From its heights as the dominant country in the world in the 16th century, Spain is now one of the European countries struggling with debt. Join Active Minds as we explore the roots and legacy of the Spanish Empire and how this important country fits into the regional and global puzzle today.

Key Lecture Points

  • The nation that is today Spain emerged from a history of conflict and division. Located at the confluence of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as the connection of Europe to Africa, Spain was a place that various empires sought to control.
  • Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Celts all had foothold in Spain until the Roman Empire ruled the land, beginning in the 2nd Century BCE. The fall of the Roman Empire resulted in the entrance of the Visigoths in the 5th Century. The Muslim Occupation lasted from 711 AD to 1492—almost 8 centuries.
  • 1492 is a key date in Spanish history, for good and not so good reasons. Formerly divided among monarchs, Christian Spain became unified under Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand; Additionally, Muslim-held Granada fell to the Christians, completing the Reconquista period. As well, the Christians began the massive expulsion of the Jews. Lastly, Columbus began his Spanish-sponsored first voyage to the New World.
  • The Spanish Armada was destroyed in 1588, ending Spanish supremacy of the seas and beginning the decline of Spanish colonial supremacy worldwide. In 1824, 16 of Spain’s Latin American colonies became independent. Only the Philippine Islands, Cuba and Puerto Rico remained in the Spanish Empire. In 1898, the USS Maine was sunk and the Spanish-American War began. Spain lost the Philippine Islands, Cuba and Puerto Rico to the US control.
  • The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era in Spain created significant political unrest in Spain, with monarchists and constitutionalists vying for power over Spain, while military dictatorships frequently filled the political void.
  • The Spanish Civil War, fought from 1936-1939, was a bloody conflict resulting in the 4 decade dictatorship of Francisco Franco. While Franco maintained neutrality during World War II, his alliance with Fascism meant that Spain was excluded from the post-war recovery spurred by the Marshall Plan. Franco died in 1975 and Prince Juan Carlos, his chosen successor, became king transforming Spain into a parliamentary monarchy.
  • After joining the EU in 1986 and the Eurozone in 1999, the Spanish economy boomed alongside Europe’s in the 2000s.  Spain, however, was hit hard by the 2008 global recession, primarily because of the collapse of its housing and tourism sectors. Unemployment surged. In 2011, Spain, along with Greece, became  the focus of the expanding concern over sovereign debt in the countries within the Eurozone.  Unpopular austerity measures were put in place.
  • The economy has recovered, largely due to labor market reforms.  Unemployment has steadily been shrinking and economic growth has been relatively steady since 2014.
  • Spain now has a minority government under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who has to negotiate with opposition parties to get any new measure approved.  Major issues the Rajoy government faces are maintaining the fragile economic recovery, pressures to hold a Catalan independence referendum and questions as to what will be the impact of Brexit on Spain.

Exploration Questions

  • Why is 1492 such an important date in Spanish history?
  • What are the major political and economic issues Spain faces today?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think Columbus was a hero or a villain? Why? Why do you think he remains a controversial figure?
  • What are some of the influences of Spanish culture in American society?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Menocal, Maria Rosa. Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. (paperback) Back Bay Books, 2003. 352 pages. Describes the culture of medieval Spain where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in a society that tolerated different religions and in which art and science flourished.
    Click here to order
  • Phillips, William D. and Carla Rahn Phillips. A Concise History of Spain (paperback) Cambridge University Press, 2010. 345 pages. Tells the cultural, social and political history of Spain from prehistory to the present.
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  • Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. (paperback) Fontal Lobe Publishing, 2011. 194 pages. Classic fictional portrayal of the lives of American expatriates in Paris. Jake is wildly in love with Brett Ashley and the couple drifts to Spain for the bullfights.
    Click here to order