CATALONIA. Early History to 1000 AD.

Catalunya – Catalonia, from Early Days to 1000.
Catalunya/ Catalonia, the north easternmost region of Spain is one of the better known areas of the country.  It is bordered to the north by France (and Andorra), to the east by Aragón, the south by Valencia and the Mediterranean Sea to its west. With a population of roughly 7,500,000 (2013), it is made up of four provinces and forms one of the seventeen autonomous communities of Spain.

Catalonia with its four province

As an autonomous community, it enjoys certain powers of self-government: it has its own parliament (Generalitat), and police force (Mossos d’esquadra), while jurisdiction over education, health and justice is shared with the central government. Catalunya is also free to set up bilateral agreements with foreign countries, and has offices in major cities to promote trade, investment and tourism.

Recently there has been a strong push for independence that has made the news. The push, prompted by Spain’s economic hardship and the right wing central government’s intransigence, has triggered strong emotions and many Catalans have called for Catalunya –Spain’s economic engine– to go it alone.

Some people have learned something of Catalunya through visits to its dynamic capital, Barcelona, a major tourist destination and weekend hop for Europeans.
The region also enjoyed world-wide exposure when Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympic games and its language, Catalan, was given prominence as co-official for those games with English, French and Spanish. And nowadays, the success of Barcelona’s famous soccer team, FC Barcelona (or simply Barça to aficionados) has projected Catalunya’s image around the sporting world.

But where does the story of Catalunya start?

Early Inhabitants.
We know as little about the earliest human arrivals in Catalunya as we do about the earliest human inhabitants in the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. Our earliest evidence rests on their artistic legacy, although unlike the more famous cave paintings along the northern coast of Spain (e.g. Altamira), the paintings in Catalunya –and indeed along the eastern Mediterranean basin—appear mainly on open rock faces or shallow hollows.

Declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1998, they are amongst the first European paintings that depict scenes of domestic life with people engaged in activities such as walking or sitting together, hunting with bows and arrows, gathering food etc.

Rock art in Cogul, Lleida/Lérida

Although the human figures are often schematic, we can make out skirts or trousers and occasionally headgear. Although much of this open rock art is faded, and dating it is difficult, there is general consensus that it was painted roughly between 10,000 BC to 3,500BC i.e. Middle Stone Age to Bronze Age.  Catalunya has a list of 50 UNESCO sites.

The Iberians.
Chronologically the next group historians identify with the eastern Mediterranean coast are the Iberians, although where they came from is clouded in mystery. Whether they entered from Africa or Europe or indeed descended from those earlier Stone or Bronze Age painters is unresolved.

Most of what we know of the Iberians comes from the Greeks, and the two best known towns identified as Iberian –Ullastret and Sagunto—were heavily influenced by the Greeks (in the case of Ullastret) and Carthaginians and Romans (in the case of Sagunto).

The Greeks.
Greek interest in Iberia was mainly commercial, with trading posts stretching along the north east coast and into the south coast of present day France. A major colony was established in Massilia (now Marseilles, France) around 600 BC, and an offshoot shortly after in Emporium (Ampurias, Catalan Empúries) on the north east coast of Catalunya.

The Romans.
It was at Ampurias that the Romans landed in 218 BC initiating the Second Punic War (218-207) to counter the expansionist threat of their great rivals, the Carthaginians. By 207 the Romans were victorious and immediately began consolidating control of the peninsula, which proved to be a long and arduous task.

They initially divided the territory into two parts, with modern Catalunya located in Hispania Citerior (running down the east coast and inland, the other area being called Hispania Ulterior, roughly modern Andalusia).

The capital of Hispania Citerior was Tarraco (Tarragona), the first Roman settlement in the Iberian Peninsula. The present day capital, Barcelona, sprang into prominence when named a colonia (Colonia Barcino) by the Emperor Augustus ca.15 BC to house veterans from the Asturian wars.

Roman Empire in 125 AD.

When Tarraco was named capital of Hispania Citerior, it benefitted with the construction of imposing public buildings (UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000); its forum, amphitheatre, walls and aqueduct are among the best conserved in Spain. This impressive legacy forms part of a large Roman architectural mosaic that spreads across the peninsula.

Alongside splendid buildings, roads, bridges, aqueducts, Rome also endowed its possessions with a linguistic identity that is central to patriotic pride.

Tarragona Aqueduct.

Catalan, like Castilian, Portuguese, and Galician is an offspring of Latin, and is a language in its own right and not a dialect of Castilian.

In fact, its vocabulary is generously sprinkled with words that look more French than Spanish, a reminder of the historically close political and social relationship between Catalunya and Roman Septimania (the western end of the Roman province of Narbonensis, now Languedoc in the south of France): e.g. window: fenêtre (Fr) – finestra (Cat) – ventana (Sp); to eat: manger (Fr) – manjar (Cat) – comer (Sp); to talk: parler (Fr) – parlar (Cat) – hablar (Sp); table: table (Fr) – taula (Cat) – mesa (Sp).

The Visigoths.
By the late 4th century AD, Roman power in Europe began to fade in the face of incursions by numerous Germanic tribes, prominent amongst which were the Franks and Visigoths. The Franks controlled much of northern Europe and most of what is now modern day France.

The Visigoths, with their capital in Tolosa (Toulouse) controlled the southern borders, i.e. Septimania, and although they moved into Hispania via the eastern Pyrenees in 415 and had wrested control of the peninsula from other Germanic tribes by 476, their capital remained in Tolosa.

However, defeats by the more powerful Franks in the early 6th century prompted their complete migration into Hispania. Their capital in the peninsula at first was Barcelona but as their power spread further south they transferred the capital successively to Seville and Mérida before settling it permanently in Toledo in the mid-6th century.

The Moors.
Like almost all the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, the land occupied by modern Catalunya was overrun by Moorish forces shortly following their landing near Gibraltar in 711. By 714 Moorish soldiers were heading over the eastern Pyrenees into Septimania and beyond and were only halted at Poitiers in 732 by the Frankish prince Charles Martel (the Hammer). 

The Moors did not abandon Septimania immediately, but gradually a lack of manpower, factional dissension and Berber revolt in al-Andalus (as the Moors called the land they occupied) precluded further expeditions or expansion and precipitated their return south of the Pyrenees.

The Franks.
Repossession of land was undertaken almost immediately by the Franks but it was Charlemagne (742-814, king in 768 and emperor 800-14) who stamped Frankish authority over the southern area in an attempt to create a buffer zone against further possible incursions by the Moors. 

However, a failed expedition to Zaragoza in response to requests for help by Moorish leaders rebelling against Abd al-Rahman I, emir of Córdoba, ended in disaster. The Moorish leaders had a change of heart and during Charlemagne’s retreated across the Pyrenees, his forces were decimated at the pass of Roncesvalles by Basque soldiers.

Still, Charlemagne persisted and in 801 his Frankish army, commanded by his son Louis the Pious, drove the Moors out of Barcelona.  It was a decisive victory for the future of the region because all the territory from Barcelona north was to remain from then on in Christian hands.  It also explains why we find no traces of Moorish presence in Barcelona, unlike for example at Zaragoza, only 300 kilometres/ 186 miles inland (and which was not reconquered until 1118).

Catalunya Takes Shape.
The buffer zone created under Charlemagne and his heirs against the Moors extended south of the Pyrenees. Known as the Marca hispánica Spanish march (i.e. a border or frontier region), the area gradually broke up and already by the 9th century three political units or counties emerged: Aragón, Pamplona/Navarre and Catalunya.

However, these counties, although geographically in “Spain” or Hispania, owed their allegiance to the Frankish court north of the Pyrenees, and formed part of Charlemagne’s immense Holy Roman Empire, unlike the early Christian kingdoms to the north west of the peninsula.

The umbilical north-south cord was further strengthened by the selection of Frankish aristocrats to govern the counties at first, and by the annexation of the church in the newly reconquered territories to the Archbishopric of Narbonne in Septimania.

Nevertheless, despite the close north-south relationship the counties were frequently at odds with their Carolingian rulers, as well as with each other.  At the same time, conflicts with the Moors were a constant reminder of the menace to the south and of the need to retain contact with the Franks.

Still, a thirst for power and a desire to make the office hereditary, together with a weakening of the Frankish hegemony, not to mention distance from the Frankish court, led gradually to a degree of independence. 

Out of the convoluted political manoeuvres of these early days, one figure emerges who has achieved mythical proportions in the annals of Catalunya: Guifré el Pilós (ca. 840-897) or, in English, Wilfred the Hairy! Something like Fernán González a hundred years later in Castile, Guifré wrested control of most of Catalunya and by 878 was its de facto ruler having by that time absorbed in his person the titles of Count of Barcelona, Girona, Urgel, and Cerdeña. 

On his way to the top, Guifré overpowered many Frankish overlords, something he was able to do largely because of the instability and weakness of the Carolingian monarchy at this moment (four kings came and went in the space of eleven years, 877-888). Still, Guifré stopped well short of declaring independence, probably in view of his constant skirmishes with the Moors to his south and his ongoing need for the good will of the Carolingian kings.

What he did do, however, was to establish Catalan leadership over the region despite nominal Frankish suzerainty.

The cornerstone of Guifré’s authority was the city of Barcelona, at that time not much more than a small harbour, but well protected by its Roman walls. Thanks to Guifré, Barcelona grew to become the major centre of forays against the Moors in the east of the peninsula and the administrative capital of those counties that he had conquered.  And with the prestige of the city, the title of Count of Barcelona became the preeminent rank of the region, and Guifré’s heirs became rulers of virtually all the counties of the Marca hispánica until union with Aragón (but that was not until 1137).

Guifré’s contribution to the establishment of Catalunya as a political entity is fundamental, but equally important in the eyes of many was his policy of repopulating central Catalonia. Most of the newcomers came from the more inhospitable mountain valleys of the Pyrenees, where many of their predecessors had earlier fled to from the advancing Moors. Some were also from Septimania; curiously, however, in view of what happened in the west, relatively few Mozarabs  from the south seem to have hastened to the region.

Guifré’s success is a measure of the security felt by the settlers and a mark of the growing military strength of the region. Hand in hand with this development and further proof of Christian determination was the  establishment of numerous castles to protect the pioneers as well as churches and monasteries, which provided the spiritual backbone to the political events. 

Guifré himself founded the Monastery of Ripoll (880), one of the most important in Medieval Spain, and where he himself was buried after his death in 897 at the hands of the Moorish governor of Lleida/Lérida.

In the policy of resettlement there is some parallelism with what happened with the expansion of Christian kingdoms to the west. There was nevertheless a fundamental difference in the liberty enjoyed by the settlers: in the western kingdom of León pioneers risked their lives in a precarious no-man’s-land and were rewarded by a significant degree of autonomy whereby authority rested mainly in a council and their rights were encoded in their charters (fueros). 

In the settlements in Catalunya power lay with the lord appointed by the Count of Barcelona, the first step towards a feudal relationship.  At the same time, too, the lost Visigothic past was constantly evoked, even relived, in León as Christian response to the Muslim threat gradually took form.

The Marca hispánica on the other hand was a creation of the Franks, and not of the Visigoths, which probably explains that appeals to a Visigothic past never resonated in Catalonia compared with Castile.  Fernán González figures prominently in the Castilan/Visigothic legend of reconquest; Guifré el Pelós does not.

But Guifré el Pelós has his own place in the founding myths of Catalunya, in particular in the origin of the Catalan flag.

Catalan Flag

Legend has it that while fighting alongside the French king, Charles the Bald, against the Moors, Guifré was wounded. Visiting him in his tent after their victory, the king noticed that Guifre’s shield –although gilded– had no distinguishing features.

What better way, then, to reward Guifré’s valour than to confer on him royal recognition, whereupon Charles dipped four fingers in Guifré’s blood and drew them down the shield; the four crimson stripes on a gold field have since signalled the identity of Catalunya.

Like all founding heroes, Guifré became a larger than life figure, a fighter of dragons in one legend, in another a fatherless child brought up in a distant court who returns to claim his inheritance and is recognised by his mother because he had hair on a part of the body where it should not have been (Hughes 82).

Even his hairiness –with its biblical echoes of Esau– may be a folkloric evocation of his prowess. However, according to some modern historians, the epithet el Pilós may in fact be a nickname alluding to the wild nature of the country Guifré ruled.

Guifré died in battle against the Moors in 897, but not before consolidating under his rule most of the counties of Old Catalunya, and establishing the dynastic House of Barcelona, which was to guide the destiny of the region for five centuries.

The 10th century was one of further consolidation of independence under Guifré’s successors; it was also a period when Catalunya had to defend itself against the razzias of the powerful caliphate of Córdoba.  Late in the century (985) the Muslim vizier al-Mansur carried out a widespread attack on Christian lands during which Barcelona was sacked and torched but not captured. 

The inability of the last Carolingian kings to offer any help finally broke what remained of Catalunya’s political ties with the Frankish kingdom; all that was left now was for the church in Catalunya to free itself from the jurisdiction of Narbonne (in southern France), a move that was sanctioned by the Pope as early as 971 but for various reasons (not the least of which was that Tarragona –in pre-islamic days the preeminent ecclesiastical dioceses of eastern Hispania– was still in Moorish hands), the move was not implemented until the end of the 11th century.

Anderson, James M  Spain 1001 Sights: An Archaeological and Historical Guide  Calgary 1992
Capdeferro, Marcelo    Historia de Cataluña Barcelona 1967
Carrasco, Juan et al    Historia de las Españas medievales Barcelona 2002
Collins, Roger      Spain:An Oxford Archeological Guide Oxford 1998
Hughes, Robert  Barcelona  New York 1992
Mestre I Godes, Jesús    Breu historia de Catalunya Barcelona 1998
For UNESCO article on rock art, see
For UNESCO article on Tarraco, see
For an interesting article dealing with Catalunya’s separatist aspirations and comparisons with independence movements in other countries, see
For Catalan declaration of sovereignty, see

Map of Catalonia from Wikipedia:
Image of rock art, Cogul, from Wikipedia:
Image of Tarragona Aqueduct, from Wikimedia:,_Tarragona_Spain.jpg
Image of Catalan Flag, from Wikipedia: