Belgium derives its name from a Celtic tribe, the Belgae, whom Caesar described as the most courageous tribe of Gaul. However, the Belgae were forced to yield to Roman legions during the first century B.C. For some 300 years thereafter, what is now Belgium flourished as a province of Rome. But Rome's power gradually lessened. In about A.D. 300, Attila the Hun invaded what is now Germany and pushed Germanic tribes into northern Belgium. About 100 years later, the Germanic tribe of the Franks invaded and took possession of Belgium. The northern part of present-day Belgium became an overwhelmingly Germanized and Germanic- Frankish-speaking area, whereas in the southern part people continued to be Roman and spoke derivatives of Latin. After coming under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy and, through marriage, passing into the possession of the Hapsburgs, Belgium was occupied by the Spanish (1519-1713) and the Austrians (1713-1794).
Under these various rulers, and especially during the 500 years from the 12th to the 17th century, Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Antwerp took turns at being major European centers for commerce, industry (especially textiles) and art. Flemish painting--from Van Eyck and Breugel to Rubens and Van Dyck--became the most prized in Europe. Flemish tapestries hung on the walls of castles throughout Europe.
Following the French Revolution, Belgium was invaded and annexed by Napoleonic France in 1795. It was made a part of the Netherlands by the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
In 1830, Belgium wrested its independence from the Dutch as a result of an uprising of the Belgian people. A constitutional monarchy was established in 1831, with a monarch invited in from the House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha in Germany.
Belgium was invaded by the Germans in 1914 and again in 1940. This, plus disillusionment over postwar Soviet behavior, made Belgium one of the foremost advocates of collective security within the framework of European integration and the Atlantic partnership.
Since 1944, when Belgium was liberated by British, Canadian, and American armies, the nation has lived in security and at a level of increased well-being.
A parliamentary democracy, Belgium has been governed by successive coalitions of two or more political parties, with the centrist Flemish Christian Democratic Party providing the Prime Minister most of the time. Two major political controversies have marked the postwar years: a dispute over King Leopold III's conduct during World War II (which caused him to abdicate in 1951), and the insistence of the nation's majority linguistic community--the Flemish--upon a reorganization of the state into autonomous regions.
The last 30 years also have been marked by a rapid economic development of Flanders, which had been largely agricultural and, since the Industrial Revolution, had become the poorer half of Belgium. This Flemish resurgence has been accompanied by a corresponding shift of political power to the Flemings, who now constitute an absolute majority (58%) of the population.