Imperialistic Ventures on the Italian Peninsula and how they have Influenced American Imperialistic Practices
By Juliana Gorina of FIU
Many of the most infamous names in the exploration of new trade routes and exploration of newly discovered lands, are of Italian descent. Though many of these Italian explorers and conquistadors like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus are heavily studied on their impacts on trade routes and western colonization, the idea of Italian imperialism came long before them. Prior to the Silk Road and Columbian era imperialistic explorations by Italian explorers, the Romans were involved in one of the world’s largest imperialistic conquests, conquering the majority of western Europe as well as parts of western Asia and North Africa (Lee).
Post Columbian era, America, England, and France were the main participants in imperialistic adventures, but the influence of these missions, was impacted greatly by the imperialistic views of Romans and other Italian explorers. The idea of manifest destiny in America mirrors that of the Roman empire’s practice of extending their rule as far as possible. The “discovery” of America was taught in grade school as being the result of Christopher Columbus’s voyages. The name America was bestowed upon the Western Hemisphere’s continents because of Amerigo Vespucci’s exploration, map making, and concept that the newly discovered lands were of a different continent, America being the latinized version of Amerigo (Cohen). The expansion of “empires” and spheres of influence is not purely a Columbian era idea, and Italy, in all its rules and stages, has found itself influencing imperialistic attitudes and producing some of the most infamous players in navigation, exploration, and conquest.
The Roman Empire, which at its largest expanded from all of Italy, parts of northern Africa, modern day Greece, modern day Spain, modern day France, and portions of the middle east/ western Asia (Lee). What we know as the Roman Empire came after the Republic of Rome, largely as a result of the conquests of Julius Caesar (Milwaukee Public Museum), and just as the ideas that spawned during Rome’s republic area influenced American government practices and structures, the Imperial era of Rome influenced American attitudes on the need for spreading its influence and prosperity with lands and people seen as less prosperous.
Avienus’s Descriptio orbis terrae is an example, in writing, of the imperialistic beliefs propagated by the Roman Empire. Avienus, a Roman poet and consul, wrote this “geographic” poem that describes Rome’s relationship with its surrounding environment, using these natural relationships as a justification for Rome’s imperial rule (Bélanger, p. 193). The poem Descriptio orbis terrae, details Roman geography and landscapes with underlying cultural biases, describing Roman lands as prosperous and life giving, with more critical descriptions of lands like India and Egypt, who were cultural rivals of Rome, and of Germania and Libya as rebellious territories in need of Roman guidance (Bélanger, p. 193).
A key factor of Avienus’s Descriptio orbis terrae is his description of Rome’s natural prosperity because of the geographical and natural aspects of the land, but also how Roman influence on this land enhanced its prosperity. Avienus describes the land as succumbing to the will of humans, and in doing so gaining the greatest yield from the fertile land. On the flip side, Avienus describes the lands in Gaul as being infertile and inhospitable, even going as far as saying the Gauls “pass their lives in inhospitable lands” (Bélanger, p. 203). The difference in description of the natural aspects and yields of Roman land versus lands in Gaul was one of the political undertones of the poem. The contrast in the descriptions of the land, one as fertile and
the other as inhospitable, as well as the described contrasts in attitudes, one accepting the impotence of the land while the other demanding fruitfulness from it, was a literary tool used for the justification of imperial conquests of lands like Gaul. With this line of thought, Roman influence and agricultural superiority may spill over in Gaul with Roman presence. This justification could be used to garner support for past invasions and wars in Gaul as well as create support for future Roman endeavors in the territory. As this relates to influence on American imperialistic practices, the practice of manifest destiny followed a similar line of thought. Manifest Destiny was the belief that Americans had the right and duty to spread their influence and prosperity from ocean to ocean on the continent of North America. With this, settlers moved out west, claiming lands, starting gold mining operations, establishing farms, etc. under the guise that they were improving the western land. The mindset during the era of westward expansion was to inhabit and develop the “uninhabited” and “undeveloped” lands that fell west of the of the Mississippi river. The Roman and American mindsets on expansion mirrored one another. They viewed the other as not utilizing the available land to its fullest potential and had a sense of disregard for the other inhabitants of the desired land. Violence was often the tool used to clear and claim these western lands from Indigenous people who were inhabiting them. In a paper that described the similarities between the persecution and displacement of Irish Catholics and Native Americans, the use of “outright violence and displacement” were common practice, and the destruction of lifestyle, language, and culture with the goal of eliminating “savagery” (Donnan, p.6). Though not full out wars like Roman conquests of lands surrounding the Italian peninsula, violence, and the erasure of the other’s culture and replacing it with that of the conqueror are two aspects that Roman and American conquests share. Though the importance of Rome as a civilization cannot be understated, a sense of self- importance for Roman civilization is noted in Avienus’s writing, as the need for Roman rule is used as a qualifier for the success and prosperity of conquered lands.
Roman conquests under Caesar were met with much controversy especially in the Senate. Rome was still a Republic at the time of Caesar’s conquests, and some of the consuls’ displeasures are historically depicted in series like HBO’s Rome and in literary works like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Though met with controversy, Caesar and Cicero used security issues their provinces and allies faced to justify conflicts in Gaul.
Assessing and intervening in unstable areas, both in and out of Rome’s immediate spheres of influence were justified as ethical by claiming they were attempting to bring stability and aid in these areas (Cornwell, p. 479). This sounds eerily similar to cold war tactics practiced by the United States and Russia. During the cold war, both global superpowers attempted to promote stability in regions with conflict by establishing a presence there. For example, in the Korean proxy wars, conflicts arose between communist North Korea and democratic South Korea. The U.S., allied with South Korea, and the Soviet Union allied with North Korea, established a presence in these regions by sending “aid”, military supplies, and troops to the area under the guise of promoting stability. These allied areas were even referred to as spheres of influence from their dominating ally.
We see similar American imperialistic practices in the cold war setting, because just like the Romans in Gaul, Americans asserted their influence in areas like Korea to protect their democratic, political, and economic interests, but used the guise of aid and stabilization to justify and gain support for the cause. Rhetoric by Rome’s public officials was vital tool used to give grounds for imperialistic wars and conflicts in distant lands. Lexicon that alluded to the freedom and autonomy enjoyed by romans was juxtaposed with the wrong doings of other governances, noting slavery, greed, and the need for materialism as shortcomings of these other rulers. The juxtaposition in these writings painted Rome as having higher morality and stronger ethics that promote freedom and fairness, and therefore justified conflicts in other lands to promote these ideals and remove the oppressions set by the other. In contrast, writings from Cicero and Tacitus illustrate the disconnect between the rhetoric and the actual actions of rulers in Rome. Both governors wrote of the unjust practices set in conquered lands, giving the conquered peoples a “veneer of independence” (Cornwell, pp. 479, 480). Again, American imperialistic practices follow. On the mainland, American interactions with Native Americans via treaties, land partitioning, and autonomy of indigenous nations follow that of Rome’s “veneer of independence (Cornwell), as many of the treaties contained loopholes or were not honored, the lands designated as reserves were of poor agricultural and cultural quality, and managements practices often do not consider or override the recommendations made by indigenous nations. A personal example of the third is the learning of water management practices on Miccosukee reservations. In a lecture I attended led environmental scientists working for the Miccosukee tribe, the South Florida Water Management District’s water use practices and their effects on Miccosukee land were described. Two SFWMD storm water gates that lie on Miccosukee land remain closed; despite the negative effects this is having on Miccosukee land. Despite the recommendations by the Miccosukee nation and scientists involved with the tribe, SFWMD overrides these requests and continues current water practices, even with the storm water gates falling under Miccosukee land and jurisdiction. Governance in American territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam also follow a Roman empirical structure, giving these lands some benefits such as citizenship, while stripping them of others, such as the ability to vote. In America, actions such as these mirror Rome’s, where the portrayed sentiment is allowing conquered lands a sense of autonomy, when in practice the guise of freedom does not hold true.
Infamous Italian Explorers
The Roman Empire’s sheer expanse, longevity, and success has created a reputation that precedes itself. Even with this, there is an argument to be made about what has made a greater impact on America, and even the world. Not only did the continent of Italy produce one of the largest empires to ever exist, but it also produced some of the most infamous names in navigation and exploration. Amerigo Vespucci, Marco Polo, and Christopher Columbus are all names that ring a bell to most Americans who have passed through the school system.
Despite what we may have learned in grade school, that Columbus “sailed the ocean blue in 1492” and discovered America, his four voyages under Spain’s monarchs brought him to what is deemed as the “West Indies”, in other words the islands of the Caribbean. His voyages though, set a precedent for future voyages, and the establishment of colonies in this area laid way for the era that was to come, the Columbian Exchange, where imperialism dominated both hemispheres, and goods, peoples, and ideas were exchanged from continent to continent. Though Columbus’s presence was not directly in the lands that would become the continental United States, his voyages laid way for the colonization that was to come and influenced America’s future imperialistic ventures.
Christopher Columbus’s early life is very obscure, with his birth year being estimated between 1435 and 1436, his lineage being unconfirmed, and his place of birth not known for a fact. What is known is that Christopher Columbus was a native of the city of Genoa, born to poor parents, his father working as a wool comber. His education was brief given the socioeconomic standing of his parents, and it is said he left the University of Pavia at a very young age to work in the same craft of his father. Living in a seafaring town like Genoa, and being described as having an adventurous spirit, he was drawn to navigation and naval exploration. Columbus’s son Fernando has described his father’s seafaring activities and navigation experience as starting from a very young age. It is said that the difficult experience of his youth is what created the resolution and aspiration that lead to his ideas of navigation going west and his resolve to get a voyage funded. After gaining some naval and captaining experience in Genoa, he took his efforts to Portugal and then Spain in hopes of a voyage being funded (Irving, pp. 10-13).
Though not a direct impact on the land that would become the United States, the success of Columbus’s voyages and the establishment of colonies in the West Indies segwayed into an era of colonization of the Western hemisphere. Columbus’s interactions with native peoples on the lands he colonized set a precedent for new arrivals, and this treatment of indigenous peoples carried over into American norms. The linkage of the Americas in the Columbian exchange laid a groundwork for trade, which carried over to the American colonies once the value of the newly settled lands was discovered. Trade establishments carried into future American imperialistic ventures, as movements of raw goods and luxury items became a modem for economic gain in America. Colonizing other lands with valuable market items led to many American imperialistic ventures in South and Central America, as well as in pacific islands.
Prior to Columbian era expeditions west, Italy produced another explorer that impacted the world of imperialism and trade. Marco Polo of Venice was an explorer and ambassador, who traveled east along the Silk Road to China. Throughout his travels, he documented new lands, people, and goods that he came across. Marco Polo also acted as an ambassador for Venice with the Mongols, and established diplomatic relations with these rulers, relations that often were built on the basis of trade. Polo is also said to have been able to communicate in languages such as Mongolian, Chinese, and Persian, and served as an auditor for Mongol leaders (Wolfe).
Though Marco Polo’s presence did not even remotely reach the Western Hemisphere, his role in diplomatic relations for the Italian peninsula and their involvement in trade and imperialism cannot be understated. His exploration of lands East of Italy brought in new goods and ideas to the Italian peninsula. His diplomatic relations inspired the use of diplomacy in other newly discovered lands. Marco Polo was far from being the first ever diplomat, but his documentation of his presence and role in foreign nations laid groundwork for interactions among different nations, as it relates to prosperity and trade. In America, diplomacy and allyship with foreign nations is often what creates the strong base necessary to build trade relations with these nations. Marco Polo’s actions even before the formation of the United States, has globally affected how trade and diplomacy between nations is practiced.
Amerigo Vespucci, born in Florence on March 9th, 1451, comes from a long lineage of aristocrats involved in Florentine politics. Though his family was relatively poor, they were well connected traders. Amerigo himself was acquainted with Medici family members such as Lorenzo and Cosimo. Amerigo Vespucci was extremely well educated, Vespucci was also involved with western exploration in Spain, and was well acquainted with Christopher Columbus, and was even involved in the outfitting of ships used on Columbus’s voyages. Vespucci, during the years that Columbus was alive, was often overlooked for the latter, who had much glory with the success of his voyages. Vespucci has claimed, which is documented inwriting, that he also made voyages to the New World, with other explorers and navigators. Many of Vespucci’s critics at the time disputed this, claiming lack of documentation, even though some documentation shows that this was plausible. Vespucci also wrote extensively about his travels but failed to write much about himself or commanders on his voyage, which remove credibility from his claims (Ober).
There is controversy surrounding the naming of America after Vespucci, as many claimed he wrongfully stole the glory from Columbus. In Vespucci’s voyages to the New World, he explored unknown regions and even devised a system to calculate latitude and longitude of these regions. The later naming of the American continents after Vespucci was a blunder from scholars drawing the new world map (Cohen). Though Vespucci may not have been the first to reach the new world, his accomplishments in the documentation and mapping of newly explored regions build rapport for the namesake. Vespucci’s ties with the Medici, Spain, as well as his work in navigation, ship furnishing, and documentation of new lands make his name one of the most famous to emerge from Italy.
How Florence fits in
During the 16th century explorations of the new world, Spain became a global superpower. At this time, rulers of Spain began imposing their will upon autonomous regions like Florence. Hasburg, the ruling family in France had also been involved in some conflicts involving Florence. To combat this, the Medici family arranged for the marriage of Cosimo Medici with Eleonora de Toledo of the Spanish monarchy, with the wedding taking place in Florence. The wedding created a middle ground in Florence for the dealings with Spain and Hasburg, and the marriage secured Florence in an allyship with the Spanish monarchy. The marriage of the Medici and Toledo families also gave way for Florentine involvement in Spanish imperialist missions in the New World. Again, Florence stood as a middle ground for European imperialist powers to share ideas, trade goods, and information on current and potential voyages (Baker). Securing Florence as a neutral state, and the marriage of ruling families with money and military presence, allowed for the Medici family to continue exerting their rule on other parts of the Italian peninsula. Though not as large scale as Roman imperialistic ventures, or even imperialistic ventures of the time, the Medici family’s influence in Florence and other areas of Italy serve as imperialistic ventures. Where the differences lie in relation to American imperialism, is that American imperialism did not involve ruling families and marriage to monarchs. American imperialism was strongly based in governmental interests involving the economy and use of the land. American imperialism was also autonomous. The American government acted on many of these imperialist missions, though often lobbied or partnered with large corporations, American presences were established in foreign lands, whereas in Italy, imperialism was not autonomous to Italy. Roman imperialism requires the capture and establishment of provinces throughout the rest of the Italian peninsula. Florentine imperialism was focused more so in other regions of Italy, or in partnership with foreign nations, but city- states like Florence acted alone as there was still not Italian autonomy at the time.
From the Italian peninsula have come many influences on the western world. Government, art, food, architecture, and of course imperialistic practices have all made their way into American culture and practice. Though not as glaring as government and architectural impacts, the presence of Italian explorers in the Western Hemisphere gave way for development of colonies in the Americas, which in turn led to the establishment of the United States. Discoveries and trades made by these Italian explorers would dictate the way exploration, colonization, and trade would be carried out int eh western world for decades to come. Roman imperialistic practices seem far removed from American culture, but many of the writings documenting Roman empire imperialism show striking similarities to American propaganda and conduct as the nation expanded west on its own continent, as well as establishing presences in territories like Puerto Rico, or involvement in conflicts like the Korean war. The methods used by Romans to expand, rule, and influence new lands has heavily carried over into America’s instrumentation of imperialism and influence over less developed nations. Italy’s impact on American ideas of exploration and expansion cannot be understated.
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