Naples has almost 3000 candles on its birthday cake, and in this time the city and its sparkling coastline have seen it all, from pleasure-seeking Roman emperors and Spanish conquests to devastating plagues, eruptions, revolutions and even uninvited Nazis. History is written large here, with anecdotes seeping out of every church, palace, square and stubborn, weathered ruin. Whoever said history was boring has clearly never known this region.

The Early Years

The ancient Greeks were the first major players on the scene, setting up a trading post on Ischia and another settlement at Cumae (Cuma) in the 8th century BC. As their main foothold in Italy, Cumae became the most important city in the Italian peninsula's southwest during the next 200 years, a rich commercial centre whose sibyl was said to be Apollo's mouthpiece.

According to legend, the traders also established Naples on the island of Megaris, current home of the Castel dell'Ovo, in about 680 BC. Christened Parthenope, its namesake was a suicidal siren. Unable to lure the cunning Ulysses with her songs, she drowned herself, washing up on shore.

Failure also stalked the Tuscany-based Etruscans, who twice invaded Cumae and were twice repelled. After the second of these clashes, in 474 BC, the Cumaeans founded Neapolis (New Town) where Naples' centro storico (historic centre) now stands.

Despite the Cumaeans' resilience, the Etruscan battles had taken a toll, and in 421 BC the Greeks fell to the Samnites. They, in turn, proved no match for the Romans, who took Neapolis in 326 BC. Not long after, in 273 BC, the Romans conquered Paestum, a Greek city dating back to the 5th century BC.

Togas, Triumph & Terror

Under the Romans, the Bay of Naples sparkled with lavish villas, thermal spas and cashed-up out-of-towners. Farmland and forests covered Vesuvius' lower slopes, while VIPs indulged by the coast. Notables holidayed in Stabiae (Castellammare di Stabia), Nero's second wife, Poppea, entertained in upmarket Oplontis and Julius Caesar's father-in-law kept a home at Herculaneum. West of Naples, Puteoli (Pozzuoli) became a major international port, docking everything from Alexandrian grain ships to St Paul, who reputedly stepped ashore in AD 61. Further west, Misenum (Miseno) boasted the ancient world's largest naval fleet.

Despite the Romans' stranglehold on the region, the citizens of Neapolis never completely gave in to their foreign occupiers, refusing (among other things) to relinquish their language. While the Romans may have tolerated the linguistic snub, the Neapolitans' opposition to Rome during the Roman Civil War (88–82 BC) was another story, prompting Cornelius Sulla to take the city and slaughter thousands. Equally catastrophic was the unexpected eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD 79, which drowned nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum in molten lava, mud and ash. Coming just 17 years after a massive earthquake, it was a devastating blow for the region's already-struggling rural inhabitants.

Inside the city walls, Neapolis was booming: General Lucullus built an enviable villa where the Castel dell'Ovo now stands, and even Virgil moved to town. Offshore, Capri became the centre of Emperor Tiberius' famously debauched operations.

For hundreds of years, Neapolis' welfare was tied to that of the Roman Empire, but the ousting of the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in AD 476 saw the city pass into barbarian hands.

Normans & Angevins

By the beginning of the 11th century, Naples was a prospering duchy. Industry and culture were thriving and Christianity was the dominant religion. Outside the city, however, the situation was more volatile, as the Normans were beginning to eye up the Lombard principalities of Salerno, Benevento, Capua and Amalfi.

The Normans had arrived in southern Italy in the 10th century, initially as pilgrims en route from Jerusalem, later as mercenaries attracted by the money to be made fighting for the rival principalities and against the Arab Muslims in Sicily. And it was to just such a mercenary, Rainulf Drengot, that the duke of Naples, Sergio IV, gave the contract to drive the Lombards out of Capua. The principality duly fell in 1062, followed by Amalfi in 1073 and Salerno four years later. By 1130 most of southern Italy, including Sicily, was in Norman hands and, inevitably, Naples joined them in 1139. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was thus complete.

The Normans maintained their capital in Sicily, and Palermo began to outshine Naples. The Neapolitans seemed happy with their lot, but when the last of the Norman kings, Tancred, was succeeded by his enemy Henry Hohenstaufen of Swabia in 1194, the mood turned ugly. The Neapolitans despised their new Swabian rulers and were delighted when Charles I of Anjou routed them at the battle of Benevento in February 1265.

Under the French Angevins, Naples' artistic and intellectual credentials grew. Charles built the Castel Nuovo in 1279, the port was enlarged, and in the early 14th century Robert of Anjou constructed Castel Sant'Elmo. Alas, nasty politicking between family factions marked the last century of Angevin rule. Queen Joan I was suspected of murdering her husband and fled the city between 1348 and 1352, leaving her vengeful Hungarian in-laws to occupy Naples. Some 70-odd years later, her namesake, Queen Joan II, only stopped her husband from stealing the crown thanks to substantial popular support.

With the royals tangled up in soap-style angst, the time was ripe for the Spanish Aragonese to launch their attack.

Aragonese Angst

Taking control of Naples in 1442, Alfonso of Aragon – dubbed Il Magnanimo (The Magnanimous) – did much for the city, promoting art and science, and introducing institutional reforms. What he couldn't do was live down the fact that he'd overthrown the popular Angevins.

In 1485 the city's barons took up arms against Alfonso's successor, Ferdinand I. Within a year, however, the ringleaders had been executed (in the Sala dei Baroni inside Castel Nuovo) and peace restored. In 1495 Charles VIII of France invaded. Fiercely opposed by the Neapolitan masses, the French monarch was forced out four months later and replaced by the Aragonese Ferdinand II.

After Ferdinand's death in 1496, the mutinous barons crowned his uncle, Frederick, as king. This angered everyone; the Neapolitans, the French and the Spanish had all wanted Ferdinand II's widow, Joan, to succeed him. The upshot was the joint Franco-Spanish invasion of 1501. Frederick tried to hang on to power, but, facing almost total opposition, he skulked off, leaving Naples to the Spanish. Thus Ferdinand of Spain became Ferdinand III of Naples.

Don Pedro & the Spanish Years

As part of the cashed-up Spanish empire, 16th-century Naples prospered. By 1600 it was Europe's largest city, with a population of 300,000. The boom heralded urban expansion, with viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo moving the city walls westward and creating the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarter). Hundreds of new churches and monasteries sprang up, giving artistic greats like Caravaggio, Jusepe de Ribera and Luca Giordano the chance to show off their skills. The most prolific of all Naples' architects was Cosimo Fanzago (1591–1678), whose work on the Certosa di San Martino is a highlight of Neapolitan baroque.

Less welcome were the ever-increasing tax hikes, resulting from the economic depression that descended in the early 17th century. When the Spanish introduced a levy on fresh fruit in January 1647, it was one tax too many, and on 7 July violence broke out on Piazza del Mercato. Nine days later, the rebellion's illiterate leader – Amalfi fisherman Tommaso Aniello (aka Masaniello) – was murdered in the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine. The culprits were extremists from within his own camp: they wanted to drive out the Spanish, but their leader had been happy with cheaper fruit. Local lore has it that Masaniello lies buried in an unmarked tomb in the church.

The French then tried to cash in by sending the duke of Guise to take the city; the duke failed and on 6 April 1648 was captured by the new Spanish viceroy, the count of Oñate. Order was soon re-established, the rebel leaders were executed and life in Naples returned to a semblance of normality.

Putting a spanner in the works was the plague of 1656, which wiped out more than half of Naples' population and much of the economy. The horror that infected the city's squalid streets is graphically depicted in the paintings that hang in room 37 of the Certosa di San Martino.

Bourbon Brilliance & Habsburg Cunning

With the death of the childless Charles V of Naples (Charles II of Spain) in 1700, Spain's European possessions were up for grabs. Despite Philip, grandson of Charles V's brother-in-law, taking the Spanish throne (and therefore the Neapolitan throne) as Philip V, Austrian troops nabbed Naples in 1707. Waiting in the wings, however, was Philip's Bourbon son Charles, who followed his ambitious mother Elisabetta Farnese's advice to take the city. Between his ascension to the Neapolitan throne in 1734 and Italian unification in 1860, Naples was transformed into Europe's showpiece metropolis. The Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte hit the skyline, central Palazzo Reale was enlarged and the Teatro San Carlo became Europe's grandest opera house.

In 1759 Charles returned to Spain to succeed his father as Charles III. As European law prohibited the simultaneous holding of three crowns (in this case it would have been Naples, Sicily and Spain), Naples was left to Charles' eight-year-old son, Ferdinand, though, in effect, power was held by Charles' conscientious prime minister, Bernardo Tanucci.

When in 1768 Austrian Maria Carolina arrived in town to marry Ferdinand, Tanucci's days were numbered. Maria was one of the 16 children of the Habsburg empress of Austria (the very person whom Tanucci had opposed in the 1740 crisis of Austrian succession). She was beautiful, clever and ruthless – a ready match for Tanucci and an unlikely partner for the famously dim, dialect-speaking Ferdinand.

In accordance with her marriage agreement, Maria Carolina joined the Council of State on the birth of her first son in 1777. It was the position she'd been waiting for to oust Tanucci, and into his shoes stepped a French-born English aristocrat, John Acton. Acton had won Maria over with his anti-Bourbon politics and wish to forge closer links with Austria and Britain. But just as things began to go smoothly with the English, France erupted in revolution.

The Parthenopean Republic

While the Neapolitan court naturally disapproved of the 1789 French Revolution, it would take the beheading of Maria Carolina's sister, Marie Antoinette, to prompt Naples to join the anti-French coalition.

Troops from Naples and revolutionary France clashed in French-occupied Rome in 1798. The Neapolitans claimed the city but within 11 days were scurrying back south with the French in hot pursuit. Panicked, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina headed for Palermo, leaving Naples to its own devices.

Bitterly opposed by most of the population, the French were welcomed by the Neapolitan nobility and bourgeoisie, many of whom had adopted fashionable republican ideas. And it was with the full backing of the French that the Parthenopean Republic was declared on 23 January 1799.

But it wasn't a success. The leaders were an ideologically rather than practically minded lot, and they were soon in dire financial straits. Their efforts to democratise the city failed and the army was a shambles.

Over the water in Palermo, the royal exiles had not been sitting idle. Ferdinand and Maria Carolina dispatched Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo to Calabria to organise an uprising. On 13 June he entered Naples and all hell broke loose as his men turned the city into a slaughterhouse. With a score to settle, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina returned from Sicily on 8 July and embarked on a systematic extermination of republican sympathisers. More than 200 were executed. Among them was poet and revolutionary Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel, whose biweekly Republic newspaper Monitore napoletano gave birth to political journalism in Italy. The Portuguese-Italian noblewoman would go down in history as a heroine of the Neapolitan revolution.

Bourbon Decline & Nationalist Fervour

Despite the Parthenopean Republic's failure, French forces marched again into Naples in 1806. The royal family once more fled to Sicily, and in 1808 Joachim Murat, Napoleon's brother-in-law, became king of Naples. Despite his abolition of feudalism and kick-starting of local industry, Murat could do no right in the eyes of the royalist masses.

With Murat finally ousted in 1815, Ferdinand returned to claim his throne. But the French Revolution had stirred up too many ideas for a return to the age of absolutism, and the ruthless Carbonari – a secret political society opposed to absolutism – forced Ferdinand to grant the city a constitution in 1820. A year later, however, it was abandoned as Ferdinand called in Austrian troops.

Pressured by rising rebellion across Europe, another King Ferdinand (this one the son of Francesco I, who had succeeded the previous Ferdinand) reintroduced a constitution in 1848, only to dissolve the parliament altogether. He was as blind to the changing times as his equally obstinate son, who succeeded him in 1859.

More popular was nationalist fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose goal was a united Italy. Buoyed by the victory of Piedmontese rebels against the Austrian army, he set sail for Sicily in May 1860 with a volunteer army of 1000 Red Shirts. Although Ferdinand's 25,000-strong Neapolitan army was waiting in Sicily, the Bourbons' repression of liberalism was beginning to cost it goodwill. With an army that had swelled to 5000 men, Garibaldi defeated the half-hearted Bourbon forces, declaring himself dictator in the name of King Vittorio Emanuele II.

In a case of too little too late, Ferdinand's son and successor, Francesco II, agreed to a constitution in June 1860, but Garibaldi had crossed over to the Italian mainland and was bound for Naples. True to tradition, Francesco fled the city, taking refuge with 4000 loyalists behind the River Volturno, north of Naples. On 7 September Garibaldi marched unopposed into Naples, welcomed as a hero.

After a series of last-ditch attacks on the rebels, the Bourbon loyalists were defeated at the Battle of Volturno and on 21 October the city voted overwhelmingly to join a united Italy under the Savoy monarchy.

A seasoned royal city, Naples was a serious contender for capital of Italy. But when Rome was wrested from the French in 1870, the newly formed Italian parliament transferred from its temporary home in Florence to the Eternal City. From being the grand capital of a Bourbon kingdom, Naples suddenly became a lowly regional centre – something the city has never forgotten.

War & Peace

A poorer shadow of its former self, post-unification Naples suffered two major blows: mass emigration and a cholera outbreak in 1884. In response to the cholera epidemic, a citywide clean-up was launched. The worst slums near the port were razed, Corso Umberto I was bulldozed through the city centre, and a sparkling new residential quarter appeared on the Vomero.

The Fascists continued the building spree: an airport was built in 1936, railway and metro lines were laid, and the Vomero funicular opened for business. No sooner had many of these projects been completed than the strategic port city was hit by the full force of WWII. Savage aerial bombing by the Allies left over 20,000 people dead and much of the city in tatters.

Although the Nazis took Naples in 1943, they were quickly forced out by a series of popular uprisings between 26 and 30 September, famously known as the Quattro Giornate di Napoli (Four Days of Naples). Led by locals, especially by young scugnizzi (Neapolitan for 'street urchins') and ex-soldiers, the street battles paved the way for the Allied 'liberators' to enter the city on 1 October.

Despite setting up a provisional government in Naples, the Allies were confronted with an anarchic mass of troops, German prisoners of war and bands of Italian Fascists all competing with the city's starving population for food. Then, to make matters worse, in 1944 Mt Vesuvius erupted.

Overwhelmed, Allied authorities turned to the underworld for assistance. As long as the Allies agreed to turn a blind eye to their black-market activities, the Mafia was willing to help. And so the Camorra (Neapolitan Mafia) began to flourish.

Seismic & Political Shockwaves

On 23 November 1980, an earthquake registering 6.9 on the Richter scale struck the mountainous Irpinia region east of Naples, shaking vast areas of Campania and neighbouring Basilicata, including Naples itself. The disaster left over 2700 people dead and thousands more homeless, with much of the destruction centred in the province of Avellino. The opportunistic Camorra made the most of the disaster, siphoning off billions of lire poured into the devastated area.

In the decade that followed, abusivismo (illegal construction) flourished, profiteering mobsters partied publicly with the city's football icon, Argentine Diego Maradona, and public services virtually ceased to exist. The situation was not unique to Naples – corruption and cronyism were rife across Italy.

It couldn't go on, and in 1992 the 'Mani pulite' (Clean Hands) campaign kicked into gear. What had started as an investigation into bribery at a retirement home in Milan quickly grew into a nationwide crusade against corruption. Industry bosses and politicians were investigated, some were imprisoned, and former prime minister Bettino Craxi fled Italy to avoid prosecution.

In Naples, the city indicated its approval by electing as mayor former communist Antonio Bassolino, whose promises to kick-start the city and fight corruption were music to weary Neapolitan ears. In the seven years that followed, a burst of urban regeneration gave Naples a refreshing sense of hope and pride, one that included the commissioning of world-renowned artists to design new metro stations, and the G7 summit in 1994.

Despite winning a second term in 1997, Bassolino couldn't keep up the impressive momentum and in 2000 he was elected president of the Campania region, which meant that he was no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the city. Into his shoes stepped Rosa Russo Iervolino, a former interior minister and Naples' first female mayor. Elected on a centre-left ticket first in 2001 and then for a second term in May 2006, her time in office was not free of controversy. In April 2002 political chaos ensued after eight police officers were arrested on charges of torturing antiglobalisation protestors arrested at a 2001 government conference. Even more damaging were the waste-disposal crises of 2003, 2006 and 2008, which saw numerous city streets and squares reduced to festering rubbish tips. The 2008 crisis prompted the EU to take legal action against Italy for its ineffective management of the issue.

De Magistris & the Starchitects

Beleaguered by years of humiliating headlines involving litter-strewn streets and gun-wielding camorristi (Camorra members), voters elected the city's current mayor, Luigi de Magistris, in 2011. For many disillusioned Neapolitans, the youthful former public prosecutor represented a glimmer of hope in a city deeply tarnished and abused.

De Magistris' vision for a cleaner, greener city saw the introduction of a ZTL (limited-traffic zone) in Naples' centro storico in September 2011, designed to slash carbon emissions, improve traffic flow and curb the illegal use of lanes reserved for public transport. Following this, a stretch of Naples' famous Lungomare (seafront) was pedestrianised in time for the city's hosting of the World Series of the America's Cup in spring 2012. Dubbed 'il Lungomare liberato' (the liberated seafront) by De Magistris, the waterfront strip has since become a favourite meeting place for locals and tourists. While De Magistris is not without his critics, his progressive, anti-corruption agenda has hit the right note with many Neapolitans. In 2016, the Gen-X independent was re-elected city mayor, beating rival Gianni Lettieri of the centre-right Forza Italia party with 66.8% of the total vote.

The 2010s also saw the addition of some impressive new architecture in Naples and the greater Naples region. In 2012, the ribbon was cut on the city's spectacular Toledo metro station. Designed by Spanish architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca, the Line 1 stop would win 'Public Building of the Year' at the 2013 LEAF (Leading European Architects Forum) Awards. In 2014, US news network CNN declared it the most beautiful metro station in Europe. The station is one of the city's 'Metro Art Stations', stations designed by leading Italian and international architects and artists. In 2015, fellow Line 1 'art stations' Municipio and Università were opened, with Duomo station set to open in 2019 after lengthy delays. In 2017, the attention of architecture fans was also drawn to the nearby city of Afragola with the opening of its own slithering, space-age train station, designed by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.