History of Barcelona

Barcelona lies 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.

The so-called 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.

The city’s 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.

Political 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 increasingly populated.

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. 

In 1888 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.

Furthermore, in 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. 

Another 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. 

However, this 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. 

Despite these 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 origins. 

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.

Franco’s death 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.