The Restless Peninsula: The Proud and Colorful History of Iberia
Over the ages, the Iberian Peninsula was a melting pot of diverse cultures and civilizations, a piece of Europe that saw numerous migrations and many nations that rose and fell on its soil. Being the second largest peninsula in Europe, Iberia is geographically varied and vast, and as such it saw the spread of many isolated and very different cultures. And some parts of it endured with their uniqueness for a long, long time.
Today we will travel step by step from the early, proto history of the Iberian Peninsula, understanding the detailed and gradual emergence and disappearance of its peoples, as we seek to uncover the truth behind its modern identity. From the earliest dawn of its history, to the Bronze Age, the migrations and the Roman rule – we will touch upon the biggest points in the lengthy history of Iberia country.
The Old Europeans: The Earliest History of Iberia
Los Millares was the name of one of the earliest attested cultures of the Iberian Peninsula, and it is a fitting start to the story of this region as it poses as one of the aspects of the Iberian identity and history.
This sprawling culture arose in the very south of the peninsula, in the modern day region of Andalucía.
Los Millares is the name given to the major town and the center of that culture, which flourished in the Chalcolithic – aka the Copper Age. This spanned from the late 4th millennium BC to the very end of the 2nd millennium BC.
A model of the prehistoric town of Los Millares, Iberia, with its walls. (Tuor123 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The town that is associated with Los Millares is an unprecedented archaeological find, and a clear insight into the early cultures of the pre-Indo-European peoples of the area, as well as an interesting glimpse into the Copper Age in Iberia.
Located on a prominent hillside, Los Millares was a single and fairly large walled city with three fortified walls, each one protecting the houses contained inside. It was the home to perhaps a thousand citizens, and as such, it is one of the earliest civilizations on the peninsula.
After a lengthy timeframe, Los Millares was gradually replaced with the onset of the Bronze Age. In 1800 BC, the El Argar civilization of bronze metallurgists arose and eventually replaced the Los Millares, ushering the Iberian Peninsula into the new epoch of bronze.
Both Los Millares and the succeeding El Argar cultures stand as an important insight into the proto history of the Iberian Peninsula, as they are the part of the so-called Old Europeans. The theory of Old Europe is a concept mainly proposed by Maria Gimbutas – and it is centered around the peoples and cultures of Europe that were present before the Proto-Indo-European migrations.
Bowl with ocular motifs from Los Millares, Iberia. (Locutus Borg / CC BY-SA 2.5)
And that is where the next era begins – the entrance of the Urnfield cultures into the Iberian Peninsula. With the El Argar diminishing and slowly disappearing, the migratory Indo European, Proto Celtic peoples of the Urnfield culture slowly entered into the country Iberia in the 1st millennium BC. This ushered a new way of bronze metallurgy and culture related to it. For many, the Urnfield peoples signify the earliest form of the Celtic culture, and as such they are the first step towards the identity which would emerge much later – the Celtiberians.
Indo Europeans and the Iron Age in Iberia
The gradual transition to the earliest period of the Iron Age also saw the first contact of the ancient Phoenicians with the Iberian Peninsula. Around 1104 BC they sailed from the distant Phoenician city of Tyro and founded a walled settlement on the coast of the very southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. It was called Gadir and it still stands today as the Spanish city of Cadiz. It is the most ancient city in Western Europe that is still standing.
This small settlement of the Phoenicians was the biggest turning point in Iberia’s history – they introduced the use of iron, writing systems, and the potter’s wheel. These influences soon spread all over the peninsula.
But the actual iron smelting was brought in around 800 BC, when the Celts of the Hallstatt culture migrated into the area and mixed with the Urnfield peoples – by all accounts they spoke similar or the same languages and had the same heritage. Their cultural influence was quite strong and today it is strongly reflected in the archaeology of the Iberian Peninsula and the emergence of the Celtiberian peoples.
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Sword hilt from the Hallstatt culture of Iberia, 7th century. (Carmen Löw / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Hallstatt Celtic influence spread over the next 100 years, and by 7th century BC, the Iberian Peninsula was filled with diverse tribes and cultures, some fully Celtic – like the tribes of Celtici, Gallaeci, Lusitani, or Celtiberi – and others that managed to retain a pre-Celtic culture.
But the Celtic culture in Iberia was never fully 100% – they simply immersed themselves with the local peoples, slowly assimilating them and creating a unique blend that resulted in the emergence of a new and unique Celtic identity which earned a collective name - the Celtiberians.
The Celtiberians of Iberia
Both Appian and Diodorus Siculus distinctly mention the Celtiberi – and refer to them as the peoples that emerged from the ‘marriage’ between the migrating Celts and the native Iberians, once the early warfare between them subsided. Some, on the other hand, name the Celtiberi as a tribe or a branch of the Celts proper. Whatever the theory, we can all agree that the Celtiberians rose as a distinctive culture with an identity that was both unique and highly influential in the entire Iberian Peninsula.
The Celts brought with them iron working, the creation of oppidums - characteristic Celtic forts – as well as all the artistic and military elements that are associated with the wider Hallstatt culture of the Celts. When these elements got fused with the native Iberian peoples, a new identity was formed and it was formidable.
One example is the Iberian falcata – a formidable weapon iconic to the pre-Roman Iberia, a fusion of Celtic sickle-blade designs and the indigenous weapons. This weapon is today a common trademark sign of the Celtiberians.
Iberian falcata. (Tm / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Bolstered by the influence of the advanced Celts, the Celtiberians quickly rose as the dominant force on the peninsula. The oppidums became the regional centers of power, which were ruled by a warrior elite, much like in the contemporary Celtic societies of Central Europe.
Over the centuries these people managed to evolve into a culture different from the Celts. The Ebro river posed as a geographical boundary, and when they became surrounded by the pre-Celtic people, the Celtiberians lost their contact with Celts proper – the late La Tene Celtic culture didn’t reach them, which contributed to their unique development in both language and culture.
The Celtiberian language was part of the Celtic family of languages and it belonged to the Q-Celtic group. If it survived today it would be closely related to the Celtic Goidelic languages of the British Isles. Eventually, those few centuries of the establishment of Celtiberian identity would come under major threat – with the appearance of the Romans. And their arrival would be the turning point in the history of independent Iberia.
The Spreading Shadows of Rome
The first Mediterranean power to set foot into Iberia was Carthage. At first it was met with hostility from the local Celtiberian tribes as it tried to expand, the Carthaginian forces managed to establish a prosperous region after roughly eight years of warfare.
But the Carthaginian presence on the Iberian Peninsula would be finished with the end of the Second Punic War when the Romans defeated them and terminated their presence in the area. In 209 BC, the legendary general Scipio Africanus landed with his troops in Iberia, which marked the official Roman presence on the peninsula.
The first conquest related only to the Carthaginian territories, but in the next 200 years they waged constant war with the natives and Celtiberians, and they gradually expanded their influence to the entirety of the peninsula. The annexation was often met with hostility but with each decade the Roman influence grew stronger.
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Bronze Celtiberian fibula representing a warrior from the 3rd–2nd century BC. (Zaqarbal / CC BY-SA 3.0)
One of the best examples of the inspiring Celtiberian resistance to Roman rule was the final siege of Numantia in 133 BC. The oppidum of Numantia was perhaps the major Celtiberian town in the entire peninsula, and as such it presented a big thorn in the side of the conquering Romans. Scipio Africanus the Younger, also known as Scipio Aemilianus, was tasked with conquering this powerful fortified town.
With a force of 60,000 men, Scipio the Younger laid an extensive siege on the town, completely cutting off Numantia from the rest of the world. Trapped, the men and women of the Celtiberian Arevaci tribe had nowhere to go – they were starving to death. When things got desperate for them they sent envoys to make a treaty with Scipio.
Stating that they resist only for the safety of their children and families, and the love of their country, the Arevaci asked the Romans to make a treaty. But Scipio had orders for complete subjugation – he demanded only the deditio – complete submission.
Proud as they were, the Arevaci declined this. The siege continued, as did the starvation, and in the end the trapped Celtiberians of Numantia, frail and gaunt, reverted to cannibalism. In the end they were forced to surrender, but not before many chose suicide over surrender and burned the town. Those that survived were sold as slaves but only after they were paraded in Scipio’s victory triumph.
Engraving of the Siege of Numantia, Iberia. (Metilsteiner / Public Domain)
This noble and proud defiance of the Celtiberian peoples echoed through time, and even today stands as an inspiration for the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula. But in the end, the fall of Numantia served as a steppingstone for a more rapid spread of Roman influence over the peninsula. The whole of Iberia was finally annexed during the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus in 19 BC, some 190 years after Scipio Africanus first landed on its shores.
Even from the earliest days, the Roman presence had enormous influence on the cultural development of Iberia. The assimilation was a gradual process and was reflected in every sphere of life. In time, the Celtiberian, or Hispano-Celtic language gradually fell out of use, being replaced by Latin. Roman culture spread to every corner of society and would shape the new epoch in the colorful identity of the Iberians.
And in the decades after 19 BC, the Celtiberian identity slowly disappeared. By the 5th century AD, the Hispano-Celtic language was completely gone, and with it, the final remnants of the once powerful and unique Celtiberian people.
Thoughts About the Development of the Iberian Culture
There is no doubt that in the long centuries before the arrival of the Carthaginians and the Romans, the Iberian Peninsula exuded a unique and astonishing culture. Its proto peoples left countless traces that speak of the unique view of the world they had, all attested in their tombs, the remnants of their stone houses, and the many megaliths and stone carvings.
Model of one of the characteristic tombs of the prehistoric town of Los Millares, Iberia. (Tuor123 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The unique climate of the Iberian Peninsula, a large part of which has a distinct Mediterranean atmosphere, was always a fertile territory rich in many natural resources. This saw the arrival and rise of the numerous civilizations which were trying to carve out a piece of that peninsula for themselves.
And it is this very abundance of civilizations that was connected together into the Celtiberian nation, that fierce and proud strain of peoples that stood out with their warrior culture and unique art form. In the end, these identities formed a large part of the inspiring, unique history of the Iberian Peninsula.
Top image: Lady of Baza, famous Iberian sculpture from a style that was developed by the Iberians of the Bronze age. Source: Juan Aunión / Adobe Stock.
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