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Key Events in Italian History


Some books on Italian history start after the Roman era, leaving that to historians of ancient history and classicists. I have decided to include ancient history here because I think it gives a far fuller picture of what happened in Italian history.

Etruscan Civilization at its Height 7-6th Centuries BCE

A loose union of city states spreading out from the centre 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

In c. 500 CE – 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 Conquers an Empire 3rd and 2nd Century BCE

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

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

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

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 metres 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

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

The Goths Sack Rome 410

Having been paid off in a previous invasion, the Goths under the leadership of Alaric invaded down Italy until they camped outside Rome. After several days of negotiation 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.
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