Spanish History 101

A peaceful transfer of power — from declining Romans to up-and-coming Visigoths — rescued Segovia's delicate aqueduct from target practice.
By Rick Steves

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue — and Spain became a nation, too. Iberia's sunny weather, fertile soil, and Mediterranean ports have long made it a popular place to call home. The original "Iberians" were a Celtic people, who crossed the Pyrenees around 800 B.C. The Greeks and Phoenicians established the city of Cádiz around 1100 B.C., and Carthaginians settled around 250 B.C.

Romans (c. 200 B.C.–A.D. 400)

The future Roman Emperor Augustus finally quelled the last Iberian resistance (19 B.C.), making the province of "Hispania" an agricultural breadbasket (olives, wine) to feed the vast Roman empire. The Romans brought the Latin language, a connection to the wider world, and (in the 4th century), Christianity. When the empire crumbled around A.D. 400, Spain made a peaceful transition, ruled by Christian Visigoths from Germany with strong Roman ties. Roman influence remained for centuries after, in the Latin-based Spanish language, irrigation, and building materials and techniques. The Romans' large farming estates would change hands over the years, passing from Roman senators to Visigoth kings to Islamic caliphs to Christian nobles. And, of course, the Romans left wine.

Moors (711–1492)

In A.D. 711, 12,000 zealous members of the world's newest religion — Islam — landed on the Rock of Gibraltar and, in three short years, conquered the Iberian Peninsula. These North African Muslims — generically called "Moors" — dominated Spain for the next 700 years. Though powerful, they were surprisingly tolerant of the people they ruled, allowing native Jews and Christians to practice their faiths, so long as the infidels paid extra taxes.

The "Moors" were themselves an ethnically diverse culture, including both crude Berber tribesmen from Morocco and sophisticated rulers from old Arab families. From their capital in Córdoba, various rulers of the united Islamic state of "Al-Andalus" pledged allegiance to foreign caliphs in Syria, Baghdad, or Morocco.

With cultural ties that stretched from Spain to Africa to Arabia to Persia and beyond, the Moorish culture in Spain (especially around A.D. 800–1000) was perhaps Europe's most advanced, a beacon of learning in Europe's so-called "Dark" Ages. Mathematics, astronomy, literature and architecture flourished. Even wine-making was encouraged, though for religious reasons Muslims weren't allowed to drink alcohol. The Moorish legacy lives on today in architecture (horseshoe arches, ceramic tiles, fountains and gardens), language (e.g., Spanish el comes from Arabic al) ...and wine.

Reconquista (711–1492)

The Moors ruled for more than 700 years, but throughout that time they were a minority ruling a largely Christian populace. Pockets of independent Christians remained, particularly in the mountains in the peninsula's north. Local Christian kings fought against the Moors whenever they could, whittling away at the Muslim empire, "re-conquering" more and more land in what's known as the "Reconquista." The last Moorish stronghold, Granada, fell to the Christians in 1492.

The slow, piecemeal process of the Reconquista split the peninsula into many independent kingdoms and dukedoms, some Christian, some Moorish. The Reconquista picked up steam after A.D. 1000, when Al-Andalus splintered into smaller regional states — Granada, Sevilla, Valencia — ruled by local caliphs. Toledo fell to the Christians in 1085. By 1200 the Christian state of Portugal had the borders it does today, making it the oldest unchanged state in Europe. The rest of the peninsula was a battleground, a loosely knit collection of small kingdoms, some Christian, some Muslim. Heavy stone "castles" dotted the interior region of "Castile," as lords and barons duked it out. Along the Mediterranean coast (from the Pyrenees to Barcelona to Valencia), three Christian states united into a sea-trading power, the kingdom of Aragon.

In 1469, Isabel of Castile married Ferdinand II of Aragon, uniting the peninsula's two largest kingdoms, and instantly making united Spain a European power. In 1492, while Columbus explored the seas under Ferdinand and Isabel's flag, the "Catholic Monarchs" drove the Moors out of Granada and expelled the country's Jews, creating a unified, Christian, sea-trading, militaristic nation-state, fueled by the religious zeal of the Reconquista.

The Golden Age (1500–1600)

Spain's bold sea explorers changed the economics of Europe, opening up a New World of riches and colonies. The Spanish flag soon flew over most of South and Central America. Gold, silver, and agricultural products (grown on large estates with cheap labor) poured into Spain. In return, the stoked Spaniards exported Christianity, converting the American natives with kind Jesuit priests and cruel conquistadors.

Ferdinand and Isabel's daughter (Juana the Mad) wed a German prince (Philip the Fair), and their son inherited both crowns. Charles V (1500–1558, called Carlos I in Spain) was the most powerful man in the world, ruling an empire that stretched from Holland to Sicily, from Bohemia to Bolivia. The aristocracy and the clergy were swimming in money. Art and courtly life flourished during this Golden Age, with Spain hosting the painter El Greco and the writer Miguel De Cervantes.

But Charles V's Holy Roman Empire was torn by different languages and ethnic groups, and by protesting Protestants. He spent much of the nation's energies at war with Protestants, encroaching Muslim Turks, and Europe's rising powers. When an exhausted Charles announced his abdication (1555) and retired to a monastery, his sprawling Empire was divvied up among family members, with Spain and its possessions going to his son, Philip II (1527–1598).

Philip conquered Portugal (1580, his only winning war), moved Spain's capital to Madrid, built El Escorial, and continued fighting losing battles across Europe (the Netherlands, France) that drained the treasury of its New World gold. In the summer of 1588, Spain's seemingly unbeatable royal fleet of 125 ships — the Invincible Armada — sailed off to conquer England, only to be unexpectedly routed in battle by bad weather and Sir Francis Drake's cunning. Just like that, Britannia ruled the waves, and Spain spiraled downward, becoming a debt-ridden, overextended, flabby nation.

Slow Decline (1600–1900)

The fast money from the colonies kept Spain from seeing the dangers at home. They stopped growing their own wheat and neglected their fields. Great Britain and the Netherlands were the rising sea-trading powers in the new global economy. During the centuries when science and technology developed as never before in other European countries, Spain was preoccupied by its failed colonial politics. (Still, Spain in the 1600s produced the remarkable painter Diego Velázquez.)

By 1700, once-mighty Spain lay helpless while rising powers France, England, and Austria fought over the right to pick Spain's next king in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), which was fought partly on Spanish soil (e.g., Britain holding out against the French in the Siege of Gibraltar). The rightful next-in-line was Louis XIV's son, who was set to inherit both France and Spain. The rest of Europe didn't want powerful France to become even more stronger. The war ended in compromise, preventing Louis XIV from controlling both countries, but allowing his grandson to become King of Spain (Spain lost several possessions). The French-born, French-speaking Bourbon King Philip V (1683–1746) ruled Spain for 40 years. He and his heirs made themselves at home building the Versailles-like Royal Palace in Madrid and La Granja near Segovia.

The French Revolution spilled over into Spain, bringing French rule under Napoleon. In 1808, the Spaniards rose up (chronicled by Goya's paintings of the 2nd and 3rd of May, 1808), sparking the Peninsular War — called the War of Independence by Spaniards — that finally won Spain's independence from French rule.

Nineteenth-century Spain was a backward nation, with internal wars over which noble family should rule (the Carlist Wars), liberal revolutions put down brutally, and political assassinations. Spain gradually lost its global possessions to other European powers and to South American revolutionaries. Spain hit rock bottom in 1898 when the upstart United States picked a fight and thrashed them in the Spanish-American War, taking away Spain's last major possessions, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

The 20th Century

A drained and disillusioned Spain was ill-prepared for modern technology and democratic government. The old ruling class (the monarchy, church, and landowners) fought new economic powers (cities, businessmen, labor unions) in a series of coups, strikes, and sham elections. In the '20s, a military dictatorship under Miguel Primo de Rivera kept the old guard in power. In 1930, he was ousted and an open election brought a modern democratic Republic to power. But the right-wing regrouped under the Falange (fascist) party, fomenting unrest and sparking a military coup against the Republic in 1936, led by General Francisco Franco (1892–1975).

For three years (1936–1939), Spain fought a bloody Civil War between Franco's Nationalists (also called Falangists) and the Republic (also called Loyalists). Some 600,000 Spaniards died (due to all causes), and Franco won. (For more on the Civil War, see Valley of the Fallen, page 144.) For the next four decades, Spain was ruled by Franco, an authoritarian, church-blessed dictator who tried to modernize the backward country while shielding it from corrupting modern influences. Spain was neutral in World War II, and the country spent much of the post-War era as a world apart. (On my first visit to Spain in 1973, I came face-to-face with fellow teenagers — me in backpack and shorts, they in military uniforms, brandishing automatic weapons.)

Before Franco died, he hand-picked his protégé, King Juan Carlos I, to succeed him. But to everyone's surprise, the young, conservative, mild-mannered king stepped aside, settled for a figurehead title, and guided the country quickly and peacefully toward democratic elections (1977).

Spain had a lot of catching up to do. Culturally, the once-conservative nation exploded and embraced new ideas, even plunging to wild extremes. In the 1980s, Spain flowered under the left-leaning Prime Minister Felipe González. Spain showed the world its new modern face in 1992, hosting both a World Exhibition at Sevilla and the Summer Olympics at Barcelona.

The 21st Century

From 1996 to 2004, Spain was led by the centrist Prime Minister José María Aznar. He adopted moderate policies to minimize the stress on the country's young democracy, fighting problems such as unemployment and foreign debt with reasonable success. However, his support of George W. Bush's pre-emptive war in Iraq was extremely unpopular with the vast majority of Spaniards. In spring of 2004, the retiring Aznar supported a similarly centrist successor, Mariano Rajoy, who seemed poised to win the election. On the eve of the election, on March 11, three Madrid train stations were bombed at the height of rush hour, killing 200 people. The terrorist group claiming responsibility denounced Spain's Iraq policy, and three days later, Aznar's party lost the election. The newly elected prime minister, left-of-center José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, quickly began pulling Spain's troops out of Iraq, as well as enacting sweeping social changes in Spain.