A Brief History of Spain

From the Bronze Age to Democracy

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. 

Al-Andalus

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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