The Italian Republic is a nation in Southern Europe. It borders France to the northwest, Switzerland and Austria to the north, Slovenia and Croatia to the northeast, and it wholly surrounds San Marino and the Vatican City.
The first documented inhabitants of the Italian peninsula were the Etruscans. During the Hellenic era, many Greek colonies were established in Italy, particularly on the island of Sicily. According to legend, in 753 BC Romulus and Remus established the city of Rome on the banks of the River Tiber. They were supposedly the descendants of the Greek hero Aeneas, fleeing Greece after the end of the Trojan War.
Rome began to expand with several wars against their neighbors, and by the sixth century BC they controlled most of central Italy. In 509 BC, the last of the kings was throne out, and a Roman Republic was established. Although not a true democracy, the common people, or the plebeians, had some power. Most of the power still rested with the patricians, the feudal aristocracy.
In the fourth and third centuries BC, Rome fought three wars against the Phoenician city of Carthage, which controlled much of the western Mediterranean. At the end of the Third Punic War in 149 BC, Carthage was sacked and Rome became the master of the Mediterranean.
In the first century BC, Rome was politically fragmented. Alliances of powerful political and military leaders were formed, such as the First Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Pompey. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul for Rome, and returned to become dictator. However, conspirators led by Brutus, murdered him on the Senate steps in 43 BC.
Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, began to build up power. He was opposed by Mark Antony, and Antony's Egyptian ally Cleopatra VII. He defeated them in a naval battle, and in 27 BC he was crowned Emperor of Rome, assuming the name Augustus Caesar.
In the first two centuries of Imperial rule, the empire expanded rapidly. By 117 AD, it included virtually all land bordering the Mediterranean, as well as Gaul, parts of Germania, Dacia, and Britannia. In 330, the Roman Empire converted to Christianity.
However in the fourth century AD, the military began to wield a disproportionate amount of political power. A series of weak emperors, and the migration of Germanic tribes, hurt the empire. The Eastern Roman Empire split off and later became the Byzantine Empire. The Western half was left to sort out its problems alone. In 410, Rome was sacked by the Vandals for the first time in nearly a millenium. In 476, a confederation of Germanic tribes led by Odoacer sacked Rome again. Instead of crowning himself emperor or demanding tribute, as was typical, Odoacer became the King of Italy, ending the Roman Empire.
In the sixth century, the Lombards invaded Italy and took over. They were quickly met with a revitalized Byzantine Empire under Justinian the Great and his general Belisarius. Although initially successful, the Plague of Justinian devastated Byzantine forces, and after Justinian's death the empire withdrew.
In the 770s, the Franks under Charlemagne pushed the Lombards out of northern Italy at the request of the Pope. By the year 1000, Italy had split into a large number of independent city-states. Preeminent among these were the Papal States around the city of Rome, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, and the Norman-established Kingdom of Naples in the south.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, France tried to conquer northern Italy. They failed, but they brought back the Italian Renaissance to Spain. The Renaissance was a culture movement aiming to restore the values of the Romans and the Greeks. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael were significant Renaissance artists.
In the seventeenth century, Italy, still divided into city-states, fell under the influence of Habsburg Austria and Spain. The Kingdom of Naples was incorporated into the Spanish realm, as was the island of Sardinia.
After Napoleon Bonaparte entered northern Italy with his Revolutionary armies in 1797, Italy began to challenge Spanish and Austrian authority. The Congress of Vienna confirmed the independence of Italian city-states.
In the 1850s, the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont began to try to unify Italy. It fought several wars with Austria over control of northern Italy, and in 1859 the Redshirts under Giuseppe Garibaldi won them control of Naples and Sicily. In 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was established. In 1870, the Kingdom of Italy conquered Rome from the Papal States.
Italy quickly amassed a colonial empire in Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia. Italy participated in World War I on the Allied side, fighting a vicious mountain war against Austria-Hungary in the Alps. In 1929, Benito Mussolini became the Duce of Italy, and turned it into a fascist dictatorship.
Italy invaded Ethiopia in spite of an international outcry in 1936, and deposed the Emperor Haile Selassie II. Italy joined World War II on the German side, but in 1944 it was invaded by the Allied Powers and switched sides against Germany.
Italy battled communist terrorism and organized crime throughout the 20th century, although the Mafia were cleaned up in the 1990s. Italy sided with the United States and NATO during the Cold War. Italy was particularly hard hit by the 2007 economic recession, and is still suffering from a bad economy.
Italy is a constitutional republic. The head of state is the President, while the head of government is the Prime Minister, currently Mario Monti. The majority party in congress, which is elected directly, gets to choose the Prime Minister.
Italy is well known for its rich culture. Italian cuisine and fashion is challenged only by France. Italian art and music is also highly regarded.
The backbone of every Italian meal is pasta. Different types of pasta include spaghetti, macaroni, ravioli, lasagna, and penne. Pasta is typically topped with a tomato sauce and cheese. Pizza is also a popular dish in Italy.
The famous Renaissance artists of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo were all Italian. The Mona Lisa is perhaps the most famous work of art in the world. The roof of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo, is also highly regarded, as is his Pieta.
The Italian language is a Romance language, closely related to French and Spanish. One of the major works in the Italian language is Dante's Divine Comedy, written in the 16th century, as well as Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince.
The Italian economy has been in decline since the 2007 economic recession. Still, it is one of the largest in the European Union. Northern Italy, particularly the Milan area, is one of the richest parts of the world. However, southern Italy and Sicily are still fairly poor.