Overview of Spanish History

Spain has a fascinating and varied history.  Although there are prehistoric remains found in Spanish caves dating back more than 1,000,000 years, for many people Spain’s story begins much later with magnificent cave and rock paintings from about 15,000 to 5,000 years ago.  Still, we don’t know who these early “painters” were and the meaning of their works is conjectural.  So much of these early years is a mystery, including some remarkable dolmens (burial chambers) erected about 2,000 years ago, and the fabled kingdom of Tartessus (approximately 600 BC).  Even the two groups that figure most prominently as the early inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula (present day Spain and Portugal), the Iberians and the Celts are something of a puzzle.

However, although we know relatively little about the Celts and the Iberians, we can’t ignore their significance.  Since the late 19th century there has been ongoing debate between Celtophiles and Iberophiles, the former claiming that the “true” roots of Spain’s identity are to be found in the Celts, the latter arguing in favour of the Iberians. The debate about origins has since widened, especially as Spain is now made up of seventeen “communities,” each with an interest in carving out its own history.

Phoenician, Greek and Carthaginian traders early on (from about 800 BC) found the Iberian Peninsula an endless source of goods, but it was the Romans who contributed the first substantial building blocks for Spain’s identity. Rome controlled the Iberian Peninsula for some 600 years, longer than any other part of its large empire; inevitably the Romans left a deep imprint.

The Visigoths, one of the barbarian tribes that overran the crumbling Roman Empire in the 5th century, are often overlooked, but in subsequent centuries their spirit was frequently evoked by Spaniards as fundamental to Spanish values.

The 8th century saw the momentous arrival of Islam. Within a few years, the Muslims (or Moors as they are commonly called in Spanish history) had conquered virtually all the peninsula. They remained in al-Andalus --as they called the land they occupied-- for some 800 years.  The time of al-Andalus was a high point in Medieval European civilization, a period when three cultures --Islam, Judaism and Christianity-- coexisted and cross fertilized. Within that time, "hybridised" social groups were formed that had a significant role in the development of Spain: Muwallads, Mozarabs, Mudejars and Conversos.

Al-Andalus gradually contracted in the face of the expanding Christian kingdoms from the north of the peninsula until by the 13th century all that remained was roughly the area we now call Andalusia. Al-Andalus finally fell to the Christians in 1492, marking the end of the “Reconquista” (Reconquest).  It was in the same year, too, that the Jews were expelled and America was “discovered.”  

The 16th century was Spain’s “Golden Age,” a period when Spain rapidly became Europe’s most powerful country, with an empire that spanned the world.  Spain was perhaps the world’s first superpower with seemingly unlimited horizons.  But the burden of empire was too much and by the end of the 17th century Spain had lost its vitality and became a poor sister amongst European countries.  An impotent king Carlos (Charles) II, the last of the Hapsburg monarchs of Spain, is perhaps a fitting metaphor for the ailing country Spain had become.

At the beginning and end of the 18th century, Spain was occupied by foreign troops and reduced to a pawn in the political interests of other European powers. A new royal dynasty, the Bourbons of France, promised much but as a political presence, Spain was shunted to one side. It hardly even figured on the Grand Tour, an extended trip through Europe that all aspiring, young, upper-class English travelers took in the 18th century as essential to their education.   

During the early of the 19th century Spain lost virtually all its empire at a time when Britain and France were still expanding their territories. The 19th century was a period of political and social instability in Spain, and unlike its northern neighbours it did not undergo an industrial revolution--except perhaps for areas in Asturias (coal mining), Bilbao and surroundings (iron mining) and Barcelona and vicinity (textiles).

By the 20th century, France and Britain were joined by Germany as the heavy hitters in Europe, and Spain continued on the sidelines except during its Civil War (1936-39).  And even the Civil War was viewed as a part of a larger international struggle against fascism.

After the Civil War, there followed the painful Franco dictatorship.  After Franco`s death in 1975, the monarchy was restored, to the surprise of many. At the same time politicians of different political stripes successfully negotiated the division of the country into 17 autonomous communities.  In the blink of an historical eye, a radical shift from one of the most centralized countries in Europe to the most decentralized.