Spain Guide


Salamanca History

Salamanca was founded by Celt Iberian tribes around 400 BC. It was subsequently occupied by the Carthaginians, Romans and Moors before it became one of the world's most illustrious centres of culture and learning under the Christian monarchs. Greek historians referred to it as Helmantike, Hermandica and Salamantica but it wasn't until the 13th century AD that it became known as Salamanca.

Evidence of the Iberian settlers can still be seen today in the pre Roman "Verraco" statue of a wild boar which stands at the entrance of the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge) over the River Tormes. It's probably the oldest work of art to have been preserved in the entire region. The Romans regarded it as a good luck symbol and left it in place but it was later mutilated and thrown into the river before its recovery in 1864.

When the Romans annexed the city it became part of the province of Lusitania and was given the name "Polis Megale". The impressive Roman Bridge, which still stands today, was part of the important "Ruta de la Plata" silver route connecting the mines and ports in the north of Spain with the south of the country. Sections of the old Roman walls which surrounded the city have also survived to the present day.

The region was conquered by the Moors in 712, recaptured and lost by the Christian armies on several occasions and finally reclaimed by Alfonso VI in the 11th century. It was Alfonso IX who put the city on the world map in the 13th century when he founded one of the greatest academic centres of medieval times. His successor Alfonso X El Sabio (Alfonso the Wise) was responsible for turning the Estudio Salmantino (Salamanca Study) into a universally acclaimed university and cultural centre. In 1254 Pope Alexander IV called the University of Salamanca "one of the four leading lights of the world" (along with the universities of Oxford, Paris and Bologna).

Christopher Columbus stayed in Salamanca between November 1486 and January 1487 as part of his persistent campaign to convince the Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of the viability of his mission to discover a new route to India. Columbus followed the royal court wherever it went until he finally succeeded in securing funding for his travels to the New World.

The University of Salamanca has spawned numerous famous personalities including Fray Luis de Leon, a forward thinking renaissance scholar of the late 16th century (his statue can be seen in the Plaza de las Escuelas). His radical ideas prompted his fellow professors to turn him over to the brutal Spanish inquisition and he was wrenched from the classroom and imprisoned for four years. He returned to the same classroom on the day he was released from prison and famously resumed his lecture with the words: "As I was saying gentlemen."

Don Quixote creator Miguel de Cervantes studied at the university four centuries ago and wrote of the city: "Salamanca casts a spell on all those who have enjoyed its peacefulness, awakening the desire to return."

The region played a crucial role in the devastating Peninsula War at the beginning of the 19th century when Napoleon's armies fought for control of Spain. The Duke of Wellington masterminded a decisive victory in the Battle of Salamanca in which 7,000 French troops were killed or wounded and a further 7,000 were captured. The battle signalled the beginning of the end of Napoleon's grip on the Peninsula.

The university experienced a period of great decline at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Its most famous "product" of the 20th century was the great Spanish poet and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno who became rector in 1901. He was banished to the Canary Islands in 1924 for his radical political views but resumed his post in 1931. In 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he was placed under house arrest for denouncing the fascist regime of the dictator Franco. He died in Salamanca on December 31, 1936.