Although the Italian peninsular has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic period its inhabitants and rulers have originated from all areas of the ancient world. The name Italia was originally used by the Greeks who settled in the south of the country in the 8th century BCE, and it was not until the time of the Roman Empire that the name Italia covered the whole country up to the Alps in the north. During this period the Bull, symbol of the south, was often depicted attacking the Roman Wolf.
Gradually the small agricultural village of Rome founded in the 8th century BCE grew steadily over the centuries by conquest and assimilation until its Empire encompassed most of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The Empire’s decline had started by the 2nd century CE and by 395 had split into the Western Roman Empire and the eastern Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople. A century of invasion of the western Empire followed by various Pagan tribes from the north, Goths, Vandals, Huns and Franks, before Rome came under the control of the Ostrogoths led by the Germanic warrior Odoacer in 476.
The Italian peninsular was reconquered by the Byzantines in the 6th century, but their lands were soon greatly reduced following the Germanic, Lombard, invasion later that century. During the 8th century, the growing Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne conquered much of Europe, including all northern and central Italy, pushing the Byzantines to the southern tip. At this time Charles was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the Pope, in a pact that made him defender of the faith whilst creating the Papal States held by the Church.
During the 12th century, Medieval period, Italy fragmented into a series of City States and Maritime Republics who allied themselves, or feuded, with each other at regular intervals. Italian states were heavily involved in the Crusades and the colonising of Mediterranean ports, from where they traded with the Byzantine and Islamic Empires. It was from this background that the Renaissance emerged to spread across Europe. From this turmoil there emerged the cities of Venice, Milan and Florence as the most powerful city states.
From the 15th to mid 19th century the peninsular was governed by Spain, Austria and Napoleon’s French Republic, when its north and south became the subordinate “kingdoms” of Italy and Naples respectably. Italy was finally united under an Italian king, when Republican General Giuseppe Garibaldi handed over control of the recently reconquered country to Victor Emmanuel II in 1860, at the “handshake of Teano.”