What If? History has many

" The Romans knew not, and could not know, how deeply the greatness of their own posterity, and the fate of the whole Western world, were involved in the destruction of the fleet of Athens in the harbor of Syracuse. Had that great expedition proved victorious, the energies of Greece during the next eventful century would have found their field in the West no less than in the East; Greece. and not Rome, might have conquered Carthage; Greek instead of Latin might have been at this day the principal element of the language of Spain, of France, and of Italy ; and the laws of Athens, rather than of Rome, might be the foundation of the law of the civilized world." Arnold.

In University I posited a similar argument but with a different spin. I contemplated what the world would be like had Italy unified as early as France, England and Spain instead of the late 19th century along with Germany.

In the Age of Exploration, Italian merchants, science and philosophers were at the height of their influence as the last remnants of the High Renaissance spilled over into European expansion. During my research I came across a periodical by Charles Verlinden in the 'Hispanic American Historical Review' vol. XXXIII, No. 2, (May, 1953) pp. 199-211:

"When studying the beginnings of modern colonization, one must always remember that the Spaniards and Portuguese, who occupied the stage almost alone for more than a century, had the opportunity to make use of the experience gathered by the Italians and above all the Geneose in the technique of commerce in general, as well as especially in the field of colonial economy, as this economy had developed in their possessions in the Levant and on the shores of the Black Sea. Many features, characteristic of the economic and colonial activity of the Iberian nations, can only be understood when their connection and resemblance with Italian precedents is kept in mind."

"Italy was the only really colonizing nation during the middle ages. From the beginning of the crusades onwards, Venice, Pisa, Genoa, later Florence and southern Italy under the Angevins as well s under the Aragonese, were interested in the Levant and in the economic and colonial possibilities offered there by the gradual waning of the Byzantine empire.* It is also at about the same time that Italian merchants appear in the Iberian peninsula, and obtain an influence that will persist until far into the modern period, both in European and colonial economy."

In fact, it didn't take much to notice the influence. Even a quick, superficial reading of the Renaissance would make this clear. So it got me thinking. At the end of my thesis for a Western European history class, I decided to have fun. I put forward the theory that had various explorers sailed under the Italian flag would South America's prima lingua be in fact Italian as opposed to Spanish or Portuguese?

The professor, it turned out, appreciated the thought.

But for historians it's legitimately quite difficult to play with the 'what if's' of history with any academic weight. That doesn't mean we can't entertain the thought.

There are many 'what if's' instances just like the one I pointed out in world history. I know some wonder 'what if Germany succeeded in defeating Russia in WWII?' or 'what if Napoleon managed to invade England or at least cripple its economy with the Continental System?' or 'what if China did not become insular during the age of exploration?' While it makes for interesting conversation, reading and writing, it by no means is an exact science for we have no way of knowing how things would have developed otherwise. We can only guess with an educated mind. Make that a flawed and educated human mind.

For those of you who care about such things I know there's a book out there called 'What If? Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been' This is the second part. The first one was about military history.

* Verlended's footnote cited from multiple works. A. Schaube, W. Miller, R. Lopez, R. Dudan, J.M. Monti, J. Müller.


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