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Hispania was the name given by the Romans to the Iberian Peninsula, and to two of the three provinces they created there: Hispania Baetica and Hispania Tarraconensis (the third being Lusitania).


Hispania and its inhabitants

The term "Hispania" is Latin and the term "Iberia" specifically Greek. To substitute Spanish for Iberian or for Hispanicus is anachronistic. Surviving Roman texts always use Hispania (first mentioned 200 BC by the poet Quintus Ennius), while Greek texts always employ Iberia.

The origins of Hispania appear to be Punic. The etymologist Eric Partridge (Origins) finds it in the pre-Roman name for Seville, Hispalis, which strongly hints of an ancient name for the country of *Hispa, an Iberian or Celtic root whose meaning is now lost.[1] (http://www.billcasselman.com/unpublished_works/spanish_female_names.htm). The Catholic Encyclopedia reported " Some derive it from the Punic word tsepan, "rabbit", basing the opinion on the evidence of a coin of Galba, on which Spain is represented with a rabbit at her feet, and on Strabo, who calls Spain "the land of rabbits"." [2] (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14169b.htm), while others attribute a Punic connotation of "dark", "hidden", "lost", or "remote". One version states that the name comes from the Phoenician word I-shphanim which means literally "from or about hyraxes", (shphanim, is plural for shaphán, Hyrax syriacus). Lacking a better term, the Phoenicians used that word for rabbits, an unknown animal for them but very common in the peninsula. Another interpretation of the same term would be Hi-shphanim, "Rabbits' Island" (or "Hyraxes' Island"). None of these etymologies is truly satisfactory.

Rabbits weren't the only animal that stood out as abundant. Greeks called Cape St. Vincent Ophioússa which means 'land of snakes', a designation that they also applied to numerous Mediterranean islands. The change to Iberia came because iber was a word heard among the peninsula's inhabitants. This geographic term cannot have been specific to the Ebro river, because this word was also heard throughout what is now Andalusia. Some modern linguists think that it meant simply river, but there is no consensus regarding this issue.

The major part of the Punic Wars, between the Punic Carthaginians and the Romans, was fought on Iberian lands; this series of wars ended with Roman victory. By then the Romans had adopted the Carthaginian name, romanized first as Ispania. The term later received an H, much like what happened with Hiberia, and was pluralized as Hispanias, as had been done with the three Gauls. It was the first province penetrated by the Romans but the last to be totally conquered, under Augustus Caesar.

The Hispanias were at first separated into two provinces (in 197 BC), each ruled by a praetor, Hispania Citerior ("Nearer Hispania"), north of the Ebro towards the Mediterranean, and Hispania Ulterior ("Farther Hispania") southwards. The long wars of conquest lasted two centuries; a process known as Romanization. With this conquest the indigenous Celtiberian civilization was replaced by the Greek-Latin one. Many conflicts arose during those two centuries:

  • Wars for independence, where Iberian and other first settlers of the lands were slowly defeated, in spite of heroic deeds by the city of Numantia, the chieftain Viriato, and others.
  • A war led by Quintus Sertorius, praetor of Hispania Citerior, from where he successfully challenged Rome.
  • The civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, which was fought mostly in Hispanian territory.
  • Julius and Augustus Caesar's campaigns to subdue the Galicians, Asturians and Cantabrians.
  • Finally, with the Pax Augusta Hispania was divided in three provinces, in the first century BC. Two writers of the time—geographer Strabo (in his Geographia book III) and universal historian G. Pompeus Trogus—devote several chapters of their works to the Hispanias.

Strabo says:

Some say that the designations Iberia and Hispania are synonymous, that the Romans have designated the whole peninsula disinterestedly with the names of Iberia and Hispania, and called Ulterior and Citerior to its parts.

Pompeus Trogus sets the picture of its inhabitants:

The Hispanics (from Hispania) are accustomed to abstinence and fatigue, and the mind set for death: a hard and austere soberness for all (dura omnibus et adstricta parsimonia). [...]with so many centuries of wars with Rome they haven't had any captain but Viriato, a man of such high virtue and continence that, after beating the consular armies for 10 years, he would never want to be distinguished in any way from any private individual.

Livy (59 BC to AD 17), another Roman historian, also writes about his perception of the character of the Hispanic man:

Agile, bellicose, anxious. Hispania is different from Italica, in that it is more than ready for war because of the rough land and its man's nature.

Lucius Anneus Florus (1st and 2nd century), who was a historian and friend of the emperor Hadrian, also makes some observations:

The Hispanic Nation, or the Hispania Universa, didn't manage to unite against Rome. Protected by the Pyrenees and the sea it would have been inaccessible. Its people were always worthy, but they lacked hierarchy. (That is, each village or tribe had its own organization, but there was no hierarchy to organize them as a nation.)

Valerius Maximus called Celtiberian fidelity fides celtiberica. According to this fides, the Iberian man sanctified his chieftain's soul and didn't believe it to be right and just to outlast him in battle. This was known as devotio or Iberian dedication from the time of the beginning of the Roman Empire. (In the Middle Ages they kept this fidelity in mind, which they themselves called Spanish Loyalty.)

Much later, in the 4th century, another writer arises, a rhetorical Gaul named Pacato who dedicates part of his work to depict the peninsula, Hispania, its geography, climate, inhabitants, soldiers, etc., all with praise and admiration:

This Hispania produces tough soldiers, very skilled captains, prolific orators, luminous bards, Its a mother of judges and princes, it has given Trajan, Hadrian and Theodosius to the Empire.

In his times Expositio totius mundi is published, in which Hispania is described as: Spania, terra lata et maxima, et dives viris doctis ("Spania, a wide and vast land, and with numerous wise men"). By now the name of Hispania is already used interchangeably with Spania.

Paulus Orosius (390-418), an historian, disciple of Saint Augustine and author of Historiae adversus paganus ("Histories Countering the Pagans"), the first Christian universal history, makes this remark when discussing a blameworthy action taken by a praetor:

Universae Hispaniae propter Romanorum perditiam causa maximi tumultus fuit.

To Orosio Hispania is a land with a collective life and its own values.

With time, the name Hispania was used to describe the collective names of the Iberian Peninsula kingdoms of the middle ages, which came to designate all of the Iberian Peninsula, plus the Balearic and Canary Islands when they were conquered. All of these kingdons became united under the same crown and became known has España (Spain). An important event was the conversion of an extension of territory in the westernmost part of the peninsula into a new and stable Kingdom (Portugal); from then on the term España (Spain) would no longer designate the whole Iberian Peninsula.

The Hispanias

During the first stages of romanization, the peninsula was divided in two by the Romans for administrative purposes, and so there were two Hispanias. The closest one to Rome was called Citerior and the more remote one Ulterior. The frontier between both Hispanias was a sinuous line which ran from Cartago Nova (now Cartagena) to the Cantabrian Sea.

Hispania Ulterior comprised what are now Andalusia, Portugal, Extremadura, León, a great portion of the former Castilla la Vieja, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country.

Hispania Citerior comprised the eastern part of former Castilla la Vieja, and what are now Aragon, Valencia, Catalonia, and a major part of former Castilla la Nueva.

In the year 27 AD, the general and politician Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa divided Hispania into 3 parts, adding the province of Lusitania which included almost all of what is now Portugal (except the strip to the north of the river Duero) almost all of present Extremadura and Salamanca.

The emperor Augustus in that same year returned to make a new division leaving the provinces as follows:

  • Provincia Hispania Ulterior Baetica (Hispania Baetica), whose capital was Córdoba. It included a little less territory than present-day Andalusia—since modern Almería and a great portion of what today is Granada y Jaen were left outside—plus the southern zone of present-day Badajoz. The river Anas or Annas (Guadiana, from Wadi-Anas) separated Hispania Baetica from Lusitania.
  • Provincia Hispania Ulterior Lusitania, whose capital was Emerita Augusta (now Mérida).
  • Provincia Hispania Citerior, whose capital was Tarraco (Tarragona). After gaining maximum importance this province was simply known as Tarraconensis and it comprised what today is Galicia and northern Portugal.

By the 3rd century AD, the emperor Caracalla made a new division which lasted only a short time. He split Hispania Citerior again into two parts, creating the new provinces Provincia Hispania Nova Citerior and Asturiae-Calleciae (now León province). Historians cannot explain this strange, short-lived division; in the year 238 the unified province Tarraconensis or Hispania Citerior was reestablished.

Visigoths and Arabs

Main articles: Visigoths and Al-Andalus.

With time, a secondary form of the word Hispania gained usage: Spania, from which the modern name of Spain originated. According to Isidore of Seville, it is with the Visigothic domination of the zone that the idea of a peninsular unity is sought after, and the phrase mother Spain is first spoken. Up to that date, Hispania designated all of the peninsula's lands. In Historia Gothorum, the Visigoth Suintila appears as the first king of "totius Spaniae"; the history's prologue is the well-known De laude Spaniae ("About Spain's pride") where Spain is dealt with as a Gothic nation.

With the Arab invasion, the names Spania or España, were totally spoiled. (اسبانيا, Isbá-nía ). Something that is rarely treated in history textbooks is the fact that the different chronicles and documents of the high Middle Ages designate as Spania or España only the Muslim-dominated territory. Alfonso I el Batallador (1104-1134) says in his documents that "he reigns over Pamplona, Aragon, Sobrarbe y Ribagorza", and that when in 1126 he made an expedition to Malaga he "went to the España lands".

But by the last years of the 12th century the whole Iberian Peninsula, whether Muslim or Christian, became known as España and the denomination "the Five Kingdoms of Spain" became used to refer to the kingdoms of Granada (in the hands of the Muslims), León with Castile, Navarre, Portugal and the Crown of Aragon, including the County of Barcelona (ruled by Christians).

Centuries later

In the 14th century, the chronicler Bernat Desclot wrote about the expedition of a Catalan count to save a mujer ultrajada (kidnapped woman). The hero of his story says, Sényer, yo són un cavalar d’Espanya, e oí dir en ma terra que madona la emperadriu era reptada d’un cavaler de vostra cort... ("Sir, I'm a knight from Spain, and I have heard in my land that the empress was kidnapped by a knight from your court") Much later, the 16th century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões wrote in one of his works: ...castellanos y portugueses, porque españoles lo somos todos... ("Castilians and Portuguese: for Hispanioles we all are."). The whole peninsula was still referred to as España from the term Hispania.


  • Altamira y Crevea, Rafael Historia de España y de la civilización española. Tomo I. Barcelona, 1900. Altamira was a professor at the University of Oviedo, a member of the Royal Academy of History, of the Geographic Society of Lisbon and of the Instituto de Coimbra. (In Spanish.)
  • Aznar, José Camón, Las artes y los pueblos de la España primitiva. Editorial Espasa Calpe, S.A. Madrid, 1954. Camón was a professor at the University of Madrid. (In Spanish.)
  • Bosch Gimpera, Pedro; Aguado Bleye, Pedro; and Ferrandis, José. Historia de España. España romana, I, created under the direction of Ramón Menéndez Pidal. Editorial Espasa-Calpe S.A., Madrid 1935. (In Spanish.)
  • García y Bellido, Antonio, España y los españoles hace dos mil años (según la Geografía de Estrabón). Colección Austral de Espasa Calpe S.A., Madrid 1945 (first edition 8-XI-1945). García y Bellido was an archeologist and a professor at the University of Madrid. (In Spanish.)
  • Melón, Amando, Geografía histórica española Editorial Volvntad, S.A., Tomo primero, Vol. I-Serie E. Madrid 1928. Melón was a member of the Royal Geographical Society of Madrid and a professor of geography at the Universities of Valladolid and Madrid. (In Spanish.)
  • Pellón, José R., Diccionario Espasa Íberos. Espasa Calpe S.A. Madrid 2001. (In Spanish.)
  • Urbieto Arteta, Antonio, Historia ilustrada de España, Volumen II. Editorial Debate, Madrid 1994. (In Spanish.)

Classical sources

The classical sources have been accessed second-hand (see references above). They are:


This article draws heavily on the corresponding article in the Spanish-language Wikipedia, which was accessed in the version of February 27, 2005.

See also

es:Hispania no:Hispania pt:Hispânia


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