The History of Italy: Unifying Italy’s City-States

From the Lecture Series: The Italians before Italy — Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean

By Kenneth Bartlett, Ph.D., University of Toronto

Before Italy’s city-states were united under Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy in 1861, Italy was, as Prince Clemens von Metternich said to Lord Palmerston, “merely a geographical expression.”

Old map of Italy
(Image: By Marzolino/Shutterstock)

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476, with the deposition of the last Roman-born emperor, Italy was really just a memory. It was an expression; it was a collection of memories, of myths, of historical vignettes that tried to put a kind of union, or to glue together a group of independent states that had grown out of a complex and chaotic situation that resulted from the disintegration of the Roman imperial system. The reality of Italy, then, was a fragmented place, a mosaic; it was a collection of independent states and republics that resulted from the events of history.

Categorizing Italy’s City-States

Map of the maritime republics of medieval Italy
The maritime republics of medieval Italy and their coat of arms (Image: By Sono io l’autore /Public Domain)

Some of these states can be grouped in clusters. There were the maritime states of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa—states that reaped huge economic advantage from the adventures of the Crusades and from the geographical position of the Italian peninsula itself. Rome, the center of Christendom, was defined by both its imperial memory and also its Christian present.

The great feudal kingdom of Naples lay to the south of Rome. And because of the chaos surrounding its various dynasties, almost all of which were foreign, it became the battleground of Italy and ultimately the Trojan horse through which the invaders would enter and bring about the end of Italian independence. There were the principalities of north-central Italy that were characterized by the dynasties that ruled them.

This is a transcript from the video series Italians Before Italy: Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

There were the republics—like Siena and Florence. These were the petri dishes of politics. These were the experimental areas in which new forms of social, political, and economic organization could be tried because of the ability of the government to be changed, of social mobility, of the introduction of new men with new ideas into an environment that was prepared to receive them.

Learn more about the plight of Italy in 1848

“Pointless,” not “Impossible”

In order to understand the complex origins of Italy, we really have to go back to the period of the Middle Ages when much of the Italian state system was being formed—created out of the barbarian kingdoms, traditional tribal areas, episcopal sees, and petty despotisms that emerged as Rome began to disintegrate and decline. It also helps us understand not just early but contemporary Italian politics.

The celebrated phrase that’s been attributed both to Giovanni Giolitti—the late 19th- and early 20th-century long-serving prime minister of Italy—and to Benito Mussolini, “It’s not impossible to rule the Italians, merely pointless,” says much about the nature of Italian political life. It’s a commonly held belief, in fact, that the Italian peninsula is particularly intractable to some form of centralized control and some form of central government.

What we do know is there are forces at work that try to deflect that centralizing tendency that all governments recognize; try to deflect that desire to turn the peninsula into a single entity. It is, in fact, a democratic challenge to rule Italy, as the number of Italian governments that have emerged since the Second World War can testify to. The particularism, the geographical separation, the sense of localism versus a sense of national patriotism; all of these things are the result of history. This history for the 400 years before unification was a history of foreign oppression. During this period, to pay your taxes willingly, to cooperate with the government was a form of collaboration.

Learn more about the massive Circus Maximus and the spectacular ruined baths nearby

Map of Italy in 1494, before the beginning of the Italian Wars
Map of Italy in 1494, before the beginning of the Italian Wars (Image: By User:Shadowxfox; User:Enok/Public Domain)

Deep-seated negative attitudes toward government were very, very much a part of the Italian experience and Italian history. These were elements that were defined not just by the particular history of individual places that characterized the class, the geographical area, the economic conditions, and the social structure of the various regions of the country, but they were also the result of the bigger issues—the issues of the interdependence of Italian states as well as their independence; the sense of competition as well as a sense of cooperation; that union of what it is to be Italian versus the fragmentation of what it is to be a Genoese, or a Florentine, or a Venetian, or a Neapolitan.

In other words, to understand Italy, we must understand these various states. We have to look at the conditions that created Italy, and to do that we have to see how the states developed in their own context—to look at them individually and severally, to talk about them as they grew and developed, and ultimately to talk about them as they began their decline into the loss of liberty that characterized the 17th and 18th centuries and the first years of the 19th century.

Learn more about the story of Rome through the ages

Italy during the Roman Empire

In reality, the fragmentation of the Italian peninsula began even during the Roman Empire. In fact, the idea of Italy being united under Rome is something of a mythological structure. When you look at the nature of Italy under Rome, we have to remember that the Romans had a veneer of unity that simply covered a great deal of fragmented local allegiance, and traditions and cultures, and indeed a sense of otherness that continued even during the most powerful years of the empire. The north of Italy wasn’t even identified as Italian; it was seen as Hither Gaul, Gallia Cisalpine—part of the Gaelic world that had been settled by those Gaelic invaders that, in the early years of the republic, had even captured and sacked Rome itself.

There were the Etruscans with their independent states linked together in a federation—the Etruscans with their sophisticated economic structures and long-distance trade and their very, very powerful culture. The Etruscans and their culture lasted well into the Roman Empire, well into the time of Augustus. These Etruscans still identified themselves as being not Romans—as being subject to Rome, but not Romans themselves. So the historical memory, even of Italy during the period of Roman unification, was in fact something of a historical myth.

There were, in fact, elements of reality, and those elements of reality were particularly powerful. Rome did provide a veneer of unity. Rome did provide the vocabulary that allowed Italians to talk about the peninsula in a singular way. They did provide a single law, a single coinage. They provided the means of communication of roads and harbors that permitted the peoples of the peninsula to come into constant contact, both with one another and with the great capital in the city of Rome itself.

The descendants of these varied peoples sustained elements of their cultures. The Roman Empire was greatly enriched by this dynamic, this dialogue of historical experience—it’s one of the great elements of Italy.

Learn more: Etruscan Legacy in the Roman World

And this dialogue of cultures will continue throughout Italy’s history. It’s one of the explanations for the explosion of culture and imagination that we see among the Italian people and in the Italian peninsula; that this dialogue, this dynamic, continued for such a long period of time, creating a world in which new ideas, through competition and argument and occasional warfare, could not only develop but in fact be seen as the instruments by which Italians could define themselves and others.

Common Questions About Italy’s City-States

Q: What exactly were Italy’s city-states?

Italy’s city-states were independently ruled cities in Italy that were somewhat at odds with one another.

Q: Which of Italy’s city-states was the most powerful?

Of all of Italy’s city-states, it was Florence that was the richest and considered the most cultured.

Q: When did Italy’s city-states come together and unite?

The alliance of Italy’s city-states began in the 15th century with the treaty of Lodi in 1454 that encouraged others to follow and unite.

Q: Who ruled in Italy’s city-states?

Various powerful figures such as the Pope and the Medici family, mostly families, ruled their respective city-state in Italy.

This article was updated on 12/20/2019

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