History & Background
Belgium covers a small geographic area of 32,547 square kilometers and has a population slightly greater than 10 million (10,239,085 in the year 2000). The country is often described as being situated at the "center" of Europe, since the exact geographic center of the 15 member countries of the European Union is located in the Belgian province of Namur and the political seat of the European Union is located in Brussels, the nation's capital.
Belgium's history of numerous conquests by neighboring powers has given rise to strong cultural pluralism. Celts populated the area until the Roman conquest under Julius Caesar in 57 B.C.E. The ensuing period of Pax Romana was characterized by a blending of Germanic and Latin cultural influences and economic progress in the form of improved trade and the rudiments of an education system.
Christianity entered Belgium in the fourth century A.D., but receded temporarily with the conquests of the Franks one century later. Linguistic and cultural pluralism characterized the northern part of what is now Belgium. The establishment of a proto-Dutch language, a Germanic and Latin influenced language, was evidence of the variety in culture and language. Under the powerful leadership of emperor Charlemagne of the Carolingian dynasty, school education received its second rudimentary movement.
The Middle Ages saw the development of textile and metallurgy industries, and the lower southern countries became the crossroads of trade. In the fifteenth century various parts of the lower southern countries were united by the Dukes of Burgundy. Under their rule Belgium became a center of intellectual and artistic endeavors. Austrian rule began in 1500, under Emperor Charles V, and was followed by Spanish rule and the imposition of Catholicism. Belgium became part of the French empire when Napoleon rose to power in 1794 and the Code Napoléon became the basis of the country's civil law. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo (in Belgium), the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) united the southern (Belgium) and northern (Holland) regions of the Netherlands, to establish a barrier against future French aggression. The forced union led to protests by Catholics against the influence of a protestant Dutch King in clerical matters, and by Belgian liberals who demanded more political freedom.
Revolution against Dutch rule led to Belgium's independence in 1830 and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, with an administrative division of the country into nine provinces (West Flanders, East Flanders, Antwerp, Brabant, Limburg, Hainaut, Namur, Liége, and Luxembourg) and more than 500 municipalities. Belgium's independence imposed its role as a buffer zone during the Congress of Vienna, and proved to be a political complication. The surrounding major national powers accordingly imposed neutrality on the newly independent state. Belgium nevertheless became involved in international conflict on several occasions, first as it established colonial rule in central Africa's Congo region under Leopold II, and subsequently during the two world wars.
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