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Siege of Barcelona (1697)

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Siege of Barcelona (1697)

The history of Barcelona stretches back well over 2000 years to its origins as an Iberian village, named Barkeno. Its easily defensible location on the coastal plain between the Collserola ridge (512 m) and the Mediterranean sea, on the coastal route between central Europe and the rest of the Iberian peninsula, has ensured its continued importance, if not always preeminence, throughout the ages.

Barcelona is currently a city of 1,620,943,[1] the second largest in Spain, and the capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia. Its wider urban region is home to three-quarters of the population of Catalonia and one-eighth of that of Spain.


The origins of the city of Barcelona are unclear. The coastal plain near Barcelona conserves remains from the late Neolithic and early Chalcolithic periods. Later, in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, the area was settled by the Laietani, a Thracian-Ιberian people, at Barkeno on the Táber hill (in the present-day Ciutat Vella, or "Old City") and at Laie (or Laiesken), believed to have been located on Montjuïc.

Both settlements struck coinage which survives to this day.[2] At around the same period, a small Greek colony, Kallipolis (Καλλίπολις), was founded in the region, though its exact location is unclear.

The area was occupied in 218 BC, at the start of the Second Punic War, by Carthaginian troops under the leadership of Hamilcar Barca. Up until this point, the northern limit of the Punic territories had been the Ebro river, located over 150 km to the south. This military occupation is often cited as the foundation of the modern city of Barcelona.

Legends about the foundation

At least two founding myths have been proposed for Barcelona by romantic historians since the 15th century. One credits the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal, with the foundation of the city around 230 BC under the name of Barkenon, Barcelino or Barci Nova. Despite the similarities between the names of this Carthinagean family and the modern city, it is usually accepted that the origin of the name "Barcelona" is the Iberic Barkeno.

The second attributes the foundation of the city to Hercules before the foundation of Rome. During the fourth of his Labours, Hercules joins up with the Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, travelling across the Mediterranean in nine ships. One of the ships is lost in a storm off the Catalan coast, and Hercules sets out to locate it. He finds it wrecked by a small hill, but with crew saved. The crew were so taken by the beauty of the location that they founded a city with the name Barca Nona ("Ninth Ship").

Roman Barcino

Information about the period from 218 BC until the 1st century BC is scarce. The Roman Republic contested the Carthaginean control of the area, and eventually set out to conquer the whole of the Iberian peninsula in the Cantabrian Wars, a conquest which was declared complete by Caesar Augustus in 19 BC. The north-east of the peninsula was the first region to fall under Roman control, and served as a base for further conquests. While Barcelona was settled by the Romans during this period under the name of Barcino (see below), it was considerably less important than the major centres of Tarraco and Caesaraugusta, known today as Zaragoza.

The name Barcino was formalised around the end of the reign of Caesar Augustus (AD 14). It was a shortened version of the name which had been official up until then, Colonia Faventia Julia Augusta Pia Barcino (also Colonia Julia Augusta Faventia Paterna Barcino[3] and Colonia Faventia[4]).

As a colonia, it was established to distribute land among retired soldiers. The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela[5] refers to Barcino as one of a number of small settlements under the control of Tarraco. However its strategic position on a branch of the Via Augusta allowed its commercial and economic development,[6] and it enjoyed immunity from imperial taxation.[7]

At the time of Caesar Augustus, Barcino had the form of a castrum, with the usual perpendicular main streets of the Cardus Maximus and the Decumanus Maximus and a central forum located on the Táber hill (25 m), site of the iberic Barkeno. The perimeter walls were 1.5 km long, enclosing an area of 12 ha.

By the 2nd century, the city had the form of an oppidum and a population of 3500–5000. The main economic activity was the cultivation of the surrounding land, and its wine was widely exported. The archeological remains from the period (sculptures, mosaics, amphorae) indicate a relatively rich population, although the city possessed none of the major public buildings (theatre, amphitheatre, circus) which are found in more important Roman centres such as Tarraco. The one public building which was present was the temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus and probably constructed at the start of the 1st century. It was quite large for a city the size of Barcino, 35 m by 17.5 m, on a podium and surrounded by Corinthian columns.

The first raids by the Germanic tribes started around 250, and the fortifications of the city were substantially improved in the later years of the 3rd century under Claudius II. The new double wall was at least two meters high, up to eight meters in some parts, and was punctuated by seventy-eight towers measuring up to eighteen meters high. The new fortifications were the strongest in the Roman province of the Tarraconensis, and would increase the importance of Barcino compared to Tarraco.

Paleochristian Barcino

The first Christian communities in the Tarraconense were founded during the 3rd century, and the diocese of Tarraco was already established by 259, when the bishop Saint Fructuosus (Fructuós) and the deacons Augurius and Eulogius were killed on the orders of the emperor Valerian. The Christian community in Barcino appears to have been established in the latter half of the 3rd century.

The persecution of the Christians under Diocletian at the start of the 4th century would lead to at least one martyr in the region of Barcino: Saint Cucuphas (Catalan: Sant Cugat). Apparently of African origin, Cucuphas had evangelised in several areas of the Tarraconense, including Barcino, Egara (modern Terrassa) and Iluro (modern Mataró), before being killed at Castrum Octavium (modern Sant Cugat del Vallès, just over the Collserola ridge from Barcino/Barcelona). Saint Eulalia (Catalan: Santa Eulàlia) is also often considered as a martyr from Barcino.

The Edict of Milan in 313 granted a greater freedom of religion to Christians in the Roman Empire and put and end to widespread persecution. The first recorded bishop of Barcino was Prætextatus (Pretextat) (d. 360), who attended the synod of Sardica in 347. He was succeeded by Saint Pacian (Catalan: Sant Pacià, c. 310–390) and Lampius (Lampi) (d. 400). Pacian is particularly known for his works De baptismo ("On baptism") and Libellus exhortatorius ad poenitentium, about the penitential system. The first major Paleochristian temple, the Basílica de la Santa Cruz at the origin of the modern cathedral, was constructed around the end of the 4th century.

Visigothic Barchinona

At the start of the 5th century, the Western Roman Empire suffered ever more serious attacks at the hands of various Germanic peoples, notably the Goths and the Vandals. Alaric's stepbrother and successor Ataulf led the Visigoths into southern Gaul, and after a defeat at the hands of the Roman forces at Narbona (modern Narbonne) in 414, moved across the Pyrenees into the Tarraconensis.

Ataulf established his court at Barcino, where he was murdered by his own troops in 415.

The death of Ataulf, who had imprisoned then married Galla Placidia, daughter of the emperor Theodosius I, changed the relations between the Visigoths and the Romans. Under Wallia (415–419), the Visigoths became fœderati, allies charged with the control of the other Germanic tribes who had invaded Hispania. Wallia was notably successful in this task, and the emperor Honorius extended the area of Visigoth control to include Aquitania and Gallia Narbonensis. Wallia established his capital at Tolosa (modern Toulouse) in 417.

Barcino would remain an important, if provincial, centre of the Visigoth kingdom, notably because of its excellent defensive walls. After the death of Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé against the Franks in 507, his successor Gesalec (507–511) moved the capital from Tolosa to Barcino. Amalaric (511–531) ruled from Narbona, but was murdered by his troops in Barcino, from where his successor Theudis ruled until 548. Barcino returned to its role as a provincial centre with the establishment of the Visigoth capital in Toledo by Leovigildus in 573.

The Visigoths formed only a minority of the population of the city, occupying the positions of authority. The first rulers were Arians until the adoption of Catholic Christianity as the state religion in 589, but the practice of Catholicism by the city population was tolerated. The religious centre moved from the Basílica de la Santa Cruz, converted into an Arian temple, to the Church of Saint Just. Christian Councils were held in 540 under bishop Nebridi and in 599 in the reconsecrated Basilica under bishop Ugnas. The unique document known as De fisco Barcinonensi (c. 592) describes the provincial tax system that was based out of Barcelona. It is the most important source on Visigothic taxation.

The language spoken at the time was undoubtedly Vulgar Latin, including by the Visigoth rulers who were rapidly Latinised. Over time, the spelling of the Latin Barcino (declined as Barcinone, Barcinonem, Barcinonam, Barcinona) gradually came to include an intercalated "h" to represent the hard /k/ sound (as in modern Italian), and the use of the different Latin cases declined.

Jewish Barchinona

The Jewish population of Barcino/Barchinona dates from the mid-4th century at the latest. While the Jewish religion had been tolerated by the Romans, Jews suffered varying degrees of discrimination and persecution under the Visigoths. The Jewish population of Barchinona was considerable enough under the reign of Wamba (672–680) to demand a royal edict to expel the Sefardim.

Muslim Barshiluna

The Moorish forces arrived in the Iberian peninsula in 711 to help Akhila II in the civil war which opposed him against Roderic. Akhila renounced his throne in 713 in favour of Ardo, and a Moorish expedition under Al-Hurr quickly expanded the territory under their control. After the conquest and devastation of Tarraco in 717, Barchinona surrendered peacefully and was hence spared from major destruction.

Moorish rule in Barshiluna (also transliterated as Medina Barshaluna, Madinat Barshaluna, Bargiluna and Barxiluna) lasted less than a century. While the cathedral was converted into a mosque and taxes levied on non-Muslims, religious freedom and civil government was largely respected. The local Walī was mostly concerned with military matters, with the count and the local bishop having large day-to-day control of the local population.

Barcelona in the Spanish March

Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, captured Barcelona in 801 after a siege of several months. It was to be the most southerly of his gains from Moors as he was pushed back from Tortosa, and the rivers Llobregat and Cardener marked the boundaries of the Carolingian possessions. The border regions were organised into the Spanish Marches (Marca Hispanica), administered by a number of counts appointed by the King, and Barcelona became the seat of a county.

The first Carolingian Counts of Barcelona were little more than royal administrators, but the position steadily gained in power and independence from the central rule with the weakening of the Carolingian kings. At the same time, several of the counties of the Spanish Marches came to be ruled by the same individual. The last Count of Barcelona to be appointed by the Carolingian authorities was Wilfred the Hairy (Catalan: Guifré el Pelós) at the Assembly of Troyes in 878: Wilfred, who was already Count of Cerdanya and Urgell, also received the counties of Girona and Besalú. At his death in 897, Wilfred's possessions were divided between his sons Wilfred II Borrel, Sunyer and Miró the Younger, marking the beginning of a hereditary regime. Wilfred II Borrell was the last of the Counts of Barcelona to pledge fidelity to the Carolingian court, although the de jure feudal link was not abolished until 1258 with the Treaty of Corbeil.

The preeminence of the Counts of Barcelona among the nobility of the Spanish Marches was in part due to their ability to expand their territory by conquests from the Moorish walís. They also repopulated their inland realms, whose population had plummeted after two centuries of war. The city of Barcelona, easily defensible and with excellent fortifications, prospered with the increasing power of its overlords, while the other Marcher counties had more limited prospects.

Barcelona under the Crown of Aragon

While Alfonso II of Aragon inherited the Crown of Aragon in 1162 thanks to the marriage in 1137 Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, Count of Barcelona, with Petronila of Aragon, future Queen of Aragon, the administrations of Aragon and Catalonia remained mostly separate. The city of Barcelona was by far the largest settlement in Catalonia, at least four times larger than Girona, and a vital source of royal income. The royal court passed much of its time from town to town, to ensure the continued loyalty of the local nobility, and steadily developed into a representative body known as the Corts of Catalonia.

The economy of Barcelona during this period was increasingly directed towards trade, with representatives known as consuls in all the major Mediterranean ports of the period.

Barcelona under the Spanish monarchy

The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in 1469 united the two royal lines. The center of political power became Madrid and the colonisation of the Americas reduced the financial importance (at least in relative terms) of Mediterranean trade.

The unification of the Spanish kingdoms and the riches of the New World were not without political repercussions for Europe, leading ultimately to the War of the Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1714. The Catalan nobility sided with the Habsburgs against the Bourbon Philip V, which led to the abolition of Catalan autonomy with the last of the Nueva Planta decrees in 1715, and to an end of the national influence of the city of Barcelona.

However, from the end of the 18th century, the position of Barcelona as a Mediterranean port and the proximity of lignite deposits in the Berguedà became important factors in the Industrial Revolution. Catalonia as a whole, and Barcelona in particular, became important industrial centres, with an increase in wealth (if not political power).

During the 18th century, a fortress was built at Montjuïc overlooking the harbour. On 16 March 1794, even though France and Spain were at war, the French astronomer Pierre François André Méchain was given leave to enter the fortress to make observations that were to be used out to measure the distance from Dunkirk to Barcelona, two cities lying on approximately the same longitude as each other and also the longitude through Paris. Using this measurement and the latitudes of the two cities they could calculate the distance between the North Pole and the Equator in classical French units of length and hence produce the first prototype metre which was defined as being one ten millionth of that distance.[8] The definitive metre bar, manufactured from platinum, was presented to the French legislative assembly on 22 June 1799.

In 1812, Barcelona was annexed by Napoleonic France and incorporated into the First French Empire as part of the department Montserrat (later Bouches-de-l'Èbre–Montserrat), where it remained for few years until Napoleon's defeat. In 1888, Barcelona hosted the Exposición Universal de Barcelona, which led to a great extension of its urbanised area from Parc de la Ciutadella to Barceloneta. The city absorbed six surrounding municipalities[9] in 1897 and the new district of the Eixample (literally "the extension") was laid out. The relative prosperity of the city restored its role as a cultural centre, as is witnessed by the architecture of Antoni Gaudí still visible around Barcelona.

In summer 1909, political clashes took place in Barcelona known as the Tragic Week.

A second major international exhibition was organised in 1929, leading to the urbanisation of the area around Plaça Espanya and providing the impetus for the construction of the metro, inaugurated in 1924.

The Second Republic and civil war

The city had prepared to host the People's Olympics during the summer of 1936, building the Olympic Stadium and developing the Montjuïc area, but the insurrection of the army in July 1936 plunged Spain into civil war. Several of the athletes who had arrived for the Games stayed to form the first of the Republican International Brigades, made famous by the writers Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia).

The city, and Catalonia in general, were resolutely Republican. Many enterprises and public services were "collectivised" by the CNT and UGT unions. As the power of the Republican government and the Generalitat diminished, much of the city was under the effective control of anarchist groups. The anarchists lost control of the city to their own allies, the Stalinists and official government troops, after the street fighting of the Barcelona May Days.

Barcelona was bombarded for three days beginning on March 16, 1938, at the height of the Spanish Civil War. Under the command of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Italian aircraft stationed on Majorca attacked 13 times dropping 44 tons of bombs, aimed at the civil population. These attacks were at the request of General Franco as retribution against the Catalan population. The medieval Cathedral of Barcelona was bombed and more than one thousand people died, including many children. The number of people injured is estimated to be in the thousands.[10]

The city finally fell into Nationalist hands on January 26, 1939.


The resistance of Barcelona to Franco's coup d'état was to have lasting effects after the defeat of the Republican government. The autonomous institutions of Catalonia were abolished[11] and the use of the Catalan language in public life was suppressed and forbidden, although its use was not formally illegalised as often claimed. Barcelona remained the second largest city in Spain, at the heart of a region which was relatively industrialised and prosperous, despite the devastation of the civil war.

The result was a large-scale immigration from poorer regions of Spain (particularly Andalucia, Murcia and Galicia), which in turn led to rapid urbanisation. The district of Congrés was developed for the International Eucharistic Congress in 1952, while the districts of El Carmel, Nou Barris, El Verdum and Guinardó were developed later in the same decade. Barcelona's suburbs, such as L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, Bellvitge, Santa Coloma de Gramenet, Sant Adrià de Besòs, and Badalona, also saw a dramatic population increase, often tenfold over a single decade.

The increase in the population led to the development of the metro network, the tarmacking of the city streets, the installation of traffic lights and the construction of the first rondas or ringroads. The provision of running water, electricity and street lighting also had to be vastly improved, if not always fast enough to keep pace with the rising population.

The massive immigration not only left a city which was extremely densely populated (1,557,863 inhabitants, 15,517 per km², in 1970), often housed in very poor quality accommodation, but also contributed to the decline in the specifically Catalan culture of Barcelona. While the use of Catalan in private was tolerated in the later years of the dictatorship, the immigrants to Barcelona spoke only Spanish. Catalan-language education was unavailable, even if there had been any social pressure to learn the local language (which was far from the case in urban areas).

Modern Barcelona

The death of Franco in 1975 brought on a period of democratisation throughout Spain. Pressure for change was particularly strong in Barcelona, which considered (with some justification) that it had been punished during nearly forty years of Franquism for its support of the Republican government. Massive, but peaceful, demonstrations on 1977-09-11 assembled over a million people in the streets of Barcelona to call for the restoration of Catalan autonomy. It was granted less than a month later.

The development of Barcelona was promoted by two events in 1986: Spanish accession to the European Community, and particularly Barcelona's designation as host city of the 1992 Summer Olympics. The process of urban regeneration has been rapid, and accompanied by a greatly increased international reputation of the city as a tourist destination. The increased cost of housing has led to a slight decline (−16.6%) in the population over the last two decades of the 20th century as many families move out into the suburbs. This decline has been reversed since 2001, as a new wave of immigration (particularly from Latin America and from Morocco) has gathered pace.[12]

See also


Much of this article has been translated from the article Historia de Barcelona on Spanish World Heritage Encyclopedia.

Further reading

External links

  • Official site of the Barcelona city administration
  • History of Barcelona
  • Barcelona on-this-day historical almanac based on the 1848 Libro verde de Barcelona
  • Barcelona timeline based on the 1848 Libro verde de Barcelona
  • History of Barcelona Chronology, historical Google map of the city, historical accounts.


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