History of Portugal

Having existed as a country for almost nine centuries, Portugal is one of the oldest places in Europe with strong traces of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic culture to be seen across the land. Most notable of these are the collective tombs cut out of the rock at Palmela, Cascais and Alapraia near Estoril.

Also of great interest are the Celtic remains dating from the invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. These include Citânia de Briteiros, a mysterious-looking stone town of 200 houses, walls, subterranean cisterns and water supply ducts situated near Guimarães in northern Portugal.

Subjected to regular invasions, Portugal has been home to a succession of inhabitants over the centuries, shaping the face of the country we know today.

The Roman era, which lasted from the 1st to the 5th century A.D., left an indelible mark on the landscape. Clear evidence of this can be seen at the impressive settlement of Conímbriga (indicated on the map below) close to the city of Coimbra, the imposing aqueduct leading into the city of Elvas and the striking temple once attributed to goddess Diana in the heart of Évora.

The Romans also lent the Portuguese their language, which is largely Latin-based with some Arabic influences.

The Moorish occupation lasted from the 8th to the mid-12th century, their greatest contribution being the introduction of the azulejo, a glazed tile used for interior and exterior decoration.

One can trace Portugal’s modern history to 1140 AD when, following a nine-year rebellion against the King of Leon-Castile, Afonso Henriques became the country’s first king.

Afonso I and his successors then expanded their territory southward, capturing Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. The approximate present-day boundaries were secured in 1249 by Afonso III.

By 1337, Portuguese explorers had reached the Canary Islands. Inspired by Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), explorers such as Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias and Pedro Álvares Cabral made explorations from Brazil to India and Japan.

Portugal eventually became a massive colonial empire with vast territories in Africa and Latin America (Brazil) and outposts in the Far East (East Timor, Macau, Goa).

Dynastic disputes led in 1580 to the succession of Philip II of Spain to the Portuguese throne. A revolt ended Spanish hegemony in 1640 and the House of Bragança was established as Portugal’s ruling family, lasting until the establishment of the Portuguese Republic in 1910.

During the next 16 years, intense political rivalries and economic instability undermined newly-established democratic institutions.

Responding to pressing economic problems, a military government, which had taken power in 1926, named a prominent university economist, Dr. António Salazar, as finance minister in 1928 and subsequently as prime minister in 1932.

For the next 42 years, Salazar and his successor, Marcelo Caetano, appointed prime minister in 1968, ruled Portugal as an authoritarian ‘corporate’ state.

Unlike most other European nations, Portugal did not play a combatant role in World War II. The country became a charter member of NATO, joining in 1949.

In the early 1960s, wars with independence movements in Portugal’s African territories began to drain labour and wealth from Portugal. Professional dissatisfaction within the military, coupled with a growing sense of the futility of the African conflicts, led to the formation of the clandestine ‘Armed Forces Movement’ in 1973.

The downfall of the Portuguese corporate state came on the 25th of April, 1974, when the Armed Forces Movement seized power in a nearly bloodless coup and established a provisional military government.