Blog single

A Short History of Spain- Part 1: Iberia Before the Romans

The Raw Ingredients

When we think about Spain today we think about the polit­i­cal enti­ty that loose­ly binds the pop­u­la­tion of about 85% of the land­mass of the Iber­ian Penin­su­la. This polit­i­cal bind­ing required hege­mo­ny, and hege­mo­ny over exten­sive geo­graph­i­cal areas did not arrive until the Romans occu­pied and began orga­niz­ing the Penin­su­la as a province. That being said, for us to under­stand what the Romans faced it’s impor­tant to con­sid­er the raw cul­tur­al prod­ucts that they inherited. 

As I stat­ed in my intro­duc­tion to this series, we are under­tak­ing this jour­ney not sim­ply to appre­ci­ate the spe­cif­ic pieces of the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, but rather to pro­duce a bet­ter under­stand­ing of Spain today, and per­haps tomor­row. In the intro­duc­tion to his sin­gle-vol­ume his­to­ry of Spain, Vio­len­cia, Jason Web­ster refers to Spain as a Cas­san­dra, for­ev­er pre­dict­ing the future of those around her; what hap­pens there (in Spain), fore­shad­ows events else­where.” It is wise, there­fore, for us to pay attention.

Today we will ask our­selves one of the most fun­da­men­tal ques­tions that any per­son, group, or nation faces. Who are we? Where did we come from? The pre­his­toric his­to­ry of Spain is fas­ci­nat­ing, and I touch upon it dur­ing my pre­vi­ous post on the cave paint­ings at Altami­ra. Hominids have been present in Spain for over 1 mil­lion years, with Homo Sapi­ens pro­duc­ing arche­o­log­i­cal records at least 35,000 years old. How­ev­er, the major migra­tions that cre­at­ed the first real eth­nic and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ties took place dur­ing and after the 2ndMil­len­ni­um BCE. We broad­ly divide these two groups that immi­grat­ed to the Penin­su­la as Celts and Iberi­ans. While the Celts had their roots in cen­tral Europe, the ori­gin of the Iber­ian peo­ple is debat­ed, with many schol­ars con­clud­ing that they came from the East­ern Mediter­ranean area.

Normal Width Image

Very General Reflection of The Early Ethnic Organization of the Peninsula

While these two groups did not typ­i­cal­ly inter­fere with each oth­er, it was the Iberi­ans that had first con­tact with the emerg­ing sophis­ti­cat­ed cul­tures of the Mediter­ranean, and thus lent their name to the Penin­su­la. The first of these arriv­ing cul­tures were the Phoeni­cians. The Phoeni­cians came from the area sur­round­ing mod­ern-day Lebanon and were the Mediter­ranean’s first great orga­niz­ers of trade. Arche­o­log­i­cal records show that their arrival in about 1100 BCE was gen­er­al­ly peace­ful and brought increas­ing pros­per­i­ty to the Iberi­ans who rapid­ly adapt­ed them­selves to for­eign fash­ion, econ­o­my, and tech­nol­o­gy. The Phoeni­cians left a pow­er­ful lega­cy along the south­ern coast, found­ing the cities of Mala­ga and Cadiz, among the old­est occu­pied cities in Europe. Mean­while, the Greeks had their own trad­ing inter­ests and estab­lished large trad­ing posts along the North­east coast of the Penin­su­la. The ruins of the great­est of these Greek cen­ters, Empúries (in mod­ern-day Cat­alo­nia), is well worth the vis­it if you are trav­el­ing in that area. All these ear­ly coastal trad­ing assets were lat­er absorbed by the Carthagini­ans, set­ting the stage for the Punic Wars and the arrival of the Romans. 

Mean­while, Spain’s Celtic inte­ri­or was anoth­er mat­ter alto­geth­er. As opposed to the rel­a­tive­ly well-orga­nized Iber­ian city-states along the coasts, the Celts were a patch­work of lan­guages, alliances, and inter­ests. One of the most pow­er­ful of these Celtic groups was the Lusi­ta­ni­ans who would even­tu­al­ly become the Por­tuguese. These Celts were main­ly farm­ers and shep­herds with lit­tle resem­blance to the Iberi­ans. The Carthagini­ans were the first for­eign pow­er” that attempt­ed to bring order to the inte­ri­or but were prompt­ly dis­suad­ed. In addi­tion to the war­rior tribes that could form effec­tive alliances if forced to do so, the inte­ri­or pre­sent­ed geo­graph­i­cal chal­lenges that would shape much of Spain’s his­to­ry. Spain is the sec­ond most moun­tain­ous coun­try in mod­ern Europe, giv­ing way only to Switzer­land. Wag­ing war in Spain’s inte­ri­or required vast logis­ti­cal resources, requir­ing an invad­er to over­come a nat­ur­al defen­sive sys­tem. As we will see, nei­ther the Romans, the Moors, nor any Euro­pean pow­ers were able to sub­ju­gate cer­tain cor­ners of the Peninsula. 

It is worth not­ing the third eth­nic group that I iden­ti­fy in the rough map above. The Vas­cones, known today as the Basques, were (like the Iberi­ans) not Indo-Euro­pean. In fact, their lan­guage, which is still spo­ken today, is some­what of a mys­tery with­out estab­lished roots and appar­ent­ly unre­lat­ed to the Iber­ian or Celtic tongues. We will return to the Basques lat­er in this series as we exam­ine their claims for auton­o­my and their role in mod­ern Span­ish history. 

Normal Width Image

One of many Celtiberian Archeological Sites in Modern Day Aragon, Spain

Today, many peo­ple refer to these pre-Roman res­i­dents of the Penin­su­la sim­ply as Celtiberi­ans, reflect­ing a grad­ual fusion. It’s inter­est­ing to note that there is gen­er­al agree­ment that the mod­ern Celtic” eth­nic­i­ty claimed by many in the UK is prob­a­bly Celtiber­ian; the result of migra­tion from the North­ern Coast of Spain to the British Isles dur­ing the first mil­len­ni­um BC. (Read more here.) There is indeed a great deal of shared sym­bol­o­gy, and in a reverse flow of this exchange, the nation­al musi­cal instru­ment in Gali­cia today is the bagpipe. 

What are some take-aways here that might devel­op the­mat­i­cal­ly as our sto­ry continues?

  • We have coastal and inte­ri­or inter­ests that are not aligned, with a major­i­ty of the tech­no­log­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al devel­op­ment occur­ring on the coasts. (This theme is cer­tain­ly not unique to Spain.) 
  • We have a patch­work of trib­al inter­ests that are cast into alliances in the face of neces­si­ty. There is an idea of the other”. 
  • We see Spain’s sta­tus as a nexus of com­merce and cross­roads of cul­tures attract­ing waves of new ideas and cul­tures. Some­thing new is tak­ing form in this diver­si­ty of influences. 

Ear­li­er, I posed the ques­tions, who are we? Where do we come from? These are loaded ques­tions to some extent because when we look back, we find that we are often an amal­ga­ma­tion of influ­ences. As we move for­ward in this jour­ney, we will find con­tin­u­al tur­bu­lence in the mesh­ing of eth­nic and cul­tur­al forces, both inter­nal­ly and exter­nal­ly. This is not a repu­di­a­tion of any tra­di­tion, only a recog­ni­tion that no tra­di­tion belongs to us exclu­sive­ly. We will revis­it this theme.

In the next chap­ter of our sto­ry, we will begin to see traces of mod­ern Spain as Rome sub­dues much of the inte­ri­or and estab­lish­es last­ing infra­struc­ture and insti­tu­tions. Thanks as always for join­ing me.