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Spain: Hispania
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting > Hispania


After its defeat by the Romans in the First Punic War (264-41 B.C.), Carthage compensated for its loss of Sicily by rebuilding a commercial empire in Spain. The country became the staging ground for Hannibal's epic invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.). Roman armies also invaded Spain and used it as a training ground for officers and as a proving ground for tactics during campaigns against the Carthaginians and the Iberians. Iberian resistance was fierce and prolonged, however, and it was not until 19 B.C. that the Roman emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.-A.D. 14) was able to complete the conquest of Spain.

Romanization of the Iberians proceeded quickly after their conquest. Called Hispania by the Romans, Spain was not one political entity but was divided into three separately governed provinces (nine provinces by the fourth century A.D.). More important, Spain was for more than 400 years part of a cosmopolitan world empire bound together by law, language, and the Roman road.

Iberian tribal leaders and urban oligarchs were admitted into the Roman aristocratic class, and they participated in governing Spain and the empire. The latifundios (sing., latifundio), large estates controlled by the aristocracy, were superimposed on the existing Iberian landholding system.

The Romans improved existing cities, established Zaragoza, Merida, and Valencia, and provided amenities throughout the empire. Spain's economy expanded under Roman tutelage. Spain, along with North Africa, served as a granary for the Roman market, and its harbors exported gold, wool, olive oil, and wine. Agricultural production increased with the introduction of irrigation projects, some of which remain in use. The HispanoRomans -- the romanized Iberians and the Iberian-born descendants of Roman soldiers and colonists -- had all achieved the status of full Roman citizenship by the end of the first century A.D. The emperors Trajan (r. 98-117), Hadrian (r. 117-38), and Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-80) were born in Spain.

Christianity was introduced into Spain in the first century, and it became popular in the cities in the second century. Little headway was made in the countryside, however, until the late fourth century, by which time Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Some heretical sects emerged in Spain, but the Spanish church remained subordinate to the Bishop of Rome. Bishops who had official civil, as well as ecclesiastical, status in the late empire continued to exercise their authority to maintain order when civil governments broke down in Spain in the fifth century. The Council of Bishops became an important instrument of stability during the ascendancy of the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe.

In 405 two Germanic tribes, the Vandals and the Suevi, crossed the Rhine and ravaged Gaul until the Visigoths, drove them into Spain. The Suevi established a kingdom in the remote northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The hardier Vandals, never exceeding 80,000, occupied the region that bears their name -- Andalusia (Spanish, Andalucia).

Because large parts of Spain were outside his control, the western Roman emperor, Honorius (r. 395-423), commissioned his sister, Galla Placidia, and her husband Ataulf, the Visigoth king, to restore order in the Iberian Peninsula, and he gave them the rights to settle in and to govern the area in return for defending it. The highly romanized Visigoths managed to subdue the Suevi and to compel the Vandals to sail for North Africa. In 484 they established Toledo as the capital of their Spanish monarchy. The Visigothic occupation was in no sense a barbarian invasion, however. Successive Visigothic kings ruled Spain as patricians who held imperial commissions to govern in the name of the Roman emperor.

There were no more than 300,000 Germanic people in Spain, which had a population of 4 million, and their overall influence on Spanish history is generally seen as minimal. They were a privileged warrior elite, though many of them lived as herders and farmers in the valley of the Rio Tajo and on the central plateau. Hispano-Romans continued to run the civil administration, and Latin continued to be the language of government and of commerce.

Under the Visigoths, lay culture was not so highly developed as it had been under the Romans, and the task of maintaining formal education and government shifted decisively to the church because its Hispano-Roman clergy alone were qualified to manage higher administration. As elsewhere in early medieval Europe, the church in Spain stood as society's most cohesive institution, and it embodied the continuity of Roman order.

Religion was the most persistent source of friction between the Roman Catholic Hispano-Romans and their Arian Visigoth overlords, whom they considered heretical. At times this tension invited open rebellion, and restive factions within the Visigothic aristocracy exploited it to weaken the monarchy. In 589 Recared, a Visigoth ruler, renounced his Arianism before the Council of Bishops at Toledo and accepted Catholicism, thus assuring an alliance between the Visigothic monarchy and the Hispano-Romans. This alliance would not mark the last time in Spanish history that political unity would be sought through religious unity.

Court ceremonials -- from Constantinople -- that proclaimed the imperial sovereignty and unity of the Visigothic state were introduced at Toledo. Still, civil war, royal assassinations, and usurpation were commonplace, and warlords and great landholders assumed wide discretionary powers. Bloody family feuds went unchecked. The Visigoths had acquired and cultivated the apparatus of the Roman state, but not the ability to make it operate to their advantage. In the absence of a well-defined hereditary system of succession to the throne, rival factions encouraged foreign intervention by the Greeks, the Franks, and, finally, the Muslims in internal disputes and in royal elections.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Spain was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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