Page 1 of 7 Next page
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |


Pocket History Series
World War I   $3.43    £2.08
World War II   $3.72   £2.29
Maya, Aztecs, Incas   $3.56   £2.13

See others

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

The Mediterranean peninsula

Italy, meaning the entire peninsula south of the Alps, is known as such from about the 1st century BC. Several centuries earlier, when the name first appears, it is used only of the area in the extreme south - the toe of the peninsula.

In the 1st century BC Italy is under the control of a single power, Rome, and it will remain so until the 5th century AD. The peninsula again becomes a political entity, as the modern nation of Italy, in 1861. In all other periods of prehistory and history this most desirable of territories has been shared and fought over by numerous rival groups.

Around 700 BC the majority of the tribes in Italy are relatively recent arrivals, either by land from the north or by sea across the Adriatic. They are Indo-Europeans, speaking the subgroup of languages known as Italic. But the dominant group at this time, the Etruscans, are of some different origin. Where they have come from remains a subject of much scholarly debate, but by about 500 BC they control much of central Italy.

At this time the southern part of the peninsula, together with Sicily, is dominated by Greek colonies - settled in coastal regions from about 700 BC onwards.

Roman Italy: 4st century BC - 5th century AD

By the 4th century the Etruscans are steadily losing power to the Romans, who have previously been a part of the Etruscan world and have even been ruled for a while by Etruscan kings.

With great skill the Romans gradually extend their rule through Italy on a stick and carrot basis, offering the benefits of Roman citizenship to those who have suffered the effects of Roman military power. By 42 BC the whole of Italy, as far north as the Alps, is administered as Roman provinces. For the next few centuries the history of Italy is that of Rome. Even with an ever-shifting pattern of advances and losses on the empire's many frontiers, the Italian peninsula remains a secure centre.

But by the 5th century AD the western Roman empire is so weakened that even Italy itself is not safe. The threat comes from powerful German tribes. In earlier centuries they have been kept at bay beyond the Rhine and the Danube. From about AD 370 they begin to infiltrate the empire - sometimes as allies whose help is needed against other barbarians, sometimes as invaders who breach the defences and rampage through Roman provinces.

Three times, in the 5th century, Italy is exposed to the barbarians. Alaric and the Visigoths reach Rome in 410; Attila and the Huns turn back from northern Italy in 452; Gaiseric and the Vandals reach Rome again, this time from Africa, in 455. But the decisive blow comes in 476.

Odoacer, king of Italy: AD 476-493

German mercenaries by now form an important part of any Roman army, and Roman armies play a major role in the making and breaking of emperors. This is the case in a fairly normal putsch of AD 476, but it is followed by an unusual demand from the mercenaries. They want to settle in Italy. They suggest that a third of every landowner's estate should be made over to them.

The suggestion is not as unreasonable as it sounds. Roman soldiers have in the past been rewarded with land, and barbarian tribes have been settled in provinces of the empire as federates. But it is a shocking thought to Romans that this provincial system might apply to Italy itself. The mercenaries' demand is rejected.

There is an immediate mutiny. The tribesmen elect one of their number, Odoacer, as their king. He leads them to a rapid victory, but immediately makes it clear that his intention is not to destroy the western empire. He wants to be part of it. He sends ambassadors to the emperor Zeno in Constantinople, acknowledging the emperor's rule but asking to be allowed to govern Italy as king of his own people. Zeno reluctantly agrees, subject to certain points of protocol.

The senate in Rome accepts the fait accompli with better grace, for Odoacer proves an effective ruler within the traditional Roman system. He even finds land for his German tribesmen without causing undue upheaval.

The end of the Roman empire? AD 476

The acceptance of Odoacer as king of Italy in 476 causes this year to be seen as the end of the Roman empire. And in a real sense it is. Kings and popes, neither of them part of Roman imperial tradition, will henceforth wield power in the Italian peninsula.

But this is the perspective of hindsight. To historians Constantinople is by this time the capital of the young Byzantine empire. To Europeans in the 5th century it is still the centre of the very ancient Roman empire. In imperial terms there is nothing new about chaos and upheaval in the west, and Roman emperors in Constantinople will continue to take active steps to reassert their authority. In 488 this is done with the help of the Ostrogoths.

Theodoric the Ostrogoth: AD 487-526

The Ostrogoths have as yet intruded less than the Visigoths upon the imperial territories of Rome and Contantinople. In recent times, in their region north of the Black Sea, they have been subdued by the Huns. But after the collapse of the Huns, in the mid-5th century, the Ostrogoths press down across the Danube into the Balkans.

In 487, under the leadership of Theodoric, they almost succeed in capturing Constantinople. The Byzantine emperor, Zeno, finds a brilliant short-term solution to this immediate problem. Having recently had to relinquish Italy to one barbarian, Odoacer, he now invites Theodoric to invade Italy and take Odoacer's place.

Theodoric arrives in Italy in AD 489. In the twelve months from August 489 his Ostrogoths confront Odoacer in three separate battles. In each they are victorious, but they fail to dislodge Odoacer from his stronghold at Ravenna. This is eventually achieved by negotiation, with the bishop of Ravenna as the intermediary. It is agreed that Theodoric and Odoacer will rule Italy jointly. On 5 March 493 the gates of the city are opened to Theodoric.

Ten days later Theodoric invites Odoacer to a banquet. During it he kills his guest with his own hand, after which Odoacer's retinue is murdered.

Theodoric's long reign in Italy begins with this treachery, but the murder of Odoacer proves untypical of the Ostrogothic king. His thirty-three years on the throne bring a period of calm to turbulent Italy, justifiably earning him the title Theodoric the Great. He is the first barbarian king from the Germanic tribes of northern Europe to establish a settled and civilized rule - to which his buildings in Ravenna still bear witness. His achievements win him a lasting place in legend, as Dietrich von Bern.

Theodoric never deviates from his arrangement with Constantinople. He rules in Italy as the emperor's appointed military governor - becoming thereby an accepted part of the Roman empire rather than its enemy.

Theodoric has the good sense to leave the administration of Italy virtually unchanged and in the hands of Romans. They are prevented from serving as soldiers, but similarly Goths may not join the bureaucracy. The arrangement suits even the papacy. Though himself an Arian, Theodoric makes no attempt to interfere in Roman Catholic affairs. Indeed he is so much trusted that when there are two rival claimants to the papal see, in 498, he is invited to choose between them.

Nevertheless the rule of a barbarian Arian in Italy is unacceptable in the longer term. The inadequacy of Theodoric's immediate successors prompts the campaign of 535 by Justinian to recover Ravenna.

The recovery of Byzantine Italy: 535-568

In535 a fleet sails from Constantinople with orders to re-establish direct imperial rule in Italy. The campaign is under the command of Belisarius, hero of the recent African successes. He begins his task in the south, capturing Sicily in 535 and moving north to take Naples and Rome in the following year. Once again the fortified capital city, Ravenna, proves the hardest place to subdue. The Ostrogoths hold out against him here until 540.

When Ravenna finally falls in that year, the task seems complete. Belisarius returns to Constantinople. But Byzantine confidence is premature.

Within a few years the whole of Italy has been recaptured by the Ostrogoths, apart from three well guarded enclaves on the east coast (Ravenna, Ancona and Otranto). A long campaign by a eunuch general, Narses, eventually restores Byzantine control over the entire peninsula but this is not achieved until 562 - less than a decade before the arrival on the Italian scene of yet another Germanic tribe.

The Lombards, invading in 568, rapidly overrun the rich north Italian plain, from which the Byzantines never again shift them. Their arrival introduces the many centuries in which a united Italy will be nothing more than a dream, based on nostalgic memories of imperial Rome.

The Lombards: 6th - 8th century

Originating probably in northern Germany, the Lombards move south into the region of Hungary in the early 6th century. From there, in 568, they enter northern Italy. By this time they are already Christians, but of the Arian variety - like other Germanic tribes.

By 572 the whole of Italy north of the Po is in their hands (a disaster with one positive result, in the foundation of Venice). The Lombards rule at first as an occupying force, from armed encampments, but gradually Pavia emerges as their capital city. Their presence has an immediate effect on Byzantine ambitions in Italy. The imperial territory becomes much more clearly circumscribed.

Exarchate of Ravenna: 584-751

In an attempt to hold the remaining Byzantine possessions in Italy against the Lombards, the emperor Maurice groups them from about584 in a new administrative structure based in Ravenna. In command of the entire region is an exarch - a provincial governor with absolute power over both military and civilian affairs.

At first the exarch governs most of Italy south of the Po, together with the coastal strip round the north Adriatic - including the modest settlements on the islands of the Venetian lagoon, recently established by refugees from the advancing Lombards. Corsica and Sardinia come under another exarch, ruling from Carthage. Sicily becomes linked more directly with Constantinople.

This swathe of territory soon proves impossible to hold. During the 7th century the Lombards steadily extend their territory in the north, and local dukes take possession of much of the south of Italy. In the 8th century ancient cities such as Naples and papal Rome show increasing signs of independence. In 726 even upstart Venice begins to choose its own dukes, or doges.

By the middle of the 8th century the Lombards have seized much of the territory inland from Ravenna, and in 751 they take Ravenna itself. Byzantine influence on places such as Venice will remain strong. But Italy can no longer be said to be part of the old Roman empire.

  Page 1 of 7 Next page