History of Barcelona
on a small alluvial plain located about halfway along the coast of modern
Catalonia, in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula. The current city occupies
a coastal strip that slightly slopes towards the sea, situated between the
courses of two small rivers, the Llobregat and the Besòs, and sandwiched
between the Catalan coastal range and the Mediterranean Sea. On this plain, there
is a series of relatively low hills that were crowned by Iberian settlements in
the Iron Age.
plain of Barcelona was criss-crossed for millennia by small watercourses that
flowed through natural terrain formed by
very compact clays. Some tribes had already settled between these watercourses
by the beginning of the Neolithic Age around 5500 BC. They would gradually
evolve throughout this period and during the Bronze Age.
The city known
as Barcino was founded by the Romans during the reign of Augustus; it was a
small colony of scattered but spacious domus,
whose inhabitants controlled a particularly fertile ager
provincialis. The city was surrounded by walls with a clearly symbolic
function, which would be strengthened during the Late Roman Empire. Barcino
became totally Christian from the 4th century and went on to play an important
role as an episcopal seat and centre of political power in Late Antiquity,
being a sede regiae during some
periods of the 6th and 7th centuries.
Like the rest of
the Iberian Peninsula, Barcino became part of the Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba,
in 713, although there were continuous uprisings of their valis supported by
alliances with the Carolingians.
Finally, in the
year 801, much of present-day Catalonia was annexed by the Carolingian Empire,
which led to the creation of the Spanish March and the division of the
territory into counties. Among these, particular mention should be made of the
County of Barcelona, whose influence would grow steadily in the Early Middle
Ages until it established itself as a dynasty on its own, independent of
Carolingian regal power.
economic power was based on agricultural trade and, above all, its growing role
in Mediterranean trade and in the raids against the Muslim taifa kingdoms in the
peninsula. The County of Barcelona would gradually become stronger and by the
12th century, and thanks to a policy of matrimonial alliances, it dominated the
whole of the Crown of Aragon. During the thirteenth, 14th and 15th centuries
Barcelona enjoyed one of its greatest periods of splendour as a Mediterranean
power and as an influential city in the alliances and power struggles in Europe
originating in Rome. The city grew much bigger, and the hitherto small Roman
colony of Barcino was now a city with new fortifications, powerful local
political elites and Gothic architecture of the highest order.
conflicts, the economic crisis and the displacement of the centres of power to
other cities such as Valencia pushed the city into a period of declining
political influence, although it remained a dynamic city and important trade
centre. The dynastic union of the Crowns of Aragon and of Castile led to
various conflicts between this new axis of political power and the city’s
ruling council, increasingly out of touch with the great decision-making
centres. Finally, during the War of the Spanish Succession, Barcelona decided
to ally itself with the Austrian Habsburgs in opposition to the aspirations of
the Bourbon king, Philip V. The victory of the French claimant led to a drastic
change in the city’s status, which was stripped of its own old medieval
institutions and fully absorbed into the new Spanish monarchy.
This was a
period of convulsion for the city, with the radical modification of its urban
fabric and the centres of power and decision, during which a citadel was built
to exercise military control over a population that was hostile to its new
political masters. New neighbourhoods were also built and the city expanded
outside the walls, with the surrounding villages and suburbs becoming
On the other
hand, the 18th century was also a period of economic growth, growth
characterized by trade and, in particular, by the new calico industry. This
introduced a range of textiles and dyes that would generate the capital that
led to the great economic leap forward in the textile industry in the first
third of the 19th century.
As of the
mid-19th century, Barcelona became an industrial city, with all that this
entailed, and was even known as the “Manchester of the South”. The city’s
economy was based on the textile and machine industries, with an increasingly
dynamic port; and the 19th century saw major urban developments which would
replace much of its medieval urban fabric with that of an industrial city. The
city’s reform and expansion, planned by the engineer Ildefons Cerdà, the
creator of urban planning as a discipline, led to a great spike in urban growth
through the absorption of all the villages around the city into the same municipality
and the construction of a true bourgeois and industrial capital based on the
principles of social hygiene. The Art Nouveau in fashion at the time would
become the hallmark of the new architecture and the city was replete with the
new institutions of the capitalista bourgeoisie; but it was also a proletarian
city, with social and economic conflict.
Barcelona organized a universal exhibition that vastly improved its international
economic status and entailed major internal reforms that contributed to its
monumentalization. However, social unrest and labour disputes were still on the
rise: the anarchist movements had established themselves in the city, and the
industrial bourgeoisie opposed any labour reform that supposed a reduction in their
profits and power. Murders, arrests and executions became more and more common
and the social climate grew steadily tenser around the end of the 19th and
beginning of the 20th centuries, triggering events such as the so-called Semana
Trágica or Tragic Week of 1909.
the last third of the 19th century, a part of the bourgeoisie and the middle
and working classes of the city had embraced the idea of the revival –
initially cultural and later political – of Catalan nationalism, an expression
of identity that little by little also developed into a desire for greater
self-government within the context of political crisis in the Spanish state,
which had lost its last American colonies and was struggling with the
much-needed reforms and the monarchic crisis.
international event, the 1929 International Exposition, funnelled important
changes characterized by improvements in urban infrastructures and urban
growth. In this context, the first waves of migrants from Aragon, Valencia and
some areas of southern Spain reached Barcelona in search of work and housing.
Precisely, the problems of housing and living conditions in the city led to
several revolts, but then the Spanish political crisis was resolved with the
abdication of the monarch and the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic.
The time of the
Republic saw great social progress and the renewal of the political classes,
but it was also a period of conflict and social tension. The city remained in
the hands of a bourgeoisie whose ideology ranged from deep Catholicism to
liberal political thinking. On the other hand, at the other end of the social
scale, the city gradually became a centre of anarcho-syndicalism, of secularism
and republicanism: anarchists and communists increased their influence, which
would be accentuated after the military uprising that sparked off the Spanish
Civil War. Indeed, from 1936 to 1939, Barcelona was the world capital of
insurgents, of revolution; red Barcelona, the city discovered by Hemingway and
so many other romantic revolutionaries who saw the new era of proletarian
liberation emerging in the streets of Barcelona.
ideal was obscured by events that took a darker course; the Francoist victory
in the war struck a terrible blow. Repression and a return to the more
conservative values of Catholicism would dominate the political and social scene
in Barcelona and the rest of Spain for over thirty years.
circumstances and the harshness of the military dictatorship, Barcelona continued
to grow, albeit chaotically. In the 1950s, with the introduction of the
development plans devised by Franco’s technocratic governments, and the
definitive recognition of Spain by the Holy See and the United States,
Barcelona and its region once again became one of the main targets of Spanish reindustrialization,
which was accompanied by new, much more massive migratory waves from Andalusia
and other Spanish regions, resulting in a working class with a huge mixture of
In the 1960s,
Barcelona was transformed into a modern city, connected to the world, and the artistic
avant-gardes and intellectual and popular movements became increasingly
influential. These movements were united in their political opposition to the
military dictatorship, contributing to the city’s social cohesion and growing
vitality. New cultural institutions and business initiatives and the growing
economic diversity encouraged the emergence of vibrant new social sectors
increasingly opposed to the regime, especially after 1968.
and the democratic transition marked the beginning of a period of special
popular euphoria, which manifested itself in the circles of local political
power and in all the spheres of social life. Barcelona became the world capital
of the Spanish-language publishing industry, a leading logistics centre in the
Western Mediterranean, and a major cultural and intellectual hub: a city ready to
greet the new millennium with a high level of social cohesion and collective
optimism. The 1992 Olympic Games symbolized this new urban spirit. The urban
transformations and expansion of the city – now
modernized – appeared to herald an endless period of growth and optimism.
However, Barcelona was again hit by economic crisis in 2010, as the rest of the
capitalist world, and the great urban transformation of last few decades has
left a trail of injustice, with large disadvantaged sectors of the community
demanding better conditions and a better future.