There is evidence of human habitation in the area now known as Spain dating as far back as 32,000 years ago. Pre-historic cultures likely existed as disparate tribes across the region until the Iron Age, when emerging groups like Iberians, Celtiberians and Greeks began to exercise more formal control over certain areas.
The Romans arrived in 206 BC and spent hundreds of years systematically conquering the region before ruling uninterrupted for almost 500 years.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, various Muslim and Christian conquerors spent the next 700 years struggling for full control of the region. The last Muslim city, Granada, fell under the control of the Christian Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in 1492, ending the last period of Muslim rule in Spain to this day.
Spain as a global empire
The Kingdom of Spain was unified under Christian rule in 1512 and began expanding at a ferocious pace. The far-reaching colonisation that saw Spain conquer land on almost every continent earned it the title of the first ‘global empire’.
With access to the natural resources and human labour extracted from its colonies, Spain continued to balloon in power and influence until the 17th century. At this point, lavish construction and out-of-control spending, as well as the growing influence of other global powers, caused the empire to stall.
By the 18th century, the Kingdom of Spain was struggling. An invasion from Napoleon’s France, royal infighting and various successful independence movements among colonies were the final death blows delivered to the ailing empire.
The early 20th century was a tumultuous time for Spain. Between 1918 and 1920, influenza killed an estimated 250,000 people in Spain alone. The nation oscillated between monarchy and short-lived stints as a republic. Attempted coups were frequent as left-wing and right-wing struggled for power, with powerful anarchist and fascist movements emerging, often in reaction to each other.
In 1936 the right-wing Nationalists (led by military general Francisco Franco Bahamonde AKA Franco) overthrew the government in a coup. A three-year civil war began for control of the country. At least 350,000 Spaniards died during the war, which ended with Franco’s victory and ascension to the dual roles of Head of State and Commander-in-Chief. Franco controlled Spain through a rigid totalitarian regime until his death in 1975. His legacy today is mixed, notable for brutal repression of dissenters but also an improved economy.
After Franco’s death, Spain transitioned to a democracy, holding its first free elections in almost 40 years in 1979. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the government was controlled alternately by socialist, conservative and populist parties.
Though power has continued to swing between conservative and socialist governance, Spain today is relatively politically stable and home to a thriving democracy.
Remarkably, centuries of Catholic supremacy and enforced cultural hegemony under Franco’s dictatorship haven’t been able to stamp out a spirit of counterculture and rebellion. In general, public engagement in social and political issues is high, and public protest is common.