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Despite its status as one of today’s thriving cultural centers, Italy will always be defined by its long and complicated history. Its earliest recorded civilization dates back to around 2000 BC, when the peninsula was settled by the Ligurians, ancestors of the Latins. Sometime near the ninth century BC, boatloads of Greeks landed on Italian shores, and Italy became the site for the myth of Ulysses and other famous legends. While the Greeks were busy settling the south, the Etruscans, a highly artistic populace from Asia Minor, built strong communities in central Italy.
By 250 BC, the Romans had conquered Italy and established Rome as the seat of their empire. Julius Caesar reigned throughout the first century BC, and his defeat of France made Rome the ruler of the entire Mediterranean world. Under Caesar, Roman culture flourished, displaying an unprecedented splendor further enriched by Greek architectural and artistic influences. Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC and succeeded by his nephew Octavian, later known as Augustus, who instituted the Pax Romana: two centuries of peace during which the Roman Empire was as mighty as it would ever be.
In AD 395, Constantine moved the Roman capital to Constantinople (Istanbul), a move that left the city of Rome very vulnerable. Italy was briefly reunited in AD 800, when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. But over the next century, the country disintegrated into contentious kingdoms at constant battle for control of provincial lands. Italy’s turmoil continued for an astounding length of time.
Despite this internal dissension and strife, Italian society and culture reached its peak during the Renaissance, which took place during the 15th and 16th centuries. The independent city-states formed a delicate balance of power, while affluent patrons, such as Florence’s Medici family, greatly supported the arts. This golden age of human endeavor and artistic creation spawned some of the greatest painters, sculptors, and inventors of Western civilization—Leonardo da Vinci, a genius in many vocations, the epitome of “the Renaissance man” (1452-1519); Michelangelo (1475-1564); Raphael (1483-1564); and the architect Brunelleschi (1377-1466).
During World War I, Italy was ruled as a monarchy and join the Allies. Benito Mussolini rose to power during the early 1920s and ushered in one of the darkest periods in Italy’s history. Mussolini (known as “Il Duce”) organized discontented Italians into the Fascist Party to “rescue Italy from Bolshevism,”—but what he actually delivered was a totalitarian state controlled by the militia. Mussolini formed an alliance with Hitler and fought against the Allies during World War II. In 1945, Mussolini was captured in Milan and executed.
Italy was declared a republic in 1946, but during the postwar era it was seriously divided by extreme political differences. Dozens of governments rose and fell. The leading parties were the diametrically opposed Centrist Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party. In the 1970s, a prolonged outbreak of terrorist acts by the left-wing Red Brigades threatened domestic stability, but by the early 1980s, the terrorist groups had been suppressed.