The oldest traces of human occupation were found in Hallembaye (province of Liège), where a very primitive flint tool was found that was dated to about 500,000 years ago ! Around 500 BC, present day Belgium was inhabited by Celts, who maintained trade relations with the Mediterranean area and the Etruscans.
Around 57 BC, the Roman general Julius Caesar named the territory of the Belgae he had conquered Gallia Belgica (Belgian Gaul).
His conquest led to a genocide of the Eburone and the Aduatuc tribes, and later Germanic tribes settled in their territories. As a matter of fact, the current Belgian thus descends from the Franks, and not from the Celtic Belgae, as the Belgian history books so proudly tout...
The Roman region of Gallia Belgica included modern Belgium, northern France, the Netherlands, and parts of Germany and Switzerland.
Rome’s successor in western Europe was the kingdom of the Franks, which originated in Belgian Gaul and expanded into Germany, eventually extending from the Pyrenees eastward across the Alps and southward as far as Rome itself. During his reign from 768 to 814, the Frank king Charlemagne united all of western Europe through conquest (the first Holy Roman Empire). When the Frankish realm was partitioned in 843 between the three grandsons of Charlemagne, Charles the Bald received West Francia, west of the Scheldt, Lothair received the imperial title and the area between the Scheldt and the Rhine, named Lorraine, and Louis the German received East Francia. However, Lothair died rapidly, and after much squabbling in 925 his territory went to East Francia.
The two main territories of East and West Francia later grew into contemporary France and the Holy Roman Empire, which later became Germany. Western Belgium was incorporated in the duchy of Lorraine, which was part of west Francia, and east Belgium was incorporated in East Francia, which later became Germany. In the extreme west of this realm arose the county of Flanders, which became the fief of the kings of France.
The Middle Ages, and especially the 12th and 13th centuries, were a period of intensive commercial development throughout the southern Low Countries. The merchant class rose to great prosperity, and cities flourished. In Flanders the cloth trade was the basis of the wealth and growing independence of such cities as Brugge, Ghent, and Ypres. Liège grew rich on the profits of its iron forges and arms manufacture. Wealthy merchants and powerful guilds vied with each other in endowing public works such as the belfries, guildhalls, and churches that are still the pride of many Belgian cities.
The most important of the medieval states in what is now Belgium was Flanders. In the early Middle Ages the counts of Flanders succeeded in establishing themselves as independent rulers, although the king of France was the theoretical overlord of the region. At the end of the 13th century Flanders was annexed by King Philip IV of France. French rule was welcomed by some of the Flemish nobility, but was bitterly resented by the merchants and craftsmen in the cities.
In 1302 the craftsmen of Brugge massacred the French garrison of the city. In the same year an army of Flemish townsmen inflicted a crushing defeat on the French in the Battle of Courtrai. It is sometimes called the Battle of the Spurs, because the Flemings collected the spurs of the dead French knights as trophies. However, the French later regained control over Flanders. During the Hundred Years' War between France and England, the Flemings rebelled under the leadership of Ghent and allied themselves with England, but in 1382 they were decisively defeated.
In 1384 Flanders was united with Burgundy, and by the mid-15th century the dukes of Burgundy ruled the greater part of the Belgian and Dutch Netherlands. Flanders continued to enjoy great prosperity, and the great age of Flemish art began. While owing allegiance to the French crown, Burgundy’s aim was to found a powerful state between France and Germany. This effort was disrupted by the death in 1477 of the last Burgundian ruler, Charles the Bold.
By the marriage in 1477 of Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold, to the German prince Maximilian (later Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I), all of the rich Burgundian realm except the duchy itself passed to the control of the Habsburg family. Maximilian’s grandson, Charles, inherited the Netherlands (which included present-day Belgium) in 1506. Charles ascended the throne of Spain in 1516 and later became Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fifth. In 1549 he decreed that Netherlands be formally joined to the possessions of Spain.
After 1525 however, the reformation with Calvin Protestantism obtained a large following, especially in the Southern Netherlands. Lutheranism, which was initially more important in northern and eastern Netherlands, was displaced by it in the second half of the 16th century. In the larger cities of Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Mechelen, Leuven, and almost the entire coast, but also Tournai, Liège, Valencijn (now Valenciennes in France), Mons and Namur, a significant part of the population had become Protestant !
In 1550, Emperor Charles V issued the Blood Edict to the Netherlands. It utterly prohibited printing, writing, distribution, and possession of heretical books and pictures, attending heretical meetings, preaching another religion, and sheltering heretics, all of which became punishable by death at the stake, and confiscation of all possessions. At that, after 1560, the Spanish Inquisition ruled in the Netherlands !
Even though the local rulers, the nobility and the city councils, remained predominantly Catholic, to prevent disturbances in the large Protestant minority, they conducted moderate policy. Especially in the regions which were far from Brussels, the Blood Edict was hardly implemented. In the northern Netherlands, after 1559 the law was no longer applied, and in some cases not even proclaimed ! In Flanders however, the Inquisition arrested many heretics, and condemned them to death.
Charles's successor, Philip II, sought to suppress the expansion of Protestantism, and prohibited his subjects to trade with "foreign" countries, and a real Spanish and Roman Catholic witch hunt developed against so-called "heretics". In 1566, Philip's terror methods caused an uprising in the Netherlands. This was partly due to religious and economic disputes, but also an effort to preserve local freedom and autonomy. Especially Antwerp was a Protestant stronghold, and between 1577 and 1584 there was even a Ghent Calvinist Republic !
Several Spanish armies were defeated, but the struggle between the Catholic south and the Protestant north continued unabated. In 1581, seven northern provinces (Gelderland, Friesland, Holland, Groningen, Overijssel, Utrecht and Zeeland) declared independency, as the United Provinces of the Netherlands. This was the first free republic, that 200 years later would become a model for the United States of America ! The southern provinces (later Belgium) were invited to join them, but because of religious reasons, and (especially) in fear for the loss of their influence, the nobility and the city councils elected to continue under the Spanish government, often despite the conviction of their population... This was a decision that would have far-reaching historical consequences !
Philip II continued his attempts to recapture the north, but without success. The capture of Antwerp by Spanish troops in 1585 sealed the final separation of the Northern and Southern Netherlands. Large sections of the population, especially merchants and intellectuals, moved to the north, where they and their descendants greatly contributed to the "Golden Age of the Northern Netherlands".
In 1609, with neither side capable of a decisive victory, Philip III of Spain signed a 12-year truce with the rebels. By the time this accord expired, the Thirty Years' War was raging, and the Spanish Netherlands was once again a battleground. In 1635, the Dutch and the French joined forces to divide the Spanish Netherlands, but still could not dislodge the Spaniards. A succession of Franco-Dutch victories finally forced the Spanish king, Philip IV, to accept a separate peace with the Dutch in 1648, but the south, present-day Belgium and Luxembourg, remained a Spanish domain. By the Treaty of Münster, the Dutch gained some territory on their southern border, notably Maastricht, and Spain agreed to close off shipping from the Schelde River, which flowed through Dutch territory but which was Antwerp’s sole outlet to the sea. The great port city and center of commerce of Antwerp thus entered a period of decline !