Italy: Its Geography and Climate

The peninsula of Italy extends from the southernmost part of the continent of Europe for 650 miles to the southeast into the Mediterranean Sea. It divides the Adriatic Sea to the northeast from a portion of the Mediterranean named the Tyrrhenian Sea to the southwest. Italy is shaped like a lady's spiked high heeled boot, with the Gulf of Taranto forming the deep arch between the high spike heel and the sharply pointed toe. Off to the West across the Tyrrhenian Sea lie two great islands, Corsica and Sardinia. To the South, across the narrow and often turbulent Straits of Messina lies the triangular island of Sicily.

The western Italian peninsula and Sicily are strongly volcanic in origin, with many extinct volcanoes forming mountain peaks. Three active volcanoes exist in the region today. Vesuvius is situated on the Bay of Naples on the Campanian coast, Stromboli is on one of the Lipari islands, and Etna remains active on the island of Sicily.

The peninsula is actually divided into three distinct geographical regions, each with its own distinct climate and geography. To the North the Alps form a large, curved cul - de - sac that separate the northern Italian plains of the Po river valley from the rest of Europe. Notwithstanding the fact that the Tiber is the river on whose banks the city of Rome was founded, the Po is the largest river and drains the greatest land area of any other in Italy. The climate of the Po valley is closer to that of central Europe, with colder winters and distinct differences between Fall, Winter, Summer, and Spring. Snow, rarely seen during the mild winters of the Campanian plain, falls regularly during wintertime months in the Po valley. At the mouth of the Po, there have always historically been great swampy marshes which were a breeding ground for malaria mosquitoes. The geography of this northern region actually places it with the central European land mass rather than as part of the Italian peninsula proper. Hence, its climate is more similar to the rest of Europe than it is to a true Mediterranean climate. In fact, the Romans themselves referred to this region as Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul This Side of the Alps) and did not even consider it a part of Italy until late Republican times.

The main peninsula is divided by the Apennine Mountains, which form a backbone running the entire 650 mile length of the peninsula. These mountains divide Italy into two major geographical regions, a narrow strip on the Adriatic side where the mountains descend sharply to meet the sea, and a broad plain on the West which gently slopes up to meet the mountains. It is on these western plains that the major inhabited sociopolitical regions that made up ancient Italy lay. Indeed, these ancient regions have kept some degree of distinct identity today, as well as their names. Latium, to the south of the Tiber was the region in which the city of Rome was founded. To the north lay Etruria, land of the Etruscans. Campania, centered about the Bay of Naples, lay to the south of Latium and the regions of Lucania and Bruttium. The climate on the Italian peninsula is much milder than that of the Po Valley and the rest of Europe to the North. The winters are mild and wet, and the summers are hot and dry. Unlike the Greek coastline with its numerous natural harbors, inlets, and bays, Italy has few excellent natural anchorages on the West Coast and really only one at Brundisium on the East Coast. Fifteen miles from the sea, where the Tiber becomes too shallow for navigation, was where the City of Rome was founded. This location was far enough from the sea that adequate warning could be given of any attack by seaborne raiders. With the beginning of the navigable portion of the Tiber beginning at Rome, the city had excellent access to the sea and trade routes. The location of Rome was also far enough from the wild Gaulish tribes to the North to afford some protection from this quarter, although Rome had some serious scrapes with these tribes once she became better established. All things considered, the location had great potential for any city destined to become the seat of world empire.

Sinngien and Boak pp. 3 - 7
Grant pp. 5 - 6
Atlas of the Roman World pp. 10 - 17, also see map of regions, p. 19
Time - Life Imperial Rome Page 14

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