Ethnic Groups in Italy

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Italy has been home to a wide range of people, but is ethnically pretty homogenous. In this lesson we are going to talk about what ethnicity means to the Italian people, and see how this reflects some of their history.


Sure, the Romans were pretty awesome. They did some great stuff, so I get why we love them so much, but every time I go to Italy I'm told to do as the Romans do. News flash: not all Italians are Romans! So what if I want to do as the Sicilians do? I'm not entirely sure what that would entail, but I am hoping it involves cannoli. My point is, there may be more to Italian ethnicity than you think.

The Italian Ethnicity

Italy is one of the European nations that has an extremely homogenous population. In fact, out of a total population of roughly 61 million, about 56 million identify as ethnically Italian. That's around 92%. Italians are very proud to be ethnically Italian, and in fact suggesting that their ethnicity may be more complex can be extremely offensive to many Italian people. Now, we are going to talk about the history of this ethnicity, but I do want you to keep in mind that when in Italy, it's probably best to respect their cultural views first and foremost.

For most Italians, the ethnic category of Italian is sufficient to describe them
Italian girl

So Italians identify as ethnically Italian. There's actually a very long history of this, which is somewhat surprising for a few reasons. First, the peninsula shared an ethnic identity for possibly centuries before sharing a political identity. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy wasn't unified again until the mid-19th century. Despite the fact that there was no Italian kingdom until 1861, the same year as the American Civil War, people across the peninsula identified as ethnically Italian for centuries before, likely as a legacy of the lengthy rule of the Roman Empire.

The other reason that Italian homogeneity is somewhat surprising is that Italy is actually a pretty diverse place. Southern Italy has been invaded and ruled by Mediterranean Africans, Spaniards, Greeks, and even the Norman descendants of the Vikings. The Latin people who lived in Rome were neighbored by Etruscans in the hills of Tuscany, along with other native Italian tribes. Northern Italy was at various times ruled by French, Germans, Austrians, and other Northern Europeans. Technically, many Italian populations are best described as Spanish-Italian, German-Italian, Greek-Italian, etc. However, these distinctions are really only applied by outsiders. If Italians identify through more narrow categories, it is usually by their region inside of Italy, about which many are extremely proud. For the most part, however, for Italians the distinction of being Italian is more than enough to describe their pride in a cultural and ethnic unity that defined the peninsula long before the political borders of Italy itself.

A map of Italian dialects reveals a fair amount of diversity, but this rarely translates into ethnic identity

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