While Sevilla legend attributes the founding of the city to Hercules, it is likely that the first permanent settlements on this site were built by the Tartessians in the first half of the first millennium BC.
The Phoenicians established themselves here shortly afterwards, and they extended and fortified the existing town. It became an important trading centre in the Western Mediterranean, and continued to be so after a Carthaginian takeover in the third century BC. In 206 BC the Romans defeated them in the battle of Ilipa, near the city that they named Hispalis. They also established the town of Itálica nearby, originally as a rest camp for mutinous Italian soldiers. The river in these days was known as the Betis. Caesar arrived here as administrator of the town and enjoyed his stay by all accounts. The people sided with him against Pompeii and were rewarded by being conferred full Roman citizenship. When Augustus created the province of Baetica, Hispalis soon became the capital, and both it and Itálica became very important Roman cities. The emperor Trajan was born in the latter and Hadrian grew up there. Christianity took early root in Sevilla and, after early persecutions, soon flourished.
The city was sacked by Vandals and Swabians as the Empire collapsed, but then prospered under Visigothic rule, with the wise historian and archbishop San Isidoro particularly prominent. The Islamic invasion in 711 put an end to the Visigothic kingdom; Hispalis was transliterated to Isbiliyya, from which Sevilla is derived, and the river was renamed al wadi al kibir (big river), or Guadalquivir as it is now written. Sevilla spent the first few centuries of the Moorish occupation under the shadow of Córdoba, but, on the collapse of the caliphate, became an independent taifa state and grew rapidly to be the most powerful one in Al-Andalus. Under the poet-king Al-Mu’tamid, the city experienced an exceptional flourishing of wealth and culture. Much of Sevilla’s Moorish architectural heritage dates from the 12th century and the Almohad regime. The city walls, the Torre del Oro and the Great Mosque, now the cathedral, were all built during this period.
In 1248, Isbiliyya was conquered by Fernando III, and nearly all its Muslim population were expelled and their lands divided among noble families. In the mid-14th century, Pedro I, an enlightened and curious character somewhat unfairly nicknamed ‘the Cruel’, had the Alcázar rebuilt in sumptuous mudéjar style. He frequently took to the streets dressed in ragged garb and hung out in taverns, getting into fights. In 1391, a massive anti-Jewish pogrom occurred in the city. Synagogues were forcibly changed into churches and the Jewish quarter virtually ceased to exist. The current cathedral was begun soon afterwards.
With the discovery of the New World, Sevilla’s Golden Age began. In 1503, it was granted a monopoly on trade with the transatlantic colonies, and became one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Europe.
The 17th century, however, saw a decline, although this was the zenith of the Sevilla school of painting, with artists such as Zurbarán, Murillo and Velázquez all operating. The expulsion of the moriscos (converted Moors) in 1610 hit the city hard and merchants left to ply their trade elsewhere. A plague in 1649 killed an incredible half of the inhabitants, and in 1717, with the Guadalquivir silting up rapidly, New World trade was moved to Cádiz.
Occupied by the French from 1810-1812, Sevilla only really rose from its torpor in the 20th century. The massive Ibero-American exhibition of 1929 bankrupted the city but created the infrastructure for a modern town and many fine public spaces. In the Civil War, the oddball general Queipo de Llano bluffed his way into control of the city. Workers struggled against the rising and were brutally repressed, with much of Triana destroyed.
In 1982, the Sevillano Felipe González was elected the first Socialist prime minister since before the Civil War, governing until 1996. The city, beginning to stir once more, hosted a World Cup semi-final and, 10 years later, Expo 1992, having already become the capital of semi-autonomous Andalucía. The event left the city with enormous debts but attracted some 15 million visitors and boosted Sevilla’s international profile.
The city continues with urban improvements, with the metro and tram system under development, and extensive pedestrianization of the old centre recently implemented. Unemployment, poverty and homelessness are still massive, if not always visible, problems.