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Modern Spain was first formed when the Romans took over the Iberian Peninsula, ejecting Carthaginian occupiers in the south and culturally assimilating the various tribes scattered throughout that country. The Visigoths who then took over from the Romans continued to retain the cultural and administrative legacy of the Romans, before falling into anarchy and being overthrown by Muslim Berbers who took most of the country. Although some of the Visigothic nobility survived and their children would come to expel the Muslims and inerhit the land, the many conflicts and interactions that characterised the Middle Ages in Spain led to a curious blending of Germanic Roman and Muslim cultures that has survived even to our day.
The Romans in Iberia
Despite the long presence of indigenous cultures in Iberia, it was not until after the Second Punic War that Iberia and its people would begin to make their presence felt on a global level. The Romans would extend their control over the region beyond the Carthaginian colonies into the rest of the Iberian peninsula over the next two hundred years, finally managing to pacify the Peninsula by 27BCE once and for all. Iberia was subsequently divided into three provinces: Tarraconense and Baetica (present-day Spain) and Lusitania (roughly present-day Portugal). An aggressive process of Romanisation took place, helped along by the liquidation of hostile tribes, and by the 1st century CE Iberia was effectively a Roman province with a culture that was wholly Roman in nature.
The Goths and Spain
Barbarian incursions became more and more prevailent as Roman authority sputtered out over the course of the Dark Ages, but it was the Visigoths who would eventually take over Spanish society, forming a warrior elite ruling the overwhelming majority of the native Hispano-Romans and established Toledo as capital.
Over eighty years later, the Visigoth king Leovigild expelled the imperial civil servants and attempted to unify the Peninsula from the Pyrenees to Gibraltar, which formed natural barriers from which Spain would hold as its borders to this day. They were more or less successful in their unification efforts, except in the north, where the Basques, Cantabrians and Asturians managed to hold out against them.
Despite being Germanic in nature and culture, the Goths chose to retain the Roman culture of Iberia, albeit with a few German embellishments here and there. Trade with the Byzantine Empire allowed Visigothic Spain to maintain its urban culture and its commercial and cultural connections within the Mediterranean domain, against the tide of fragmentation and chaos of Dark Age Europe.
Christianity, originally little more than an obscure religious sect during Roman rule, soon became ensconced as the religion of the Visigothic rulers. By the 7th century, however, the Visigothic Kingdom was only nominally united. Their system of elected Kings created rival factions which encouraged foreign intervention by the Greeks, the Franks, and, finally, the Muslims in internal disputes and royal elections.
Under the rule of the Arabs
In 711, a Muslim army under Jabal Tariq ibn Ziyad (whose name Gibraltar was derived from) crossed into Spain, and killed the king of the Visigoths, who until that time had been ruling Iberia since the day they first arrived there. Ibn Ziyad would return to Morocco eventually, but in the next year Musa ibn Nusair, invaded with a force of 20,000 men. They quickly swept through Spain, aided by the vast Roman road system, and were able to defeat the entire Visigothic Kingdom relatively easily due to the political disarray of the nobility. Muslim forces spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula and eventually crossed the Pyrenees into the domain of the Franks (in modern day France), reaching as far as Poitiers by 732. Despite this, there were a number of holdouts in the North that would be able to not only resist the new invaders, but go on to create the modern states of Portugal and Spain, but their time would not come well until half a millenium or so later.
Nonetheless, the newcomers left lasting influences on Spanish and Lusitanian culture, the evidence of which can be seen to this day despite the assertions of contemporary far-right groups who want to distance themselves from their Arab roots as much as possible. It is not uncommon for casual travellers throughout Hispanic nations to discover that Arab-style tiling is often used for decoration of some houses, or that many words in modern-day Spanish and Portuguese are in fact loanwords from old Arabic. The architectural designs of the Moors were transmitted into Spain itself through Arabised Christians who were known as musta'rabeen or, in Spanish, mozarabes in later years of the Muslim occupation of Spain, and would burst forth in the Baroque style known as plateresque; or "silversmith's" style.
While the Reconquest of Spain by the Christians symbolically began even before the Muslims established themselves, with the defeat of a Muslim force at Covadonga by King Pelayo (Latin: "Pelagius") of Asturias in 718, Christian resistance was never a concerted effort or had much follow-through, until the middle of the 13th Century. Like with the Visigoths before them, increasing disunity in Islamic Spain would eventually present the Christians in the north opportunities to carve new kingdoms out from Moorish territory, while Muslim rivals from North Africa weakened the local Islamic presence from the other direction. The kings of Asturias, descended from the great Pelayo, would go on to found new kingdoms: by the time of the Almohads, there were five Christian kingdoms to the north: León; Castile; Navarre; Portugal; and Aragon.
The final blow for the Muslims came with the marriage between Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469, uniting the two most powerful Spanish Christian Kingdoms. They would take the last Muslim hold out of Granada in 1492 after a long 10 year siege. They would be known as the Catholic Monarchs, in part because of their equality as dual Monarchs, but also because of their fanatical push for Christian fundamentalism and uniformity. They would establish the Inquisition that became known in history for its unspeakable horrors inflicted upon the population to create a thoroughly Christian Spain until the civil wars of the 1800s. Ironically, Tomas de Torquemada, descended from conversos, or Jewish converts to Christianity, would become known in history as the most effective and notorious of the Inquisition's prosecutors. Thousands of Jews and Muslims who didn't want to convert to Christianity were expelled or killed during the Inquisition.
The Age of Discovery: A New World
However, the rule of Isabella and Ferdinand, also ushered in what would be known as the siglo de oro, or Golden Age for Spain. It began with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. This brought the exploration of the New World to the fore. It was further accentuated when Ferdinand Magellan's expedition completed the circumnavigation of the globe in 1522. Then, with the subjugation of two of the greatest civilisations in the Americas, the Aztec (in 1519, by Hernando Cortez) and the Inca (in 1533, by Francisco Pizzaro), the Spanish would acquire enough gold and silver from the new continent to sufficiently depress European demand for both of them for many centuries, leading to her downfall 200 years later.
This was Spain's Golden Age. Spanish music, art, literature, dress, and mannerisms from Spain's Golden Age were admired and imitated throughout Europe. They not only set a standard by which the rest of Europe measured its culture but also of its military power. Spain became the military and diplomatic standard-bearer of Christendom. The Spanish fleet's victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1572 was celebrated throughout the Christian world, even among Spain's rivals. Not only did Spain have overseas colonies throughout South America, but by this time she too was feeling her way around Asia and North America, and made her influence felt in Burgundy and Sicily.
- Wells HG et al; A short history of the world (1967 rev ed); Penguin Books
- Nicolle D & McBride A; The Moors: The Islamic West 7th–15th Centuries AD; (2001), Osprey Publishing
- One Dead Angel; Spain — A Guide; Rise of Nations Heaven
- Spanish Culture; The Asturian pre-Romanesque, Visigoth and Mozarabic periods