Italy is a boot-shaped peninsula that extends into the Mediterranean Sea from southern Europe. It is bounded by the Adriatic * Sea to the east and by the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian seas to the west. The peninsula’s dominant geographical feature is the Apennine mountain range, which runs the entire length of the peninsula. The steep and rugged Apennines are difficult to cross, even in summer, and are nearly impassable in winter. This natural barrier, together with the region’s lack of navigable rivers, limited communication between various regions and helped to produce many distinct cultures. Before Roman times, more than 40 different languages were spoken in Italy.
Italy’s long coastline and fertile plains provided abundant fishing and cropland. The plains of Italy are particularly fertile due to volcanic activity and silt deposits carried down its rivers from the mountains towards the sea. The peninsula of Italy has a climate typical of the Mediterranean region—mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers—and is ideal for growing olives and grapes. The vast Po Valley in the north has a more extreme climate and was once subject to flooding. However, after the Romans instituted large-scale drainage works, the area became one of the most productive agricultural regions of Europe and remains so today.
In early Rome, the name Italy (or “land of oxen”) referred to the area south of the Apennines, while the northern part of Italy, around the Po Valley, was called Cisalpine Gaul. Not until the first century B.C. did a sense of the unity of “all Italy” (tota Italia) begin to emerge. By the time of Augustus, the region to the north of the Apennines also began to be referred to as Italy. Most historians regard Rome’s unification of Italy over a period from about 275 to 80 B.C. as perhaps its greatest achievement. During this period, Roman customs and culture spread throughout the peninsula and Latin replaced the other native tongues as the dominant language. Out of so many languages and cultures, including Greek, Etruscan, Latin, and many other tribal groups, Rome managed to create a linguistic, cultural, and political unity. (See also Agriculture, Roman; Armies, Roman; Colonies, Greek; Etruscans; Gaul; Geography and Geology, Mediterranean; Languages and Dialects; Latium; Rome, City of; Rome, History of.)