Rome is Dead: A Historic Struggle of Imperial Identity and the 150th Anniversary of the Modern Italian State

“The word ‘Italy’ is a geographical expression, a description which is useful shorthand, but has none of the political significance the efforts of the revolutionary ideologues try to put on it, and which is full of dangers for the very existence of the states which make up the peninsula.”

These were the words of Austrian diplomat Prince Klemens von Metternich in 1847. At that time, Europe’s enjoyment of a peacefully post-Napoleonic world was interrupted by revolts in Italy—a peninsula comprised of several disjointedly independent city-states unbound to each other since the fall of Rome almost 1,500 years prior. Nationalist sentiment among these city-states gradually increased after Napoleon’s fall; leading figures and common people alike had begun to be united by the serious contemplation of an Italian nation.

Much to Metternich’s and other conservatives’ chagrin, Italy successfully united under a Piedmont monarchy on Match 17th, 1861: a legendary event for those cognizant of the nation’s post-Roman trials and tribulations. But 150 years later, what can be said of Italy as nation? Was unification beneficial for Italians and, furthermore, what challenges does Italy face as a nation today and in the future?

The answer is that, since the fall of Rome to unification and today, “Italy” is a problematic mish-mash of very unique provinces with no modern unifying characteristics. The concept and, later, nation of Italy was formed mostly by reaction to the foreign domination of each duchy, republic, or region and, as a result, was executed hastily. This forced Risorgimento created an Italy that changes its often faulty governments frequently and fails to compete with its other, more stable, European neighbors. Furthermore, the only unifying notion that birthed a state from the Italian peninsula was the memory of the Roman Empire: a dangerous role model that has caused Italy to endlessly seek more territory to its own detriment (see: Italian Irredentism). Imperial sentiments later allowed for the birth of Fascism; an ultra-exaggerated form of modern Romanism, which hurt the moral standing of Italy and bequeathed a form of government which parts of the world have still yet to abandon.

Even in its fledgling state, unification in 1861 did little to remedy the already-extant problems affecting the peninsula. Italy’s entry into the world as a nation was marred by political compromise bordering on corruption from the very start. It began when Camillo di Cavour, a leading figure of unification, secretly ceded Giuseppe Garibaldi’s hometown of Nizza (Nice) to the French for their mere acquiescence to the cause. Realpolitik or not, Cavour slyly convinced Garibaldi to focus his efforts on taking the south by force. As a result, Garibaldi begrudgingly lead his “1,000 troops” into the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, uniting the peninsula by besiegement and violence.

Italy’s independence began with complications not limited to the bitterness between Garibaldi and Cavour. Giuseppe Mazzini, another important figure of unification, passionately argued for an Italian Republic that would echo the more moderate days of Rome. His wishes fell on deaf ears and Garibaldi proceeded to install a Piedmont-based monarchy under Victory Emmanuel of Savoy. It was also during unification that the modern divide between North and South began, as Garibaldi’s campaigns in the wealthy areas of Naples and Sicily bankrupted the area, crippling their economy and inflicting a wound that exists to this day.

Domestic bickering aside, around the time of unification the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia attempted to gain Western Europe’s favour regarding the impending unification of Italy, but faced the kind of marginalization it would experience many times after. Their initial attempt was the provision of military assistance to Britain and France in the Crimean War against Russia, but in the post-war negotiations Italian desires for territory were dismissed. Later, Italian participation in the Entente Forces during World War I also went unnoticed—Italy was virtually lured into abandoning the Triple Alliance with the Treaty of London. In the treaty, France and Britain promised Italy certain territories with significant Italian populations—such as the Dodecanese and Dalmatia—in exchange for their participation on the Entente side. After the war’s end, Woodrow Wilson ignored all promises in the Treaty of London and Italian participation was taken for granted once more.

After World War I, the imperial desire for expansion and modernization spiked in large due to this consistent European marginalization. Since diplomacy and allegiance failed to gain Italy the sort of glory that it sought, then it would have to be of a more forced and militant nature. Thus, in 1922, a battered Italy embraced a new form of government: one that was unabashedly irredentist and Roman in sentiment. This new government was Fascism and its leader was the very bold Benito Mussolini.

Mussolini was the embodiment of every Italian’s desire to resurrect Rome—the very sentiment that sparked the Risorgimento. Mussolini promised Italy a first-rate status among the world, a new era of culture not seen since Rome and the Florentine Renaissance, as well as the Italophonic territories that the nation felt it was owed since unification. In a tragic and very Italian twist, Mussolini betrayed these ideals in a desperate act of retaining power and so, in 1938, became a puppet of Adolf Hitler and the peninsula was reduced to a client state of Nazi Germany. Italy soon embraced the racial ideals of their neighbouring tyrants: a disastrous policy that contradicted the very long hetero-racial history of the peninsula.

Since the fall of Mussolini, Roman sentiment has, for the most part, died in Italy. World War II exhausted the nation’s resources and population, forcing it to make concessions that would hinder progress for years. As a result of this waning Roman sentiment, Italy has seen the emergence of separatist groups: movements that acknowledge the extraordinary difference between the provinces and seek to break up the Italian nation. Most notable of these are the Northern League, which aims to create a separate nation of Padania in the north, and the Movement for Autonomies which aims for the same but, rather, in the south and Sicily. While these movements came very close to separation in the 1990s, lately they have conceded the idea of breaking up Italy for more autonomy from Rome in domestic affairs.

Italy, however, remains a problematic nation. Its current and long-standing Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi is rife with corruption, mismanagement, and scandal. Italy’s economy remains in crisis along with Greece, Ireland, and Spain, and since 1861 has yet to impress the world with significant progress. Is the idea of a united Italy an outmoded one, birthed from an unrealistic desire to return to the glory days of Rome? Or has too much blood been spilled uniting the country to break it up and allow for its culturally distinct regions to fully rule themselves? The answer is different depending on which Italian you ask, but the question certainly remains.

Author: Patrick Vitalone

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