Yesterday some fabulous blogging friends and I were catching up and in the middle of our zoom chat we enjoyed a fun travel quiz. Cee, Debbie, Margaret and Sue are travellers too, which probably explains why the five of us can never resist these quizzes. There were only nine questions, and quite rightly in my mind nearly half of them focused on Portugal! One question asked which is the oldest country in Europe. We got the answer right but it did raise all kinds of questions like how is this true, what is the date and what does ‘oldest country’ really mean. Margaret encouraged me to investigate further.
I thought I’d start by drilling down further what they meant by ‘country’, after all modern humans appeared in Europe around 45,000 years ago and there are cities in Bulgaria, Italy and Greece which have been inhabited continuously since the 6th to 4th millennium BCE. However the phrase ‘oldest country’ seems to mean a country which still exists today with the same boundaries, which is why Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Italy and Greece and others that once hosted Empires don’t appear in the list.
It is also explains why England, Scotland and France don’t appear. King Æthelstan may have been credited with unifying England in 927 CE but the modern country is the United Kingdom. The modern boundaries of France are very similar to West Francia which emerged from the 843 treaty which broke up the Charlemagne empire but if you compare the maps there are some significant additions, and likewise for Scotland as its southern boundary has gone up and down numerous times since its claimed foundation of 843. Consequently none of these countries can really claim to be the oldest country, although they certainly have incredibly long histories.
I’ve discovered in my research that San Marino, Europe’s third smallest country, also has a pretty good claim. Its boundaries have existed since Marinus escaped what is now Croatia in 301 to found the city and state. However if I have read things correctly there’s no evidence of that, it is considered a legend. It can though claim to be the oldest republic!
So where does this leave us? Well with the answer we all gave to the question in the quiz yesterday – Portugal of course!
The Iberian peninsula was first settled by the Celts and around 1200 BCE the Phoenicians founded Lisboa, then known as Ulissipo. The early settlement means that Lisboa is considered the second oldest capital in Europe, not that it has been the capital throughout this period. Guimarães, Coimbra and even Rio de Janerio have been the capital of Portugal. The latter is definitely another story; you can read about some of it here.
After the Phoenicians left, Portugal passed through the hands of the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Germanic tribes and Moors as they all over different periods of time extended their empires this far west. Consequently it was to take more than 2000 years after Lisboa was settled for the country itself to be founded.
In 1139, following the Battle of Ourique in Alentejo, Afobzo Henriques was acclaimed King of the Portuguese, and according to most websites Portugal’s boundaries were defined at this point. Four years later in 1143 Portuguese independence was formally recognised, and some say this is when modern day Portugal came into being.
There was a 60 year hiccup in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Spanish Hapsburg kings took control of the whole of the Iberian Peninsula and further afield. However throughout this period Portugal continued to be known as the Kingdom of Portugal, and its government, institutions, currency and legal traditions remained independent. There was also the French take over in the early 19th century which led to the Portuguese government and monarch fleeing to Brazil, however it was clearly an invasion. Consequently Portugal can claim it is the oldest country.
It is not just the challenge over what ‘oldest country’ means that makes me ask this. It is Portuguese history too. With the exception of three years in the late 12th century, the Moors controlled the Algarve and even parts of Alentejo until 1249, when King Afonso III of Portugal finally conquered Silves and Faro. And even then their boundaries were not secure as they then found themselves at war with the Kingdom of Castile, who felt these southern lands should be Castilian, rather than Portuguese. It was not until 1267 that a treaty was signed, determining that the Rio Guadiana would be the boundary between Portugal and Castile. This suggests , to my mind, at least that the 1139 definitions were not clear cut!
This is reaffirmed by this great video of changing European borders. I have started the video a few years before Portugal appears, look out for it in the bottom left in olive green.
What is evident though from this map is that only Portugal’s borders remained consistent after the 13th century, so probably Portugal can claim to be the oldest just not from the date everyone quotes! This assumes of course no one minds about the 60 years Hapsburg hiatus or the fact that until around 1820 the Algarve was considered a separate kingdom, the Kingdom of Algarve, under Portuguese suzerainty!
Do hope that has answered your question Margaret, and I hope everyone else has enjoyed this post as much as I did researching it. It has put me in the mood for writing more posts for the blog, but whilst you wait for those appear why not try a quiz yourself. This isn’t the one we did but I think you will like this Wanderlust one which focuses on Europe. Or if you fancy going further afield still click on the link, as you’ll find lots more quizzes.
Who knew? My favorite European country is also the oldest! Good to know, and a fun article.
oh thank you so much for your lovely feedback, and I am so glad you love Portugal as much as I do!