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Hispania was the name given by the Romans to the whole of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Portugal, Spain, Andorra and Gibraltar) and to two provinces created there in the period of the Roman Republic: Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior. In the period of the Roman Empire, Hispania Ulterior was divided into two other provinces, Baetica and Lusitania, while Hispania Citerior was renamed to Tarraconensis.


Origin of the Name

The term Hispania is Latin and the term Iberia Greek. Surviving Roman texts always use "Hispania" (first mentioned 200 BC by the poet Quintus Ennius) while Greek texts always employ "Iberia."

To substitute Spanish for Iberian or for Hispanicus is anachronistic and misleading, since Iberia and Hispania refer not just to modern Spain but to the whole peninsula; Hispania can also include parts of what is now Morocco.

The origin of the word Hispania appears to be Punic. The etymologist Eric Partridge (Origins) finds it in the pre-Roman name for Seville, Hispalis, which strongly hints of an ancient name for the country of *Hispa, an Iberian or Celtic root whose meaning is now lost[1].

The Catholic Encyclopedia reports, "Some derive it from the Punic word tsepan, 'rabbit,' basing the opinion on the evidence of a coin of Galba, on which Hispania is represented with a rabbit at her feet, and on Strabo, who calls Spain 'the land of rabbits'" [2]. Others attribute a Punic connotation of "dark", "hidden", "lost", or "remote."

One version states that the name comes from the Phoenician word I-shphanim, which means literally "from or about hyraxes" (shphanim is plural for shaphán, Hyrax syriacus). Lacking a better term, the Phoenicians used that word for rabbits, an unknown animal for them but very common in the peninsula. Another interpretation of the same term would be Hi-shphanim, "Rabbits' Island" (or "Hyraxes' Island").

None of these etymologies is truly satisfactory.

Rabbits weren't the only animal that stood out as proverbially abundant there. Greeks called Cape St. Vincent, and by extension all of western Iberia, Ophioússa, which means "land of snakes," a designation that they also applied to numerous Mediterranean islands. The change to "Iberia" came because iber was a word heard among the peninsula's inhabitants. This geographic term cannot have been specific to the Ebro river, because this word was also heard throughout what is now Andalusia or southern Spain. Some modern linguists think that it meant simply river, but there is no consensus regarding this issue.

Prehistory and Early History

The Iberian peninsula has long been inhabited, first by Early Hominids, such as Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo antecessor. In the Paleolithic period, the Neanderthal enters Iberia and there will eventually take refuge from the advancing migrations of Modern Humans. In the 40th millennium BC, during the Upper Paleolithic and the Last Ice Age, the first large settlement of Europe by Modern Humans occurs, these where Nomadic Hunter-gathereres coming from the of the Steppes of Central Asia, characterized by the M173 mutation in the Y chromosome, defining them as an Haplogroup R population. When the Last ice age reached its maximum extent, during the 30th millennium BC, these modern humans took refuge in Southern Europe, namely in Iberia, coming from Southern France. Here, this genetically homogeneous population (characterized by the M173 mutation in the Y chromosome), will develop the M343 mutation, giving rise to the R1b Haplogroup, still dominant in modern Portuguese and Spanish populations. In the millenia after this event, the Neanderthal became extinct and local Modern human cultures thrived, producing Pre-historic Art such as the one in L'Arbreda Cave and in the Valley of Foz Côa.

In the Mesolithic period, beginning in the 10th millennium BC, the Allerød Oscillation occurs, an interstadial Deglaciation that weakens the rigorous conditions of the Ice Age, and the populations sheltered in Iberia, descendents of the Cro-Magnon, migrate and recolonize all of Western Europe, thus spreading the R1b Haplogroup populations (still dominant, in variant degrees, from Iberia to Scandinavia). In this period we find the Azilian culture in Southern France and Northern Iberia (to the mouth of the Douro river), as well as the Muge Culture in the Tagus valley.

The Neolithic will bring changes to the human landscape of Iberia (from the 5th millennium BC onwards), with the development of Agriculture and the beginning of the Megalithic European culture, spreading to most of Europe and having one of its oldest and main centres in the territory of modern Portugal, as well as the Chalcolithic and Beaker cultures.

During the 1st millennium BC, in the Bronze Age, one can witness the first wave of Indo-European migrations into Iberia. These will later (7th and 5th Centuries BC) be followed by others of clearly Celtic nature. Eventually urban cultures develop in southern Iberia, such as Tartessos, strongly influenced by the Phoenician colonization of coastal Mediterranean Iberia, in competition with Greek colonization. These two processes define Iberia's cultural landscape - a Mediterranean southeast and a Continental northwest.

Phoenician and Greek colonization eventually faded and gave rise to the growing presence of Carthage. After its defeat by the Romans in the First Punic War (264 BC-41 BC), Carthage compensated for its loss of Sicily by rebuilding a commercial empire in Hispania. The country became the staging ground for Hannibal's epic invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War (218 BC-201 BC).

Roman Hispania

Roman bridge in Cordoba, with the Mezquita in the background
Roman bridge in Cordoba, with the Mezquita in the background

The major part of the Punic Wars, fought between the Punic Carthaginians and the Romans, was fought on Iberian lands. Rome gained control of the Iberian Peninsula in 201 BC after the defeat of Carthage in the Second Punic War. By then the Romans had adopted the Carthaginian name, romanized first as Ispania. The term later received an H, much like what happened with Hibernia, and was pluralized as Hispanias, as had been done with the three Gauls.

Roman armies invaded Hispania in 218 BC and used it as a training ground for officers and as a proving ground for tactics during campaigns against the Carthaginians and the nations of Hispania, such as the Iberians, the Lusitanians, the Celtiberians and the Gallaecians. Iberian resistance was fierce and prolonged, however, and it wasn't until 19 BC that the Roman emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC-14 AD) was able to complete the conquest.

Romanization of the Iberians peoples proceeded quickly after their conquest. Hispania wasn't one political entity but was divided into three separately governed provinces (nine provinces by the 4th century). More importantly, Hispania was for 500 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 Hispania and the empire. The latifundia (sing., latifundium), large estates controlled by the aristocracy, were superimposed on the existing Iberian landholding system.

The Romans improved existing cities, such as Lisbon (Olissipo), established Zaragoza, Merida, and Valencia, and provided amenities throughout the empire. The peninsula's economy expanded under Roman tutelage. Hispania, 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 Hispano-Romans - the romanized Iberian populations and the Iberian-born descendants of Roman soldiers and colonists - had all achieved the status of full Roman citizenship by the end of the 1st century. The emperors Trajan (r. 98-117), Hadrian (r. 117-38), and Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-80) were born in Hispania.

The Hispanias were at first separated into two provinces (in 197 BC), each ruled by a praetor: Hispania Citerior ("Nearer Hispania") and Hispania Ulterior ("Farther Hispania"). The long wars of conquest lasted two centuries, and only by the time of Augustus did Rome managed to control Hispania Ulterior. With this conquest, the indigenous Iberian, Celtiberian, Lusitanian and Gallaecians civilizations (amongst other cultural groups) were slowly replaced by the Greek-Latin one. Many conflicts arose during those two centuries, namely:

Two writers of the time - geographer Strabo (in his Geographia book III) and universal historian G. Pompeus Trogus - devote several chapters of their works to the Hispanias.

Strabo says:

Some say that the designations Iberia and Hispania are synonymous, that the Romans have designated the whole peninsula disinterestedly with the names of Iberia and Hispania, and called Ulterior and Citerior to its parts.

Pompeus Trogus sets the picture of its inhabitants:

The Hispanics (from Hispania) are accustomed to abstinence and fatigue, and the mind set for death: a hard and austere soberness for all (dura omnibus et adstricta parsimonia). [...]with so many centuries of wars with Rome they haven't had any captain but Viriathus, a man of such high virtue and continence that, after beating the consular armies for 10 years, he would never want to be distinguished in any way from any private individual.

Livy (59 BC to 17 AD), another Roman historian, also writes about his perception of the character of the Hispanic person:

Agile, bellicose, anxious. Hispania is different from Italica in that it is more than ready for war because of the rough land and its man's nature.

Lucius Anneus Florus (1st and 2nd century centuries), who was a historian and friend of the emperor Hadrian, also makes some observations:

The Hispanic Nation, or the Hispania Universa, didn't manage to unite against Rome. Protected by the Pyrenees and the sea it would have been inaccessible. Its people were always worthy, but they lacked hierarchy. [That is, each village or tribe had its own organization but there was no hierarchy to organize them as a nation.]

Valerius Maximus called Celtiberian fidelity fides celtiberica. According to this fides, the Iberian man sanctified his chieftain's soul and didn't believe it to be right and just to outlast him in battle. This was known from the time of the beginning of the Roman Empire as devotio or Iberian dedication. (In the Middle Ages they kept this fidelity in mind, which they themselves called Hispanic Loyalty.)

Much later, in the 4th century, another writer arises, a Gallic rhetor named Drepanius Pacatus, who dedicates part of his work to the depiction of the peninsula, Hispania: its geography, climate, inhabitants, soldiers, and so forth, all with praise and admiration:

This Hispania produces tough soldiers, very skilled captains, prolific orators, luminous bards. It's a mother of judges and princes; it has given Trajan, Hadrian, and Theodosius to the Empire.

In his time, Expositio totius mundi is published in which Hispania is described as: Spania, terra lata et maxima, et dives viris doctis ("Hispania, a wide and vast land, and with numerous wise men"). By now the name of Hispania is already used interchangeably with Spania.

Paulus Orosius (390-418), a historian, disciple of Saint Augustine, and author of Historiae adversus paganus ("Histories Countering the Pagans"), the first Christian universal history, makes this remark when discussing a blameworthy action taken by a praetor:

Universae Hispaniae propter Romanorum perditiam causa maximi tumultus fuit.

To Orosius Hispania is a land with a collective life and its own values.

With time, the name Hispania was used to describe the collective names of the Iberian Peninsula kingdoms of the middle ages, which came to designate all of the Iberian Peninsula plus the Balearic Islands.

The Hispanias

During the first stages of romanization, the peninsula was divided in two by the Romans for administrative purposes, and so there were two Hispanias. The closest one to Rome was called Citerior and the more remote one Ulterior. The frontier between both Hispanias was a sinuous line which ran from Cartago Nova (now Cartagena) to the Cantabrian Sea.

Hispania Ulterior comprised what are now Andalusia, Portugal, Extremadura, León, a great portion of the former Castilla la Vieja, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country.

Hispania Citerior comprised the eastern part of former Castilla la Vieja, and what are now Aragon, Valencia, Catalonia, and a major part of former Castilla la Nueva.

In the year A.D. 27 the general and politician Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa divided Hispania into three parts, namely dividing Hispania Ulterior into Baetica (basically Andalusia) and Lusitania (including Gallaecia and Asturias) and attaching Cantabria and the Basque Country to Hispania Citerior.

The emperor Augustus in that same year returned to make a new division leaving the provinces as follows:

  • Provincia Hispania Ulterior Baetica (Hispania Baetica), whose capital was Córdoba. It included a little less territory than present-day Andalusia—since modern Almería and a great portion of what today is Granada y Jaen were left outside—plus the southern zone of present-day Badajoz. The river Anas or Annas (Guadiana, from Wadi-Anas) separated Hispania Baetica from Lusitania.
  • Provincia Hispania Ulterior Lusitania, whose capital was Emerita Augusta (now Mérida) and without Gallaecia and Asturias.
  • Provincia Hispania Citerior, whose capital was Tarraco (Tarragona). After gaining maximum importance this province was simply known as Tarraconensis and it comprised Gallaecia (modern Galicia and northern Portugal) and Asturias.
  • Provincia Hispania Nova, whose capital was Tingis (Tánger). In A.D. 69 the province of Mauretania Tingititana or Hispania Nova was incorporated into Hispania.

By the 3rd century the emperor Caracalla made a new division which lasted only a short time. He split Hispania Citerior again into two parts, creating the new provinces Provincia Hispania Nova Citerior and Asturiae-Calleciae. Historians cannot explain this strange, short-lived division, and in the year 238 the unified province Tarraconensis or Hispania Citerior was re-established.

Beginning with Diocletian's Tetrarchy reform in A.D. 293, Hispaniae ('the Spains') became the name of one of the four dioceses—governed by a vicarius—of the prætorian prefecture Galliae ('the Gauls', also comprising the provices of Gaul, Germania and Britannia), after the abolition of the imperial tetrarchs under the Western Emperor (in Rome itself, later Ravenna). The dioceses comprised the five Iberian provinces (Baetica, Carthaginiensis, Tarraconensis, Gallaecia and Lusitania) as well as Mauretania Tingitana (adjoining North Africa, in modern Morocco).

Later History

Christianity was introduced into Hispania 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 Hispania but the Hispanic 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 there in the fifth century. The Council of Bishops became an important instrument of stability during the ascendancy of the Visigoths, a Germanic nation.

Rome continued to dominate the area until the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. The Hispano-Romans turned to the Visigoths to provide protection when Rome could no longer spare legions to protect the territory.

Rome's loss of power in Hispania began in 405. The Germanic Suevi and Vandals, together with the Sarmatian Alans crossed the Rhine and ravaged Gaul until the Visigoths drove them into Iberia in 409. The Suevi established a kingdom in the northwestern corner of the peninsula (modern Galicia and northern Portugal). The Vandals, and their Alan allies, occupied the region that bears their name - Vandalusia (moder Andalusia, in Spain) and southern Lusitania (modern Alentejo and Algarve, in Portugal) .

Because large parts of Hispania were outside his control, the western Roman emperor, Honorius (r. 395-423), commissioned his sister, Galla Placidia, and her husband Ataulf, the Visigothic king, to restore order in the Iberian Peninsula. Honorius gave them the rights to settle in and to govern the area in return for defending it.

The highly romanized Visigoths entered Hispania in 415 and managed to compel the Vandals and Alans to sail for North Africa in 429. In 484 the Visigoths established Toledo as the capital of their Hispanic monarchy. The Visigothic occupation was in no sense a barbarian invasion, however. Successive Visigothic kings ruled Hispania as patricians who held imperial commissions to govern in the name of the Roman emperor. In 585 the Visigoths conquered the Suevi kingdom, thus controlling almost all Hispania.

There were about 300,000 Germanic people in Hispania, which had a population of 4 million. They were a privileged warrior elite, though many of them lived as herders and farmers in the valley of the Tagus river, in northern Portugal and Galicia (the Suevi) and on the central plateau (around Toledo). 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 wasn't 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 Hispania 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 Arianist Visigoth overlords, whom the former 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 wouldn't mark the last time in the history of the peninsula 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.

Visigoths and Arabs

With time, a secondary form of the word Hispania gained usage: Spania. According to Isidore of Seville, it is with the Visigothic domination of the zone that the idea of a peninsular unity is sought after, and the phrase Mother Hispania is first spoken. Up to that date, Hispania designated all of the peninsula's lands. In Historia Gothorum, the Visigoth Suinthila appears as the first king of "totius Spaniae"; the history's prologue is the well-known De laude Spaniae ("About Hispania's pride") where Hispania is dealt with as a Gothic nation.

With the Muslim Moorish invasion of Hispania (اسبانيا, Isbá-nía ), which they called Al-Andalus (الأندلس), the different chronicles and documents of the high Middle Ages designate as Spania, España or Espanha only the Muslim-dominated territory. King Alfonso I of Aragon (1104-1134) says in his documents that "he reigns over Pamplona, Aragon, Sobrarbe y Ribagorza", and that when in 1126 he made an expedition to Málaga he "went to the España lands".

But by the last years of the 12th century the whole Iberian Peninsula, whether Muslim or Christian, became known as España or Espanha and the denomination "the Five Kingdoms of Spain" became used to refer to the Muslim Kingdom of Granada, and the Christian Kingdom of León and Castile, Kingdom of Navarre, Kingdom of Portugal and Crown of Aragon (including the County of Barcelona).

The process of the Reconquista (Reconquest) of Hispania from the Moors, produced the emergence of several Christian kingdoms, as the ones mentioned above. Some of these eventually merged into a single country. In fact, with the union of Castille and Aragon in 1492 (and specially with the incorporation of Navarre in 1512), the word Spain (España, in Spanish, or Espanha, in Portuguese), began being used only to refer to the new kingdom and not to the whole of the Iberian peninsula, now formed of two independent countries, Portugal and Spain.

Sources and References

This article draws heavily on the corresponding article in the Spanish-language Wikipedia, which was accessed in the version of February 27, 2005.

Modern sources in Spanish and Portuguese

  • Altamira y Crevea, Rafael Historia de España y de la civilización española. Tomo I. Barcelona, 1900. Altamira was a professor at the University of Oviedo, a member of the Royal Academy of History, of the Geographic Society of Lisbon and of the Instituto de Coimbra. (In Spanish.)
  • Aznar, José Camón, Las artes y los pueblos de la España primitiva. Editorial Espasa Calpe, S.A. Madrid, 1954. Camón was a professor at the University of Madrid. (In Spanish.)
  • Bosch Gimpera, Pedro; Aguado Bleye, Pedro; and Ferrandis, José. Historia de España. España romana, I, created under the direction of Ramón Menéndez Pidal. Editorial Espasa-Calpe S.A., Madrid 1935. (In Spanish.)
  • García y Bellido, Antonio, España y los españoles hace dos mil años (según la Geografía de Estrabón). Colección Austral de Espasa Calpe S.A., Madrid 1945 (first edition 8-XI-1945). García y Bellido was an archeologist and a professor at the University of Madrid. (In Spanish.)
  • Mattoso, José (dir.), História de Portugal. Primeiro Volume: Antes de Portugal, Lisboa, Círculo de Leitores, 1992. (in Portuguese)
  • Melón, Amando, Geografía histórica española Editorial Volvntad, S.A., Tomo primero, Vol. I-Serie E. Madrid 1928. Melón was a member of the Royal Geographical Society of Madrid and a professor of geography at the Universities of Valladolid and Madrid. (In Spanish.)
  • Pellón, José R., Diccionario Espasa Íberos. Espasa Calpe S.A. Madrid 2001. (In Spanish.)
  • Urbieto Arteta, Antonio, Historia ilustrada de España, Volumen II. Editorial Debate, Madrid 1994. (In Spanish.)

Other Modern sources

  • Westermann Grosser Atlas zur Weltgeschichte (in German)

This article incorporates public domain text from the Library of Congress Country Studies.

Classical sources

The classical sources have been accessed second-hand (see references above). They are:

See also

Roman aqueduct in Segovia
History of Spain series
Prehistoric Spain
Roman Spain
Medieval Spain
- Visigoths
- Al-Andalus
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Age of Expansion
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First Spanish Republic
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Economic History
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Roman Temple of Évora
History of Portugal
Prehistoric Portugal
Pre-Roman Portugal
Roman Lusitania and Gallaecia
Visigoths and Suevi
Moorish rule and Reconquista
First County of Portugal
Kingdom of Galicia and Portugal
Second County of Portugal
Establishment of the Monarchy
Consolidation of the Monarchy
1383–1385 Crisis
Portuguese Empire
1580 Crisis
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Restoration to 1755 Earthquake
Napoleonic Invasion to Civil War
19th Century and end of Monarchy
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