There are two major geo-historical factors which shaped the development of the Catalan mindset, specifically its European outlook and its instinct for international trade and negotiation. I discuss the European outlook here. In this post I’ll talk about the second: the influence of Greek settlers and subsequent development of Iberian culture.
The term Iberian Peninsula (or Iberia for short) is used to refer to the whole land mass of Europe South West of the Pyrenees. However, Iberian culture only really extended down the Mediterranean coast as far as what is now Murcia.
The arrival of Greek settlers between the 8th and 6th century BC, founding, among others, the important towns of Rhode (Roses) and Emporion (Empúries), whose preeminence lasted well into the Roman era (as Emporiae), even participating, as an independent city state, in Pompey’s (unsuccessful) challenge to Julius Caesar.
The Greeks would have a significant effect on Iberian culture, which reached its apogee between the middle of the 5th century and the 3rd century BC. It was characterised by an intensification of urban life, the use of iron as a basic metal, the manufacture of ceramics, the adoption of a specific writing system, notable contributions to sculpture and painting, the appearance of a monetary economy and the cremation of the dead. As I have explained in the “sidebar” above, it extended through the Mediterranean basin from Murcia in what is now the south of Spain to the mouth of the Rhône River.
This modernisation and influence of Greek culture had a profound impact and helps explain the pragmatism, pluri-culturalism and independent mindset of the modern Catalan people. Irad Malkin of Haaretz gives a fascinating glimpse (explored in his book) into the reasons for the success of the ancient Greeks and their independent city-states (polis, from which we get the word ‘politics’, from politēs, ‘citizen’).
“Classical Greek civilization did not start and spread from a dominant center, but was a reciprocal network-based process that the world would do well to learn.” ¹
Network theory is used to help explain “convergence through divergence”: it only takes a few, random links between a few points (city-states in this case) to “spark a sudden dynamic process of connectivity, where each node becomes interconnected with all other nodes. In other words, what we get is a “system”, a “small world,” or network.”
“The Mediterranean itself, the shared space, was the center of Greek civilization, not any specific node or colony. Thus the spread of knowledge, ideas, technology, and political and cultural practices was multi-directional, speeding up cultural homogenization.”
Modern-day Catalans can identify with this convergence through divergence (which I can personally vouch for) and the decentralised approach – just the opposite of the centralised and hierarchical regimes of Rome (first the Roman empire then the Catholic church), for example. Influence of the Catalan state throughout the Mediterranean in the 13th and 14th centuries followed a similar pattern of trade over military conquest.
There may seem, in this line of thinking, a philosophical conflict with the idea of a separate Catalan state. And in truth, the fact that the emerging Catalan state in the Middle Ages did not develop into a kingdom (from its various countdoms) was precisely for reasons of a lack of thirst for hard national boundaries. This resulted in the historical declines following its absorption into the crowns of Aragon and then Castille (though in both cases political institutions and independence was maintained for many years).
The issue of Catalan independence can arguably be explained simply by the unwillingness of some centralised powers to accept this cultural identity. Most Catalans are, at heart, not concerned with geographical or political boundaries and it is only when these powers overstep the mark of acceptability (such as linguistic discrimination) that tensions mount. Most observers agree that the attempts to “bring Catalonia under control” have done more to fuel separatist sentiment than the independence movement itself.
I will deal with this thorny issue elsewhere in the site, but let us not digress from our Greek influence, which I will end by reminding us that democracy was also a Greek invention (dēmos, ‘the people’ and kratia ‘power, rule’). Hence, once again, the establishment of the earliest “parliament” of sorts ², the Consell de Cent (Council of One Hundred), approved by James I in 1265 as an institution of municipal government which avoided sole authority in one man, the Count of Barcelona.
You can find out more about the Council of One Hundred and many more progressive inventions in the book contributions/”>Outstanding Catalan Contributions, the Magnum Opus of the group of historians and experts behind much of the content of this site.
- The Ancient Greek Secret to Successful Globalization, Irad Malkin, Haaretz Newspaper
- As an Englishman, I might be inclined to cite the Saxon tribal tradition of advisers to the Chief, in the 5th and 6th century AD, forming part of the “consent to rule” agreement with the people, but, being of Norman (hence Viking) descent, I see no reason to contradict Pau Casal in his declaration in the United Nations in 1974. Plus, Saxon and Iberian traditions have some similarities in their preference for farming over hunter-gathering (or pillaging in the case of the Vikings!).