Are Italians Romans? What History Tells Us

Modern Italians live in the same area that was the core of the Roman Empire, and speak a language that is based on Roman Latin.

However, a question arises: is that enough to consider Italians to be Romans?

Historically speaking, Italians are the direct descendants of Romans but are not Romans themselves. Roman identity in Italy disappeared soon after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD. Modern Italians also speak a different language than ancient Romans and are Christians, while Romans were pagans.

Rome and Italy shared the same area but weren’t the same country

Modern day Italy almost perfectly corresponds to the Roman imperial province of Italia.

This is important because the Roman province of Italia was always considered the core of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire.

Out of all other provinces, Italia was also the most ‘Roman’, in a cultural, legal, and political sense. 

In Imperial times, almost all of Italia’s inhabitants could be considered ethnic Romans (by modern standards), Latin was spoken nearly universally, there was a clear, central political authority located in Rome, the inhabitants mostly practiced the pagan Roman religion, the legal system was unified, etc.

By comparison, even heavily Romanized provinces such as Roman Gaul (roughly modern-day France) still retained some of their pre-Roman culture. 

A good example of this is that the region of Brittany in France still speaks Bretton, a Celtic language, more than two millennia after the Roman conquest. 

However, living in the country of Romans does not automatically make Italians Romans.

The Roman state was broken and fragmented for centuries

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, central political authority in the province of Italia simply broke down.

What was once a unified province under direct rule from Rome fragmented over the course of centuries into many kingdoms, duchies, and city states. 

Each of these kingdoms and city states gradually developed their own different cultures and distinct languages. 

Over the centuries, the people of Italia stopped referring to themselves as Romans and instead identified themselves with the kingdom, duchy, or city state they inhabited. 

The ancient single, monolithic Roman identity thus fractured into dozens of identities: Florentine, Sardinian, Sicilian, Milanese, Venetian, etc.

So complete was the destruction of Roman central authority that the city of Rome’s population declined from a peak of around 1 million in the 1st century AD to less than 30,000 in the 6th century AD.

On top of this, many of these small cities and kingdoms were conquered by one empire or another at various points in time.

Eventually, the many fragmented states of the Italian peninsula were reunified in 1871, and central political control was reestablished.

However, nearly 1400 years without a central political authority simply dissolved what was once the Roman identity of the Italian peninsula.

In fact, when Italy was reunified into a single state, the city of Rome was among the last to be incorporated into the new Italian state.

But even though Italy was now once again unified and led from Rome, culturally and linguistically the country was still fragmented, so much so that the statesman Massimo d’Azeglio remarked:

“We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.”

Italians and Romans speak different languages

Modern linguists consider Old English and modern English to be the same language, with the caveat that it has evolved over the course of some 1500 years.

This is because there was always one, mostly unified English language that organically evolved as a whole in a singular direction.

However, the same cannot be said of Italian, even though it is based on Latin and is the closest modern language to Latin.

Just as with the Roman state, the Latin language spoken in the Italian peninsula fragmented into a myriad of regional dialects after the disintegration of the Roman Empire.

Dialects from neighboring regions were usually mutually intelligible. However, dialects from opposite sides of the Italian peninsula were often so different from one another that someone from southern Italy would have trouble conversing with an Italian from northern Italy.

The best candidate to bridge this linguistic divide was the Florentine dialect, for multiple reasons.

One of these reasons is the literary work of Dante Alighieri, a poet from Florence who lived between 1265 – 1321.

His writings, especially the Divina Commedia, essentially standardized the Italian language, allowing both northerners and southerners to speak a common tongue.

An added bonus was that Florence was roughly halfway between southern and northern Italy, making the Florentine dialect a good intermediate.

And so, the Florentine dialect eventually became the modern Italian language.

However, from a historical and linguistic point of view, the Florentine language on which modern Italian is based is just one of the many, many “children of Latin” such as Sicilian, Lombard or Venetian.

The only difference is that the Florentine dialect managed to gain acceptance in all corners of the Italian peninsula and be accepted as the official language of the Italians.

In conclusion, modern Italians speak a Latin language but not Latin itself. 

Italians and Romans had different religions

Perhaps one of the most defining aspects of what it meant to be ‘Roman’ was to be a believer in Rome’s pagan religion.

The Roman religion was heavily based around Greek polytheism, and most Roman gods were more or less rebranded Greek gods:

  • Zeus -> Jupiter.
  • Poseidon -> Neptune.
  • Hades -> Pluto.
  • Etc.

However, a strange, exotic religion from the Middle East gradually made inroads into the Roman belief system.

For hundreds of years, Christianity was heavily persecuted in the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, it slowly gained new believers, mostly by converting believers from traditional Roman paganism.

By 312 AD, Christianity had gained both legal recognition and status as the favored religion of the Empire since it was the faith of the Roman Emperor Constantine himself.

From there on, the decline accelerated. In 391 AD, Emperor Theodosius ordered all pagan sacrifices to stop and demanded the closing of all pagan temples.

The pagan Roman faith still survived for a time, but most historical records indicate it ceased to exist by the end of the 6th century AD.

By that time, Christianity had firmly implanted itself as the only religion for the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula. 

This state of affairs has continued until modern times, since most Italians who consider themselves religious generally identify as Christians, particularly of the Catholic denomination.

Thus, from a religious point of view, Italians are not Romans since Romans were distinctly pagan, while Italians are distinctly Christian.

Italians and Romans have very similar genetic backgrounds

According to genetic studies, ancient Romans and modern Italians are very similar, with some changes brought about by various migrations and historical events over the centuries.

A study published in the journal “Science” in 2020 revealed that the genetic history of Rome and central Italy is like a layered cake. The genetic makeup of the people changed with each era, but each change added a layer rather than wiping out what was there before.

The most significant influence on the Italian gene pool came from the migrations of Germanic tribes into the Italian peninsula during and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

So, from a genetic point of view, modern Italians are mostly Roman, but with some Germanic influences, particularly in northern Italy. 


While all Italians can claim a measure of historical, cultural, and symbolic heritage from ancient Rome, this does not make them Romans in the literal sense. Today, the term “Roman” is typically used to refer to residents or natives of the city of Rome itself.

Therefore, although all Italians share some historical ties to ancient Rome, calling all Italians “Romans” would overlook the rich regional diversity and complexity of modern Italy.


  • SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
  • The Roman Republic by Michael Crawford
  • The Fall of the Roman Republic by David Shotter
  • The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture by Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller
  • The Romans: From Village to Empire by Mary Boatwright, Daniel Gargola, and Richard Talbert
  • The Complete Roman Emperor: Imperial Life at Court and on Campaign by Michael Sommer
  • Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History by Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price
  • The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Economy edited by Walter Scheidel
Atlas Mythica

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top