Crossing the straits from Tangier, we pass from one of the newest to one of the oldest provinces of Rome. Standing strategically at the door of the Mediterranean, blessed and cursed with precious minerals that soaked her soil with the blood of greed, crossed with mountain ranges that hindered communications, assimilation, and unity, Spain has felt the full fever of life from the days when Old Stone Age artists painted bisons on the cave walls of Altamira down to our own disordered time. For thirty centuries the Spaniards have been a proud and warlike people, lean and tough, stoically brave, passionate and obstinate, sober and melancholy, frugal and hospitable, courteous and chivalrous, easily provoked to hatred, more easily to love.
When the Romans came they found a population even then inextricably diverse: Iberians from Africa (?), Ligurians from Italy, Celts from Gaul, and a layer of Carthaginians at the top. If we may believe their conquerors, the pre-Roman Spaniards were close to barbarism, some living in towns and houses, some in hamlets and huts and caves, sleeping on the floor or the earth, and washing their teeth with urine carefully aged. The men wore black cloaks, the women “long mantles and gay-colored gowns.” In some parts, Strabo reprovingly adds, “the women dance promiscuously with men, taking hold of their hands.”
As early as 2000 B.C. the inhabitants of southeastern Spain- Tartessus, the Phoenician “Tarshish”- had developed a bronze industry whose products were sold throughout the Mediterranean. On this basis Tartessus evolved in the sixth century B.C. a literature and art that claimed an antiquity of 6000 years. Little remains of it except a few crude statues and a strange polychrome bust in sandstone, The Lady of Elche, carved on Greek models in a strong and flowing Celtic style. About 1000 B.C. the Phoenicians began to tap the mineral wealth of Spain, and by 800 they had taken Cadiz and Malaga, and built great temples there. Towards 500 B.C. Greek colonists settled along the northeastern coast. About the same time the Carthaginians, summoned by their Phoenician kin to help suppress a revolt, conquered Tartessus and all south and eastern Spain.
The rapid exploitation of the peninsula by Carthage between the First and Second Punic Wars opened the eyes of the Romans to the resources of what they then called “Iberia,” and the passage of Hannibal into Italy was finally outweighed by the movement of the Scipios into Spain. The disunited tribes fought fiercely for them, independence; women killed their children rather than let them fall into Roman hands, and captive natives sang their war songs while dying on the cross. The conquest took two centuries, but once completed it proved more fundamental than in most other provinces. The Gracchi, Caesar, and Augustus changed the Republic’s policy of ruthlessness to one of courtesy and consideration, with good and lasting results. Romanization proceeded rapidly; Latin was adopted and adapted, the economy expanded and prospered, and soon Spain was contributing poets, philosophers, senators, and emperors to Rome.