It is one of the most important university cities in Spain and supplies 16% of Spain's market for the teaching of the Spanish language. Salamanca attracts thousands of international students.
It is situated approximately 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of the Spanish capital Madrid and 80 km (50 mi) east of the Portuguese border. The University of Salamanca, which was founded in 1218, is the oldest university in Spain and the fourth oldest western university, but the first to be given its status by the Pope Alexander IV who gave universal validity to its degrees. With its 30,000 students, the university is, together with tourism, a primary source of income in Salamanca.
The city was founded in the pre-Ancient Rome period by the Vaccaei, a Celtic tribe, or the Vettones, a Celtic or pre-Celtic indo-European tribe, as one of a pair of forts to defend their territory near the Duero river. In 220 BC Hannibal laid siege to the city and captured it. With the fall of the Carthaginians to the Romans, the city of Helmantica, as it was known, began to take more importance as a commercial hub in the Roman Hispania due to its favorable location. Salamanca lay on a Roman road, known as the Va de la Plata, which connected it with Emerita Augusta (present day Mrida) to the south and Asturica Augusta (present-day Astorga) to the north. Its Roman bridge dates from the 1st century, and was a part of this road.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Alans established in Lusitania, and Salamanca was part of this region. Later the city was conquered by the Visigoths and included in their territory. The city was already an episcopal see, and signatures of bishops of Salamanca are found in the Councils of Toledo.
Salamanca surrendered to the Moors, led by Musa bin Nusair, in the year 712 AD. For years, this area between the south of Duero River and the north of Tormes River, became the main battlefield between the Christian kingdoms and the Muslim Al-Andalus rulers. The constant fighting of the Kingdom of Len first, and the Kingdom of Castile and Len later against the Caliphate depopulated Salamanca and reduced it to an unimportant settlement. After the battle of Simancas (939) the Christians resettled this area. After the capture of Toledo by Alfonso VI of Len and Castile in 1085, the definitive resettlement of the city took place. Raymond of Burgundy, instructed by his father-in-law Alfonso VI of Len, led a group of settlers of various origins in 1102.
One of the most important moments in Salamanca's history was the year 1218, when Alfonso IX of Len granted a royal charter to the University of Salamanca, although formal teaching had existed at least since 1130. Soon it became one of the most significant and prestigious academic centres in Europe.
During the 16th century, the city reached its height of splendour (around 6,500 students and a total population of 24,000). During that period, the University of Salamanca hosted the most important intellectuals of the time; these groups of mostly-Dominican scholars were designated the School of Salamanca. The juridical doctrine of the School of Salamanca represented the end of medieval concepts of law, and founded the fundamental body of the ulterior European law and morality concepts, including rights as a corporeal being (right to life), economic rights (right to own property) and spiritual rights (rights to freedom of thought and rights related to intrinsic human dignity).
In 1551, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered an inquiry to find out if the science of Andreas Vesalius, physician and anatomist, was in line with Catholic doctrine. Vesalius came to Salamanca that same year to appear before the board and was acquitted.
Salamanca suffered the general downturns of the Kingdom of Castile during the 17th century, but in the 18th century it experienced a rebirth. In this period, the new baroque Cathedral and main square (Plaza Mayor) were finished.
In the Peninsular War of the Napoleonic campaigns, the Battle of Salamanca, in which an Anglo-Portuguese Army led by Wellington decisively defeated the French army of Marmont, was fought on 22 July 1812. The western quarter of Salamanca was seriously damaged by cannon fire. The battle which raged that day is famous as a defining moment in military history and many thousands of men were killed in the space of only a few short hours.
During the devastating Spanish Civil War (193639) the city quickly went over to the Nationalist side and was used as the de facto capital. Franco was named Generalissimo on 21 September 1937 while at the city, and in the same year was formed, by a decree signed in the city, the official fascist party that ruled Spain until the end of the Francoist regime, officially suppressing any other political party. The Nationalists soon moved most of the administrative departments to Burgos, which being more central was better suited for this purpose. However, some administrative departments, Franco's headquarters (located at the Palacio Episcopal, next to the Old Cathedral) and the military commands stayed in Salamanca, along with the German and Italian fascist delegations, making it the de facto Nationalist capital and centre of power during the entire civil war. Like much of fervently Catholic and largely rural Leon and Old Castile regions, Salamanca was a staunch supporter of the Nationalist side and Francisco Franco's regime for its long duration.
In 1988, the old city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1998, it was declared a European Capital of Culture for year 2002 (shared with Bruges). During 14 and 15 October 2005, it hosted the XV the Ibero-American Summits of Heads of State and Governments.
Since 1996, Salamanca has been the designated site of the archives of the Spanish Civil War (Archivo General de la Guerra Civil Espaola). The original documents were assembled by the Francoist regime, selectively obtained from the administrative departments of various institutions and organizations during the Spanish Civil War as a repressive instrument used against opposition groups and individuals. The socialist government moved the Catalan part of the archive to Barcelona in 2006 despite opposition from the local authorities and popular protests.