After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Italian peninsula and its surrounding islands became pawns for the European powers that emerged in the wake of Rome’s demise. It was not until the late 19th century that the separate states of Italy finally brought an end to the long process of unification under Victor Emanuel II, the new king of Italy elected by the first Italian parliament in 1961. Even then, the nation of Italy as it is known today did not come into existence in its entirety until after World War I.
In the early Middle Ages Italy was divided and distributed by the transient dominance of medieval European conquerors like the Byzantine and Norman Empires. As different rulers vied for Italian preeminence, the Papal State began to develop a sphere of influence that rivaled the claims of the Holy Roman Emperor in Italy. At the same time, northern cities reluctant to cede to Imperial rule formed communes that eventually developed into independently governed city-states.
While southern Italy and the nearby islands of Sardinia and Sicily passed between the hands of Spanish, French, and Austrian rulers from the late Middle Ages into the 18th century, the autonomous regimes of northern and central Italy grew and flourished to become formidable powers in and of themselves. By the 1700s, Venice alone had extended its territorial tendrils well beyond the Italian peninsula to stake claims on Istria, Dalmatia and several other significant islands and ports of the Mediterranean.
The Napoleonic Era brought Italy almost entirely under French control until the Congress of Vienna in 1815 when the peninsula was returned to its prerevolutionary patchwork of independent governments. Despite Austrian and Habsburg attempts to subdue nationalistic fervor, the French had set an example that inspired the Italian states into revolutionary action and by the end of the century the Italian nation had been formed.
End of the Empire
Extent of the Roman Empire (map: 10, 137)
After the fall of the last western Roman Emperor, 476 BC
German Odoacer overthrows the last western Roman Emperor, teenager Romulus Augustulus in 476 BC, ruling peacefully from Ravenna in 476 to 493 (map: 07)
Ostrogothic Kingdom (maps: 08, 35, 112)
Theodoric of the Ostrogoths kills Odoacer in 493, becoming the new king of Italy and establishing the Ostrogothic Kingdom
Medieval Conquests of Italy
Byzantine Empire (maps: 05, 36, 99)
In the 6th century Emperor Justinian successfully re-conquered much of the former Western Roman Empire. However his reconquests were short-lived, for the Lombards’ arrival after 568 confined Byzantine territory to the northeast and southernmost tip of Italy
Lombard Kingdom (maps: 06, 12, 35, 110, 136)
The Lombards, a Germanic people, first entered Italy as mercenaries paid by the Byzantine army, but soon overtook the Byzantines, first conquering Pavia in 572 and eventually possessing almost the entire peninsula
Lombard States (maps: 64, 100, 108)
Charlemagne (maps: 09, 34, 63, 125, 143)
Conquers Lombard Kingdom of Italy in 774
Crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800, ruling until his death in 814