Carlo Azelio Ciampi.