Whether serving as a place to pass through or to conduct business, Catalonia has maintained contact with the principal Mediterranean civilisations since ancient times. Greeks, and especially Romans, shared their traditions. However, it was not until the Middle Ages that the culture and country really came into their own. Fully autonomous until the appearance of the Spanish monarchy in the late 15th century, Catalonia has since lived through uneven periods of political recognition until it obtained autonomous status with the arrival of democracy in 1977.
The latest archaeological finds have enabled experts to deduce that modern Catalonia was already inhabited in the Lower Palaeolithic period, about 300,000 years ago. The first indigenous culture was that of the Iberians, of whom only hazy traces remain, who settled all along the Mediterranean coastline of the Iberian peninsula.
The first historic people to occupy Catalan territory were the Greeks, who founded the colonies of Rhode (Roses) and Emporion (Empúries) around 600 B.C. Rome took over as the dominant power and began its conquest of the Peninsula in the 3rd century B.C. This marked the start of Romanisation, the process by which the indigenous people adopted the Latin language, culture and institutions. The most important Roman city was Tarraco (Tarragona), a large administrative and economic centre, as proven by the archaeological remains that have been found.
With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D., the Peninsula was occupied by the German Visigoths, who succumbed to the Muslim invasion from North Africa in the year 714.
The origin of today´s Catalonia dates back to the end of the 8th century with the Marca Hispànica (Spanish March), counties founded by Charlemagne as a defensive barrier against the Muslim dominions of Al-Andalus. The Catalan culture, language and collective identity were developing within the framework of these vassal counties of the Carolingian Empire in order to become what is known as Catalunya Vella (Old Catalonia), to the north of the Llobregat and Cardener Rivers.
It was not until 989 that Guifré el Pilós, Count of Barcelona, declared Catalan independence, citing one overriding reason: the change of dynasty on the Frankish throne. A feudal system was imposed.
The 12th and 13th centuries saw major territorial expansion. Firstly, with the retaking of Catalunya Nova from the Muslims, to the Ebro and the plains of Lleida; and secondly, with the marriage of the Count of Barcelona, Ramon Berenguer IV, and Peronella d´Aragó (1137), which gave rise to the Crown of Aragon, the dynastic alliance between these two territories.
The feudal system gave way to a model of monarchy based on constant renegotiation between the king, the nobility, the clergy and the urban classes. This practice of compromise was articulated in government and tax collecting institutions such as the Corts and the Diputació del General, what would one day be the Generalitat.
The victories obtained by Jaume I el Conqueridor ("the Conqueror") made the Crown of Aragon the dominant power of the western Mediterranean. The Balearic Islands (1228) and Valencia (1238) were later annexed as two more kingdoms of the Crown. Likewise, the repopulation with colonists primarily from the Principality facilitated the implementation of the Catalan language and culture. The addition of Sardinia, Sicily and the Greek counties of Athens and Neopatria extended Catalan territorial and trading power even further.
Economic and political decadence
In the 14th century, Catalan political and economic power went into decline. The Black Death plague caused high mortality and severely weakened the Crown. The extinction of the House of Barcelona dynasty, with the death of Martí l’Humà before he had any descendants, gave rise to the enthronement of the Spanish Trastámara family (Compromise of Casp, 1412). In 1469, the marriage between Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella the Catholic of Castile marked the beginning of the Spanish monarchy, although Catalonia continued preserving its institutions.
Its historical rights were finally lost, following the War of Succession to the Spanish throne and the victory of the Bourbon candidate’s party. The new king, Philip V, imposed a Castilian model of a centralised and absolutist state through the Nueva Planta decrees (1716). These decrees eliminated the Catalan institutions and constitutions and outlawed public use of the Catalan language. The last bastion of Catalan resistance, Barcelona, fell on 11 September 1714, the date that subsequently became Catalonia´s National Day.
Industrial Revolution and the Renaixença
Once it had recovered from the ravages of war, Catalonia embarked on a definitive process of agricultural and commercial progress that set the scene for the first industrial revolution in the textile sector in the mid 19th century. With the arrival of the 20th century, Catalonia was already a clearly industrial society, very different from the rest of Spain. Initiatives had already begun taking shape for the defence of territorial interests and timid demands for autonomy. Some examples of these initiatives are: the Bases de Manresa of 1892 (first Catalan unitary political programme); the founding of the Lliga Regionalista (Regionalist League - modern political party representing the Catalan middle class); and the victory of the Solidaritat Catalana party in the 1907 elections.
The harsh working conditions of the workers and the appearance of a true urban proletariat around the most industrialised areas led to intense social disputes. Various parties were created, such as the Solidaritat Obrera and the anarchist union organisation, Confederació Nacional del Treball (CNT). Tensions peaked with incidents such as Setmana Tràgica of 1909 (a popular revolt against press ganging for fighting in the Spanish colonies in Morocco) and the years of pistolerisme, a period of attacks between organised groups, in the pay of employers and unions between 1919 and 1923).
At the same time, the Catalan culture and language experienced a strong vindication movement from the mid-19th century known as the Renaixença.
The Mancomunitat (1914) was the first institution of Catalan self-government following the Nueva Planta decree. As this institution was cut short by the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923), the recovery of the historical Generalitat of Catalonia had to wait until the Second Spanish Republic in 1931. Presided over by Francesc Macià and Lluís Companys, the Republic was tragically put to an end by the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The dictatorship of General Franco suppressed all Catalan attempts at achieving autonomy and persecuted the Catalan language and culture.
From the 1960s, Franco´s Spain embarked on a strong period of economic growth, the years of desarrollismo (development), in which Catalonia played an active role. The extensive Catalan industrial development, exemplified by the founding of SEAT, required a large number of workers, which came in the shape of various immigration waves from southern Spain. In thirty years, the population of Catalonia doubled, going from three million inhabitants in 1950 to six million in 1980.
The death of General Franco in 1975 gave way to a transition process towards democracy. This process made it possible for Catalonia to recover its self-government system with the re-establishment of the Generalitat in 1977 (headed by Josep Tarradellas) and the approval of the Statute of Autonomy in 1979. Between 1980 and 2003, the Generalitat significantly increased the maximum limit of the independent decision-making ability of the nationalist government led by Jordi Pujol. In 2003, socialist Pasqual Maragall took over as head of a leftist coalition government and created a favourable atmosphere for the Statute of Autonomy reform. Beginning in 2006, José Montilla, also a socialist, succeeded Maragall as President of the Generalitat.