Italian history timeline

Exploring Italian History’s 10 Most Defining Moments



Italian history is as intricate and fascinating as the country itself. Whether you are studying it at school, or exploring it before your Italian adventures begin, I have gathered up 10 crucial events that shaped the Italian history.

You can see them all on the Italian history timeline in the below graphic. 

For each one, I will share with you key dates, figures and events in a way that builds the story of how Italy was shaped into its current state. 

It might look long but it’s very interesting and enlightening.  I wish they had explained it to me this way at school.

Let’s begin. 

italian history timeline

1. Rome’s Birth/Foundation – 753 BC

According to Roman mythology, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who were said to have been raised by a she-wolf. The story goes that they were descendants of the Trojan prince Aeneas, who fled Troy after its fall and eventually settled in Italy.

The legend states that Romulus and Remus got into a dispute over where to establish their new city. Romulus favored the Palatine Hill, while Remus preferred the Aventine HillThe conflict escalated, resulting in Romulus killing Remus and proceeding to found the city of Rome on Palatine Hill in 753 BC. Romulus is said to have marked the boundaries of the new city by plowing a furrow around it, a ritual known as the “pomerium.”

While this story is widely known and forms the basis of Rome’s mythical origins, it is important to note that historians consider much of it to be legendary rather than historically accurate. The actual founding of Rome likely involved a complex process of settlement, amalgamation of various tribes and groups, and the gradual emergence of a distinct urban center. 

This legendary date of 753 BC marked the beginning of the Roman civilization that grew from a small Italian city into a vast empire spanning three continents. Rome’s highly developed systems of law, engineering, architecture, and military organization allowed it to conquer and assimilate other cultures over its thousand-year history. It became one of the most powerful and influential civilizations in history and shaped the course of Western civilization.

Interesting Fact:
The modern tradition of designating years AD (Anno Domini) and BC (Before Christ) and calculating historical dates stems from the ancient Romans.

Italian history - Roman empire map

2. The Beginning of the Roman Empire – 27 BC

The beginning of the Roman Empire in 27 BC marks a significant transition in the governance and political structure of Rome. This period is often associated with the reign of Augustus, who was formerly known as Octavian.

In 27 BC, he took the title of Augustus, meaning “revered” or “majestic,” effectively marking the beginning of the Roman Empire.

Augustus instituted a period of relative peace and stability known as the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, which lasted for approximately two centuries.

He also implemented significant reforms in various aspects of Roman society, including government, administration, and the military, laying the foundations for the imperial system that would endure for centuries.

Getting there was not as peaceful.

How Augustus became the first Roman Emperor.

Augustus was the grandnephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, the famed Roman general and dictator who was assassinated in 44 BC.

Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, Rome was plunged into a period of civil war as various factions vied for power. Octavian emerged as one of the key figures in this power struggle.

He formed a political alliance known as the Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) and Marcus Lepidus to avenge Caesar’s murder and defeat their political enemies, notably the forces of Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius. The alliance succeeded in defeating their opponents at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

However, the alliance between Octavian and Mark Antony soon deteriorated into rivalry and conflict. This culminated in the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC, where Octavian’s forces decisively defeated those of Antony and his ally Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. Following their defeat, both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, leaving Octavian as the uncontested ruler of Rome.

In the subsequent years, Octavian consolidated his power and established himself as the sole ruler of Rome.

Read the Ancient Rome Facts article (coming soon), to explore more this period in Italian history.

3. The Fall of the Western Roman Empire – 476 AD

The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD is often attributed to the dethronement of the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, by the Germanic leader Odoacer.

However, it’s essential to recognize that the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire were not sudden events but rather a culmination of various factors that had been in play for centuries.

Several key factors contributed to the decline and eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire:

Political Instability: The Western Roman Empire faced significant internal instability due to political turmoil, corruption, and the constant struggle for power among ambitious generals and political factions. This weakened the central authority of the empire and made it increasingly difficult to govern effectively.

Economic Decline: Economic problems plagued the empire, including inflation, taxation issues, and a reliance on slave labor. The vast size of the empire also made it challenging to maintain efficient transportation and communication networks, exacerbating economic difficulties.

Military Challenges: The Roman Empire faced external threats from various barbarian tribes, including the Visigoths, Vandals, and Huns, who frequently raided and invaded Roman territories. The Roman military, once a formidable force, struggled to repel these incursions due to factors such as overstretching, inadequate funding, and declining morale.

Social and Cultural Changes: The Roman Empire experienced significant social and cultural changes, including the spread of Christianity, which altered traditional Roman values and religious beliefs. Additionally, the influx of migrants and refugees into Roman territories further strained resources and contributed to social tensions.

Division of the Empire: The division of the Roman Empire into the Western and Eastern halves by Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century AD created administrative challenges and weakened the unity of the empire.

What Happened After?

Odoacer’s actions led to the establishment of various Germanic successor states in the former Western territories.

Moreover, the fall of the Western Empire marked a major transition between classical antiquity and the Medieval period in Europe. It led to centuries of internal instability, corruption, economic crises, and attacks from migrating tribes like the Visigoths, Vandals, and Huns.

4. Fall Of The Eastern Roman Empire – 1453 AD

After the fall of Rome in the West, the Eastern Roman Empire survived as the Byzantine Empire for nearly a millennium more. Centered in the capital of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the Byzantines maintained the rich Greco-Roman cultural and legal traditions.

By 1453, the Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, had been steadily declining for centuries. The empire had faced numerous challenges, including invasions by various powers such as the Seljuk Turks and the Crusaders, internal conflict, economic difficulties, and territorial losses.

The pivotal event leading to the fall of the Byzantine Empire was the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in 1453.

The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II surrounded Constantinople for several weeks before finally breaching its defenses on May 29, 1453. The fall of Constantinople marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of Ottoman rule in the region.

The implications for Italy:

Impact on Trade: Constantinople had long served as a key hub for trade between Europe and Asia. Its fall disrupted traditional trade routes and had repercussions for Italian city-states such as Venice and Genoa, which had relied on trade with the Byzantine Empire. The loss of Constantinople prompted a shift in trade routes and contributed to the decline of Italian maritime commerce in the eastern Mediterranean.

Refugees and Scholars: The fall of Constantinople led to an influx of Byzantine refugees into Italy, particularly to cities such as Venice and Florence. These refugees brought with them valuable knowledge and cultural treasures, contributing to the intellectual and artistic flourishing of the Italian Renaissance.

Fear of Ottoman Expansion: The fall of Constantinople heightened fears of Ottoman expansion in Italy and across Europe. Italian city-states, particularly those in the north, became increasingly concerned about the possibility of Ottoman incursions into Italian territory. These fears influenced diplomatic relations and military strategies in Italy during the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Shift in Political Dynamics: The fall of the Byzantine Empire altered the political landscape of the Mediterranean region. With the Ottomans now firmly established as a major power, Italy found itself situated between the Ottoman Empire to the east and other European powers to the north and west. This geopolitical situation had implications for Italian foreign policy and alliances in the following centuries.

Papal States expansion strategies - Italian history timeline

5. The Papal States – 754 AD to 1870

The Papal States were a region in central Italy governed directly by the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, from the 8th century until the late 19th century.

At their height in the 18th century, the Papal States included most of central Italy spanning from Bologna to the Kingdom of Naples. The Pope reigned as both the spiritual head of the Catholic Church and as a sovereign monarch over these territories centered in Rome.

How Were They Established?

The Papal States were established in 754 AD when Pope Stephen II appealed to the Frankish king Pepin the Short for protection against the Lombards, who threatened the territories of the Papacy. Pepin defeated the Lombards and donated the conquered territories to the Pope, laying the foundation for the Papal States.

Over the centuries, the Papal States expanded through military conquests, donations, and diplomatic maneuvers. The Popes sought to consolidate their temporal power and establish a territorial base for the Papacy, which included significant parts of central Italy, such as the regions of Latium, Umbria, and the Romagna.

The Popes ruled over the Papal States as both spiritual leaders of the Catholic Church and temporal rulers of their territories. They exercised authority over their subjects, collected taxes, administered justice, and maintained armies to defend their territories.

The End Of Papal Rule

During the Renaissance period, the Papal States experienced cultural and artistic flourishing, particularly in cities such as Rome and Florence. However, the emergence of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century led to internal religious turmoil and challenges to papal authority within the Papal States.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Papal States were invaded and occupied by French revolutionary and Napoleonic forces. The French abolished the Papal States and annexed their territories into the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, leading to the loss of temporal power for the Pope.

Following the defeat of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna restored the Papal States to the Pope. However, the Italian unification movement, led by figures such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Count Camillo Cavour, sought to unify Italy under a single government. 

In 1870, Italian forces captured Rome, leading to the annexation of the Papal States into the Kingdom of Italy and the establishment of Rome as the capital of Italy.

Fascinated by the Papal States? If so, you might be interested in this Vatican City Facts article (coming soon).

6. Various Reigns and Republics (700 – 1861)

Between the 7th and 19th centuries, the Italian peninsula was a fractured landscape of competing city-states, maritime republics, duchies, and kingdoms constantly competing for power. Some of the most notable included:

The Maritime Republics

Genoa (1005–1797): Genoa emerged as a major naval and banking power in the Mediterranean, controlling trade routes and establishing colonies across the region. Its wealth and influence grew through maritime trade and banking activities, making it a dominant player in European politics for centuries.

Venice (697–1797): Known as the Serenissima, Venice was a powerful maritime republic ruling over the Adriatic Sea and dominating major Mediterranean trade routes. Venetian merchants and traders established extensive commercial networks, leading to immense wealth and cultural flourishing during the Renaissance.

The Republics

Florence (1115–1532): Florence, under the Medici family, became the epicenter of the Renaissance, fostering artistic, cultural, and intellectual achievements. Renowned figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli contributed to Florence’s cultural legacy during this period.

Siena (1125–1555): Siena was an economic rival to Florence in Tuscany, known for its prosperous banking and wool industries. Despite its rivalry with Florence, Siena developed a rich artistic and architectural heritage, exemplified by its Gothic architecture and vibrant cityscape.

Lucca (1160–1805): Lucca remained one of the few Italian republics not conquered by outside powers, maintaining its independence for centuries. It thrived as a center of commerce, manufacturing, and banking, preserving its republican institutions and autonomy until the Napoleonic era.

The Kingdoms/Duchies

Sicily (1130–1816): Sicily experienced rule by various dynasties, including the Normans, Spaniards, and Bourbons, shaping its cultural and political landscape over the centuries. The island’s strategic location in the Mediterranean made it a coveted territory for European powers.

Naples (1282–1816): Naples, united with Sicily under the Two Sicilies Kingdom, experienced periods of prosperity and instability under various rulers. Its strategic position in southern Italy made it a key battleground during conflicts between European powers.

Sardinia (1297–1861): Historically ruled by the House of Savoy, Sardinia grew in prominence and influence, eventually playing a pivotal role in the unification of Italy. The House of Savoy’s expansion and consolidation of power laid the groundwork for the Kingdom of Italy’s formation.

Milan (1395–1797): Milan, ruled by influential families like the Sforza and Visconti, flourished as a center of Renaissance art, culture, and commerce. Its strategic location in northern Italy made it a key player in Italian politics and warfare throughout the Renaissance and early modern periods.

Savoy (1416–1847): Beginning as a duchy, Savoy expanded its territory and influence over the centuries, eventually evolving into the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. The House of Savoy played a crucial role in Italian unification efforts, culminating in the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Mantua (1530 -1708): Located in northern Italy, the Duchy of Mantua thrived as a cultural hub under the Gonzaga dynasty. Mantua attracted luminaries like Andrea Mantegna and Baldassare Castiglione, fostering a dynamic Renaissance environment. The Duchy’s artistic legacy endured until its absorption by the Habsburgs in 1708, marking the end of its autonomy.

The Principato of Piombino (1339-1883)

Nestled along the Tuscan coast, the Principality of Piombino thrived as a maritime state, ruled by the Appiani and Boncompagni families. Its strategic position facilitated prosperous trade routes, making it a hub of commerce in the Mediterranean. Despite challenges from neighboring powers, Piombino maintained autonomy until its annexation by the French Empire in 1801, marking the end of its independent existence.

The unition of Italy into the Kingdom of Italy was a huge date in Italian History Timeline

7. The Kingdom of Italy Begins – 1861

On March 17, 1861, the Parliament of the Kingdom of Sardinia passed the Law of the Kingdom of Italy, officially proclaiming the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy with Victor Emmanuel II as its king. 

The new kingdom initially comprised territories controlled by Sardinia-Piedmont, including parts of northern and central Italy. Over the following decades, Italy would undergo further territorial expansion and political consolidation, eventually incorporating Rome and Venice and achieving full national unity.

The unification process, known as the Risorgimento or Italian Unification, had been underway for decades, driven by nationalist sentiments, regional revolts, and diplomatic maneuvering.

Key events leading to the Kingdom of Italy:

Congress of Vienna (1815): Following the defeat of Napoleon, European powers convened at the Congress of Vienna to redraw the map of Europe. Italy remained fragmented into numerous states, controlled by foreign powers or local rulers. However, nationalist aspirations for Italian unification began to emerge, inspired by liberal ideals and a desire for independence.

Revolutionary Movements (1820s-1848): Throughout the early 19th century, revolutionary movements and uprisings erupted across Italy, challenging the authority of foreign rulers and advocating for national unity. Although these movements were often suppressed, they contributed to the growing momentum for Italian unification.

Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Expedition of the Thousand (1860): Giuseppe Garibaldi, a prominent Italian nationalist and military leader, played a pivotal role in the unification process. In 1860, Garibaldi led a volunteer army known as the Expedition of the Thousand in a campaign to liberate southern Italy from Bourbon rule. The expedition achieved remarkable success, culminating in the conquest of Sicily and Naples.

Sardinia-Piedmont’s Role: The Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont, under the leadership of King Victor Emmanuel II and Prime Minister Count Camillo di Cavour, emerged as the driving force behind Italian unification. Through strategic alliances, diplomatic negotiations, and military campaigns, Sardinia-Piedmont gradually expanded its territory and influence, laying the groundwork for the creation of a unified Italian state.

The new monarchy adopted the red-white-green tricolor flag and stake of pavilions as its symbols. However, it faced challenges integrating the different pre-unification states and applying Piedmontese laws across Italy.

Unification laid the foundation for industrialization and economic modernization, though regional economic and cultural divides persisted between the North and South.

8. Monarchy Replaced by Mussolini’s Dictatorship – 1922

In October 1922, the March on Rome allowed Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party to take control of the government and begin a 21-year Fascist dictatorship in Italy, effectively ending the monarchy under King Victor Emmanuel III.

How Did That Happen?

Italy entered World War I in 1915 as part of the Triple Entente, hoping to gain territory from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, the war proved costly and disillusioning for Italy, leading to widespread discontent among the population. Amidst rising social tensions, King Victor Emmanuel III faced mounting criticism for his handling of the war and his perceived inability to address the country’s problems.

Benito Mussolini, a former socialist turned nationalist, capitalized on the political instability and economic hardships of post-war Italy to advance his fascist movement. Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, founded in 1919, gained support from disillusioned war veterans, disaffected workers, and conservative elites who feared the spread of socialism and communism.

On October 28, 1922, Mussolini and his followers launched the March on Rome, a mass demonstration aimed at seizing power and forcing King Victor Emmanuel III to appoint Mussolini as prime minister. Although the march itself was relatively peaceful, Mussolini’s show of strength and the threat of violence convinced the king to appoint him as head of government.

A Period Of Dictatorship & Fascism

Following his appointment as prime minister, Mussolini gradually consolidated power, marginalizing political opponents, suppressing dissent, and centralizing authority under his leadership. In 1925, Mussolini declared a dictatorship, assuming dictatorial powers and dismantling democratic institutions. 

Under Mussolini’s rule, Italy experienced a period of authoritarian rule characterized by censorship, propaganda, and the suppression of political opposition.

Mussolini’s regime, known as the Fascist regime, aimed to create a totalitarian state that glorified the nation, exalted the leader (Il Duce) and emphasized militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism. Mussolini pursued aggressive foreign policies, seeking to expand Italy’s territorial ambitions in Africa and the Mediterranean.

The march on Rome by Mussolini and the Fascist movement was a key date in Italian history

9. End of Fascism & Mussolini’s Dictatorship – 1943

Benito Mussolini’s two-decade-long Fascist dictatorship in Italy began unraveling in 1943 after the Allied invasion of the island of Sicily. With the German forces unable to prevent the Allies from pushing up the Italian peninsula, faith in Mussolini’s leadership crumbled.

Key events:

The Italian people widely viewed Mussolini as a traitor for his alliance with Nazi Germany and refusal to surrender after 1943. His puppet “Italian Social Republic” in the north eventually collapsed in 1945.

Mussolini attempted to escape disguised as a German soldier but was captured and summarily executed by Italian partisans in April 1945, finally ending his disastrous reign.

The civil war, Allied invasion, and heavy bombing campaigns devastated Italy’s economy and infrastructure. Over 450,000 Italian civilians perished during the conflict.

Among those partisans that fought against the Italian Fascists & German Nazists was my paternal grandpa, Angelo. Although caught and kept hostage, he luckily survived and help freed a Jewish family.

Like him, many other ordinary Italians helped move Italy from a period of suppressed human rights and devastation to what we know it today – free, beautiful, and unapologetically laid back.

10. The Italian Republic – 1946

The Italian Republic was established on June 2, 1946, following a national referendum in which the Italian people voted to abolish the monarchy and form a republic. This marked the end of the monarchy that had ruled Italy for centuries and the beginning of a new era in Italian politics and governance.

The popular war hero Enrico De Nicola was its first interim head of state.

The republic was founded on principles of pluralism, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

The Italian Constitution

Following the referendum results, a Constituent Assembly was convened to draft a new constitution for the Italian Republic. The Constituent Assembly completed the drafting of the new Italian Constitution in December 1947. 

The constitution established Italy as a parliamentary republic with a bicameral legislature consisting of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. It outlined the fundamental rights and freedoms of Italian citizens and delineated the powers and responsibilities of the government.

What Happened After

The establishment of the Italian Republic provided a framework for post-war reconstruction and national renewal. Italy embarked on a path of economic recovery, industrial development, and social reform, supported by international aid and cooperation.

However, the new republic also dealt with political turmoil from radical groups like the Red Brigades in the 1970s-80s. Corruption, bureaucracy, and economic stagnation plagued Italy until reforms in the 1990s.

These reforms sought to modernize Italy’s political and economic institutions, promote transparency and accountability, and stimulate economic growth. Here are some key reforms enacted during this period:

  1. Tangentopoli Investigation: Exposed widespread corruption and led to the prosecution of thousands of politicians and businessmen.
  2. Electoral Reform: Introduced mixed-member proportional representation to increase transparency and reduce party influence.
  3. Judicial Reforms: Strengthened independence and efficiency of the judiciary to combat corruption and improve access to justice.
  4. Fiscal Consolidation: Implemented austerity measures and budgetary discipline to reduce public debt and restore macroeconomic stability.
  5. Privatization and Deregulation: Liberalized sectors such as telecommunications and energy to promote competition and efficiency.
  6. European Integration: Aligned policies with EU standards to facilitate economic integration and market liberalization.

Italy joined in the founding of the European Union and adopted the euro currency in 1999. It continues as a stable parliamentary republic and founding EU member today.

Read These Next

If you enjoyed this deep-dive into Italian history, I am positive you are going to appreciate these other articles on Italian Culture & Dolce Vita:

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