There have certainly been humans on the Italian peninsula for at least 200,000 years. Prior to the Romans the Etruscan Civilization lasted from prehistory to the founding of Rome. Etruscans flourished in the centre and north of what is now Italy, particularly in areas now represented by northern Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. Rome was dominated by Etruscans until the Romans sacked the nearby Etruscan city of Veii in 396 BC. In the 8th and 7th centuries BC Greek colonies were established in Sicily and the southern part of the Italy and the Etruscan culture rapidly became influenced by that of Greece. This is well illustrated at some excellent Etruscan museums; Etruscan burial sites are also well worth visiting.
Ancient Rome was at first a small village founded around the 8th century BC. In time it grew into an empire covering the whole Mediterranean and as far north as Scotland. Its steady decline began in the 2nd century AD, and the empire finally broke into two parts in 285 AD: the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire in the East. The western part, under attack from the Goths, finally collapsed, leaving the Italian peninsula divided. After this Rome passed into the so-called Dark Ages. The city itself was sacked by Saracens in 846.
In the 6th century AD a Germanic tribe, the Lombards, arrived from the north; hence the present-day northern region of Lombardy. The balance of power between them and other invaders such as the Byzantines, Arabs, and Muslim Saracens, with the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy meant that it was not possible to unify Italy, although later arrivals such as the Carolingians and the Hohenstaufens managed to impose some control. In the south the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies , a result of unification of the Kingdom of Sicily with the Kingdom of Naples in 1442, had its capital in Naples. In the north Italy was a collection of small independent city states and kingdoms and would remain so until the 19th century. People looked to strong men who could bring order to the cities and this is how dynasties such as the Medici in Florence developed. In turn, these families became patrons of the arts, allowing Italy to become the birthplace of the Renaissance, with the emergence of men of genius such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
From 1494 onwards Italy suffered a series of invasions from the French and Spanish. The north became dominated by the Austrians.
The Kingdom of Italy lasted from 1861 to 1946. Giuseppe Garibaldi led a drive for unification in southern Italy, while the north wanted to establish a united Italian state under its rule. The northern kingdom successfully challenged the Austrians and established Turin as capital of the newly formed state. In 1866, Victor Emmanuel II managed to annex Venice. In 1870, shortly after France abandoned it, Italy's capital was moved to Rome.
In October 1922, a small National Fascist Party led by Benito Mussolini attempted a coup with its "March on Rome" which resulted in the King forming an alliance with Mussolini. A pact with Germany was concluded by Mussolini in 1936, and a second in 1938. During the Second World War Italy was invaded by the Allies in June 1943, leading to the collapse of the fascist regime and the arrest, flight, eventual re-capture and death of Mussolini. In September 1943, Italy surrendered. However, fighting continued on its territory for the rest of the war, with the allies fighting those Italian fascists who did not surrender, as well as German forces.
In 1946, King Umberto II, was forced to abdicate and Italy became a republic. In the 1950s Italy became a member of NATO and allied itself with the United States. The Marshall Plan helped revive the Italian economy which, until the 1960s, enjoyed a period of sustained economic growth In 1957, Italy became a founding member of the European Economic Community.
From the late 1960s till the late 1980s the country experienced an economic crisis. There was a constant fear, both inside and outside Italy (particularly in the USA), that the Communist Party, which regularly polled over 20% of the vote, would one day form a government and all sorts of dirty tricks were concocted to prevent this. From 1992 to the present day Italy has faced massive government debt and extensive corruption. Scandals have involved all major parties, but especially the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, which were both dissolved. The 1994 elections put media magnate Silvio Berlusconi into the Prime Minister's seat. He has twice been defeated but he emerged triumphant again in the 2008 election.
Despite Unification having lasted for close to 150 years there remain significant divisions in Italy. The northern part of the country is richer and more industrialized than the south and many northerners object to being effectively asked to subsidise southerners. The Northern League political party pushes for greater autonomy for the north and for reduced fund transfers to the south. On one thing the people of the north and the south can agree: none of them likes paying for the enormous bureaucracy that is based in Rome.