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History of Spain

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Roman Spain

The Roman Empire at one point in history covered the larger part of the European continent, including Spain, and the country became one of the suppliers with the most needed goods. When the Roman Empire declined there was much less destruction in Spain than in any other of the Roman dominions.

During the flourishing state of the Roman Empire, Spain was known as the Roman Iberia. It was administratively parted into Hispania Ulterior and Hispania Citerior. It was even further divided into smaller regions: Hispania Taraconensis, Hispania Baetica and Lustancia (which nowadays is located in Portugal). These divisions remain apart of modern Spain, which has been divided into 15 regions.

Spain provided raw materials,  metals and food such as olive oil, wine and other goods. Spain has historical and political significance because it was the birthplace of the emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Theodosius the First and the philosopher Seneca. In the year 306, Spanish bishops were the heads of the Council at Elivira. When the Roman Empire fell, it didn’t create such crisis and havoc in Spain as it did in other western countries like Gaul, Germany and Britain. However, its infrastructure and economy, as well as its institutions suffered. All in all, it seems that Spanish culture was most damaged, if one can call Roman influence damage.

The Roman conquest started as early as year 19 BC with the invasion of the Carthaginian region and ended with the last resistance in the northwest in the same year. The south soon came under the Roman Empire’s growing domination with a frame of roads connecting towns and strategic bridges. Iberian cities including Merida, Cordoba, Seville and Cartagena passed into the hands of the Romans.

Around the end of 100 AD, the Spanish-born Trajan became Roman Emperor. Emperor Hadrian was also a descendant of a wealthy family from Spain. These rich families gained their fortune from agricultural production. The Spanish provinces exported a number of quality goods like garum (fish sauce) and precious metals (gold, copper and silver).

Spanish Colonial Empire

One of the largest Empires in the history of modern civilisation was also the first of global magnitude – the Spanish Empire. The so-called conquistadors conquered the Aztek, Inca and Maya civilisations. The empire dominated over the vast territories of North and South America. For a certain period of time, the Spanish Empire also ruled the oceans with its large and skilled navy. The ‘Golden Age’ of the Empire took place during the 16th and 17th Centuries.

The Spanish Colonial Empire flourished between 1521 and 1643. It was called the ‘Golden Age of Spain’, or Siglo de Oro in Spanish. Some sources say that during the 16th Century alone, the Spanish Queen held the equivalent of 1.5 trillion US dollars in gold and silver obtained from New Spain (the colonies). The empire was controlled from Seville, not from Madrid. The rise of the empire is also incredible, for it started from scratch because the Habsburg dynasty left Spain with no money, even in war, for example during the Castilian War of the Communities in the beginning of the 16th Century.

After Columbus’ discovery, many ships were launched to explore the new world.  Brave and uncompromising people called  ‘Conquistadors’ led them. The spread of disease among the natives of the new land worked in favour for the Conquistadors, and very soon the Aztecs and Incas, great people with great civilisations, were subdued and they knelt before the Spanish Empire. 

The most successful (or notorious) conquistador proved to be Hernan Cortes, who, with comparatively small forces, overthrew the Aztec Empire during the years 1519 – 21 and took its gold and added Mexico to ‘The New Spain’. The other great strike on the indigenous cultures was that of Francisco Pissaro, who led the warfare against Peru, the Inca Empire’s heart. The rumors of more gold caused numerous expeditions originating from Spain.

Spain in the Enlightenment

When Europe witnessed the beginnings of the Enlightenment, Spain was also included in this process. The dynasty of Bourbons ruled the country during this period. The Seven Years’ War with Britain resulted in Spain regaining some of its lost territories. However, at the end of this period, Spain lost its economic and political advantage to Britain, Germany and France.

Philip V, who was of French origin, was the first monarch from the Bourbon Dynasty. He signed an important document (decree) known as the Decreto de Nueva Planta, or the ‘Decree of the New Regime’, in the year 1715. This decree was a new law that annulled most of the previously signed rights and privileges of other kingdoms that subdued the Spanish Crown to different obligations, collecting them under the laws of Castile. Spain became politically and culturally similar to absolutist France (where the Bourbons originated). The next generation of the Bourbons, Ferdinand VI and Charles III, carried on with the same policy.

Under the reign of Charles III and his three ministers, Spain launched a program of enlightened despotism that ushered Spain into sudden prosperity in the second half of the eighteenth Century. After being an ally with France and losing to Britain in the Seven Years' War, Spain regained most of her territorial losses in the American Revolutionary War. The conquering spirit of Charles III was completely depleted in the reign of his son, Charles IV. Some historians believe he was even mentally deranged. He was heavily influenced by his wife’s lover. Ultimately, his policy ruined what his father had achieved. This also led to the separation of big territories of New Spain. The weakness of the country was noticed by no one other than Napoleon Bonaparte, who invaded Spain in 1808, which resulted in the Peninsular War.

Ruled by the Bonaparte Dynasty, Spain did not enter into the Industrial Revolution as did other countries in Europe. Spain quickly fell behind Britain, France and Portugal.

During the Enlightenment a lot of major artists produced work. One of the most significant pieces was by Francisco José de Goya (1746–1828). His work (painting, frescoes among others) started jolly and light only to become more and more grey and pessimistic, thus reflecting the political and cultural situation in Spain at the time.

Spanish Civil War

The division between right and left political wings led to the famous Spanish Civil War in the second half of the 1940s. There were many influential groups, including the colony of Morocco. Republicans lost the war and, unfortunately, as in almost any war, many civilians were killed. The most famous art piece from this period, which describes the horror of the war, is Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’.

In the 1930s, Spain’s political life was strongly divided into right and left parties. The left parties wanted land restructuring, autonomy of the separate regions and reduction of the clerical power. The democratic group, the biggest of which was CEDA  (it was also a Catholic coalition) was against the left parties on most of the problems. The left party came into power in the second half of the 1930s. Unfortunately, there were strong right anarchist movements, for example the CNT and FAI, both which undermined the work of the government. These strikes eventually escalated into gunfights. When the movement reached the level of burning whole churches, the Civil War was launched. The Republican police shot politician Jose Calvo-Sotelo and instigated the official beginning of the war. The right wing and high-ranking figures in the army had planned the coup well in advance.

On July 17, 1936, General Francisco Franco organised the colonial army from Morocco and attacked the mainland. From Navarre, another force led by Genreal Sanjurjo was directed to the south. Because the resistance was significant in crucial places like Madrid, Barcelona, the Basque land and Valencia, the country faced a long and exhausting war. Unfortunately, both sides received foreign aid. General Franco wanted to obtain all the power simultaneously, but the interference of foreign interests changed his plans. The Nationalists were supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy; whereas Portugal and the USSR supplied the so-called International Brigades with volunteers.

The Siege of the Alcázar at Toledo turned out be a pivotal point, and it was achieved at an early stage. The Nationalists won after a long and exhausting siege. The Republicans managed to hold Madrid, despite a Nationalist attack in November and subsequent and meaningless attacks against the then capital at Jarama and Guadalajara in 1937. However, immediately following these events, the Nationalists started to exhaust their territory, which resulted in mass hunger in Madrid, and they soon began to move in an eastward direction.

The North (plus the Basque land) and Aragon lost in the year 1937. The bombing of Guernica was probably the most notorious event in the whole war, inspiring many artists to react – most notably was Pablo Picasso and his huge black and white painting. Guernica was used as a testing ground for the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion. The last desperate effort by the Republicans became known as ‘The Battle of Ebro’. Although the war was finished in 1937, the formal end was the fall of Barcelona in early 1936.

Sources differ, but the war took approximately 600,000 human lives, destroyed priceless artifacts, as well as many houses, infrastructure and institutions. General Franco became a dictator in Spain, and as many as 150,000 Republicans were assassinated or executed during his dictatorship. Those whose lives were spared remained an exile.

Modern Spain

Until 1975 Spain was under the rule of the dictator Franco. Officially, Spain did not take part in World War I and World War II. The Spanish Civil War left much of the country in ruins. The country remained isolated from its neighbours in Western Europe, yet it started to catch up and has become one of the world’s economically stable countries.
The United Nations and Great Britain supported Spain (the UK had interest in Gibraltar). In the 1960s Spain imposed a lot of control measures on Gibraltar and even closed the border in 1969 (it was reopened in 1985). Spain had troops and control in Morocco but it all ended in 1956.

Dictator Franco was in power until his death in 1975. He was followed by King Juan Carlos. It was a time of havoc due to the demands from the king of Morocco, and the economy was also paralyzed. Spain changed its rule from dictatorship to a liberal state (even though Spain supported a monarchy).

Society changed as well, moving from conservative to liberal values and social moralities. In the early years of the 1980s the Union del Centro government ruled; however, following these events, the so-called 23-F coup d’etat occurred. It was an attempt to seize power against the Congress of the Deputies where Leopoldo Sotelo was to become President.

Now Spain uses the common European currency – the Euro, whereas before it used to be the Spanish Peseta. ETA is a notorious organisation that has wanted to separate the Basque country from the state. There was an atrocious commuter train bombing, where 191 people were killed and hundreds were injured. At first it looked like it was carried out by ETA, but after thorough investigation, it was confirmed that the bombing was connected to Al-Qaeda.

The first country to allow gays and lesbians to marry and adopt children was Spain – in 2005. On April 21, 2005, the country became the first country in the world to give full marriage and adoption rights to homosexual couples. Belgium and the Netherlands allow same-sex marriages, but do not allow homosexuals to adopt.

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