|Official Name:||Italian Republic (Repubblica Italiana)|
|Area:||301,340 sq km|
|Population:||61.5 million (2013)|
|Climate:||Predominantly Mediterranean; Alpine in far north; hot, dry in south|
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Already by the 5th century AD the Italian population had been reduced to some six million inhabitants.
With the end of the Western Roman Empire the Italian territory remained basically united, first under the rule of Odoacer and then that of Theodoric the Ostrogoth (493-526AD). Under the latter, the country had periods of relative economic prosperity and peace. This was also due to the contribution of illustrious Romanists such as Boethius, Cassiodorus and Symmachus.
It was in this period that the influence of the Christian church began to make itself felt more consistently. This was in contrast to the progressive orientalization of the Empire, now focused on its new capital of Costantinople, founded by the emperor Constantine between 326-330AD on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium. The Christian church sought to continue the authority and prestige of Rome. In particular there emerged the figures of popes such as Leo I (440-461) and Gregory the Great (590-604) who were capable of bringing prestige to the institution they represented. Under the latter in particular, the church also began to assume political and administrative functions due to repeated territorial acquisitions (St. Peter's patrimony).
Also at the end of the 4th century AD there began to flower western monachism, with its major figure in St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543AD). The Benedictine monasteries and abbeys, but also those of other orders, became already in the early Middle Ages not only places of religion but centres for the preservation and spread of culture. In addition, they took an important economic role due to their schemes for the drainage and use of lands devastated and depopulated by recurrent war. The papacy, monasteries and other ecclesiastical institutions found themselves in possession of huge estates, often enlarged by further donations, that contributed to strengthen their political authority and power.
The deterioration in relations between Theodoric's successors and the Eastern Empire offered the emperor Justinian (527-565AD) the opportunity to re-unite the Empire.
This he did at the price of a difficult conflict, the Graeco-Gothic War (535-553AD), which had grave consequences for the Italian territory as it was placed under the government of the Exarchate of Ravenna.
The Lombards and Charlemagne
Byzantine dominion was however short-lived. In 568AD a new Barbarian invasion brought the Lombards of Alboin to Italy. They reached as far as the southern regions and built a large kingdom, with its capital at Pavia, which was to last for over two hundred years (774AD).
Italy was now incapable of taking an independent political initiative and after the Lombards had to submit to another European people. The Franks descended into Italy to support the pope against the Lombards. With the victory of Charlemagne over the Lombard Desiderius, Italy was to remain for over two centuries (774AD) in the orbit of the Carolingian dynasty, which had substituted the Lombards in the Kingdom of Italy.
In the meantime, there occurred the Arab expansion throughout the Mediterranean and Italy herself was involved. During the 9th century AD, in fact (827-902AD), Sicily fell entirely into Saracen hands and became the base for raids along the coasts or even into the interior of the Italian peninsula. Still in the South of Italy, there began to appear in this period the first independent city-states with the formation of independent signorie such as at Naples, Amalfi and Gaeta, which because of their position on the sea were able to develop a mercantile economy. These are the first examples of the free communes that were to flourish slightly later in Central-Northern Italy. In Southern Italy instead they were to be suffocated after a brief season by the arrival, towards the middle of the 11th century AD, of another conquering northern people.
The Normans were professional soldiers and rapidly took control of all Southern Italy, Sicily included. Their rule lasted for almost two centuries, from 1029AD (acquisition of Aversa) to 1220AD, which was the year of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen's accession to the Sicilian throne.The Renaissance and the Signorie
The scarse inclination of the newly-formed urban middle-class for military activities led to a search for the protection and support of their interests by the powerful feudal families. In a short time, although in the name of the people, they acquired the signoria or lordship of the old communes.