The timeline and history of Spain and the Iberian Peninsula is home to a vast and diverse array of civilizations and cultures. Dozens of different societies brought their influence to the region over the last few millennia.
The peninsula is located in southwestern Europe and home to the modern day countries of Spain and Portugal. Both countries have benefited from the mixing of cultures and host an extremely diverse population.
Modern day Spain can trace its origins back to some of Europe’s most advanced civilizations. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans all controlled parts or the entirety of the peninsula.
In fact, the name Iberia derives from the Greek word for the river Ebro (Iberos) located in the northeast and which flows into the Mediterranean Sea. The east coast of Iberia is located along the western edge of the Mediterranean Sea, making it an ideal location for ancient trade routes. The modern Spanish cities of Barcelona, Valencia and Malaga all thrived as centers of trade and dominated regional affairs.
Upon the end of Roman rule, a long struggle engulfed the peninsula between varying powers attempting to control its vast and fertile lands. The Visigoths and Byzantines ruled for a time, but the most well-known struggle is between that of the Islamic conquerors from North Africa and the assorted Christian kingdoms that emerged in defiance.
The long conflict, known as Reconquista, left a measurable impact on the timeline, history and legacy of modern day Spain. The new nation emerged as a world power upon the re-discovery of the Americas, though it was quickly eclipsed by other Europeans.
Since the erosion of the nations overseas territories in the 18th/19th centuries, Spain has taken a backseat on world affairs, though through its rich history it has ingrained itself as a cultural hub and travel destination.
Timeline of the History of Spain and the Iberian Peninsula
The chart below shows a rough timeline of the various political entities that reigned throughout the history of Spain and the Iberian Peninsula.
Pre-History of the Iberian Peninsula
DNA evidence shows that for thousands of years the Iberian Peninsula was a crossroads of sorts. Mass migrations came in several different waves. First was the influx of hunter-gatherer groups called the “Villabruna” who came to coexist with the original hunter-gather groups called the “Goyet”.
Next was a mass-migration of peoples originally from Anatolia about 7,500 years ago, who brought domesticated plants and animals with them. The new farmers virtually overran the hunter-gatherers, though there is evidence of the Goyet-Villabruna people adapting to farming methods.
Another later migration came from North Africa. DNA from excavated skeletons in central Spain show ancestry from the North African region. Later archeological digs also confirmed this finding.
Copper and Bronze Age Spain featured some highly advanced cultures for its time. The Los Millares and subsequent El Argar civilizations give a glimpse at what life was like 4,000-6,000 years ago, prior to yet another large migration, this time from Celtic peoples speaking Indo-European languages from central Europe.
The Celts intermarried with the existing peoples of the region and formed a new group collectively called the Celtiberians. This is a reference to the strong cultural influences of the Celtic people on the region, and how they came to dominate the landscape in pre-Roman times.
These discoveries show that for thousands of years before the major civilizations graced the region, mass migrations were engulfing and shaping Spain from every direction.
Phoenician, Greek & Roman Rule of the Iberian Peninsula
At the end of the Bronze Age and early Iron Age the Phoenicians began building settlements along the south coast of the Iberian Peninsula. The Phoenicians were a sea faring people from the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea and were primarily interested in the trade of the metal producing societies of the coast.
The abundance of precious metals – particularly silver – was a major draw for the trade based society. Historians even theorize that the Iberian mountains were the biblical Tarshish where King Solomon sent his men to collect gold, silver, and other luxeries.1
The Phoenician city of Gadir (modern day Cadiz) was founded around 1100 BCE and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Western Europe. Other trade cities such as Malaga and Ibiza were founded and inhabited by the Phoenicians.
While the Phoenicians remained in the south, the Greeks founded cities on the northeastern coast. A major hub was the city of Emporion and nearby Rhode also became a regional trade center.
The Phoenician city of Carthage became an empire in its own right, and soon established cities on the Mediterranean coast competing with the Greeks. The city of Carthago Nova (modern day Cartagena) was its central hub that traded precious metals for the Carthaginian Empire. Carthage was the first entity to move significantly inland from the coast as it established its domain far into central Spain through brutal warfare.
With the Roman victories in the Punic Wars, in 218 BCE the Romans occupied former Carthaginian cities on the Iberian Peninsula. It wasn’t until nearly 200 years later, in 19 BCE, that the Romans brought the entire peninsula under their control.
The Iberian colonies were a treasured part of the Roman empire. The Roman elite welcomed influential Iberian families into the political fold of Roman society, and several emperors (such as the “Good Emperors” Trajan and Hadrian) hailed from Iberian cities.
Islamic Conquest of Spain
After the fall of the Roman empire there was a brief power vacuum in the peninsula. In its wake various Germanic tribes moved into the region, such as the Suebi, Vandals and Visigoths.
By the early/mid 5th century, the Visigoths had conquered most of the peninsula. Only the south remained independent under Byzantine rule from 554-624.
The Visigoths ruled until the early 8th century when they were beset by new invaders from the south. A combined Arab and Berber force launched an invasion of the peninsula from North Africa upon reports of political division within the Visigoth kingdom.2
The invasion and subsequent conquest was swift, with a vast majority of the peninsula coming under the control of the Umayyad Caliphate within eight years. Only a few small Christian kingdoms remained in the north of the peninsula.
The region of Muslim control of the Iberian peninsula was known as Al-Andalus and Europeans generically referred to the Muslims invaders as “The Moors.” The Umayyad’s of Al-Aldalus were essentially an autonomous polity by the mid-8th century and transformed the region into a center of culture and learning.
The Islamic rulers themselves dealt with fractured polities and periods of upheaval. Their Christian enemies seized upon these to gradually claw back territory. By the 13th century, Islamic power had waned and only held a small amount of territory in the south.
The Christian Kingdoms of Spain & Reconquista
Almost immediately after the Arab/Berber conquest of Spain in the 8th century, the small Christian kingdoms that remained sought to win back their lost territory. At the Battle of Covadonga in 718 or 722, the Christians scored a major victory against the Umayyad.
This victory is often referred to as the first of the Reconquista, or expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian peninsula. It was a struggle that would last for centuries, and lead to near constant warfare across the peninsula throughout.
From the 8th to 15th centuries, a variety of Christian kingdoms would emerge. Not only would these kingdoms fight with the Muslims, but they also vied with each other for regional dominance. Several of the emerging kingdoms included:
- Kingdom of Leon
- Kingdom of Navarre
- Counties of Catalonia
- Kingdom of Castile
- Kingdom of Aragon
- Kingdom of Portugal
Through the centuries, these kingdoms would also align politically at various times. The Christians delivered a staggering blow to the Muslims at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 and successfully transferred power and influence from the south to the north of the peninsula. Islamic influence gradually waned, until only one small province (Granada) was remaining by the 13th century.3
Three major polities remained towards the end of the 15th century: The Kingdom of Portugal, Castile and Aragon.
Creation of the Spanish Monarchy
The timeline and history of modern day Spain can be traced back to the political union of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. Queen Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon married in 1469. Ferdinand ascended to the throne of Aragon in 1479, bringing the two kingdoms together for the first time.
Historians refer to the two rulers as “The Catholic Monarchs” who oversaw the completion of the Reconquista in 1492. With that, the rulers issued an edict expelling all Jews and Muslims from Spain.
Isabella and Ferdinard also engineered the beginnings of Spain’s emerged to global power. Through funding the voyage of Columbus and subsequent voyages to the Americas, Spain acquired a vast overseas empire.
Upon their deaths, Aragon and Castile briefly reverted back to their independent polities. A few years later in 1516, Charles I of the Habsburg dynasty (grandson of Ferdinand II and Isabella I) became the king of Spain. This is the effective beginning of the Spanish monarchy under Habsburg rule.
With unification complete, Spain vied for global supremacy. Their overseas possessions made them arguably the most wealthy nation for a time. Spanish influence and power waned over the subsequent centuries, coinciding with the decline and loss of overseas possessions.
In the modern age, Spain no longer adheres to a monarchy, but has committed to democracy as a member of the European Union since 1986.
1) Treumann-Watkins, Brigette. “Phoenicians in Spain.” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 55, no. 1, 1992, pp. 29–35. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3210238.
2) Lodge, John Davis. “THE IBERIAN PENINSULA AND WESTERN EUROPE.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 16, no. 1, 1962, pp. 77–88. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24363099.
3) O’Callaghan, Joseph F. A History of Medieval Spain. Cornell University Press, 1975. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt5hh0cv.