The Story of Spain



The Spanish Stage
A Word About Names
Chapter 1:   In the Beginning Was Iberia
Chapter 2:   The Romans Were Here
Chapter 3:   Medieval Spain
Chapter 4:   Moros Y Cristianos
Chapter 5:   Birth of the Spanish World
Chapter 6:   Ecstasy and Agony
Chapter 7:   The French Century
Chapter 8:   Liberal Spain
Chapter 9:   Best of Times, Worst of Times
Chapter 10:  The Spanish War
Chapter 11:  The Age of Franco
Chapter 12:  Contemporary Spain



Chapter 1 (excerpt)

When Phoenicia was defeated at home by Assyria and again by Babylonia, the stage was set for the rise of its most important colony-Carthage. Phoenicia's decline likewise encouraged Greeks to establish trading posts in Spain. Since time immemorial Greeks had been fascinated by kingdoms to the west.

In mythology, Hercules reached the limits of the Mediterranean and raised two great columns called the Pillars of Hercules, the twin mountains of Gibraltar and Mt. Acho in Ceuta. (As an interesting footnote, the story goes on to say that the hero engraved an S-shaped legend around the pillars that read "Do not go beyond here." The image somehow evolved into the dollar sign.) Hercules then proceeded on his quest for the golden apples of the Hesperides and the cattle of Geryon in the mysterious land beyond. The Greeks gave us the name Iberia, possibly a word for "river."  They also used Hesperia, meaning "land of the setting sun," which appears in Hercules' mytholgical quest for the golden apples of Hesperides.

According to Herodotus, the first Greek in Iberia was the adventurer Kolaios of Samos, who was blown off course and landed at Tartessos during the reign of Arganthonius. His reception was a warm one, and he returned to Greece with a cargo of 1,500 kilos of silver from the king, whose name itself meant "he of the silver land."  It is more likely that the voyage of Kolaios, about 2,300 kilometres each way, was actually planned with the fabulous Tartessian silver mines as the objective.

Traders from the Greek city of Phocaea followed, reaching Iberia around 600 BC to found the colonies of Rhode and Emporion ("market place") on the northeastern coast. The Greek presence was limited mainly to present-day Catalonia (place names ending in -oussa.) and did not penetrate the interior; they wanted trade, not conquest. Many places suggested as colonies were just small trading posts or landmarks; these include Mainake (Velez-Málaga), Hemeroskopeion (Denia), Alonis (Benidorm), and Akra-Leuke (Alicante).

The Greeks are credited with developing the olive and vine cultures on the peninsula and with striking the first coins. Perhaps the most notable Greek legacy is the classical influence on Iberian sculpture, seen in the famous Dama de Elche. Her elegant serenity reflects classical models, but the elaborate attire is clearly native. (The headdress almost seems to be a high comb and mantilla.) This superb statue of carved sandstone was accidentally unearthed in 1897 near the palm grove at Elche (Alicante). Like its "sister," the Dama de Baza, it had a funerary role, with a cavity in the back for ashes and bones.

Chapter 2 (excerpt)

Hannibal saw in Saguntum a chance to provoke his sworn enemies. After a bitter eight-month seige, the town fell and Rome was forced to respond. Iberia was suddenly thrust into center stage of the greatest military encounter of ancient history: the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). In this stuggle between the titans of antiquity the stakes were high and the fighting savage (Hannibal was known to routinely kill Iberian hostages to assure cooperation). Carthage was larger and wealthier, but Rome superior in manpower and enthusiasm.  And, of course, it had destiny on its side.

Two Roman legions (about 5,000 men each) landed at Emporion, but Hannibal had already left the peninsula with an army of 50,000 foot soldiers, 9,000 cavalry, and three dozen elephants. The most famous trek in military history would take them across the Alps and into Italy where, at Cannae, a Roman army was annihilated. Dozens of would-be spectators, including 80 members of the senate, also perished. Many of the dead were found with their faces buried in the earth, preferring to choke to death rather than be captured alive. Then, in one of history's most debated military decisions, Hannibal decided to rest his army for the winter rather than pressing on to victory. After the lull he never managed to finish off his enemy.

Meanwhile, Rome had opened a second front in Hispania. Roman legions pinned down an army under Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal, rendering it incapable of action in Italy. (When they finally did arrive, the Carthaginians were badly beaten, and Hasdrubal's severed head was thrown into his brother's camp.) A member of an illustrious Roman family, the dashing Publius Cornelius Scipio, arrived in Hispania to assume command. The new general captured Cartagena in a surprise attack, then followed up with a series of victories that climaxed with the fall of Gadir. Scipio went on to defeat Hannibal and end the war at Zama in North Africa.

To celebrate his Iberian victory, Scipio decided to settle wounded and retired soldiers at a spot he called Italica, whose ruins lie near present-day Sevilla. It became Rome's first colony in southern Spain and later a monumental city where two future emperors were born.


Chapter 3 (excerpt)



 Moorish historians relate how, after years of fighting, only thirty men remained of Pelayo's army, living like wild beasts on honey in the mountains. Finally the weary Moors retired, saying "What harm can thirty savage asses do to us?" But from the cave of Covadonga (where a shrine stands today), Pelayo organized resistance that culminated with the battle of Covadonga in about 720. According to Christian reports, 400,000 Muslims were miraculously killed when all the weapons they hurled flew back at them. In fact, Pelayo defeated a small marauding band in a skirmish. Nonetheless, the seeds of the Reconquest were planted.

The "savage ass" named Pelayo also helped create a great dynasty when his daughter married a local chieftain named Alfonso, founder of the kingdom of Asturias. Alfonso I reigned for 18 years and won back extensive territory; by his death (757) the Christians occupied about one-quarter of the peninsula. Toward the end of the century Asturias united with Galicia in the far northwest. This small fortress-kingdom with its back to the coast welcomed refugees from the south and assumed the role of defender of Christian civilization. (For reasons of simplicity, we often refer to the confusing kaleidoscope of kingdoms as "the Christians.") To honor this role as cradle of the nation, the heir to the Spanish throne is called Prince of Asturias, the equivalent of Britain's Prince of Wales.