Beginning in 57 BC, Julius Caesar extended the power of Rome into the region of Europe that is now Belgium. The people he encountered there were the Belgae, one of the various Celtic tribes of early Gaul, and the Romans dubbed their new province Gallia Belgica.
In the fourth century AD, with Rome in decline, control of Gaul was ceded to the Franks, a Germanic tribe that the weakened empire employed as mercenaries. As the Franks flourished, they decided to dispense with their Roman employers. By 431, they had established an independent dynasty, the Merovingian, with its capital at Tournai. Soon after, under Clovis I (c.466-511), the Merovingians succeeded in pummeling the last of the Romans in Gaul. They held large parts of present day France and Belgium as well as southwestern Germany. Clovis also adopted Christianity, thus gaining the support of the Church.
Belgium’s big-gun neighbours France, Germany and England (which faces it across the North Sea) long favoured this little nation as a nice spot to kill each other. Conquered by German tribes, Christianised by the 7th century and carved up during the Frankish Empire in 1100, much of Belgium enjoyed a golden age of prosperity and artistry under the French Duke of Burgundy during the 14th century. This was a boom time for the cloth-trading Flemish towns of Ypres, Bruges and Ghent. With the demise of Bruges due to British competition and a silted river, Antwerp soon became the greatest port in Europe.
The golden age began to tarnish in the mid-15th century when the Low Countries (present-day Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) were inherited by Spain, igniting a long battle against Catholic Spanish rule. The fanatically Catholic Philip II of Spain sent in the Inquisition to enforce Catholicism. Thousands were imprisoned or executed before full-scale war erupted in 1568. The Revolt of the Netherlands lasted 80 years and in the end Holland and its allied provinces booted out the Spaniards. Belgium and Luxembourg stayed under Spanish rule. Napolean’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo near Brussels led to the creation, in 1814, of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, melding Belgium and Luxembuorg into the Netherlands. But the Catholic Belgians revolted, winning independence in 1830.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place (aka France and Germany), Belgium managed to retain its neutrality throughout the century, at the end of which Flemish nationalism flowered.
Despite Belgium’s neutral policy, the Germans invaded in 1914. Another German attack in 1940 saw the entire country taken over within three weeks. King Leopold III’s questionably early capitulation to the Germans led to his abdication in 1950 in favour of his son, King Baudouin, whose popular reign ended with his death in 1993. Childless, Baudouin was succeeded by his brother, King Albert II.
Postwar Belgium was characterised by an economic boom, later accentuated by Brussels’ appointment as the headquarters of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The Belgium of today is home to a vast army of diplomats, and with them has come a rampant, highly bureaucratic form of internationalism – followed closely by bland skyscrapers and intimidating restaurants. While the country’s number one city is being busily groomed to suit the rest of Europe, the Belgians themselves remain nonchalant – the true spirit of the country will always emanate from its people and its past.
In December 1999, Prince Philippe, 39-year-old heir to the Belgian throne, married a speech therapist with Flemish and Walloon roots, finishing an eventful century with what many Belgians saw as a promising flourish.