Excavations have shown that Antwerp was inhabited as long ago as the Gallo-Roman period. Unfortunately we know very little about Antwerp in Roman times.
We only have sufficient sources to reconstruct the history of Antwerp starting from the 9th century, when viking attacked the city and inhabitants started reinforcing the boundaries of their territory with an earthen rampart. As the city experienced a first economic boom in the 12th century, Antwerp’s residents built Het Steen (with a stone fortress wall) to defend themselves better.
By the first half of the 14th century, Antwerp had become the most important trading and financial centre in Western Europe, its reputation based largely on its seaport and wool market.
In 1356, the city, which had been part of the Holy Roman Empire, was annexed to the County of Flanders and lost lots of its privileges, partly to Bruges’ advantage. Fifty years later, the political and economic tide turned again and as the Golden Age unfolded, Antwerp became a world class metropolis, described as ‘the loveliest city in the world’.
By the second half of the 16th century, the city was the focus of politico-religious struggles between the Protestant North and Catholic South, which led to the River Scheldt being closed. From an economic point of view, this was a disaster. Yet the city continued to flourish culturally until the mid-seventeenth century thanks to painters like Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Jordaens and Teniers, printers such as Plantin and Moretus, and the famous Antwerp harpsichord builders.
But from 1650 till the 19th century, Antwerp went into serious decline, as the Scheldt remained closed and the city became little more than a provincial town. The river was reopened for good in 1863, paving the way for Antwerp to return to its former glory.