The prehistoric inhabitant of Spain, who have left their amazing paintings on the ceiling of the cave of Altamira, are a people about whom little else is known. These paintings are at least 13,000 years old but remarkably well preserved. They constitute the earliest representation of pictorial art in the peninsula, a field in which the Spaniards have excelled ever since the dark beginning of their history.
The Iberians, who are responsible for giving the peninsula its name, probably began to arrive in Spain from northern Africa around 3000 B.C. They occupied mainly the southern two-third of the peninsula, along and below the Ebro River. The name Ebro itself is from Iber, which is Iberian for “river”. Near the Valencia coast, the Iberians achieved a flourishing culture. They lived in wall cities. The Iberians were small, wiry, dark complexioned race, great riders of horses, and excessively clannish and tribalistic in their social organization.
The Phoenicians began their trade with Spain many centuries before Christ, and carried on a profitable commerce with the peninsula for an extended period. They are said to have founded the cities of Cádiz and Málaga in southern Spain. It was mainly the mineral wealth of this southwestern portion of the country which attracted the Phoenicians traders.
The Celts began to drift into Spain from the north around 900 B.C. and occupied the northern portion of the country, above the Ebro River. In the central part of Spain the mixture of this northern race with the Iberians produced the Celtiberians who were encountered later by the Greeks and the Romans. The Celts left a strong physical imprint on the population of northern Spain. In the Cantabrian and Pyrenean areas there is still today a high percentage of light-colored eyes and fair skin and hair.
The Greeks reached Spain around 600 b.c. They came first as traders but later established several trading posts mainly along the Mediterranean coast of the country. Their art fused with that of the more primitive Iberians. They left no great stone temples in Spain comparable to those in Sicily or Italy. Their Spanish structures were not enduring things. But they did bring their music and their musical instruments.
In the third century B.C. Carthage, a powerful Phoenician city in northern Africa invaded Spain. Hamilcar Barca, from whom Barcelona owes its name, assembled a fine army of Spanish infantry and Numidian horsemen and laid plan for the conquest of Italy. After Hamilcar’s death, his son Hannibal, one of the greatest generals of antiquity, put these plans into effect, taking his army across the Alps. He hung on for ten long years sweeping up and down Italy, winning many victories, but he was unable to consolidate his position.
In the meantime the Roman legions, under Scipio Africanus, had been engaging and beating the Carthaginians in Spain. In 209 B.C., he captured their base at Cartagena and drove them out of the peninsula, which then became a Roman province under the name Hispania. However, it was not until nearly two centuries later, under Augustus (19 B.C.), that the last of the restless and impressionable Spanish tribes were conquered and a true Pax Romana prevailed throughout the peninsula.
Hispania soon became the granary of Rome, and the wealthiest province of the empire. Agriculture and the raising of livestock were promoted on an extensive scale. Spanish horses were much sought after for Roman circuses because of their courage and swiftness. Olive oil, wines, and fruits were produced abundantly.
The Romans were extremely sensitive to the influence of language over the national manners, and it became their immediate concern to extend, with the progress of their arms, the use of the Latin tongue. The Latin spoken by Roman soldiers, called Vulgar Latin in order to distinguish it from the erudite written Latin, became the language of Spain. Roman law and customs were adopted throughout the land. The people were gradually Romanized.
Flourishing cities sprang up in all part of the peninsula and a great Roman highway, the Via Augusta, stretched from the Imperial City all the way across Spain with its terminus at Gades (Cádiz). Additional Roman roads connected the other important cities of the country. Incredible aqueducts were constructed to bring water to the towns of the dry tableland. The civilization of Spain became a urban thing, not urban and separate as in the days of the Iberians and Celtiberians, but urban and unified with perhaps the finest road system the country has ever had up to the twentieth century.
Christianity reached Spain in the first century A.D., also by way of Rome. Legend has it that St James brought the gospel to Aragon, León, and Galicia around 40 A.D., but this is not corroborated by the early church writers.
Under the Emperor Nero (54 A.D. – 68 A.D.) there were several Christian martyrs in Spain. These martyrs strewed the early history of the church in Spain with tormented bodies and great memories. They gave a real impetus to the new Spanish church. Indeed the Spanish interest for martyrdom exceeded that of any other country. Nevertheless, it was not until the reign of Constantine (325 A.D.) that all of Spain, along with the entire Roman Empire, became dominantly Christian.
In 409 A.D. three different Germanic tribes, the Suevi, the Vandals, and the Alani, poured into the peninsula. The Vandals overran the entire country, but settled mostly in southern Spain, hence the name Andalucia (Land of the Vandals). All three barbarian tribes ravaged the country, but the Vandals were excessively brutal, hence the name “vandalism”. A few years later, the fourth Germanic tribe, the semi-civilized Visigoths, swept into Spain and overcame the first three invaders. They were partially Romanized and largely Christians. They established their own dynasty in the Peninsula. The days of Roman domination were definitely over (500 A.D.).
The heritage of the Romans, however, left an indelible imprint on the nation and on the character of the people. This heritage consisted of a formidable trinity: 1) the Spanish language, derived from spoken Latin; 2) Roman law; 3) the Christian religion. To this must be added the contribution of Roman art, architecture, political organization, and customs.
It must be made clear that inhabitants of Spain were not yet really “Spaniards” in their way of thinking, in their feelings, or in their actions. Nevertheless, after the long Roman domination, Spanish culture and psychology were polarized in two opposite tendencies: On the one hand, the Roman feeling for union, centralization, and imperium; and on the other, the African tendency toward disunion, tribalism, and separatism. Throughout the following centuries the people of Spain have expressed themselves by moving first in one of these directions, only to swing suddenly in an about-face and move in the other. This essential dichotomy has never been resolved by democratic compromise for more than the briefest periods.
The Visigoth wanted desperately to be the new Romans. They spoke Latin; they imitated the Romans in their dress and at their court; they imitated also Roman law, and they adopted the Roman Catholic religion. However, they were a race whose vacillating culture rested on no long tradition or firm achievement. They could therefore neither preserve their own cultural past, nor immerse themselves completely in the Roman present. They could neither organize, nor rule, nor build as had the Romans. As the years passed by they lost their zeal for war, became soft and pleasure-loving, corrupt, and divisive. They formed in Spain a kind of nobility which did not endure long enough to find new strength in the emergent reality of the Spanish nation.
The Visigoth had every reason to believe that they were not destroying the Roman Empire, but that, on the contrary, they were preserving it with themselves in the seats of power. They proved to be an inept group politically, but they did preserve the Roman language and the Roman church.
Roman Catholicism became the state religion and Visigothic Spain was on its way to becoming a Visigothic-Romanic-Hispanic nation. Had this process of history been allowed to continue, Spain would have stayed in the main current of European history and culture. The Moors prevented it; they remained in the peninsula for nearly eight centuries, altering radically the very bedrock of beliefs, character, and psychology of the people.
Starting in the reign of Hadrian (117A.D. – 138 A.D.), and increasing among the Antonines, the Jews began to pour into Spain. They numbered many thousands when the Visigoths arrived and they were among the most industrious and most intelligent inhabitants of the country.
The Roman Catholic Visigoths turned their newfound religious union upon the Jews. They banished the entire Jewish nation from his dominions. In spite of this, the Jews continued in Spain.; they multiplied under servitude and distress; and the Visigoths could not bring themselves to expel in a body or to annihilate the Jewish victims and slaves who served up well to vent their fury and exalt their dominion. From all this it is easy to understand why the Jews welcomed the invasion of the Moors.
The Moors were fired with their zeal for the new religion of Mohammed. Hitherto a group of motley and heterogeneous tribes (Arabs, Berbers, Syrians, etc.), this newfound religious unity gave them a focus and an incentive for collective warfare and expansion. Islam and the Arabic language were the only unities that bound them, but this was sufficient. They were brave warriors, and all they needed was a banner. Islam gave them the banner.
After winning a decisive battle in the plains of Jerez, The Moors swept on to Toledo and in a few brief months Visigoth Spain had ceased to exist, in the year 711 A.D. The invaders were in complete control of the peninsula except for a very reduced area in the Cantabrian mountains. It was from these mountains that the Reconquest of the country began, and was continued for the next eight hundred years.