I was writing recently about the ‘reconquest’ of Spain by the Catholic Monarchs, suggesting that after 800 years of Moorish rule, it was stretching things quite considerably to add the prefix ‘re’ to conquest. Out of interest, I have been looking back into the early history of the Iberian Peninsula (both the names Spain and Portugal refer to a relatively recent political state of affairs), and what I found quite surprised me.
A simple glance at a map of Europe shows clearly that the peninsula is an integral part of the continent; indeed it accounts for quite a significant proportion of the landmass. Seen from a 21st century perspective, the Iberian Peninsula belongs in (to?) Europe. So it is strange that the first Europeans didn’t arrive in the area until somewhere between 900 and 400 BC. The earliest settlers were stone age people crossing over from North Africa around 4,000BC. Then, around 1,100BC we have the arrival of the Phoenicians who travelled the Mediterranean from what is now Lebanon, founding colonies and trading posts. It was the Phoenicians who founded Gadir (today, Cádiz), a thousand years before the birth of Christ, making Cádiz far and away the oldest city in Europe. Over the next four to five hundred years, the Greeks also set up trading posts along the east coast of the Peninsula, and then in 500BC the Carthaginians settled the southern part of the peninsula from present-day Tunisia.
Meanwhile, ‘Europeans’ had settled the northern coastal regions of the peninsula between 900 and 400BC, but were inhibited from spreading very far south by the range of coastal mountains running broadly east to west across the land.
Next to arrive were the Romans, who began to colonise from 210BC, spreading across the peninsula over the next 200 years, in 27BC dividing Hesperides, as they named it, into three bands, northern, central and southern; the southern province (from Mérida in Extramadura down to the coast at the straits and across to Adra in eastern Andalucia, in today’s terms).
As the Roman Empire disintegrated, first the Vandals invaded from Germany in 409AD, followed by the Visigoths from Gaul, who took control of most of the peninsula. They controlled the land from the 5th to the 7th century AD.
Then in 711, the Visigoths were defeated by Berbers from North Africa, who advanced right through the peninsula over the next seven years, suffering their first defeat in 718 at the hands of Pelayo in the battle of Covadonga in Asturias. This is usually recognised by historians as the start of the Reconquest. The victory resulted in the Christian kingdom of Asturias, a tiny area of approximately 65km by 50km.
So for the first 4,500 years of the known history of the Iberian Peninsula, culturally it was overwhelmingly North African and Mediterranean. The only European settlements were along the northern coast. Which makes sense. Until well into the twentieth century, Spain and Portugal, as they had by now become were cut off from the rest of Europe by the wall of the Pyrenees, stretching from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Access was mainly by sea; and the Mediterranean was a much more accomodating place than the Bay of Biscay!
If we accept the Vandals and Visigoths as the first serious attempt to colinise the peninsula from northern, Christian Europe, then their tenure can be seen to have lasted just three hundred years before being pushed back by the Berbers under Tariq. If we are going to talk about a reconquest, maybe we should bestow that title on the year 711.