The origin of the first inhabitants of Belgium is not known. It is certain that cave men and lake dwellers lived in this region which now comprises modern Belgium. Human bones, fossils, and tools are the only evidence of a long evolution. It is believed that the people inhabiting the area between the North Sea and the rivers Waal, Rhine, Marne, and Seine reached there about 300 B.C. Before the Christian era, Belgium became known through Greek and Roman writers, particularly Julius Caesar, who called it Gallia Belgica. The people were either of Celtic or Germanic stock, and their courage was known to be superior to that of their neighbors, the Gauls and the Aquitani. "Of all these tribes," says Caesar, "the Belgae are the most courageous." They did not have sufficient strength to resist the onslaught of the Roman invaders, however, because they were not politically united.
After seven campaigns, Caesar broke the stubborn resistance of the Belgians. He then organized the tribes, established a solid administration, and permitted them to maintain their former political divisions. Economically the Belgians profited by this contact with the genius of Rome. Along the routes that led to Gaul, agricultural estates were developed. The Latin language began to take root. Roman law was adopted or imposed by force, and the Christian faith was brought in by merchants and preached by missionaries.
While this civilizing process was taking place, Germanic tribes were infiltrating the Roman Empire. By the beginning of the third century of this era they had penetrated the frontiers of the Rhine, burning, plundering, and raiding. The Frisians took possession of the coastline of the North Sea, whereas the Franks moved into the Isle of Batavia and into the Kempen. In 406 the Huns, coming from the East, drove the Germans back across the Rhine. Like a devastating wave, the retreating hordes flooded the lowlands of Belgium.
The last of the invading groups, the Franks, brought specific characteristics. It is these characteristics, more than any others, that have remained with the Belgians until the present day. Clovis, the greatest of their leaders, was converted to Christianity in 496. He founded a state on the ruins of Roman Gaul and established his capital in Paris. At his death in 511, in accordance with Germanic tradition, he divided his possessions among his sons.
The Frankish invasion of the fifth century was the last notable influx of peoples into Belgium. Both the Flemish and the Walloons of the present day trace their ancestry to the inhabitants of this period. The only distinguishing mark remaining between these two groups is their language. Otherwise, to all intents and purposes, they seem to be of one stock.
It was during the Frankish reign that political power passed to the mayors of the palace and into the hands of the Carolingian dynasty. The founder of the line was Pippin of Landen, in Brabant. His son, Pippin II, a zealous supporter of missionary enterprise among the Germans and Frisians, was the grandfather of Charles Martel and the great-grandfather of Charlemagne. Charlemagne's forty-six years of rule, his fifty-three campaigns, his conquests, his imperial title, and the influence which he left upon the civilization of his era, mark him as one of the great rulers of all time. At his death in 814, however, his empire began to disintegrate.
By the Treaty of Verdun ( 843), Charlemagne's three grandsons divided Belgium between two neighboring states. Louis the German received the Germanic territories to the east; Lothair, the eldest, Francia Media, or Lotharingia, the middle region; and Charles the Bald the regions to the southwest, including mainly what is now France and Flanders.
By the last half of the ninth century feudalism was well established. Kings were weak, whereas the nobility was strong. Belgium, like the rest of Europe, naturally was broken up into a number of small autonomous units, each unit forming a separate principality.
These principalities were to become the future Belgian provinces of Flanders, Brabant, Liége, Hainaut, Limburg, Namur, and Luxemburg.
The first princes of these provinces are the real founders of modern Belgium. Their struggle to break the yoke of French and German domination began early. Finally, John I, Duke of Brabant ( 1261-1294), achieved a brilliant victory at Woeringen, on the banks of the Rhine, and German power was forced beyond the river where it was held in check for some time.
In Flanders, victory was not so easy. The struggle against France was long and bitter. The kings of the Capetian dynasty, in their compact and homogeneous domain, were more powerful than the Holy Roman emperors. They were also better able to follow a constant policy because of their system of hereditary succession. Furthermore, in Flanders they saw not only enormous economic wealth, but also a commercial and military base facing England. It was said that "He who holds Flanders holds the North Sea."