Spain—From the Beginning to the Roman Conquest
500 B.C. – 50 A.D.
Away down in the south-western corner of Europe, cut off from the rest of the continent by a range of mountains six to twelve thousand feet high, is the beautiful country of Spain. It is a country of lofty and rugged mountain chains and long level plains. Some of the latter lie low, and are watered by flowing rivers; here the climate is genial and the rainfall copious, so that the fields are fat and rich; others, in the centre of the country, stand higher above the level of the sea; these have a scanty rainfall, excessive beat in summer, and extreme cold in winter, and are sometimes baked and sometimes frozen, but always dry and poor. In the north the Basque peasant in his long ragged black cloak cowers from the bleak winds from the Atlantic and the biting gales from the snow-clad ridge of the Pyrenees and the Cantabrians; in the south, the gay Andalusian is warmed by balmy breezes from the Mediterranean, and sleeps his noonday sleep under groves of gently waving palms or orange-trees, or beneath broad vine-leaves, or in orchards laden with fragrant fruit, or in snug corners of fields yellow with golden wheat. Thus Spain is divided into a paradise and a wilderness.
Long, long ago, before history began to be written, Spain was probably part of Africa. On the Cape of Gibraltar live thirty or forty monkeys of the African breed; an old Spanish legend says that they still visit their old home, from time to time, by a submarine tunnel under the Mediterranean. In old prehistoric times the country was overrun with mammoths and other enormous preadamite monsters, whose bones are still found in great heaps in the mountains. After their day came volcanic convulsions which altered the shape of the country, uptwisted mountain ranges, burst yawning chasms, tilted great layers of rock on edge, cut channels for rivers, and perhaps opened a way for the waters of the Mediterranean to empty into the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar.
We first bear of Spain four or five hundred years before Christ, when the Phoenicians of Tyre planted a colony near the present seaport of Cadiz. Two or three hundred years later we again bear of it, when the mighty trading city of Carthage founded the town which is now called Carthagena, and sent a general with an army of fifty thousand men and two hundred elephants to conquer the coasts of Spain.
At that time the peninsula was inhabited by two races, who were know as Iberians and Celts, and who afterwards blended and were then called Celtiberians. The Iberians came from Africa, and were short, dark-skinned men, though not negroes; the Celts came from the North, were tall and white, wore their hair in long braids, and dressed in leathern coats, over which they threw long black cloaks. They spent their time in war or at the chase, while their women tilled the fields. Their weapons were swords and spears of iron, and they were skilled horsemen. They lived chiefly on vegetables, fruits, acorns, and chestnuts, and were not acquainted with strong liquor. In some respects they may remind you of some of our Indian tribes.
These races were intermarrying, or living peaceably side by side, and growing in numbers, when the Carthaginians invaded Spain. The latter were a very superior people to the Celtiberians; highly educated, far-seeing, good soldiers, good sailors, and, above all, good merchants. They taught the natives how to work their mines of silver and gold and lead and iron; they bought the produce of the mines and the fields and the orchards, and gave in exchange the goods of Carthage and of Tyre; they kept order with their armies, and when Greek marauders landed they drove them off with their well-drilled regiments and their elephants; they treated the Celtiberians so fairly that the two races became friends, and when the Carthaginian general proposed that Spain should become a province of Carthage the Celtiberians agreed. Thus, for the first though not for the last time in history, Spain came to be ruled by men of the Arab race from Africa.
It did not all become Carthaginian, however. There were a few Greek settlements here and there along the coast, and as Greece went down and Rome rose up, some of these became more Roman than Greek. Such a place was Saguntum. On the place where it stood there is now a small Spanish town called Murviedro, or Old Walls; something over twenty-one hundred years ago it was a rich and powerful city, with high stone-walls, an amphitheatre, an aqueduct, temples, and other fine buildings. It was full of brave people, who were stanch friends of Rome. Now it befell at this time that Rome and Carthage were foes. They had waged one war which had lasted twenty-three years, and had ended in the defeat of Carthage. A young Carthaginian general, named Hannibal, who was then in Spain, resolved to reopen the fight, and to begin by attacking Saguntum.
For the work he mustered one hundred and fifty thousand troops, most of whom were Spaniards. A Spanish poet, writing many centuries afterwards, sang:
Hannibal attacked the place with high towers which overtopped the walls, and from which huge stones, thrown by machinery upon the parapet, cleared it of defenders; while an immense battering-ram with a steel head, and driven by two-score men, working day and night, at length made a breach in the wall. Then the leading Saguntines kindled a great fire in the public square, and after throwing their gold and silver into it, leaped into the flames themselves. The victorious army swarmed into the city and showed no mercy. Saguntum was burned, and though the Romans long afterwards undertook to rebuild it, it never regained its former state.
This was the beginning of the second war between Rome and Carthage. It opened with splendid victories by young Hannibal, who overran Italy and defeated army after army. But the dogged tenacity of the Romans won at last; Carthage received her death-blow, and Hannibal himself committed suicide in exile. You will find a trace of his service in Spain in the town of Barcelona, which was named after his family—Barca.
While Hannibal was winning victories in Italy, the Romans resolved to carry the war into Spain. They sent an army there under Publius Scipio, and he was defeated and killed; then another army, under his brother Cneius Scipio, and he was defeated and killed; then a third, under Publius Cornelius Scipio, who was afterwards known as the African, and be conquered the country, though be was only twenty-four years old. When he landed, with eleven thousand men, somewhere near Barcelona, nine-tenths of Spain was Carthaginian; in seven or eight years all Spain, except a town or two here and there, was Roman. This he accomplished not so much by fighting as by policy and kindness. Then, as now, the Spaniards were a hot-headed, impulsive people; they had never warmed to the Carthaginians, who were harsh and cruel. Scipio was gentle and generous.
When the Carthaginians won a victory they held the finest youths among their vanquished foes as hostages for the good behavior of their tribe. Scipio asked for no hostages. Among the Carthaginians beautiful maidens were always spoil of war. After a battle, when a lovely Spanish girl was brought to Scipio as his prize, he restored her to her lover, and gave her a dowry. He was always just and kind; and this was so surprising to the simple Spaniards, accustomed to the rough ways of a brutal age, that they regarded Scipio as more than a man, and offered to make him king. He refused the title, saying:
"No Roman can endure the name of king. If you think that the royal spirit is the noblest spirit of man, I shall be glad if you think that such a spirit is mine. But you must never call me king."
So completely did he win their hearts that for his sake they became firm friends of Rome. And you will find, as you read this history, that of all people the Spaniards are the most faithful. They have often given their lives rather than break their troth. They were, moreover, at this time a rich people. When Scipio took the city which is now known as Carthagena, he received as part of the government's share of the plunder two hundred and seventy-six golden bowls, each weighing about a pound, nine tons of wrought and coined silver, and one hundred and thirteen merchant vessels.
Before he died he saw Roman authority firmly planted over Eastern and Southern Spain. In the North and West some native tribes were still independent. They were generally a people of herdsmen and shepherds—poor, with no great city and no treasure that was worth stealing. They were, moreover, brave and skilful fighters, and by going to war with them the Romans stood to win more hard-knocks than plunder. Therefore the Roman legions kept away from the bulk of the regions which are now known as Portugal, Estremadura, the Asturias, Galicia, Leon, Castile, and the windy plateau on which Madrid stands, and clung to the sunny slopes which lean to the Mediterranean.
On those purple hills which look into the Southern Sea, and in the leafy valleys between them, where summer is long and life is sweet, and fragrant odors and the buzz of many insects lull the idler to sleep, the Roman soldier, weary of war, took to his broad breast a blushing Spanish maiden, who in his arms became a Roman matron, as he in hers became a Spanish citizen. Thus Spain became Roman, and for four or five hundred years, when Rome itself was ravaged spring and fall by barbarian invaders, it was a home of Roman civilization, a refuge of Roman letters, a centre of Roman spirit.
Some of the wisest statesmen, several of the most skillful generals, a few of the most brilliant writers of the later ages of Rome, were born in Spain. The Emperors Trajan and Hadrian were both born near Seville; Marcus Aurelius was born at Rome of Spanish parents; the Senecas and the poet Lucan at Cordova; the poet Martial in Aragon; Quintilian, the grammarian, in Navarre. These great men generally spent their lives at Rome; but some of them, as death approached, returned to lay their bones in the country of their birth, by the side of the flowing rivers they loved, and under the kindly skies they had gazed at in their boyhood. During the first centuries of the Christian era Spain was a more peaceful and happier country to live in than Italy.