A Brief History of Spain

From the Bronze Age to Democracy

A Brief History of Spain

Spanish history shows a fascinating journey of different cultures accompanied by many influences over the centuries. Many different people and languages have contributed to the rich cultural heritage of Spain that we see today.

Pre-Roman era 

Around 3,000 years ago, the Iberians and the Celts inhabited the Iberian Peninsula (currently Spain and Portugal). They were also very familiar with the plow and had a fairly developed livestock industry. Additionally, they extended the use of iron. It is still possible to see some of the Celtic fortified towns (castros) in the north of Spain.

Roman Spain

From about 218 BC, the Romans took over the Iberian Peninsula, occupying it for 600 years. This played a significant role in forming the Spanish identity since Rome imposed its language and religion on the peninsula, leaving a deep imprint. In fact, ‘Hispania’ was the Roman name given to the Iberian Peninsula. Under the Roman Empire, the population increased, urban life flourished and there was notable economic growth, mainly from agriculture. Go to Segovia or Mérida to admire some of Spain’s impressive Roman architecture.

The Visigoths

The Visigoths were one of the barbarian tribes that overran the Roman Empire in the 5th century, settling in southwestern France and the Iberian Peninsula. Once there, they founded the Visigothic Kingdom, leaving several practices in Spain, such as political order and various laws that contributed towards a more structured society. The Visigoths were well-known for their gold jewellery and bloody royal history, with recurrent homicides to access the throne. 


In the 8th century, the Muslims conquered the peninsula and remained in al-Andalus - which is what they called the land that is now Spain and Portugal, for approximately 800 years. The Hispanic-Muslim people stood out for their academic advances in medicine, mathematics and astronomy. In this period, three religions coexisted, Islam, Judaism and Christianity and the exchange of ideas led to one of the most flourishing periods of Spanish history. A progressive weakening and fragmentation of the Arab rule in the middle of the 13th century caused Islamic Spain to be reduced to the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada. This was the first step that led from the initial Christian resistance to the Reconquista that would later take over the peninsula. To get a taste of Al-Andalus, head south to Granada where you can find the Alhambra and Córdoba, the location of the beautiful Mezquita. 

The Catholic monarchs 

Politically, the reign of the Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Fernando, sought to strengthen the state and its royal authority. Christopher Columbus offered a proposition to the Catholic monarchs and they accepted giving rise to the discovery of America on October 12th, 1492. Thanks to his self-assurance and visionary enthusiasm, Columbus persuaded the Catholic Monarchs to accept his project, although nothing would have been achieved without the determined support of several key figures of the Castilian court. In the final negotiation, Columbus demanded that he should be granted the hereditary title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, the position of viceroy and governor and ten percent of the proceeds of the discovery. When Queen Isabel’s advisors considered that these were exorbitant conditions, Columbus departed angrily to Córdoba, but the Queen called him again and on April 17th, 1492 the capitulations were signed. During this time the Inquisition (La Inquisición), which was the institution of the Catholic church fighting heresy, focused on forcing converts from Islam and Judaism. By 1492, those who were not part of the Christians church were expelled from Spain.

The Golden Age

In the 16th and 17th century, Spain became a powerhouse considering all the conquered territories and this period was known as the “Golden Age” (Siglo de Oro). In this era, a few artists stood out such as Diego Velázquez (painter), Lope de Vega (poet and playwright) and of course Miguel de Cervantes, known worldwide for the first modern novel, Don Quixote of La Mancha (El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha). Although very rich in culture, the administrative and economic burden of the empire became too heavy and by the end of the 17th century, the country had become relatively poor compared to other European powers. After the rule of King Charles II (Carlos II), a new royal dynasty, the Bourbons of France, promised Spain a better future. 

19th century 

The 19th century was a time of instability for Spain because no industrial revolution took place in the country. On the other hand, it became a popular destination as a result of the multiple influences that coexisted in Spain, especially in Andalusia. By the end of the 19th century, Spain started appearing in travel guides and tourist literature, which led to a continuous development towards tourism and further interest in the mysterious and sunny land.

20th century

The 20th century was quite a hectic period - Spain would witness monarchy, republic(s), dictatorship(s)  and, finally, democracy! After a failed First Republic (Primera República), and the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in 1931, a new Constitution was created and the Second Republic was declared.

During WWI, Spain remained neutral and in WWII, the country had just gone through the bloodiest and most dreadful period of its history: the Civil War (1936-1939) between the nationalists and republicans, leaving only famine and the priority of rebuilding the country. The victory went to the Bando Nacional, led by General Franco. It was followed by Franco’s dictatorship that lasted 40 years. During this time, Basque and Catalan languages were banned outside people’s homes. Free speech and political opposition of any kind were suppressed. Women had few rights, they weren’t allowed to have a job or own any kind of property without their husband's permission. The church enjoyed unchallenged power, especially in orphanages and schools. 

When Franco died in 1975, the monarchy was reinstated, to the surprise of many. The monarchy still exists nowadays but with no government power. Democracy was re-established and the period of transition (Transición) had begun. Spain was transformed into a modern country, freedom was guaranteed and a multi-party parliament system was established. In 1978, a new constitution was formed. The transition was a true national reconciliation and a fresh beginning for the Spanish nation.

In 1986, Spain officially became part of the European Union. Later, in 2008, the country entered the Great Recession and unemployment reached very high levels due to the global financial crisis. Nevertheless, the country is ranked as one of the most attractive for expats  and is visited by more than 75 million tourists every year.

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Other comments

  • John Mortimer, 13 January 2012 Reply

    Total trash.

    This is a ridiculous article, none of it is true. I am a resident of Spain and disagree with every part of this rubbish, obviously the writer has never even visited!

    • male 08 Mar 2012, 11:54


      I agree with John, Yo don´t know at all Spanish people, at least the north of my country. It is a pity article,,,,
      en otras palabras no tienes ni idea de como somos los españoles, por favor, ,,,, NO GENERALICES ASI

    • Snopes 23 Aug 2012, 10:51


      Alt least the north? So the south does match with the rubish this ignorant wrote? Eres tan ignorante como él entonces.

    • Jessey 28 Mar 2013, 07:29

      Very Well Written Article

      I think your article is great because it tells it like it is...both the good and the bad. Every country has its good points and its bad points and people should grow up instead of getting offended. I saw all of those exact same patterns when I lived there for 2 years. That is exactly how I saw the country as well coming from a North American perspective. I grew up a certain way and so, upon moving to Spain those same things really stood out to me as well. I don't understand why Spaniards get so mad at any little criticism about their country when they do the same thing constantly. They love to criticize other countries and say that Spain is the best in every way. So, they should be able to take it when other cultures criticize theirs. Its called maturity people. Relax and realize that NONE of our countries are perfect yet we ALL have wonderful beautiful things about our cultures as well. No country or people is any better than any other. We are all just people living in this world together.

      Creo que tu artículo está bien escrito porque lo cuenta tal como es…lo bueno y lo malo. Cada país tiene sus cosas buenas y sus cosas malas y la gente necesita madurar en vez de estar ofendida. Yo vi los mismos patrones cuando viví dos años en España. Es exactamente como me parecía el país desde una perspectiva norteamericana. Crecí de una manera distinta entonces al mudarme a España las mismas cosas me llamaron mucho la atención. No entiendo porque se enfadan tanto los españoles por un poco de crítica sobre su país cuando ellos hacen lo mismo constantemente cuando hablan de otras culturas. Les encanta criticar a otros países y decir que España es lo mejor en cada sentido. Entonces, deberían ser capaces de aguantarlo cuando otras culturas critican a los suyos, si no es un poco hipócrita, no? Se llama madurez gente. Reléjense y dense cuenta de que NINGUNOS de nuestros países son perfectos pero también que tenemos TODOS cosas bonitas y maravillosas sobre nuestras culturas también. Ningún país ni gente es mejor que cualquier otro. Nada más somos gente viviendo juntos en este mundo.

  • Caroline, 03 May 2012 Reply

    Beware the Spanish male's need for total authority and dominance

    On May 1st, 2012, I was sitting in a dining room and overheard a conversation between several adult couples from Canada, America, and Germany. ALL of them has suffered from the same treatment is Barcellona and that involved sitting for hours in restaurants in restaurants and waiting for service or food while local patrons were well catered to. I joined in the conversation stating that we had shared the same type of experience the previous night and when I complained to management(after 80 minutes), he asked me if I had ordered in Spanish. I respectfully responded that I was most limited in Spanish as Canadians spoke English and/or French primarily and I added that the waiter had interacted with us and I was confident he understood the order. Within minutes, all of our courses were dropped on the table( cold and piled one next to the other as it was a table for two. We left the restaurant and did not pay the bill which was well over a hundred Euros. I told him to call the authorities if he wished but he declined. The hostess walked us to the door and said there is a great deal of anger towards tourists, especially women who appear affluent!!! In this economy, how can they possibly develop such a mind-set???
    We found a lovely place nearby and had a very late but enjoyable dinner. Avoid places on Avenidad Diagonale as several had nasty experiences.

  • Valerie, 03 May 2012 Reply

    Trip to Spain cancelled for 2013

    After witnessing violence is prominent restaurant between staff, being ignored as patrons in other establishments, and discussing very negative experiences that dozens of other tourists had been subjected to in several Barcellona restaurants, we shortened our trip last week , returned to Canada, and cancelled our accommodations for April- May 2013 in Marbella, Barcellona, and Madrid.

    • Steve 11 Jun 2012, 09:18


      I agree with most of what you said. I have been living in Spain for 8 years and have met very few "polite" Spaniards. I think the term "maleducados" fits. Very proud and insular.

  • Manuel, 23 July 2012 Reply

    No estoy de acuerdo

    Todo esto es una basura de artículo.

    There are many types of spaniards. This is a typical vision of a arrogant british.


    • andreas 27 Aug 2012, 11:17

      pais de retrasados

      The main problem with the spaniards is still their unbelievable arrogance and complete lack of manners towards any person they don't know. The last 10 years I've visited the country on a bi-monthly basis, and it's just shocking to see that despite the billions of european funds poured into their systems, the inhabitants remain as backwards as ever... Whereas they believe themselves to be at the top of Europe.
      PS a typical phenomenon I see also in the reactions here... the spaniards have to react in spanish of course

    • Meg 05 Sep 2012, 05:21

      Too unfair to generalize

      I also disagree. People everywhere are much more understanding when you speak their language. It's only human. It's also understandable that tourists would be offended. We forget how the same situation might be in our own culture. I'm sure plenty of non-English speaking Japanese tourists also think the British are rude. Of course, I've heard that in Britain people can be very outgoing and friendly even if their dog died and their mother is on her way. In Spain you also meet friendly people but it's more often the case if you find the person in a good mood that day. They value expressing their true feelings because they see it as honest. Besides, from that perspective, everyone else should understand that not everyone has a good day and shouldn't hold it against Spain. These feelings are probably heightened around tourists when the economy is like it is.

    • Jessica 30 Sep 2012, 09:34

      So right

      The article is right, Spanish people are rude and do not consider the language barrier that the tourists have, very inefficient and absolutely no organisation, i should know as i am an Erasmus student here and nothing is ever going right. So yes i agree totally with thsi article

    • Pablo 08 Oct 2012, 08:48

      Who's rude?

      If you think spaniards are rude, don't come, as easy as that. But if you ever come, don't leave your manners at your country, because the most part of tourists, when they arrive at Spain, they lose their manners, for example, when you do what you know in a corner or in the middle of the street because you have get so so so drunk you can't stand on your feet. If you're so polite, why do you do that?
      Don't deny it, any spaniard who watch tv ONCE a MONTH, especially at summer, will know this.

      Asi que quereis enseñarnos algo, predicad con el ejemplo.

      So, WHO'S RUDE?

    • Martin 15 Nov 2012, 03:08

      It´s all in good fun Spaniards.

      Spain is a great country, as a Britton who´s basically grown up here I can confirm, I agree with almost everything said in the `To Conclude´ section. Lifestyle wise it is better that Britain and many other countries, even though Spain are now having their economic problems and all.

      But I also agree with many parts of the article, and I found some bits hilarious. I used to hate Spain not that many years ago because of some of the things ,mentioned here, but I have overcome these things and now like it quite a lot. However there is one thing about Spain that is just annoying to the core: It´s the way that they are the best, their sportsmen, are the best, their food is the best, their culture is the best, etc, and they will boast about these fake ideals with real pride (not all Spaniards, but many) and if you happen to be a foreigner they will still say it to your face too which is both untrue and rude. I am amazed at how many sportsmen (champions even) who are not Spanish are actually crap (or so they say) in the eyes of Spaniards when their athletes are the best. Also when talking about food they will say "You won´t eat anywhere like in Spain" which is complete patriotic bullshit IMO. There are plenty of places that have to be as good as Spain in many aspects (food of all of them, something so universal ...) or else half the planet would live in the peninsula.

      All of this wouldn´t be so bad if the Spanish people (who may have previously rubished your country) took anything anyone says about their great country with HUGE OFFENCE (as you can see here)

      So calm down, no os ofendais por una pagina web que dice cosas parecidas de unos 30 paises, these descriptions are mostly hyperboles, I myself have read the US and UK ones already and laughed a lot there too.