The city of Milan was founded around 400 BCE by the Insubres, a Gaulish population that lived on the north side of the River Po.
The Romans conquered the settlement in 196 BCE and renamed it Mediolanum, meaning 'sanctury' due to its strategic location between important commercial routes, as well as topography which allowed the Romans to defend themselves from the Germanic tribes.
The high point of Milan came when the city became the capital of the Western Roman Empire, in the year 286 AD. This period also coincided with the ascension of Christianity. Some of Milan’s most prestigious and oldest places of worship such as the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio and the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore were built during that age.
At the time, the Roman Empire was divided into East and West, with Maximian being made the ruler of the Western Roman Empire, with Milan his base. An agreement called the Edict of Milan was signed in 313 CE in which the Western Roman Emperor Constantine I made Christianity legal. In 374 CE, St Ambrose was named bishop of Milan by popular approval, and during the fourth century, Ambrose was a very influential figure in Christianity.
Throughout this period the North of Italy was threatened by barbarians from the Danube and the Alps. Following the city's ravaging by the Visigoths in 402, the western capital was moved from Mediolanum to Ravenna, and in 452, the Huns too plundered Milan. As the power of the German tribes over the Western Roman Empire grew, changes were seen in Milan, and in the summer of 569 the Lombards, a Teutonic tribe who today give their name to the region, conquered the city, bringing an end to Roman rule.
Milan lost its importance in the Roman world in the 6th century CE, around 539, when the barbarians pillaged the city. The Longobards established their kingdom, which lasted between 569 and 774, with the capital at Pavia. During this period Milan underwent a long period of political anonymity. A new age of affirmation came for Milan in the 12th century, when the city gained its independence in the context of the larger Comuni movement. Milan’s force on the cultural and political scene of the region was reinforced under the Visconti family, who ruled the city for about two centuries, between 1277 and 1447.
Renaissance and Modern Era
The Viscontis were the ones who restored Milan to its ancient pride of place in the region. Two of the greatest architectural achievements of that age, which one can admire in full splendor even today, is the Milan Cathedral and to the Sforza Castle. Partially, the Sforzas continued the work of the Viscontis, successfully managing to align Milan to the new cultural trends of Europe. The likes of Donato Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci were constantly called to Milan in order to build churches and palaces.
After several centuries of Spanish, French and Austrian dominion, Milan became part of the Kingdom of Italy in the second half of the 19th century. Keep in mind landmarks like Teatro alla Scala, Palazzo Reale and Palazzo Brera were built during the modern era, and Napoleon himself was crowned king of Italy in the Milan Cathedral, being the one who ordered the works at the Duomo to be completed.
Mussolini founded the fascist party in Milan in 1919. His followers created numerous strikes, harassed certain sectors of the population, like the liberals, and assaulted the worker’s newspapers, repressing the worker’s committees in Milan during the early years.
In 1944, anti-fascist groups in the north of Italy organized a northern Liberation Committee and Milan was freed from German troops in 1945 thanks to a general strike, which lasted several days. After World War II, Milan became a prosperous industrial city with a large working class.
Presently, Milan is the second largest city in Italy and the wider Milan metropolitan area has a population of over 8 million people. It is Italy’s main industrial, financial and commercial centre and along with Paris, is Europe’s fashion and design capital.