History of Cadiz City

Cádiz is an ancient port city in Andalucia, Spain  © istock
Cádiz is an ancient port city in Andalucia, Spain

History of Cadiz City

by Saskia Mier

Cadiz is believed to be the oldest city still standing in Europe. Its history is marked by its strategic military and commercial location on the Atlantic Ocean and at the entrance to a large sheltered bay. The settlement was founded by Phoenicians from Tyre (modern day Lebanon) following the Trojan War in 1.104 BC.

Phoenician & Carthaginian

It was one of the oldest Phoenician settlements in the west, then known as Gadir, trading Baltic amber, Cornish tin, Spanish from Rio Tinto and other locations in Southern Iberia, and later trading with Tartessus. The Phoenicians established a port in the 7th century BC and foundations of defensive walls from this period have been discovered. At this time what is now the old town was actually two separate islands which the Phoenicians called Erytheia and Kotinouessa. See this annotation of the canal on a modern satellite image of Cadiz. At low tide the canal can be seen bisecting La Caleta beach.

Hamlicar Barca, the Carthaginian leader, following the losses in The First Punic War against Rome, set out in seek of fortune in Iberia. With the support of the city of Gades (Cadiz) his army either crossed the Strait of Gibraltar or sailed along the coast to Gades in about 238 BC and began the subjugation of the Iberian tribes.

In the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), the Carthaginian general Hannibal left from Cadiz and marched his armies, which included Iberians, from Iberia, across the Pyrenees and the Alps and attacked the Romans in Italy. 


As part of the Roman struggle against Carthage, the Romans invaded the Iberian peninsula in 206 BC. Scipio Africanus was victorious at Alcalá del Rio near Hispalis (present-day Seville).  His army crushed the resistance of the native Iberians and soon transformed Betis (Andalucia) into one of Rome's richest and best organised colonies. Cadiz became Roman in 200 BC.

The city reached great prosperity in Roman times, with the construction of amphitheatres and aqueducts. For a short period, Cadiz became the second most populous city in the Empire. During this time, more than 500 equites (a social group of notable citizens) lived in the city, rivalling Padua and Rome itself. During the crises of the third century of the Roman Empire, the fall of the latter and the Visigoth conquests, the city entered a significant decline, losing its commercial and strategic importance.

Via Herculea or Via Exterior was the longest and busiest of the Roman Roads in Hispania. with a length of about 1.500km, and reaching Cadiz. The road was renamed Via Augusta after the emperor who ordered it to be renovated between 8 BC and 2 BC. It ran from Narbonne in France (joining Via Domitia) down the Mediterranean coast; the current N-340 / A-7 follows many sections of the Via Augusta.  Read more about Roman Roads in Andalucia.

Visigoth and Moorish

The big open city style slowly gave way to a smaller walled city, common in style in the Middle Ages. Desperate by economic necessity, many of these former Gades inhabitants were forced to renounce basic rights to receive protection from the large landowners and leave for inland towns. The city was conquered by the Byzantines in 522 AD, by the Visigoths in 620 AD and again conquered by the invading Moorish troops of Tariq Ibn Ziyad in 711, after the Battle of Guadalete. During that time the statue of Hercules was demolished, in the temple of Hercules.

According to the De itinere frisonum Cadiz  was looted by a group of Frisian crusaders who were heading to the Holy Land as part of the Fifth Crusade in 1217.


The reconquest of Cádiz was part of the reconquest of the Guadalquivir area (1243-1262). The Moorish Benimerín Sultanat were ousted by the Crown of Castile in 1264. The arrival of King Alfonso X in Cádiz lead to a resurgence of the city. Among the privileges granted by the Castilian Monarch were alfoz, (tax benefits), the concession of the title of city, the establishment of an episcopal headquarters and, the monopoly of trade with Africa, which would remain in the city until the beginning of the sixteenth century. This ensured ties to Genoa and positioned Cadiz as a point in European trade.

The royal shipyards of the Crown of Castile were established in the Bay of Cádiz. Numerous voyages of discovery departed from its ports, such as Cristopher Columbus’ second and fourth voyage and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and later the conquistadores in colonial times. This brought more than 10,000 slaves to the city. This trade enriched the city and centuries later, made it possible to create a bourgeois, liberal and revolutionary society.

Following the Anglo-Dutch sacking of the city in 1596, Cádiz was devastated. In addition to the churches and hospitals, 290 out of a total of 1,303 houses burned. The authorities considered the options fortifying the city or dismantling it and relocating it to Puerto de Santa María. The military engineers Luis Bravo de Laguna, Tuburzio Spannocchi, Peleazzo Fratín, and Cristóbal de Rojas all presented plans. Finally, it was decided to follow the plans laid out by Cristóbal de Rojas, who began construction of the fortifications in 1598. King Philip II gave the city a ten-year extension on the payment of taxes. Every attempt to repeat the raid, over the course of the next two centuries, failed.

As a city that had a commercial monopoly with America, it was the Headquarters of the Casa de Contratación and the Fleet of the Indies from May 12, 1717 when King Felipe V signed the decree for the transfer of the Casa de Contratación from Seville to Cádiz.

In the year 1766, King Carlos III promoted the independence of the Island of León (land that joins Cadiz city to mainland) with the founding and appointment of the first local government in the new town. It was confirmed by Royal Decree and named Villa de la Real Isla de León. It was later renamed San Fernando.

19th Century

In 1805 the prelude to the Battle of Trafalgar saw Napoleons Admiral Villeneuve leave northern Spain for Brest in Brittany  but later changed course southwards. On 20th August 1805, he led thirty-nine Franco/Spanish Man o' War ships past four British ships and into the Bay of Cadiz. Napoleon directed Villeneuve to leave Cadiz for Toulon at the first favourable opportunity. Whilst Villeneuve waited, Nelson arrived onboard the Victory, providing valuable reinforcement for the British. The decisive sea battle took place at Cape Trafalgar 50km south.

Between 1810 and 1812, Cádiz was besieged by Napoleonic troops while the first Spanish constitution was being drafted during the Spanish War of Independence 8from France). During this conflict Cádiz became the refuge of the Spanish political leaders. The first Constitution, affectionately known as ‘La Pepa’ was proclaimed in 1812.

After the War of Independence the city continued to grow in population, partly due to the rural exodus, especially from La Janda area. This continued until the early 1990s when the trend reversed.  

Modern History

In recent history, it is worth highlighting the importance of the city during the Spanish Civil War as a support base for the Republican side.

On evening of 14 August 1947 there was an explosion in a Navy ammunition depot located inside the Underwater Defences Base which stored 1,565 underwater mines, 596 depth charges and 41 torpedoes. The material had arrived in 1942 or 1943 for the defence of the Spanish coast during  the Second World War and been stored in two large abandoned warehouses with asbestos roofs, weak walls and glass windows. The Cadiz heat and the passage of time caused the explosion. The shock wave destroyed the Naval Base, the Echevarrieta Shipyards, the railway station, the 'Cots House' children's hospice and the San Severiano neighbourhood. Most of the windows in the city were broken and the blast was heard 120 km away. Officially 150 died and 10,000 were injured and the true cause was never officially recognised. An investigation in 2009 showed that the ignition point was German made depth charges containing a volatile substance called 'Gun Cotton' or nitrocellulose. The shipyard employing almost 2,500 workers  would not be opened again until they were nationalised in 1952.

Since the second half of the twentieth century, engineering works have been undertaken to expand and improve access to the city. In 1969 the José León de Carranza Bridge was inaugurated, which connects with Puerto Real, in 2002 the lowering of the railway into tunnels was completed.

In 2003, the city was granted a royal decree 1688/2003, a Plaque of Honour of the Order of Constitutional Merit.

In 2012 Cádiz hosted various events to commemorate the bicentennial of the 1812 Constitution, including the Ibero-American summit of Heads of State.

The 1812 Constitution Bridge also known as or La Pepa Bridge, the second bridge across the Bay of Cádiz opened on 24 September 2015. It links Cádiz city with Puerto Real on the mainland. It is the longest bridge in Spain at 3,092m and at 540m the longest bridge span in Spain.


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