A Brief History of Spain (3)

The Romans, as I said last time, invaded the Iberian Peninsula in force early in the third century BC. They named the territory Hispania, which gives us our first taste of a name resembling modern, Spain. We have already seen how the Phoenicians gave us the name, Gadir which evolved into Cádiz, and that the Carthaginians gave us Cartagena, the name by which that city is still known today. The Romans gave us some more recognisable names. They divided Hispania into four provinces, in the north west, Callecia (Galicia), in the east, Tarraconensis (Tarragona), in the west, Lusitania (Portugal) and in the south, Baetica, the province which came to be the richest in natural resources and hence the most important along with its capital, Córdoba. In honour of the Emperor Augustus, they also founded the city of Caesarea Augusta (Zaragoza). Christianity appears to have arrived in Hispania very quickly after the death of Jesus, although it is difficult to pin down precisely when. If we look to the New Testament there are a couple of clues. The book, Acts of the Apostles tells us that in AD 44, Herod had James,brother of John (author of the Gospel of St John) beheaded. Spanish legend has it that James’s disciples brought his remains by boat to the north west coast of Spain, coming ashore in what is now Galicia, where they received permission to bury his body. For some time a chapel marked the site of the burial, but this fell into disuse and knowledge of its location was lost. We shall return to this later, but the choice of Hispania as a destination might suggest that there was already a Christian presence. A second clue is to be found in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, written in AD 57 or 58. He promises the Christians living in Rome that, “When I have... officially handed over what has been raised, I shall set out for Spain, and visit you on the way.” Unfortunately, there is no record in the New Testament, and no local tradition in Spain, that Paul ever did get to Hispania, but it was his custom to visit existing Christian communities rather than to set out to convert people from scratch, and so his intention lends support to the idea that there were already Christians living in Hispania within 25 to 30 years of Jesus’s death. A third clue is a tradition in the Orthodox Church, that during the first century AD, the “Six Apostolic Men” sent to convert Hispania were all martyred. All of this points to Christianity arriving here very early, though not as early as reported by one schoolboy howler picked up by one of the markers of this year’s A-Level papers, in which a student confidently asserted that, “The Romans brought Christianity to Spain in the third century BC.” Roman rule in Hispania lasted some six hundred years. Then in AD 409 Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine, swept across Gaul and entered Hispania. The Suevi occupied Galicia and northern Portugal; the Alani conquered and settled southern Portugal (the Alentejo), and the Vandals took over Baetica. All of this was possible because the Roman Empire was by now in terminal decline, to the extent that the Emperor Honorius was unable to send troops to drive out the invaders. Instead, he appealed for help to Athaulf, his sister’s husband and the King of the Visigoths (who were also Christians), to do the job for him. Athaulf and his armies entered the peninsula in strength in AD 415, basically ignoring the Suevi in the north west, but slowly but steadily driving the Alani and the Vandals south, until in AD 429 these two tribes were forced to retreat across the straits into North Africa. Unfortunately for Honorius, the Visigoths were very taken with the lands that they had conquered and so stayed on setting up their own kingdom and establishing their own capital city at Toledo; the country continued to be know as Hispania. So now we have Christianity firmly established in Spain. Next we will look at the arrival of Islam.

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