In the late 19th and early 20th century, Italy emulated the Great European Powers in acquiring colonies, especially in the scramble to take control of Africa that took place in the 1870s. Italy was weak in military and economic resources in comparison with Britain, France and Germany. It proved difficult due to popular resistance, and it was unprofitable due to heavy military costs and the lesser economic value of spheres of influence remaining when Italy began to colonize.

Britain, eager to block French influence, assisted Italy in gaining territory of the Red Sea. These were done to gain support of Italian nationalists and imperialists, who wanted to rebuild a Roman Empire. Already, Italy had large settlements in Alexandria, Cairo, and Tunis. Italy first attempted to gain colonies through negotiations with other world powers to make colonial concessions. These negotiations failed. Italy also sent missionaries to uncolonized lands to investigate the potential for Italian colonization. The most promising and realistic of these were parts of Africa.

Italian missionaries had already established a foothold at Massawa (in present day Eritrea) in the 1830s and had entered deep into the Ethiopian Empire. The beginning of colonialism came in 1885, shortly after the fall of Egyptian rule in Khartoum. Italy landed soldiers at Massawa in East Africa. In 1888, Italy annexed Massawa by force, creating the colony of Italian Eritrea. The Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab handled trade with Italy and Ethiopia. The trade was promoted by the low duties paid on Italian trade. Italy exported manufactured products and imported coffee, beeswax, and hides.

In 1895, Ethiopia led by Emperor Menelik II abandoned an agreement signed in 1889 to follow Italian foreign policy. Italy used this renunciation as a reason to invade Ethiopia. Ethiopia gained the help of the Russian Empire, whose own interests in East Africa led the government of Nicholas II of Russia to sent large amounts of modern weaponry to the Ethiopians to hold back an Italian invasion. In response, Britain decided to back the Italians to challenge Russian influence in Africa and declared that all of Ethiopia was within the sphere of Italian interest.

On the verge of war, Italian militarism and nationalism reached a peak, with Italians flocking to the Royal Italian Army, hoping to take part in the upcoming war.Barclay (1973), pp. 33–34 The Italian army failed on the battlefield and were overwhelmed by a huge Ethiopian army at the Battle of Adwa. Italy was forced to retreat into Eritrea. The failed Ethiopian campaign was an international embarrassment to Italy, as it was one of the few major military victories scored by the Africans against an imperial power at this time.

From November 2, 1899, to September 7, 1901, Italy participated as part of the Eight-Nation Alliance forces during the Boxer Rebellion in China. On September 7, 1901, a concession in Tientsin was ceded to the Italy by the Qing Dynasty. On June 7, 1902, the concession was taken into Italian possession and administered by an Italian consul. In 1911, Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire and invaded Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica. These provinces together formed what became known as Libya. The war ended only a year later, but the occupation resulted in acts of discrimination against Libyans such as the forced deportation of Libyans to the Tremiti Islands in October 1911. By 1912, a third of these Libyan refugees had died from a lack of food and shelter. The annexation of Libya led nationalists to advocate Italy's domination of the Mediterranean Sea by occupying the Kingdom of Greece and the Adriatic coastal region of Dalmatia.