Do Nation States Matter?

There are more than 190 nation states in the world and many other areas are disputed among nations. The concept of a nation state is a modern one. Most nation states, seen today, were colonies of European powers a few decades back. Consider India – it was a colony of England and prior to 1947, the nations of Pakistan and Bangladesh did not exist. Yet people, cultures and societies existed. It is the same throughout history. Borders have changed. Lands have been won and lost. The Roman Empire covered much of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa – we tend to state the Roman Empire in today’s terms eg: The Roman Empire covered parts of Libya and Egypt. In those days, Libya and Egypt as such did not exist in the same way those nations exist today.

It got me thinking. As far as travels are concerned – do nation states matter? After all, we have all heard about folks who have been to every nation but really does it count? We have so much diversity among people and cultures across the world that it is quite a poor representation to state that one has been to a country by visiting a part of the country. You can say that you have been to India by visiting the Taj Mahal but honestly, you have hardly experienced India as you have ignored most of the country. Yes, in the world of statistics, you have covered a nation state but in my world of cultures and societies, you have just scratched the surface of a nation state – a modern construct hiding a deep and diverse set of histories and cultures.

In the past year, I have become very interested in wine. I have always enjoyed wine and in 2021, I was determined to have a formal education in wine. I studied for WSET Level 2 qualifications where we learn about the main regions and grapes from the main wine producing nations of the world. To my surprise, the country that intrigued me most was Italy – not France as I assumed before the course. Therefore to learn more, I signed up for the Wine Scholar Guild course in Wines of Italy. As part of my studies, I had to study the foundation chapter (available free on the WSG website). To my amazement, there was a chapter on the history of wine culture (this is not the surprising bit) which brought home the fact that the nation state of Italy is a very new concept (that’s the surprising bit). For hundreds of years, it was fragmented. The history of Italy, as summarized next, provides the necessary evidence to the answer of my question: Do nation states matter. As per the WSG guide, the main highlights of Italian history (wine) are as follows:

Note: The information provided here are taken from the WSG Guide

  • Vines were cultivated by indigenous populations throughout in Italy prior to 1000 BC. Among these grape-loving tribes were the Rhaeti, the Salassi and the Liguri in the northwest, the Veneti in the northeast, the Piceni in central Italy, the Samnites in the south and the Nuragic people of Sardegna.
  • The Etruscan civilization developed in the territories of modern-day Toscana and Umbria prior to the 8th century BC. At the peak of their power (6th century BC), the Etruscans occupied a large part of central and southern Italy as well as a large area in the northern part of Italy along the Po River (corresponding to modern-day parts of Lombardia, Veneto, Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna).
  • Between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, Greek settlers arrived on the coasts of southern Italy and founded colonies with towns that grew into important cities in the modern-day southern regions of Sicilia, Campania, Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia.
  • Between the 6th and 5th centuries BC, Celtic tribes occupied and conquered the northern part of Italy to the detriment of the Etruscans
  • By the 3rd century BC, Rome dominated almost all of it. In 42 BC, the entire Italian territory was granted Roman citizenship and for the first time in its history, the Italian territory was united.
  • Over time, the city of Rome gradually lost its central role in the empire’s administration. The city definitively lost its political supremacy as the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD, when the Emperor Constantine established the new capital city of Constantinople (which was previously known as Byzantium and is now modern-day Istanbul) in current Turkey. The decline of Rome’s importance and the shift of political and military power to Constantinople left Italy weakened and vulnerable.
  • Beginning in the 5th century AD, Germanic tribes such as the Goths and the Vandals invaded the Italian peninsula from the north at different times, causing an irreversible crisis that ended with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD.
  • The Germanic Ostrogoth tribe descended from the north and conquered most of the Italian territory between the end of the 5th century and the 6th century AD. Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian wanted to reform the Roman Empire and reacted to the invasion with force. The Emperor eventually defeated the Ostrogoths and conquered Italy in 533 AD but the wars left the country completely devastated and plagued by the resulting famines and epidemics.
  • This weakness was soon exploited by another German tribe, the Lombards, who settled in Italy in 568 AD. Within a few years, the Lombards took control of the majority of northern Italy, as well as large parts of central and southern Italy.
  • The Roman Empire managed to maintain control over Veneto’s Adriatic coast, parts of central and southern Italy, and the islands of Sicilia and Sardegna. The area around Roma (corresponding to the region of modern-day Lazio) became the Duchy of Roma. Though formally part of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Duchy maintained autonomy under the government of the Pope.
  • The Lombards occupied the capital of Ravenna in 751 AD, defeating the Eastern Roman Empire in central Italy. They were next poised to conquer the Papal territories, but the Franks rose to defend and protect the Pope, defeating the Lombards in central Italy in 756 AD.
  • The central Italian territories seized from the Lombards were donated to the Pope, and became the Papal States. These territories included Lazio, Marche, Umbria and part of Emilia-Romagna. This political entity remained under Papal control until Italian unification in the 19th century.
  • Charlemagne, King of the Franks, defended the Papal States once again in 774 against the Lombards. This time the tribe was defeated in northern and central Italy and their territories north of the Papal States were consequently annexed to the Kingdom of the Franks. However, Italy’s southern territories remained divided under the rule of the remaining Lombards and the Eastern Roman Empire.
  • In the 9th century, Arabs began to attack the southern regions of Italy still under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire. By the 10th century, Sicilia was conquered and the Arabs ruled over the entire island for almost a century. Then, in the 11th century, the Normans (from Normandy, France) landed in southern Italy. They defeated the Arabs in Sicilia and gradually annexed the remaining territories controlled by the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Lombards. The entire southern part of Italy was united under the Normans as the Kingdom of Sicilia in 1130.
  • Italy began to follow a different destiny than the rest of Europe as of the 11th century. Other European regions (like France, Spain and England) were in the throes of emerging political entities that would turn into absolute monarchies. By contrast, Italy remained fundamentally divided into several kingdoms, duchies, principalities and small political entities known as the comuni (municipalities).
  • By the 15th century, the majority of the Italian territory was controlled by just a few kingdoms and city-states. The most important and influential among these were the Republic of Venezia, Firenze (ruled by the Medici family), The Republic of Genova, Milano (ruled by the Visconti and Sforza families), the Papal States and the newly formed Duchy of Savoy (ruled by the House of Savoy and occupying the territories of Savoy, Valle d’Aosta and part of Piemonte). In the south, the Normans were replaced by the Crown of Aragon (linked to the Kingdom of Aragon in Spain) who divided the territory into the Kingdom of Napoli and the Kingdom of Sicilia.
  • The wars during the 17th and 18th centuries between France, Spain and the Austrian Habsburg Empire created a new political scenario for Italy. Spain’s role in Italy was drastically reduced after the Austrian Habsburg Empire took control of large parts of the north. However, the Spanish maintained control over the southern Kingdoms of Napoli and Sicilia. The Papal States remained in central Italy, and the Gran Ducato di Toscana (the Grand Duchy of Tuscany) maintained independence over the territory of modern-day Toscana until the unification of Italy in the second half of the 19th century.
  • Italy’s destiny took an important turn in 1720, when the Duchy of Savoy obtained the island of Sardegna through an agreement with the Austrian Habsburg Empire and became the Kingdom of Sardegna—a major political power in Italy. This marked a crucial step towards the process of Italian unification. 
  • Napoléon took control of a large part of northern and central Italy at the end of the 18th century. The occupation lasted until 1814-1815, when the Congress of Vienna restored Italy’s prior political structure, leaving the country largely under the hegemony of the Austrian Habsburg Empire.
  • From 1815 onward, Italy began to experience a political and civil rebirth known as il Risorgimento (the Resurgence). This movement was at the base of Italy’s political unification.
  • The unification of Italy was attained primarily because of the political and military actions implemented during the 19th century by the Kingdom of Sardegna under the leadership of King Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia, the Prime Minister, Camillo Benso Count of Cavour and General Giuseppe Garibaldi, probably the strongest and most active advocate of Italian unification. The biggest obstacle the Kingdom of Sardegna faced was the presence of the Austrian Empire in the north. However, they were able to defeat the Austrians in 1859. This marked the beginning of the actual unification process, as several other regional states voluntarily decided to join the Kingdom of Sardegna (such as the Gran Ducato di Toscana and the duchies of Emilia, Romagna and Parma, among others). Control of Italy’s south shifted from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (previously divided into the Kingdoms of Sicilia and Napoli) to the Kingdom of Sardegna. The United Kingdom of Italy was declared on March 17, 1861. However, the Italian kingdom did not yet include the entire geographical territory. Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige were still under the Austrian Empire and the Papal States were still independent. Veneto and part of Friuli Venezia Giulia were incorporated into the Italian kingdom in 1866. In 1870, the Kingdom of Italy finally annexed the city of Roma and the Papal States (which included Lazio, Umbria and part of EmiliaRomagna). Roma became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. Only Trentino, Alto Adige and part of Friuli Venezia Giulia were still not included in the Kingdom of Italy.
  • In 1915, the Kingdom of Italy joined the Allies (France, Great Britain and the Russian Empire) in the First World War. The Allied victory resulted in Italy’s annexation of Trentino, Alto Adige and the remaining part of Friuli Venezia Giulia.
  • Italy was declared a republic after the war, following a constitutional referendum held in 1946.

The ebb and flow of Italian history indicates the following:

  1. Borders have changed over time and the concept of ‘Italy’ was different in various periods of time
  2. Cultural influences brought by various dynasties meant that different parts of Italy (modern day Italy) had different cultural norms and traditions
  3. If one travels across Italy, one still sees the influences of the past: Trentino Alto-Adige is quite Germanic where as Sicily is quite unique as compared to the rest of the mainland.

Therefore, questions arise from the above thoughts:

How can one say one has travelled to Italy?

If one heads to Rome and maybe Tuscancy, can one checklist off the bucket list?

What about just Rome?

If you have never been to Alto-Adige, would you ever know the Germanic history of the place?

Similar lines of thought apply to almost every country or modern day nation states of the world. From an explorer’s perspective, nation states don’t matter.  What really matters are cultural practices and norms and as one understands history, one would realise that

  1. Modern day nation states have multiple cultures
  2. Each culture can spread across multiple modern day nation states

The final thought is as follows: Forget the list of nation states. Go explore the diversity of our world.

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