Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Knights of St Stephen of Tuscany

In the old days of Christendom, there were religious military orders subject to the Roman Pontiff, such as the Templars, as well as religious military orders subject to a particular dynastic house. One of these was the Order of St Stephen of the Italian Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Officially, the “Holy Military Order of St Stephen Pope and Martyr”, it was founded on October 1, 1561 by the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici with the permission of Pope Pius IV. This could be seen as part of the normalization of the transition in Tuscany to monarchy, away from the city-state Republic of Florence, taking on more of the trappings associated with monarchy as Florence became the seat of power of a hereditary Grand Duke rather than a republican leadership. The order was named for Pope St Stephen the Martyr because his feast day (August 2) corresponded with the victories that Grand Duke Cosimo had won at the Battle of Montemurlo (August 2, 1537) against republican insurgents who wanted to restore the Florentine republic and the Battle of Marciano (August 2, 1554) in which the Medici grand duke had conquered the city-state Republic of Siena.

Grand Duke Cosimo I
Grand Duke Cosimo had actually been trying to establish such an order for some time and more than one attempt was thwarted by Church opposition, largely for political reasons which was typical of the period in which Italy was divided among feuding states. That, however, finally changed with the reign of Pope Pius IV who was a Medici. The primary purpose of the order was to combat the Islamic pirates who were raiding the Mediterranean at will and who had increasingly threatened the Tyrrhenian Sea where Grand Duke Cosimo had built a new, modern port at Livorno. He also wished to demonstrate his support for the cause of Christendom and to unite his people, including the more recently conquered regions such as Siena and Pisa, against a common, non-Italian and non-Christian enemy. The Grand Duke also hoped it would add prestige to his newly established grand duchy, standing alongside other dynastic orders and adding fame to the name of Tuscany and the House of Medici for fighting on the front-lines against the forces harassing Christendom.

Based on the religious rule of St Benedict, the order took as its symbol a red eight-point cross on a white background, incorporating the red and white colors of Florence, with a heraldic lily flower in between the arms of the cross, again using a symbol associated with Florence as well as that of the House of Medici due to their ties with the Royal House of France. Grand Duke Cosimo served as the first Grand Master of the order and, as it was a dynastic order, this would be passed on to every subsequent Grand Duke of Tuscany. The headquarters of the order were originally in Portoferraio but later moved permanently to the city of Pisa where one can still find the magnificent Palazzo dei Cavalieri and the church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri. The knights focused primarily on coastal defense but also took the fight to the enemy in cooperation with larger allies. The first of three, broad “campaigns” that the Knights of St Stephen fought was done in cooperation with the Spanish in their fight against the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean.

war galley of the Order of St Stephen
The Knights of St Stephen, with their own war galleys, fought alongside the Spanish (and other allied Italian states) at the siege of Malta in 1565 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. They also participated in the attack and capture of Annaba in Algeria in 1607 under Admiral Jacopo Inghirami in which the city was devastated. This phase in their campaigning was, such as at Malta and Lepanto, defensive and focused on stopping major Turkish offensives against southern Italy. However, once that was done, low level harassment on the part of Turkish and, more often, Barbary pirates remained a problem and the Order of St Stephen focused its second campaign on dealing with this problem. They also concentrated on areas closer to home with raids on the Turkish-held islands of the Aegean as well as launching attacks on Islamic forces in Dalmatia, Negroponte and the island of Corfu. These were successful enough that offensive military operations by the Knights of St Stephen decreased, their last major campaign, coming around the year 1640, during the reign of Grand Duke Ferdinando II, focused on coastal defense and aiding the Republic of Venice in their on-going struggle against the Ottoman Empire.

Grand Duke Ferdinando III
The year 1719 saw the last time that the Order of St Stephen was used in combat by Grand Duke Cosimo III. Later, in 1737, a major change came when the House of Medici was supplanted by the Austrian dynasty of Hapsburg-Lorraine. The second Hapsburg grand duke, Pietro Leopoldo I, formally ended the military aspect of the order and reorganized it as an order that would focus on education for the elites of Tuscany. It became more a feature of social status and no longer an order focused on war and military defense. The Order of St Stephen lost its fighting capacity under the Hapsburgs but things soon became even worse. In 1791 Emperor Leopold II abdicated the throne of Tuscany in favor of his son Ferdinando III who has the dubious distinction of being the first monarch to recognize the revolutionary First French Republic. However, that was not enough to save him. French expansion continued and the Austrians eventually agreed to hand over control of northern Italy to the French Republic in exchange for half of the territory of neutral Venice. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was occupied by the French, the Grand Duke was forced to abdicate and the Order of St Stephen was suppressed.

Grand Duke Leopoldo II
Thankfully, that situation did not endure. In due time Napoleon was defeated and the Grand Duke of Tuscany was put back in his place in 1814 and, the following year, the Order of St Stephen was restored. It was, however, restored in its reformed form, not a military order but became more of a sign of favor with the grand ducal family. The French experience also seemed to have an affect on the Italian populace as so many years of division, feuding and foreign rule or foreign occupation prompted the growth and spread of a new Italian nationalism. It was an unfortunate period for the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, who were good men of good motives and intentions but their natural inclination to support their Austrian relatives was not matched by their subjects and many deserted the forces of Tuscany to join the Piedmontese and the Italian national movement in fighting to expel the Austrians from Italian soil. Grand Duke Leopold II, a noble and tragic figure, made the mistake of so many of his contemporaries in granting constitutional government, only to later revoke it and he was forced to abdicate. Grand Duke Ferdinando IV, his successor, ruled for only about a year before he too was forced out in 1859 by the Italian nationalists. In 1860 Tuscany was formally annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.

Neither the Kingdom of Italy nor the current Italian republic officially recognize the Order of St Stephen, though it does still exist but as a purely private organization under the leadership of the Hapsburg-Lorraine heirs of the former grand duchy. Prince Sigismund, Archduke of Austria, is the current Grand Master and the order is considered, by the Catholic Church, as a “public association of the faithful” with historic papal foundations. The Knights of Malta still recognize it but membership is extremely limited, mostly to close friends and family. One must have extensive documented proof of aristocratic ancestry to even be considered for membership and the costs required, as with most such orders today, ensure that only quite wealthy people could ever hope to be invited. Nonetheless, what exists today is a valuable reminder of what a glorious and formidable military-religious order the Knights of St Stephen once were and one can still see their educational facility and naval war college in Pisa, a testament to their past as one of the major forces on the front lines of defending Christendom in the Mediterranean area.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Anglo-Italian Royal Connections

Throughout the earliest periods of British royal history, after the Roman conquest of course, there were few official connections with Italy but probably more than most realize. In terms of royal consorts, the English monarchs originally took local wives and after the Norman conquest brides from France were preferred. However, one of those, Eleanor of Provence, wife of King Henry III of England, was a daughter of the Count of Provence and Beatrice of Savoy, daughter of Count Tommaso I of Savoy, the Imperial Vicar of Lombardy. This was the first connection between the English Royal Family and the Italian House of Savoy. Later, during the reign of the Tudor dynasty, as the Italian city-states gained dominance in trade and banking, one first began to see English monarchs who could speak fluent Italian with Queen Elizabeth I. It was also the first Tudor monarch, King Henry VII, who employed "John Cabot" (actually Giovanni Caboto of Genoa) in his expedition of discovery to Canada. His son, King Henry VIII, employed Italian mercenaries (as well as Germans) in the suppressing of the "Prayer Book Rebellion" of 1549. It is remembered that when the Italian soldiers, who were of course Catholic, learned what their employer had them fighting for, that they went to confession, sorry for what they had done.

After the House of Stuart came to the throne of England, there were to be more Italian connections than ever before. King Charles I was married to Henrietta Maria of France who was the daughter of Queen Marie de' Medici and it was their son, King James II, who had as his consort Queen Mary of Modena, the daughter of the Duke of Modena and Laura Martinozzi. When the end of the Stuart reign, British monarchs mostly restricted themselves to German spouses but the Italian connections to the House of Stuart were only strengthened. The son of King James II and his Italian bride Queen Mary of Modena, who would have been King James III, spent the final years of his life in Italy, living in a palace gifted to him by the Pope in Rome. His son, "Bonnie Prince Charlie", who would have been King Charles III, spent most of his life in Italy, growing up largely in Rome and after the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745 and some years in France, returned to Italy and lived in Florence. In fact, he had his first experience of battle in Italy at the 1734 siege of Gaeta. He died with no legitimate heir and was succeeded by his brother, Cardinal York, who of course had no children and so the Stuart claim to the British throne then passed to the Italian royal house.

A daughter of King Charles I and his half-Italian bride Henrietta Maria was Princess Henrietta of England. She married the French Duke of Orleans and it was her daughter, Anne Marie of Orleans, who married King Vittorio Amadeo II of Piedmont-Sardinia, House of Savoy. Because of that union, when Prince Henry, Cardinal York, last male heir of the Stuart line died, their claim to the British throne fell to King Carlo Emanuele IV of Piedmont-Sardinia, making the head of the House of Savoy the pretender to the British throne as "King Charles IV" in 1807, though he never pressed such a claim. The Stuart claim remained with the House of Savoy until the death of Princess Maria Beatrice of Savoy, wife of the Duke of Modena after which it fell to a cadet branch of the House of Habsburg and finally the Bavarian royal House of Wittelsbach (it is next set to pass to the princely House of Liechtenstein). Had then things gone differently in the course of history, the British and the Italians might have shared a royal family, at least for a period of time.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Papal Walls in Rome

Everyone today will certainly be aware of the waves of Muslim peoples moving into Europe from Africa and the Middle East. Italy has been greatly impacted by this with huge numbers of people coming ashore on the southern islands, depending entirely on the Italian tax-payers for support. This is, of course, not the first time that large groups of Muslims have come into Europe and Italy in particular. In the past they came armed for battle but were met by Italian and other European Christians ready to defend themselves. Today that seems unnecessary given that they are being taken in willingly. This has become part of a larger, global narrative of people from poorer countries fleeing to wealthier countries, almost exclusively Western Europe and North America. Pope Francis has been rather outspoken on the subject that these Muslims should be accepted into the European countries and, while on a visit to the United States, called building walls to protect national borders something that a true Christian would not do. This would, however, put the Holy Father at odds with his saintly predecessor Pope Leo IV.

Elected in 847 AD, Pope Leo IV was a native Roman and reigned during a time of great danger for Italy and Christendom as a whole. By this time, Muslim armies had come out of the deserts of Arabia to invade and conquer the Middle East, all of North Africa and were well advanced into Spain. The island of Sicily, for example, had been conquered and made into a Muslim emirate for almost twenty years when Leo IV came to the Throne of St Peter. That same year, 847, saw the Islamic conquest of Bari in Apulia and the establishment of the Emirate of Bari. Muslim raids on Italian coastal towns and cities were a frequent occurrence and the Eternal City of Rome was not immune from danger. Most worrisome to the Pope was the number of people who, in return for special treatment for themselves, aided the Saracen invaders in making war and pillaging the lands of their fellow Italians in rival cities. The year before his election, Muslim invaders had sailed up the Tiber River and pillaged the outskirts of Rome itself, desecrating the churches of Old St Peter's and St Paul's Outside-the-Walls. Further damage was prevented only by the still standing Aurelian Wall, built in the Third Century by the Emperor of Rome.

Pope St Leo IV waving to crowds below
Pope Leo IV thus began his pontificate with cleaning up after this attack and trying to improve the defensive fortifications of the city as best he could while also trying to organize an Italian coalition to drive out the Islamic invaders. Gaeta was already under siege at the time of his election and when the Muslims moved against Portus it was Pope Leo IV who called for the Italian cities known for their naval forces to come together in defense of Italy and Christendom. Naples, Amalfi and of course Gaeta answered the call and an effective Italian fleet was assembled, including papal vessels from Rome, that was led by Caesar of Naples (son of Duke Sergius I) who won a dramatic victory over the Muslims in the 849 Battle of Ostia. Pope Leo IV had come out to see the fleet off, give them his apostolic blessing and to say mass for the Italian sailors. His prayers certainly seemed to be effective as a storm erupted during the middle of the battle which split the Saracen fleet and enabled the Italians to win the day.

Map of the Leonine City
This was a great offensive victory but, as mentioned, Pope Leo IV did not neglect defensive measures either and so it was he who had built a massive new wall forty feet high with towers at intervals of 'an arrow shot' completely around the Vatican hill, covering some three kilometers to enclose that part of the city not protected by the Aurelian Wall. The Castel Sant Angelo (the tomb of Emperor Hadrian) stood at one end as the primary fortress and strong point of the new fortifications. The Pope employed his own laborers as well as local builders and even Saracens who had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Ostia. Donations, funds from the papal treasury and a donation from the Frankish monarch funded the project. The end result was what has become known as the Leonine Wall which was a success in that Rome was never victimized by Muslim forces again. The area enclosed by the wall is also sometimes known as the Leonine City. This was also, it might be mentioned, the area originally offered to Pope Pius IX by King Vittorio Emanuele II as a papal state after Rome became part of the Kingdom of Italy but the offer was rejected by the Pope.

Monday, August 22, 2016

King Odoacer in the Roman System

It was on this day in 476 AD (according to some sources anyway) that Odoacer was proclaimed by his soldiers as the first “King of Italy”. Such a proclamation, needless to say, did not actually make him the King of Italy but such was finally accomplished when the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was forced by Odoacer to abdicate. This was a case of recent history repeating itself as Odoacer was the top military commander of Emperor Romulus, a boy who had been placed on the throne by his father Orestes who had been the top military commander of Emperor Julius Nepos, whom he had overthrown and driven into exile in the east. That being the case, in order to add legitimacy to his rule of Italy, King Odoacer enlisted the support of the exiled Emperor Julius Nepos and received it and so based his authority on the recognition that he ruled Italy on behalf of the absent Emperor. This reveals how Odoacer fit in to the remnants of the Roman imperial system, even though he was himself not a Roman. Historians have never come to an agreement on what exactly his ethnic background was but do agree that he was a barbarian and not an Italian.

St Simplicius
Aiding Odoacer was the fact that the young Romulus Augustulus had never received widespread recognition for the legitimacy of his rule (which was actually the rule of his father Orestes). Beyond central Italy, few regarded Romulus Augustulus as the rightful emperor. King Odoacer tried to strengthen the legitimacy of his rule by obtaining the recognition of as many established authorities as possible, such as the exiled Julius Nepos, the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno and, of course, the Bishop of Rome who was at the time Pope St Simplicius. King Odoacer was a Christian, an adherent of the Arian heresy which was widespread in those days. Pope Simplicius had long been known for his opposition to the Eutychian heresy at the Council of Chalcedon. Keeping in mind that most of the latter Western Roman Emperors had not ruled from Rome itself, the administration of the Eternal City had effectively fallen to the Pope and King Odoacer made no effort to interfere with this existing system, other than a few administrative changes, he effectively left Pope Simplicius to carry on as before while he focused his attention on consolidating and expanding his Kingdom of Italy.

Odoacer's Italy
In this, he was rather more successful than he is usually given credit for. Through diplomatic means alone he gained the island of Sicily from the Vandal king Gaiseric and in 480, when Julius Nepos was murdered by two of his servants, King Odoacer launched a military campaign on the pretext of apprehending and punishing the assassins which saw the reach of his Kingdom of Italy extended all throughout the region of Dalmatia, effectively making the Adriatic an Italian lake once more. Almost immediately thereafter he was also enlisted in a plot against the Eastern Emperor Zeno led by Illus, the Eastern Emperor’s top military commander in a repetition of events in the west. Odoacer was not too concerned with what became of Zeno but seized the opportunity to conquer to territories then being held by the Eastern Emperor, in the area of what is today Austria. Oddly enough, the territories which Odoacer extended his rule over at the height of his Kingdom of Italy is almost identical to those which British prime minister Churchill offered to Mussolini in an effort to influence him to abandon the Axis and join the Allied side at the start of World War II.

Theodoric's tomb
If Odoacer was not terribly concerned about Emperor Zeno, Zeno was certainly concerned about him and endeavored to save himself by turning his barbarian vassals against each other. Needless to say, he immediately withdrew his recognition of Odoacer’s rule over Italy and invited another barbarian chieftain, Theodoric the Goth, to invade Italy and receive imperial recognition of his rule if he could defeat and overthrow Odoacer. So it was that King Theodoric and his Goths invaded and came pouring down the Italian peninsula, forcing Odoacer, as other barbarians had forced the Western Roman Emperors before him, to take refuge in the fortified coastal city of Ravenna. The Goths soon attacked and in 493 the city surrendered after which Odoacer fell victim to a murderous plot. King Theodoric, thereafter known as Theodoric the Great, invited him to a banquet as a show of reconciliation and friendship. Odoacer, unfortunately, accepted the invitation only for Theodoric to poison his food and Odoacer, King of Italy, died on March 15, 493.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Tiburtine Sybil and Imperial Prophecy

In the old days of Christendom, one could mention the Tiburtine Sybil and the prophecies regarding the Roman emperors and many people, certainly educated people, would know immediately what was being talked about. Today that is certainly not the case and so some background information must be provided as, aside from experts in this particular field or, perhaps, art history aficionados, no average person will know what this is all about. First of all, we have the figure of the Sybil. The sybils were women who acted as oracles, usually associated with a particular holy site in pagan times. The custom originated in ancient Greece but soon spread to Italy, Asia Minor and other areas. The Oracle of Delphi is probably the most well known example of a sybil. These women were often sought out for prophecy and divine guidance as it were by powerful people. In the time of the Roman Empire one of the most prominent was the Tiburtine Sybil, known as such because she resided at the town of Tibur, an old Etruscan town, which is today the Italian city of Tivoli. Many stories grew out of this particular sybil later on among Christians concerning the Roman emperors.

One thing to clarify at the outset was that the sybils were, obviously, not Christian religious figures but were associated with paganism. However, once upon a time, this did not cause Christians to discount stories about their prophecies. They knew from their Bible stories that the pagan priests of Pharaoh were able to perform seemingly miraculous deeds or that the witch of Endor had been able to summon up the spirit of Samuel for King Saul, for example. It was taken for granted that people who were not worshippers of the Christian God could still possess amazing gifts and that God could use such people for His own purposes. Later examples of such things might include the Native American shamans who, according to various stories, made prophecies about the coming of the Spanish or had visions of the Blessed Virgin to prepare them to receive the Gospel when Christian missionaries later arrived. There was also, it must be said, an effort by the Christians of the “Ages of Faith” to look back at classical history and to incorporate it into their new, Christian, world view. The story of Pope St Gregory the Great, momentarily resurrecting the Roman Emperor Trajan in order to baptize him, is an example of this. Virtually everyone discounts this story now but it reflects the wish of people to see so great a man, such a revered emperor, saved from eternal damnation for not having been a Christian.

The first recorded instance of the Tiburtine Sybil crossing paths with a Roman emperor came in the time of Augustus Caesar. The story goes that Emperor Augustus approached the Tiburtine Sybil, Albunea, at the Temple of Vesta to ask if he should be worshipped as a god. This meeting was once a very common thing to see depicted in art. An Archbishop, Jacobus de Voragine, later recorded this story, stating that it had been handed down to him by Pope Innocent III, that Augustus met the Sybil and that the Sybil revealed to him one who would come after him, greater than he, and showed him a vision of the birth of Christ, referring to the Blessed Virgin as “the Altar of Heaven” where a church was later built and dedicated as such. According to Virgil, the Cumaean Sibyl also made such a prophecy about the birth of Christ and stories such as these, which became widespread, explain why the sybils were included in Renaissance works of art, such as by Michelangelo, alongside Old Testament prophets in foretelling the coming of the Christian era. These would also coincide with other stories, once popular, about the early Roman emperors taking a “hands off” approach to Christ. Stories circulated, for example, that Emperor Tiberius, who did not exactly have a reputation for kindness, ordered that Christians not be persecuted or accused and even talked of including Jesus Christ in the pantheon of Roman gods.

If such stories were true, the prophecies of the Tiburtine Sybil to Emperor Augustus might help explain why such an attitude was taken or why someone like St Paul would prefer to put his fate in the hands of the Emperor Nero rather than his own Jewish countrymen of the Sanhedrin. There were actually a great many such accounts of miraculous events and Christian prophecies concerning the pagan Roman emperors before the more famous events after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and the baptism of Emperor Constantine the Great. There was the story of Pope St Clement I being a cousin of the Emperor Diocletian (in all likelihood he was a freedman who had been in his employ), Emperor Antoninus Pius condemning any illegal attacks on the Christian community, the dramatic story of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the “Thundering Legion” or his son Emperor Commodus having a Christian mistress which is often pointed to as a reason for this fairly irascible Caesar refraining from persecuting Christians. She is also credited with influencing Emperor Commodus to release Pope St Calixtus I from prison. A revelation, passed down the imperial line, originating in a pagan source that they would not question, would be a possible explanation for such behavior.

However, other than foretelling Emperor Augustus of the birth of Christ, the most famous prophecy of this sort from the Tiburtine Sybil concerning an apocalyptic vision about a certain Emperor Constans. This prophecy foretold of a Greek king who would rise to become “king of the Romans and the Greeks” or, in other words, the Roman Emperor of East and West alike again, who would be very tall, very handsome, very wealthy, will destroy the enemies of Christianity, end all pagan worship, convert the Jews and defeat the massive, mysterious powers of Gog and Magog, after which he will retire to the Holy City of Jerusalem, abdicate his throne and hand the empire over to God. At that point, the Sybil describes what we would recognize as the rise of the Anti-Christ, coming from the tribe of Dan, who will win the people over by miraculous acts, who will destroy the Roman Empire and only then reveal himself as the agent of evil from the Temple of Jerusalem. This, of course, is very similar to other prophecies concerning “the Final Emperor” or the “Great Catholic Monarch” who will lead a last revival of Christian power before the end of the world.

An interesting point in the prophecy of the Tiburtine Sybil is that this monarch is named as Emperor Constans and that the prophecy was made, as near as we can tell, around the year 380 AD, a few decades after Rome had already had the reign of the historic Emperor Constans, the son of the Christian Emperor Constantine the Great, who came to the throne in 337 and ruled until he was assassinated in 350. If we were to be skeptical and presume that the Sibyl was trying to tailor her message for the audience, or that the story was invented later to appeal to Christian sensibilities, naming this future Christian hero after Emperor Constans would not make much sense. He was not known for being a terribly nice man or a terribly good emperor, though he too was part of a prophecy of his own concerning his grandmother, the Christian Empress St Helena. The prophecy said he would die in the arms of his grandmother and when he was assassinated it was after being cornered in a military post named Fort Helena.

So, what is the point of all this? I will be the first to admit it is largely just an act of indulgence on my part since I am interested in this sort of stuff. As with anything of this nature, some people will be inclined to believe and others will be inclined to disbelieve it and there really isn’t anything that anyone can say to prove either side right or wrong. I will say, at the very least, the existence of these stories and that they were passed on for so long reveals something to us about the people and the faith of Christendom. Sources of revelation were not rejected for being pagan, the people of the time recognizing that God can use anyone to participate in His plan. It shows also the centrality of the Roman Empire and the Roman emperors in the hearts of minds of Christian people and how central that Roman imperial tradition was to Christendom itself. The Christians of the late Roman Empire, even with all that was going on around them, did not cease to believe that their ‘realm’ on earth was something special, that Christianity had sprang up in that empire was no accident and that the Roman Empire was something that others would strive to bring back, that they hoped ultimately would come back, with all Christian, European peoples united under one divinely ordained Caesar.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Italian Empire, A Legacy to Be Proud Of

The Italian colonial empire was a short-lived affair but one that had far more extensive roots than most people realize. As a united country, the Kingdom of Italy is often described as the last to obtain an empire and the first to lose it but Italians had been colonizers for a very long time. One need not go back to the Roman Empire when the whole Mediterranean basin was ruled from Italy but simply going back to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance shows that various Italian states had minor colonial holdings of their own. The Republic of Genoa held territory on the Crimean peninsula, the Kingdom of Sicily held Tunisia for some time and the Republic of Venice had extensive holdings down the coast of the Adriatic and in the Aegean Sea as well as controlling Crete and Cyprus. The Grand Duke of Tuscany sent a preliminary expedition to South America with the intention of establishing an Italian colony in the New World but he died before the project could be completed. Unlike virtually every other colonial power, Italians were most often not treading on new ground but simply returning to lands which their ancestors had held, sometimes for centuries, before them.

Eritrean colonial troops
The colonial empire of the Kingdom of Italy had humble beginnings. It started when the Rubattino Shipping Company bought land around the Bay of Assab on the coast of the horn of Africa from the Sultan of Raheita in 1869 to establish a coaling station. This holding was later bought by the Italian government and expanded to become the first overseas colony of the Kingdom of Italy with the first Italian settlers arriving in 1880. Hearkening back to the old Roman name for the Red Sea, the Italians named the territory Eritrea. In 1888 the first railroad in the country was built and another improvement of particular pride was the Asmara-Massawa Cableway which was the longest in the world at the time (the British later dismantled it after World War II). Laws against racial mixing were imposed but no one seemed to mind much as, for the first time in their history, the local Africans had access to modern medical services, improved sanitation, transportation and improvements in agriculture. Italy lost money in the enterprise on the whole but the lives of the natives certainly improved, particularly because of the Italian colonial army which prevented raids on the country from Ethiopia, particularly from the Tigray region.

As a result, many Eritreans enlisted in the Italian colonial army and many gained quite a high reputation. Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani considered the Eritreans the best of the Italian colonial soldiers and the famous cavalry officer, Amedeo Guillet, referred to them as the ‘Prussians of Africa’. During the Fascist era there was also a huge increase in industrialization in Eritrea and a subsequent boom in the population, both African and Italian. Before the outbreak of World War II, Asmara was a growing, prosperous city dotted with coffee shops, ice cream parlors, pizzerias and even its own race track. The fact that it was a “planned” city meant that it had many modern conveniences that even some cities in Italy lacked and boasted scenic wide boulevards lined with trees. These many improvements as well as the threat from Ethiopia worked together to ensure that Eritrea remained a loyal colony.

Not long after the first foothold in Eritrea was established, Italy also gained new territory on the southern side of the Horn of Africa in Somalia. In 1888 Sultan Yusuf Ali Kenadid of Hobyo made his province an Italian protectorate. The following year the Sultan of Majeerteenia did the same and the colony of Italian Somaliland was established. Here, development was somewhat slower as the Italians left local affairs in the hands of the local rulers, paid them a pension and focused on foreign relations, defense and the establishment of port facilities. In 1905 the Italian government decided to establish a formal colony in the region, partly because it was discovered that the local company had been turning a blind eye to the continued operation of the slave trade in the region. By 1908 the legal formalities were finished to establish Italian Somaliland as a formal colony. The most determined problem, early on, was the trouble caused by Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, aka “the Mad Mullah” but that violent movement was duly done away with and in the Twentieth Century development began to spread from the coast further inland.

Prince Luigi Amedeo formed an Italian-Somaliland Agricultural Society that established new, model plantations in the colony for the growing of sugar, bananas and cotton. The same year, 1920, saw the first modern bank established in Somalia when the Banca d’Italia opened a branch in Mogadishu. Surveys were done, after which more development proceeded such as the establishment of model farms, schools and hospitals. Before the end of the decade, Crown Prince Umberto had come to witness the opening of a new Catholic cathedral in Mogadishu and the region’s first international airport was established. The Sultan of Hobyo was usually very loyal to the Italians, the only problem occurring when he was excepted to allow British troops to land in his territory and Somalis tended to resent the British for their colonial rule over Somali tribes in the north (British Somaliland). After this, the Sultan was replaced by the Italian authorities and the population was disarmed but there were no major problems in the future and the Italians continued to abide by their agreements and allow the original, northern protectorates to govern themselves in their own way. Somalians were also enlisted in the Italian colonial army and included such colorful units as a corps of camel-born artillery.

There were, of course, bound to be setbacks. When the Italians took control of Eritrea, one of the local chieftains who had given his approval was one Sahle Maryam of Shewa. In exchange for this, Italy gave him support such as modern weapons in defeating his rivals to take control of Ethiopia as Emperor Menelik II. A treaty was signed that was supposed to ensure peace between the two, however, there was a discrepancy in the wording as it read differently in the Italian-language and Amharic-language versions. One established, essentially, an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia and the other said that Ethiopia could have Italian protection but only if and when they wanted it. Each side, of course, accused the other of changing the text in their version, Menelik II broke off diplomatic relations with Italy, effectively declaring war. A small Italian colonial army of a little over 17,500 men was later attacked by an Ethiopian army of around 100,000 and almost totally wiped out, ending, for the time being at least, any idea of Italy establishing any sort of control or influence over Ethiopia.

Italian troops landing in Libia
However, of all overseas territories, none seemed more near at hand to Italy than Tunisia. Not only was it extremely close, but it had a sizable Italian population that had been present for a very long time. In the “Scramble for Africa” the Italian government sat back, taking the moral high road as it were, only to see Tunisia snatched up by the French. This caused quite a backlash in Italy and a renewed effort to make sure that such a thing did not happen again with the other north African lands south of Italy, three provinces still held by the Ottoman Sultan of Turkey, known to Italians as “the fourth shore”. Determined not to let another power snatch this region away from them, the Italian government began investing in the area and when the Turkish government started to clamp down on the increased Italian interest, Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire in September of 1911. Italian military forces landed on the coast and quickly seized control of the major ports while the Ottoman forces, largely Arab raiders with Turkish officers, fell back into the interior to strike at any Italian attempt to move south. The situation produced a stalemate as Italy had been counting on the support of the local Arab population and resources had not been allocated for a major campaign in the desert interior of the country. The Turks, likewise, could rule the desert but proved incapable of dislodging the Italians from the coast or of challenging Italian naval supremacy.

In 1912 the Turks finally agreed to come to terms with Italy, prompted by the Italian seizure of Rhodes and other nearby islands and the threat of an attack on the Dardanelles, which all powers were anxious to avoid. The former Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan were ceded to Italy which, in due time, merged them into one colonial administration, resurrecting the old Roman name for the region, “Libia”. Actual Italian control, however, continued to remain mostly on the coastal region and during the First World War, attacks by Islamic insurgents, backed up by Turkey and Germany in an effort to restore Ottoman Turkish control over the whole of north Africa, forced the Italians back into the major port cities as the overwhelming bulk of Italian military strength was concentrated on the critical border region with Austria. However, all of that changed after the acquisition of power by Benito Mussolini and his Fascist party. From 1923 until 1932 a fierce irregular war raged in the region, known as the Pacification of Libya. Stopping the terrorist attacks on Italian settlers and ending the insurgency took time but finally Italian forces resorted to repressive measures and the rebellion was ended, with the primary insurgent leader actually being captured by a troop of Libyan cavalry fighting on the Italian side. The first modern roads were built, port facilities were modernized and new model farming communities were established. Much progress was made under the governorship of Air Marshal Italo Balbo and when he was killed at the start of World War II, witnesses remarked that the Libyans showed more grief than the Italians at his loss because he had made things so much better.

Italian troops in Ethiopia
The next colonial acquisition for Italy was Ethiopia, which, of course, was the cause of much controversy. It was sparked by an attack on an Italian outpost which was on land that the Ethiopians claimed as their own. The fact that this was not something instigated by Italy is evident enough by the amount of time it took to transfer military forces to Eritrea and Somalia to fight the actual war. The League of Nations opposed this and the issue became larger than Ethiopia but was, rather, seen by Mussolini as a struggle against the leaders of the existing international world order, embodied by the League. The fighting was harsh but, in the end, Italian forces conquered Ethiopia in seven months and merged it, administratively, with Eritrea and Somalia into “Italian East Africa”. Tensions were high at first and when the Viceroy, Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani, was badly wounded in an assassination attempt, there were bloody reprisals. However, he was replaced by the Duke of Aosta under whose administration the country was at peace and began to see considerable improvements, including the abolition of slavery in the country. Plans for the modernization of the capital and other projects were ultimately canceled by the outbreak of World War II.

The Kingdom of Albania was occupied by Italian forces with practically no opposition by the native population shortly before the outbreak of World War II, however, again, the fact that Italy joined World War II so shortly thereafter, and the Italian presence was removed after 1943, meant that the Italians were able to have very little impact on Albania. Although, it is worth pointing out, that the period of union with Italy, following the conquest of Greece and Yugoslavia, was the only time that the nationalist goal of “Greater Albania” was actually achieved, albeit for a short time. Before World War II had ended, all Italian colonial possessions were, of course, taken away and given independence or, short of that, given nominal independence under the temporary stewardship of a parent country. It is worth pointing out though that, at the time of Italian entry into World War II, there was no widespread opposition to Italian rule in any of the colonies.

Albanian militia unit
The Italian presence in Albania was not entirely welcomed but not entirely opposed either and most of those in the Albanian government had previously been in the government of Ahmed Zog, the previous potentate of the country. Libya, Eritrea and Somalia were all quite calm and peaceful under Italian rule, the only place where any opposition at all existed was in Ethiopia. That is understandable given that, unlike all the others, the Ethiopians had a history as a previously independent country with their own sense of nationhood. However, even there, serious opposition had been dealt with and most accepted the change and got on with things. In fact, of all the colonial troops who served in the Italian royal army in World War II, the only native soldier to earn the highest Italian decoration for bravery was an Ethiopian. So, even there, considerable levels of support and devotion did exist. What is illustrative of the Italian colonial enterprise overall, and why Italians should not be ashamed of their short-lived period of imperialism, is the fate of the former Italian colonies after Italian rule was removed and these places became independent.

Marshal Graziani in Mogadishu
The Kingdom of Albania was occupied by the Germans and then, after the Allied victory in World War II, fell to the communists of Enver Hoxha who established a Marxist tyranny, so fanatical and so murderous that it alienated Stalinist Russia, Maoist China and Tito’s Yugoslavia in turn. Albania fell into oppressive poverty and had the lowest standard of living of any European country. To this day, it has not fully recovered. Italian East Africa was occupied by the Allies (mostly British imperial troops) and broken up into the countries that exist today. Somalia was under the military administration of Britain and became nominally independent though in 1949 stewardship over the country was given to the Italian Republic until 1960 when it was joined with the former British colony of British Somaliland to create the country as we know it today. And, as we know, Somalia has become the go-to example in the world for a “failed state”, being reduced by poverty, crime and internal warfare to a state of total chaos. When one thinks of Somalia today it is only as a place of anarchy, warlords and a nest of pirates. Somalis have fled their failed independent homeland in huge numbers, going as far abroad as Minnesota and Sweden to get as far away from their nightmarish native land as possible.

Asmara station, Eritrea
In Eritrea, the first Italian colony, the British military ruled the place until 1950 because no one could decide what to do with it. One person who knew exactly what he wanted to do with it was the de-throned Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie who was pushing for Allied support for the Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea even before British imperial forces had set him back on his own throne. The United Nations, in the 1950’s, finally agreed that Eritrea would be joined with Ethiopia in a “federation” with Eritrea officially remaining independent. That charade ended in 1962 when Haile Selassie dissolved the Eritrean parliament and unilaterally declared the country to be part of Ethiopia. Not surprisingly, war broke out immediately as the Eritreans fought the Ethiopians in a brutal conflict that spanned the next thirty years, only ending when the Eritreans made an alliance with a faction of Ethiopian rebels after which the UN stepped in to hold a referendum. This, of course, resulted in the Eritreans voting for their independence in 1993. Eritrea got it, established a dictatorship and haven’t had another exercise in democracy since. Needless to say, thirty years of war, terrorism and finally Marxist dictatorship have left the country an impoverished wreck.

Haile Selassie and one of his lions
Ethiopia, again, is really in a class by itself and cannot entirely be compared to the others. Still, the post-Italian period has not been pleasant for the country, though it would also be worse than the pre-Italian period as well. Haile Selassie was put back in control of the country and money poured in from the victorious Allies through various aid funds. Still, this did not benefit the country overall as serious divisions and problems remained which Haile Selassie struggled to deal with. He championed the cause of pan-African unity and opposition to European colonialism in Africa (even while imposing his own sort of colonial rule over the unwilling population of Eritrea) but this ultimately proved to be not so beneficial to the “Conquering Lion of Judah” as he styled himself. Most of the anti-colonial movements in Africa were communist and after some particularly hard times the communists managed to overthrow Haile Selassie in 1974. This time there was no British Empire to put him back on his throne again and he was murdered the following year. His replacement was a communist dictatorship so vicious and so oppressive that it must rank among the very worst in the entire world. Oppression, murder and misery prevailed to the point that the very name of Ethiopia became synonymous with “starvation” in the rest of the world. Again, even after the communist regime officially fell, the country has still not recovered from the decades of murderous misery the communists inflicted on it.

King Idris
Finally, we have the case of Libya. British military rule gave way to the creation of a new monarchy under the former Emir of Cyrenaica who became King Idris I of Libya in 1951. The British and Americans established close ties with the new regime, built military bases there and in 1959 Exxon discovered vast deposits of oil in the country which changed things considerably. New wealth brought greater resentment and efforts to promote unity failed, mostly because neither the King himself nor any of his people recognized him as a “Libyan” but rather as the Emir of Cyrenaica who had been imposed by western powers over the whole country. He was accused of favoring his own circle when it came to dishing out the oil revenues and of being too friendly with foreign powers and foreign oil companies. This culminated in King Idris being overthrown while on holiday by a military coup led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 1969.

Gaddafi with African chiefs
Gaddafi, as we know, established a brutal and farcical dictatorship over the country, marked by tyranny at home, support for terrorism abroad and for the increasingly bizarre behavior of Gaddafi himself. Whether it was his painfully long orations at the UN, his threats of war against Switzerland or his bevy of buxom female bodyguards, no one could accuse Gaddafi of being boring. He also used the threat of floods of illegal immigrants to extort huge financial benefits as well as groveling apologies from the Italian government. In 2011 the hated dictator was overthrown, with air support from NATO, and given mob justice on the streets of Sirte. Since that time, Libya has fallen into chaos and is increasingly becoming a hotbed of terrorism, economically stagnant, politically unstable and extremely dangerous. Certainly, a far cry from what it had been during the tenure of Air Marshal Italo Balbo to be sure. And this in a country, it is worth remembering, where Italian-born Roman legions marched long before the first Arab ever cross the Sinai or the name of Mohammed was known to the world.

No, the historical record clearly shows that Italians have no reason to feel ashamed of their colonial past overall. Certainly there were unpleasant episodes in a couple of places but, on the whole, these parts of the world often saw their only periods of sustained stability and progress while under the Italian flag and the Crown of Savoy. Without exception, none of them have fared better after Italian rule was withdrawn. On the contrary, their record as independent states has been a record of failure. That does not mean, of course, that anyone in any of these places is nostalgic for the colonial past. National and racial awareness exists today in a way that did not exist in those days, though it is interesting to note that the Albanian government recently requested the return of the Italian military to deal with the influx of illegal immigrants (aka “refugees”) into their country, many of them fleeing former Italian colonies that have since become failed states. That, in itself, rather tells the story doesn’t it? European rule once came to Africa and, now that it is gone, Africans (and others) are now coming to Europe to live once more under their former imperial rulers.