The Italian Peninsula has a mixture of hills, plains, and mountains that
alters the climate of Italy. This distinctive geography not only changes the climate but
also separates Italy into different zones. The Apennine Mountains run through most of
Italy. The mountains split the center of Italy into East and West Zones. These zones
contrast in many ways with each other. The Eastern Zone, the lowland areas on the east
side of the Apennine Mountains bordering the Adriatic Sea, is much more desolate than the
The West Zone, the lowland areas west of the Apennine Mountains
bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea, had fertile soil composed of such materials as potash and
phosphates, an advantage the area held over the East Zone. The West Zone had stable
rivers, such as the Arno and the Tiber, that were easily navigable as far as Turin. The
East Zone had terribly weak rivers that became raging torrents that eroded the landscape
in the winter and dried up streams in the summer. The West Zone had excellent harbors for
unloading goods from trade ships, while the East Zone didnt have good harbors. Last
of all, the sheer size of the West Zone dwarfed that of the East Zone. At one point in the
East Zone, between the Biferno and Rimini Rivers, there is a 350-kilometer stretch in
which the distance between the mountains and the sea is only 30 kilometers.
The Apennine Mountains prove to be a vital member of the Italian
geography. This boundary not only culturally separated the East and West Lowland areas,
but also provided a huge barrier to attack. If Italy was ever attacked from one side, it
would be able to build enough forces on the other side of the mountains in time to counter
the opposing force. This natural layout prevented any swift attacks from either the
Adriatic or the Tyrrhenian Seas.
Italys geography contributes greatly to the climate of the
region. The center zone of Italy enjoys the Mediterranean climate of mild winters, hot
summers, moderate annual rainfall, and heavy precipitation during winter months. The
rainfall in the winter is so heavy that the area suffers fierce droughts during the summer
months. The most telling sign of climatic differences in Italy is the olive tree. The
olive tree grows almost everywhere in peninsular Italy and along the Ligurian Riviera but
they are not found growing North of the Apennines.
The Ancient peninsula of Italy has beautiful attributes such as
the Alps Mountains, the Apennine Mountains, and the Po River Valley. In fact, the
topography of Italy is not very normal. If you consider the areas under 300 kilometers
altitude plains, only 1/5 of Italy would be plains. Another 2/5 would be the hilly
territory between 300 and 1000 kilometers above sea level. The last 2/5 is a mountainous
region that is above 1000 meters in altitude. The mountains of Italy reach their highest
points in the Abruzzi regions at the Gran Sasso dItalia, which is 2914 meters, and
the Montagna della Maiella, which is 2795 meters in height. But with these positive
additions to the landscape come negative ones. The entire Apulia region, also known as the
"heel" of Italy, was desolate. Throughout history it remained culturally
isolated, and politically unimportant. At one point, Greek city-states settled the Apulia
region until Rome later easily conquered it. After it was taken, it was sparsely settled
since the living conditions were terrible. Cicero stated in the 1st century BC that Apulia
was the most sparsely populated part of Italy.
Due to the limited means of travel and communication in Ancient
Rome, people lived in areas where the lay of the land was used to their advantage. The way
communication was established in Ancient Italy, the network of rivers was crucial. The
lowest available crossing was at the lowest point of the Tiber River. The first Roman
bridge ever built was the Pons Sublicus, and it was built at this location. The technology
at the time of building the bridge was not sophisticated enough to construct one long
bridge but, conveniently, Tiber Island was halfway between the rivers edge. So the
builders, under the reign of Ancus Marcius, built two small bridges. One bridge led from
one side to Tiber Island and one bridge led from the island to the opposite side. This
location had a defensible position and plenty of fresh water, so it was inevitable that a
city would prosper at this location.
Ancient Rome was a great city. Its mix of climate, fertility,
geography and culture brought settlers from all over Italy who wished to live within the
city walls. This explains how Ancient Rome and its surrounding cities came to be great
cities, and how they came to be prosperous parts of the Empire.
Italy has a very large defense to the North. The Alps Mountains,
which lock the peninsula off from the rest of Europe, are a great defense because they are
impassable during the winter months, which account for half of the year. During the summer
they are easily passable. Trails through the mountains have been widely recognized since
the first settlers inhabited the area. While these mountains served as a deterrent for
attack, they at no point separated Rome from the rest of Europe. Often throughout history
mass migrations through the mountains occurred. This can be found in several cases, such
as the incursions of the Celts and the Cambri in the 1st century BC, and the
barbarian invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries.
The Po River Valley accounts for 70% of the lowland area in
Italy. The Po Plain is the most agriculturally productive area of the entire Roman Empire.
Strabo and others have written about its economic and social prosperity since ancient
times. The authors heralded the extremely fertile land in their works. The area of the Po
Plain was heavily wooded in ancient times, and trees supplied an ample amount of acorns,
which fed a healthy amount of swine. The swine in the forests provided the entire meat
supply for the people of Ancient Rome.
The lower side of the Po River Valley is a flood plain today, but
in times before Roman settlement in the area, the Po River Valley was all swamps and
marshes. When Hannibal was attacking Rome in 218 BC, these swamps proved to be a major
deterrent. In 109 BC, censor M. Aemilius Scaurus constructed a system of canals and dikes
to reclaim the land from swamps. During the first century, Augustus and others implemented
these plans to turn Northern Italy into the most prosperous area of the Empire.
The many natural advantages of this Po River Valley site were
obvious, and Livy states this through words read by Camillus: "Not without reason did
gods and men choose this spot for the site of our city the salubrious hills, the
river to bring us produce from the inland regions and sea-borne commerce from abroad, the
sea itself, near enough for convenience yet not so near as to bring danger from foreign
fleets, our situation in the very heart of Italy all these advantages make it of
all places in the world the best for a city destined to grow great."