Italy is a country in Europe’s Mediterranean region; its population of over 60 million makes it the fifth most populous country in Europe (after Russia, Germany, the UK and France). Its extraordinary history makes it one of the most interesting countries in the world to learn about and to visit.
The capital city, Rome, has a fascinating history of its own. For 500 years it was capital of the Roman Republic (509 B.C.–30 B.C.), which was later replaced by the Roman Empire (27 B.C.–476 A.D.)—meaning that for nearly 1,000 years Rome was at the very center of Western civilization. The name Italia, which comes from a Latin phrase meaning “young calf,” was originally applied only to the southern part of today’s Italy; the Greeks applied it to a larger region and it was around the end of the first century B.C. that Emperor Augustus expanded the term to include the entire peninsula.
The Roman Republic began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, but it was still a hierarchical society with patrician and plebeian classes. The republic expanded greatly, eventually covering most of Western Europe and almost all the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea, by the time Julius Caesar was assassinated (44 B.C.). The Republic could not recover from this destabilizing event and the Roman Empire rose. Its first two centuries were a period of great stability and prosperity known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), reaching its height during the reign of Trajan (97–117 A.D.). Christians rose to power in the 4th century and for a time there was a split resulting in a Latin West and a Greek East. Centralized government in the West collapsed, but the East would become the Byzantine Empire.
Italy endured a series of invasions by foreign peoples—Germanic tribes, Byzantines, Normans. Eventually it became the birthplace of both maritime republics and the Renaissance. Like many European countries, it was fragmented into smaller city-states, but in 1861 it was unified. Also like other European countries, it had colonies—it annexed Eritrea, Somalia, Libya and the Dodecanese Islands before World War I. During the war it captured Albania, and then in the 1930s it captured Ethiopia and received Dalmatia by treaty, though it soon was forced to cede the latter to Yugoslavia. In the 1920s, under Benito Mussolini, Italy occupied Albania, Croatia, Slovenia and parts of Greece and Egypt. All dreams of an Imperial Italy came to an end in 1943 and by 1960 Italy gave up its claims to Italian Somaliland, the last of its colonial territories.
Modern Italy is a democratic republic with a very high standard of living, a high GDP, a strong system of public education, and both public and private healthcare. It is a member of the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization and the EU. It is multicultural but the national language is Italian; it has no official state religion but Roman Catholicism is by far the most prominent. Italy’s cultural contributions to food, art, literature, music, cinema, fashion, sports, architecture and industrial design are too numerous to count.
Today’s visitors to Italy’s biggest city, Rome, see a bustling, modern city with ancient Roman ruins, medieval and Renaissance-era cathedrals, museums, universities and restaurants to enjoy. It is home to the Holy See, the seat of authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and Vatican City is located in its midst. Other Italian cities to enjoy include Milan, Naples, Turin, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, Venice, Verona and Padua; some of these have not changed very much since they were immortalized in Shakespeare’s plays. Whether you are dining, shopping, exploring Roman ruins or medieval churches, viewing immortal works of art, relaxing in a piazza, throwing coins in a fountain or touring the Vatican, you will fall in love with this amazing country.