Portuguese History 101

By Rick Steves
2000 B.C. – A.D. 500 — Prehistory to Rome

Portugal's indigenous race, the Lusiads, evolved from many migrations and invasions — Neolithic stone builders (2000 B.C.), Phoenician traders (1200 B.C.), northern Celts (700 B.C.), Greek colonists (700 B.C.), and Carthaginian conquerors (500 B.C.).

By the time of Julius Caesar (50 B.C.), rebellious Lusitania (Portugal) was finally under Roman rule, with major cities at Olissipo (Lisbon), Portus Cale (Porto), and Ebora (Évora). The Romans brought laws, wine, the Latin language, and Christianity. When Rome's empire fell (A.D. 400), Portugal was saved from barbarian attacks by Christian, Germanic Visigoths ruling distantly from their capital in Toledo.

A.D. 711–1400 — Muslims vs. Christians, and Nationhood

North African Muslims invaded the Iberian Peninsula, settling in southern Portugal. Christians retreated to the cold, mountainous north, with central Portugal as a buffer zone. For the next five centuries, the Moors made Iberia a beacon of enlightenment in Dark Age Europe, while Christians slowly drove them out, one territory at a time (Faro was the last Portuguese town to fall, in 1249). Afonso Henriques, a popular Christian noble who conquered much Muslim land, was proclaimed king of Portugal (1143), creating one of Europe's first modern nation-states. John I solidified Portugal's nationhood by repelling a Spanish invasion (1385) and establishing his family (the House of Avis) as kings.

1400–1600 — The Age of Discovery

With royal backing, Portugal built a navy and began exploring the seas, motivated by profit and a desire to Christianize Muslim lands. When Vasco da Gama finally inched around the southern tip of Africa and found a sea route to India (1498), suddenly the wealth of all Asia was opened up. Through trade and conquest, tiny Portugal became one of Europe's wealthiest and most powerful nations, with colonies stretching from Brazil to Africa to India to China. Unfortunately, the easy money destroyed the traditional economy. When King Sebastian died, heirless, Portugal was quickly invaded by Spain in a disastrous and draining defeat (1580).

1600–1900 — Slow Fade

The "Spanish Captivity" (1580–1640) drained Portugal. With a false economy, a rigid class system, and the gradual loss of its profitable colonies, Portugal was no match for the rising powers of Spain, England, Holland, and France. The earthquake of 1755 and Napoleon's invasions (1801–1810) were devastating. While the rest of Europe industrialized and democratized, Portugal became an isolated, rural monarchy living off meager wealth from Brazilian gold, diamonds, and sugarcane.

1900s — The Military and Democracy

Republican rebels assassinated the king, but democracy was slow to establish itself in Portugal's almost-medieval class system. A series of military-backed democracies culminated in four decades of António Salazar's "New State," a right-wing regime benefiting the traditional upper classes. Salazar's repressive tactics and unpopular wars abroad (trying to hang onto Portugal's colonial empire) sparked the Carnation Revolution of 1974. After some initial political and economic chaos, Portugal finally mastered democracy. The tourist industry and subsidies from the European Union have put Portugal on the road to prosperity.

Six Dates that Shaped Portugal

1498 Vasco da Gama sails Portugal into a century of wealth.

1755 An earthquake rocks Lisbon into poverty.

1822 Portugal loses Brazil as a colony.

1910 The monarchy is deposed and repressive military regimes rule.

1974 A left-wing revolution brings democracy.

1986 Portugal joins the European Community (the forerunner of the European Union), boosting the economy.

Portuguese Notables

Viriato (d. A.D. 139) — Legendary warrior who (unsuccessfully) resisted the Roman invasion.

Afonso Henriques (1095–1185) — Renowned Muslim-slayer and first king of a united, Christian nation.

Pedro I, the Just (1320–1367) — King and Father of John I, famous for his devotion to his murdered mistress, Inês de Castro.

John I (1358–1433) — King who preserved independence from Spain, launched an overseas expansion, fathered Prince Henry the Navigator, and established the House of Avis as the ruling family.

Henry the Navigator (1394–1460) — Devout, intellectual sponsor of naval expeditions during the Age of Discovery.

Manuel I, the Fortunate (r. 1495–1521) — Promoter of Vasco da Gama's explorations that made Portugal wealthy. Manueline, the decorative art style of that time, is named for him.

Pedro Cabral (1467–1520) — Explorer who found the sea route to Brazil (1500).

Bartolomeu Dias (1450–1500) — Navigator who rounded the tip of Africa in 1488, paving the way for Vasco da Gama.

Vasco da Gama (1460–1524) — Explorer who discovered the sea route to India, opening up Asia's wealth.

Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521) — Voyager who, sailing for Spain, led the first circumnavigation of the globe (1520).

Luis de Camões (1524–1580) — Swashbuckling adventurer and poet who captured the heroism of Vasco da Gama in his epic poem, "The Lusiads."

Marquês de Pombal (1699–1782) — Prime minister who tried to modernize backward Portugal and who rebuilt Lisbon after the 1755 quake.

Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) — Foremost Portuguese Modernist poet, immortalized in sculpture outside his favorite Lisbon café.

António Salazar (1889–1970) — "Portugal's Franco," a dictator who led Portugal for four decades, slowly modernizing while preserving rule by the traditional upper classes.