The history of a people is determined in the long run by their moral and intellectual qualities, by their character and initiative, but geographical environment has a profound influence upon racial characteristics. History is governed, if not determined, by geography, and the physical formation of a country lies at the root of the history of its early settlement. As from before the dawn of history until the Norman Conquest the flat south and east coastlines of England tempted wave after wave of sea-going adventurers to fling themselves on the rich lowlands and to drive the older inhabitants ever further into the mountains of the north and west, so the early history of Italy is essentially that of ‘Italy and her invaders’: Illyrians from across the Adriatic claimed a foothold on her eastern shores, Greek colonists established thriving settlements around her southern and south-western coasts, her north-western seaboard fell to Etruscans who were probably invaders from the eastern Mediterranean, and waves of other peoples surmounted the icebound barrier of the Alps and poured down into the rich plains of Lombardy, forcing the dwellers there ever further southwards down into the peninsula.
The development of any nation is conditioned by one or both of two factors: its land and its access to the sea. It was Rome’s achievement to build up a mighty empire which rested on both land and sea power, but it was from Mother Earth that she received her early nourishment and training. And the rigour of that training was due not a little to the mountainous character of the land. The great northern plain between the Alps and Apennines was long regarded as part of Gaul (Gallia Cisalpina) and was not incorporatedinto the administrative system of Italy until the end of the Roman Republic. It is cut off from peninsular Italy by the barrier of the Apennines, which here run almost east and west to meet the western Alps. Turning southwards the Apennines then run down the length of Italy; in fact, they virtually are Italy, for at least three-quarters of the land is hill country. These mountains are not very inhospitable, but naturally they retarded the growth of unity among their inhabitants. In the northern sector they form a narrow and almost continuous chain, but after reaching the Adriatic they are broken up into a series of parallel ridges of rugged limestone, divided by narrow gorges and towering in places to nearly 10,000 feet. The southern highlands are less steep, and gradually marl and limestone give place to the granite of the wild forest-clad promontory of Bruttium. The main central chain lies nearer to the Adriatic coast than to the western shore; it approaches the sea so closely that in places there is scarcely room for a road until it expands into the windswept moorland plateau of Apulia. Apart from the cornland of the Aufidus valley the Adriatic coast has little fertile land and few harbours; it faces the wild shores of Dalmatia and Illyria, and is accessible by land only from the northern non-Italian plain of the Po: add to this, that the north and east winds render it draughty and cold, and it will be seen that Nature planned that Italy should turn her back on the eastern coast and face westwards. There the aspect is different. South of the irregular mountains of Etruria, which are marked off by the Arno and Tiber, the central highlands approach the western coast in the Volscian hills, but north and south they leave room for the two plains of Latium and Campania. Here the genial climate and the fertile land, enriched by volcanic ash, watered by generous streams, and fanned by the moist southwest winds, attracted many invaders. And it was in the Latin plain, to be described below (p. 33), in the centre of Italy that one city developed the sense of unity which created a nation.
Since the mountains dominate the land, and few parts of Italy lie more than seventy miles from the coast which stretches for two thousand miles, it might well be thought that the inhabitants would have developed into a seafaring people who aspired to rule the waves. But Italy lacked what Britain possessed: harbours and rivers to receive what the sea might bring. On the west coast the sea was shallow, and flat-bottomed vessels could be beached with ease, but there were few harbours. Tarentum and those in the bay of Naples were early seized by the Greeks. Many of the rivers were mountain torrents which in winter rushed headlong to the sea and in summer left their beds stony and dry. The larger rivers swept down such masses of silt that a port at their mouths would need constant attention: the Tiber, for instance, kept many an emperor employed in planning fresh harbour and dredging works at Ostia, the port of Rome. Such rivers did not favour shipping; Virgil tells how Father Tiber himself had to stay his course before Aeneas’ ship could sail up to the site of Rome. It was laborious to tow barges upstream and no help was received from tidal estuaries, for the Mediterranean is virtually tideless. Thus the attractions of foreign trade were less than those of the soil and the peoples of Italy remained for many centuries essentially agricultural and continental.
But though the nature of the coast and the fertility of the plains might turn the thoughts of the inhabitants landwards, they were soon to find that they were part of a larger world. The Mediterranean united as well as sundered. Its climate, common to the lands whose shores it washed, helped to produce a feeling of unity in social and political life. The trader from Tyre doubtless felt much more at home in the rich kingdom of Tartessus in Spain than when sailing through the mists and gales of the Atlantic to the Tin Islands of the north and ‘perfidious Albion’. In this Mediterranean world Italy occupied the central position. The Alps formed a protective shield when Rome began to look around the Mediterranean, since they were comparatively easy to defend; at the same time they were a sufficient barrier to force Italy to make contact with the Mediterranean rather than with northern Europe. Yet had they been an impassable barrier Italy would have fared ill, as only by attracting peoples and trade over the Alpine passes did she equip herself to become the peer, and later the ruler, of the other Mediterranean peoples. As she faced west and lay back-to-back with Greece, it was with Sicily, Carthage, and Spain that she first came into contact. When once she had been united by Rome, her very safety depended on controlling Sicily at her toe. This involved conflict with Carthage who dominated the western Mediterranean. With Carthage conquered, Italy cut the Mediterranean in half; the west at once fell into her hands and the east soon followed. It was largely to her dominant central position that she owed this rise to power, after which she could call the Mediterranean mare nostrum.
Nature had prepared the stage, but it was the peculiar genius of the Roman people that enabled Italy to play the role of a world power.