History of Salamanca
Situated 220 km northwest of Madrid and 80 km east of the Portuguese border, Salamanca, with a metropolitan population of 144.949, is the second most populated city in the province of Castile and León. The city spreads over several hills on the banks of the Tormes river, a tributary of the Duero. It is one of Spain’s most beautiful cities, endowed with elegant architecture and a fascinating history. It is a very lively city with a vibrant nightlife harmonizing the old and the new, ancestry and innovation. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and European Capital of Culture (2002 shared with Bruges).
Salamanca has two universities: the University of Salamanca, founded in 1218 by Alfonso IX of León, is the oldest university in the Hispanic world and the fourth oldest in Europe after Paris, Oxford and Bologna; and the Pontifical University founded in 1611 as main training center of the Royal Jesuit Company, at the orders of queen Margarita of Austria and king Philip III.
Early settlements date back 2.700 years to the first Iron Age. Salmantica was founded in the middle of the IVth century B.C. by Celtic tribes such as the Vaccaei and the Vettones who are credited with the zoomorphic sculpture in shape of a boar on the Roman Bridge that has become emblematic of the city. In 220 B.C. the Carthaginian general Hannibal aided by a troop of 40 elephants besieged the city. With the fall of the Carthaginians to the Romans, the city was finally taken by the Romans. The conquest lasted two centuries, and ended with the death of Viriato (138 B.C.), leader of the Lusitans. Under Roman rule, Helmantica, as the city was then known, became a strategic enclave on the Via de la Plata, the Silver Way, that linked the trade route from the south (todays Mérida) to the north (Astorga). With the fall of the Roman Empire, the city was invaded by various Germanic tribes of the North. Under the Visigothic reign, the city was an episcopal see and bishops of Salamanca participated in the third Council of Toledo in 589. Salamanca surrendered to the Moorish invasion of 712, and was on the fighting borderland between the Muslim Al-Andalus rulers and the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Léon until 939, after the battle of Simancas. After the definitive capture of Toledo by Alfonso VI of León and Castile in 1085, the Christians resettled the area again and in 1102, Raymond of Burgundy following the council of his father in law, Alfonso VI, invited a group of settlers, especially Franks and Galicians, to populate the region.
In the XIIIth century, with the creation of the University, Salamanca opens a new era in European history. Despite the period of turmoil marked by wars for power between different noble factions during the XIVth and XVth centuries, the city reached its splendor in the XVIth century during the Golden Age, thanks to the University’s growing population. It accepted 6.500 new students annually while the total population of the city was 25.000. The fortunes of the city depended mainly on the prosperity and fame of the University, trade and commerce, income from large estates, latifundia, and the production of wool. The University experienced a period of great splendor, became an influential center of cultural brilliance that attracted students from all over the world, even from Paris and Bologna. A high number of religious orders found in Salamanca’s prestigious teaching institution an oasis of freethinking and an intellectually challenging atmosphere. The Spanish Golden Age lasted well into the XVIIth century and coincided with the splendor of Spanish literature, culture and scientific progress.
The now proverbial phrases Quod natura non dat, Salmantica non praestat (‘what nature does not give, Salamanca does not lend’, in Latin) and Multos et doctissimos Salmantica habet (‘Salamanca has many and very versed scholars’) confer an idea of the prestige attained by the institution. Salamanca is associated with the birth of modern theatre: La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas (1499) takes place in the garden of de Calixto y Melibea, and of the novel, the first picaresque narrative of El Lazarillo de Tormes (1554).
In the XVIIth century Salamanca suffered the general downturns of the kingdom of Castile yet experienced a rebirth in the XVIIIth century. The war of Independence from Napoleonic occupation took its toll. In the Peninsular Wars against Napoleonic rule, the Battle of Salamanca on 22 July 1812 marked the decisive defeat of the French Army. The western section of the city was seriously damaged by cannon fire. The arrival of the railways and new urban planning projects brought about a resurgence of the city in the first three decades of the XXth century. The University flourished under the Chancellorship of the writer and philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno. During the turmoil of the Civil War (1936-39) that ravaged the country, Salamanca was on the Nationalist side. It slowly and vigorously regained splendor with the advent of the democratic government of 1978, which brought social and economic prosperity. Salamanca is today a reputed university town as well as a tourist and cultural attraction. Its highly praised university center of indisputable international prestige in areas of teaching and innovation, boasts a population of 30.000 students and the second most diverse international student community in the country.