Celtic tribes settled along the river Po in the 7th century BC, and the area encompassing modern-day Milan has remained inhabited since.
In 222 BC Roman legions marched into the territory, defeated the Gallic Insubres tribe and occupied the town, which they called Mediolanum (Middle of the Plain). Mediolanum’s key position on the trade routes between Rome and northwestern Europe ensured its continued prosperity and it was here in AD 313 that Emperor Constantine made his momentous edict granting Christians freedom of worship. By the end of the 4th century, Rome had been abandoned by the imperial court in favour of Mediolanum, and it functioned as the capital city of the collapsing Western empire.
A comune (town council) was formed by all social classes in the 11th century, and from the mid-13th century government passed to a succession of dynasties – the Torrianis, the Viscontis and finally the Sforzas. It fell under Spanish rule in 1535 and Austrian in 1713.
Napoleon made Milan the capital of his Cisalpine Republic in 1797 and, five years later, of his Italian Republic, crowning himself king of Italy in 1805. Austria returned in 1814 but troops under Vittorio Emanuele II and Napoleon III crushed the Austrian forces in 1859 and Milan became part of the Kingdom of Italy.
After WWI Mussolini, in Milan as editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti!, founded the Fascist Party here in 1919. WWII was the city’s darkest hour: allied bombings during WWII destroyed much of central Milan. Although postwar economic recovery was rapid, corruption quickly infiltrated the city.
In 1992 the Tangentopoli scandal broke, implicating thousands of Milanese politicians, officials and businesspeople, fashion designers Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani among them. A year later a Sicilian Mafia terrorist bomb exploded outside Milan’s contemporary art museum and in 1995 fashion tycoon Maurizio Gucci was shot dead outside his office on the same street.
Milan’s self-made big shot, Silvio Berlusconi, was elected Italian prime minister in 2001. Despite his legal and financial wrangles he became Italy’s longest-serving postwar leader until he was narrowly ousted by centrist Romano Prodi in 2006. The city’s mayoral race that year was also close, obliging new centre-right mayor, Letizia Moratti (the city’s first female mayor), to form a coalition government with the left.