The history of Belgium: Part one - Expat Guide to Belgium | Expatica
Home Moving to Belgium Society & History The history of Belgium: Part one
Last update on August 20, 2020

If you’re living in Belgium, our serialized history on Belgium might help you understand the country better.

Our short, serialized history of this ‘small country with no obvious start or finish’ might help you understand Belgium a little better. Here’s part one to the series on Belgium’s history.

A small country with no obvious start or finish

Except for the North Sea, Belgium has no natural or even realistic boundaries. Logically, the estuary of the river Scheldt should be the boundary in the north, but both banks are Dutch. The other borders are simply lines on a map with no concern given to any physical characteristics. Like colonial territories, the major European players imposed Belgium’s frontiers long before Belgium became an independent state.

Nevertheless, the Low Countries as a territory apart has actually existed in an elastic form from pre-history. The Low Countries as they are referred to here include the territories of Benelux today and sometimes a bit of Germany to the east and France to the south – at the same time – divided into independent provinces and principalities.

The first Belgians? The Omalians

Traces of man in Belgium since predawn history exists, but the earliest Neolithic group known are the Omalians, which were found only on the exceptionally fertile Hesbaye plateau near Liege. Neolithic man was the first farmer, experimenting with agriculture, stockbreeding and the use of metals.

Although the Omalians were seemingly present for thousands of years, they mysteriously disappeared leaving only their black, richly decorated pottery with loop handles for hanging, millstones and well-made tools. No graves, or urns of ashes have been found and most particularly, no weapons… indicating a peace loving people.

The Michelsbergs: the arrival of the warriors

The Michelsberg people who came onto the scene next were quite different, skilfully producing well-made weapons and tools. Operating a large quarry and flint mines, they actually manufactured implements in successive stages by workers in factories on site and commercially exported them to other tribes as far as England.

They built the first Belgian protected lake dwellings, developed farms with domesticated animals, but still hunted wild game. Considered religious, they buried their dead as skeletons stripped of flesh in caves in orderly rows and later, when more room was needed, reburied them in a communal grave.

The Metal and Bronze Age: the advent of daily shaving

Other groups also settled in the area now known as Belgium, intermingling with the Michelsberg people and utilizing their crafted tools and weapons. The most recognizable were of Spanish origin and they had a social hierarchy based on two classes – rich and poor. They built table-stones and huge tombs in the valley of the Ourthe, ate cooked meat, were farmers and bred domesticated stock while trading over unusually large distances for such primitive times.

Metals began to be used in the area for tools and weapons around 5000 BC and bronze around 1750 BC. Introducing the sword and the sickle and the continued development of cutting utensils revolutionized society.

Man cutting his beard for the first time in history symbolized an advanced people, and clothes became an important social status with increased design possibilities coming from the use of the safety pin to hold fabric firmly instead of bone.

Second Century BC: Lock up your sheep the Celts are coming!

In the final centuries before Christ, the Celts with a frightening new weapon, the iron sword, moved across the Rhine invading the countryside all the way to England. The Belgae, a Celtic people arrived late in Belgium, establishing themselves by the 2nd century BC. These were warriors, but still of an advanced civilization bringing great changes to the local tribes who rather than being annihilated were forced to submission and to the adoption of the Celtic ways.

Amongst the other actors along their path, they were in direct contact with the Greeks, coining their money and worshipping similar gods. They wore trousers and hooded coats, built oaken boats capable of sailing the high seas, which enabled them to trade the advanced iron weapons and tools produced with forges they constructed on the coal field in Hainaut.

56 BC Ceasar’s Conquest: Italians impose civilization (?)

Despite the Belgae’s fierce warrior reputation, around 56 BC Julius Cesar’s army swiftly conquered the region. Invading from the Champagne area, he defeated the huge Nervii family (Brabant) near Cambrai, and besieged and enslaved the Atuatuci (Namur Province) resulting in the surrender of the rest over the next year. (Read the highly popular “Asterix” cartoon series for delightful tales of Roman – Belgae battles).

The area flourished under Roman rule over four centuries and traces of this powerful empire may be found at every turn. Rome let the inhabitants govern themselves. Though the sparse population generally lived on large farms or estates, in the major towns popular assembly (comita) elected magistrates. As these office holders were unpaid and had to finance all ceremonies, games and such not affordable by the community, they had to be rich. But in turn, Rome granted them flattering titles and honours, which were recognized throughout the empire.

What have the Romans ever given us?

Each tribe’s centre was given a city name, resulting in thirty-five cities, each divided into districts (pagi) and what local administration was required (supervision of local authority, public works, road and bridge maintenance) was reinforced by a central administration of Roman civil servants located in Reims.

Taxation was also centralized, based on a census conducted every 15 years, which became increasingly onerous on the local population. Nevertheless, trade in foodstuffs increased enormously for the Belgae and with Roman encouragement, industry from textiles, glass and ceramics to arms, chariots and tools took on even greater importance with exports to all reaches of the empire.

The greatest benefit for the Belgae was the solidly constructed Roman road system, traces of which may still be found. The main route between today’s Cologne and Boulogne on the coast crossed two important Belgian rivers, the Schelt and the Meuse, placing the region in the heart of one of the great crossroads of Europe.