The area to the north and south of the Pyrenees, in modern France and Spain, is occupied from about 30,000 years ago by palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who make good use of the many caves in the area. They leave astonishing signs of their presence, and of their sophistication, in the paintings with which they decorate the walls.
There are many surviving examples, of which the best known are Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. But almost twice as old are the paintings recently discovered in the Chauvet Cave in France.
Neolithic villages: from the 5th millennium BC
In the regions bordering the Atlantic coast, the transition from palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to neolithic villagers begins in about 4500 BC. These villagers later develop a striking tradition of prehistoric architecture.
In most of Europe neolithic communities live in villages of timber houses, often with a communal longhouse. But along the entire Atlantic coast, from Spain through France to the British Isles and Denmark, the central feature of each village is a great tomb, around which simple huts are clustered. The tomb chambers of these regions introduce the tradition of stonework which includes Passage graves and megaliths.
The massive neolithic architecture of western Europe begins, in the late 5th millennium BC, with passage graves. The name reflects the design. A stone passage leads into the centre of a great mound of turf, where a tomb chamber – first of wood but later of stone – contains the dead of the surrounding community.
One of the best-known examples in Spain is the walled settlement of Los Millares. Dating from about 2000 BC, the village has a nearby cemetery of about 100 beehive tombs. The dome of each is constructed on the corbel principle, pioneered on the Atlantic coast some two millennia earlier on the Île Longue, in Brittany.
The arrival of the Celts: from the 6th century BC
During the last centuries of their prehistory, France and northern Spain are infiltrated by energetic tribes originating in central Europe. They speak an Indo-European language, and they know how to work iron. Their arrival inaugurates the Iron Age in these regions. They are the Celts, known to the Romans as the Gauls.
Meanwhile civilization has been brought to the coasts of both France and Spain by colonists from further east in the Mediterrean. The most important colonies are Massilia (Marseilles), settled by Greeks in about 600, and Cadiz, established by the Phoenicians at about the same time (though tradition gives it a much earlier date).
Spain and the Roman empire: 3rd c. BC – 5th c. AD
Spain is a rich prize for any empire-builder. It has mines of gold, silver and copper, and a plentiful supply of Celts, tough warriors and useful recruits for an army. The Iberian peninsula is therefore hotly contested, from the 3rd century BC, between the two imperial powers of the western Mediterranean – the Romans and the Carthaginians (successors of the Phoenicians).
After the Second Punic War the eastern part of the peninsula falls into Roman hands. It is turned into two new Roman provinces, Hispania Citerior and Ulterior (Nearer and Farther Spain). Celtic tribes in the west, the Lusitani, hold out against Rome. When they are finally overwhelmed, their region (approximately modern Portugal) becomes in 138 BC the province of Lusitania.
Spain becomes, like Gaul to the north, a fully Romanized and prosperous part of the empire. Magnificent evidence of the Roman presence can be seen in such structures as the great aqueduct at Segovia. Built probably in the time of Trajan (born in Spain, and the first provincial to become emperor), it is at one point 30 metres above the ground. 1900 years later it still carries water across the valley to the city.
Spain suffers in the 5th century, like the rest of the empire, from Rome’s military weakness. The Vandals cut a swathe through the peninsula in 409-429 until they are pushed out into Africa by Roman forces heavily dependent on Visigothic support. It is the Visigoths, subsequently, who benefit.
Visigothic kingdoms: 5th – 8th century AD
During the 5th century the Visigoths rule a large kingdom in southern France and frequently campaign south of the Pyrenees into Spain. In both contexts they are acting as allies of Rome. But in 475 a Visigothic king, Euric, declares his independence and energetically extends his own territory on his own account.
Spain is at first of secondary importance to the Visigoths, compared to France. But in 507 Euric’s son is defeated by Clovis, king of the Franks, north of Poitiers. The French territory of the Visigoths is reduced to a coastal strip from the Pyrenees to the Rhône.
During the 6th century the Visigothic territory in Spain is steadily extended. There is a temporary setback in the south from 554, when an army of the Byzantine emperor Justinian captures a region from Cadiz in the west to Cartagena in the east. But within seventy years all the territory has been recovered. During the 7th century the whole of Spain is in the hands of the Visigoths (with their capital at Toledo), though hostilities between rival Visigothic clans, between Visigoths and the indigenous population, and between Arians and Catholics make it a turbulent time.
In 711 one faction, in an internal squabble of this kind, invites an Arab commander to lend support. An Arab army crosses from Africa.
Arabs in Spain and France: AD 711-732
The short journey across the water from Africa, bringing an army into Spain in 711, begins the final thrust of Arab expansionism in the west. In a frequently repeated pattern of history the invaders, invited to assist one side in a quarrel, rapidly take control and suppress both squabbling parties. Within a few months the Arabs drive the Visigoths from their capital at Toledo.
Soon governors appointed by the caliph in Damascus are ruling much of Spain. The Arabs press on northwards. Their armies move into Gaul, and here at last they are halted – near Poitiers in 732.
Umayyad dynasty in Spain: AD 756-1031
The defeat of the Arabs in 732 by Charles Martel in Gaul is followed by Berber rebellions in north Africa and in Spain. The effect is to limit Arab territorial ambitions in Europe to the Iberian peninsula. Even this proves hard to hold because of hostilities between rival Arab groups.
Stability in Spain is restored by an Umayyad prince, Abd-al-Rahman, who escapes the Abbasid massacre of his family in Syria. He establishes himself in 756 at Cordoba. Here he founds the first great Muslim civilization of Spain.
Abd-al-Rahman begins the process of making Cordoba one of the outstanding cities of the medieval world. On the site of a Roman temple and Visigothic church he builds the famous mosque, with schools and hospitals attached, which survives today as a place of great beauty – even though its vistas of columns and striped arches are brutally interrupted by alterations made for its later use as the city’s cathedral.
Cordoba continues to grow in size and wealth and reputation, known equally for its skilled craftsmen and its scholars. Under Abd-al-Rahman III, in the 10th century, it has probably half a million inhabitants. He is the first amir of Cordoba to accord himself the resounding title of caliph.
During the three centuries of Umayyad rule in Spain the Arabs are for the most part in control of almost the entire peninsula. The Christian reconquest makes several tentative beginnings during the period, but northern territories are often then regained by Arab rulers – relying heavily on the wild Berber mercenaries who form the bulk of their armies.
The Berbers eventually prove too hard to control. Concessions to their demands lead in 1031 to the collapse of the Umayyad caliphate and the effective end of Arab rule in Spain. There follows a period of steady Christian advance southwards. It is halted, in 1086, by a tribal leader from north Africa. He is head of a Berber dynasty, the Almoravids.