Barcelona: Capital of an Empire

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Founded by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago, Barcelona seeps with history. The town was briefly capital of the Visigoth empire but really rose to power following the Moorish invasion when it became the seat of the Counts of Barcelona. After the counts became kings of the Crown of Aragon, Barcelona was the capital of the greatest empire in the Mediterranean. Its power and importance is evident from the great Gothic buildings of the time. The city is prepared to be capital of a sovereign state once again.


Chapter 7: Barcelona - Capital of an Empire

A short walk round Ciutat Vella, literally Old City, makes it obvious that Barcelona was once the capital of a great empire. Barcelona is probably the most important city in Europe that is not the capital of its own state. This is a problem for landlocked and less obviously attractive Madrid, which although a wonderful city, pales by comparison. The Spanish capital doesn't have the same attractions as  historic Barcelona, the Gran Encisera or Great Enchantress.

The Barri Gòtic is a testament to the fact that Barcelona was once capital of a Mediterranean empire. However, the history of this marvellous city goes back much further.

Roman Barcelona

Founded in around 14 BC on the site of an Iberian settlement, Barcino was one of the many natural ports along the stretch of coast between Emporion, where the Romans originally landed, and Tarraco or Tarragona, which they made their capital. Originally, a rectanglar Roman castrum or military encampment, it was set on a small hill, Mont Taber, a short way back from the sea. The colony had two main streets Decamanus Maximus and Cardus Maximus, which still run through the Gothic Quarter as Carrer del Bisbe and Carrer de la Llibreteria respectively.

By the second century AD, Barcino was a fortified oppidum with a population of around 5,000. Long sections of the original Roman walls can still be seen today and three surviving columns of the Temple of Augustus stand at the peak of Mont Taber on Carrer Paradis just behind the Cathedral. The Palau de la Generalitat stands roughly on the site of the Roman forum so the seat of government has been in the same location in Barcelona for more than 2,000 years.

A visit to the Museu d'Història de Barcelona  or MUHBA just next to Plaça del Rei will take you back to Roman Barcelona. Complete with baths, dyeing workshops, salted fish factories and wine cellars, Barcino was obviously a thriving Roman colony. Recent excavations suggest that, particularly throughout the later stages of the Roman Empire, the town was already significantly more important than archaeologists had originally thought.
The Visigoths

Roman control began to weaken in the early 5th century and Hispania was invaded by Germanic tribes. It is not surprising that the Visigoths made Barchinona one of their important centres.

Ataülf established his court in Barchinona before being murdered by his troops there in 415 AD. His successor, Wallia, moved the capital of the Visigoth empire of Aquitania and Gallia Narbonensis to Toulouse leaving Barchinona as an important military post because of its fortified walls and trading port. From 500 AD onward, Barchinona alternated as capital of the Visigoth empire with Toulouse until Toledo was made capital of Visigoth Hispania under Leovigildus in 573 AD.

Although part of Spain now, modern Catalonia is the rump of a much larger region. Historically, Barcelona was the capital of a territory straddling modern Spain and France that looked out towards the Mediterranean rather than inland to the Iberian peninsula. This is where the Catalan language still exercises its cultural influence. Even today Barcelona is capital of a European Union megaregion, which stretches along the Mediterranean coast from Marseille to Valencia.

Visigoth dominance of Hispania had broken down into rival fiefdoms by the beginning of the 8th century. When the Muslims invaded in 711 AD they quickly took control of the Iberian peninsula. Muslim rule in Medina Barshiluna lasted less than a century.

The cathedral was converted into a mosque and taxes levied on non-Muslims but religious freedom and civil government was largely respected. The influence of Moorish culture on the Catalan people and their language was much more restricted than in the rest of Spain.

A Frontier City

Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious captured Barcelona in 801. The border territories were organised by the Franks as a buffer zone known as the Marca Hispanica or Spanish March. The frontier between the Carolingian Empire and Al-Andalus or Moorish Spain was the River Llobregat, just south of the city of Barcelona.

The first Carolingian Counts of Barcelona were little more than royal administrators, but the position steadily gained in power and independence from the central rule with the weakening of the Carolingian kings. At the same time, several of the counties of the Spanish March came to be ruled by the same individual. The last Count of Barcelona to be appointed by the Carolingian authorities was Guifré el Pilós or Wilfred the Hairy at the Assembly of Troyes in 878.

The preeminence of the Counts of Barcelona among the nobility of the Spanish March was in part due to their ability to expand their territory by conquests from the Moorish walís. They also repopulated their inland realms, where the population had plummeted after two centuries of war.

The city of Barcelona, easily defensible and with excellent fortifications, prospered with the increasing power of its overlords, Being inland or no longer on the frontier, the other Catalan counties had more limited prospects.

There are very few buildings in Barcelona dating from this period. The town was still frontier territory and Guifré el Pilós and his successors did most of their building in the mountain strongholds of the Pyrenees, which were unlikely to be invaded by the Moors. To find the best early Romanesque architecture, you have to go to Sant Climent and other villages in the Vall de Boí.

As the frontiers were secured over the next few centuries and Barcelona recovered from the sacking by Al-Mansur in 985, churches began to be built further south. The foothills of the Pyrenees around Ripoll and the area around Vic on the central plains of Catalonia are home to the next phase of religious building.  

The earliest Romanesque churches in Barcelona are Sant Pau del Camp in El Raval and the Monestir de Sant Cugat. Sant Pau del Camp, literally Sant Paul of the Fields, was well outside Barcelona's city walls and dates from 977 AD. Still outside the city limits, the breathtaking Monestir de Sant Cugat was started in the 9th century although most of what we can see today dates from much later.

Great architecture is always a sign of power, prosperity and confidence. Barcelona's building explosion had to wait for the reign of Jaume I the Conqueror when the city reached its apotheosis. The city centre is a staggering testament to the metamorphosis of Romanesque into Gothic.

The Mediterranean Empire

Once Jaume I had taken Mallorca in 1232, the trade routes were freed from Saracen pirates and there was no stopping Barcelona's expansion into the Mediterranean. Out went the merchant ships, taking the Catalan language with them. By the end of the 15th century, Catalan was more spoken around the Mediterranean than French, Spanish and Italian or indeed any language except Arabic.

Jaume's son Pere the Great (1240-1285) began the conquest of Sicily in 1282 and once secured, the great granary of Southern Europe was harnessed to feed the Crown of Aragon. Sicily allowed the Catalans to establish a foothold in Italy. 

The violent  annexation of Sardinia was completed during the brief reign of Pere's son, Alfons (1285-91) and the Kingdom of Naples was incorporated much later in 1443. Sicily would also become a stepping stone for Catalan merchants on their way to ports in Greece, Egypt and Constantinople over the coming centuries.

As king of a united territory which now included Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, the reign of Jaume II the Just (1291-1327) began a golden age. Barcelona was the capital of one of the greatest Mediterranean empires in history. Succeeded by Alfons III the Kind, Pere III the Ceremonious, Joan I the Hunter until the last of the House of Barcelona dynasty, Marti I the Humane died in 1410, the building projects of the time reflect its status and power of this vibrant and prosperous port city.

A Monumental Reminder

Most of the magnificent buildings in Barcelona's Barri Gòtic or Gothic Quarter date from this Golden Age. Barcelona Cathedral was built mainly during the 14th century, as were the main buildings of the Plaça del Rei or King's Square. The austere arches of the Saló del Tinell, the Royal Chamber, still echo to the glory of the medieval count-kings of the Crown of Aragon.

Built by the merchants and people of La Ribera between 1329 and 1383, when Barcelona was at the height of Catalonia's maritime and mercantile preeminence, Santa Maria del Mar overlooked the water as its name suggests. The basilica is the clearest yet most breathtaking example of Catalan Gothic to have survived the city's turbulent history. The interior was gutted by fire during the Civil War and we have been left with the finely chiselled bare bones of this extraordinary structure.

The feast days of Sant Jordi and La Mercè are the only two days when the public can go behind the neoclassical facades of the Palau de la Generalitat and La Casa de la Ciutat government buildings in Plaça de Sant Jaume and explore their medieval entrails. The opulent Saló del Cent where Barcelona's famous Council of One Hundred sat dates from 1359 and is definitely the highpoint of the Casa de la Ciutat. The Pati dels Tarongers and the Gothic galleries and meeting rooms of the Palau de la Generalitat, which was begun in September 1400, take you back to the origins of one of the oldest government institutions in Europe.

Plaça de Sant Jaume is a 19th century invention and you can still see the original facade of the Casa de la Ciutat on Carrer de la Ciutat and of the Palau de la Generalitat on Carrer de Sant Honorat, in the heart of the ancient Jewish Quarter. Walking through backstreets of this area known as El Call, the observant will spot original houses of the financially powerful Jewish community. On Carrer de Marlet, you'll find the Sinagoga Major, which dates from the 4th century and is one of the earliest surviving synagogues in Europe. The fact that both government buildings and the royal palaces are virtually on the synagogue's doorstep gives an idea of the importance of the Jewish community in medieval Barcelona.

Another ancient institution hidden behind a neoclassical exterior is the Casa de la Llotja de Mar. This building originally housed the Consolat de Mar or Consulate of the Sea, which administered Barcelona's maritime and mercantile empire. Now looking out onto urban Pla de Palau, La Llotja once stood directly on the seafront parallel to Santa Maria del Mar and was seafaring merchants' first port of call before giving thanks at the church. The building later became the Barcelona stock exchange and has only recently been converted into an events centre run by Barcelona Chamber of Commerce.

The other great monument to Barcelona's hey-day as a maritime capital is located on the other side of La Rambla lodged into the only surviving section of Pere the Ceremonious's 14th century city walls. Les Drassanes Reials, now home to the Maritime Museum, is the oldest royal shipyard in Europe and was where the Catalan military and mercantile fleet was built and made ready to set sail for distant lands.

A Capital City

I give guided walking tours of Barcelona Old Town and often finish at the Columbus monument at the bottom of La Rambla right next to Les Drassanes Reials. My visitors are generally lost for words after three hours of discovering the unwritten history of this marvellous city. Before we go for lunch, I close with a simple question. "Do you really expect me believe that Barcelona is the capital of nowhere?"

Of course, Barcelona is the capital of somewhere. It is a major European city with more than 2,000 years of history. Over a thousand years ago it became capital of a sovereign state that developed into the Principality of Catalonia. Catalonia and its capital dominated the Crown of Aragon, and went on to be the driving force behind the greatest empire in medieval Europe.

Barcelona's position as a business, tourism and cultural capital today is a reflection of its rightful position. Catalonia's claims for self-determination would make little sense were it not for the dynamism of its capital city. Barcelona is prepared to take its place as state capital once again.

Now Read Chapter Eight of Catalonia Is Not Spain - The First Castilian Kings of the Trastámara Dynasty

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