Archaeological finds have a first settlement of the town in the 2nd century AD back. At that time there seems to have been a Roman settlement on the banks of the Scheldt . According to legend, the current name of the city goes back to that time. At that time, it is said, a mighty giant was watching over the river. Any fisherman or trader who wanted to pass the guarded point had to pay the giant duty. Whoever did not comply, the giant cut off one hand and threw it into the river. Silvio Brabo, a Roman centurion, is said to have taken on the giant and defeated him after a fierce battle. As a token of victory, he cut off his hand and threw it into the waters of the Scheldt. Legend has it that the name Antwerp was derived from the Dutch hand werpen (dt. Hand to throw).
Whatever the story, there was a Roman settlement here and it must have existed for around 150 years. Between the 9th and 10th centuries, the former Roman settlement was enclosed on three sides by a fortification wall, on the other it was protected by the Scheldt. In 980 Antwerp was made a margraviate, which gave the city increased growth and the establishment of traders and craftsmen. The Steen, the castle that still exists today, was built at that time. Because of the Scheldt, on the numerous goods between the North Sea and further inland regions were shipped, the city’s commercial activity grew. This should lay the foundation for the coming wealth of Antwerp citizens. The economic and political power of the trade and craft-oriented bourgeoisie grew and in the 12th century the nobility lost more and more influence. In 1121 the city was granted municipal rights by the Duke of Brabant. The economic importance and wealth of the city continued to increase steadily thereafter. With the decline of the city of Bruges in the 15th century the importance of Antwerp grew even further and the city was finally able to assert itself as an important trading center. The population increased so that by the end of the century around 50,000 people lived in Antwerp according to businesscarriers.
The wealth grew and with the money came the artists. In the early 16th century, which is known as Antwerp’s Golden Age, more and more famous artists of the time settled in the city and established the city’s reputation as an important artistic center through their work. During this “golden” period, numerous magnificent buildings were erected in the city. The town hall was completed in 1564 and from then on the fortunes of the city with its almost 100,000 residents were controlled.
In the second half of the 16th century, in the course of the Eighty Years’ War (1568 – 1648), the city was shaken by violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. The Spanish King Philip II, whose troops were stationed in the city, intervened with cruel severity. On November 4, 1576, the army sacked the city. Thousands of citizens were murdered, hundreds of houses burned down.
In 1581 the United Provinces were founded, which are the forerunners of the Dutch state. Suddenly Antwerp found itself in the position of a border town. It was regrettable for the city that the mouth of the Scheldt was controlled by the northern adversary and that maritime trade, the source of wealth, came to a standstill. Antwerp was forced to find other sources of income. From then on, the city’s traders and handicrafts focused on the production and trading of luxury goods. Antwerp developed into a center for letterpress printing and diamond cutting. Nevertheless, the city was marked by decline at that time. During the Eighty Years’ War, thousands of residents left the city and the economy could not recover. After the end of the war (1648) the city disappeared into economic insignificance. New impulses for city growth came only from the French revolutionary troops under Napoleon, who took the city towards the end of the 18th century. Under the French, the port was expanded and the blockade of the Scheldt estuary lifted. Maritime trade could be resumed and the city was in for a good time. The port of Antwerp is still an important economic factor today.
Between 1815 and 1830 the city was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and it has only been part of Belgium since 1830. As the Scheldt estuary was subsequently ruled by the Netherlands, which imposed high tariffs on merchant ships, Antwerp once again struggled with economic stagnation. In 1863 the tariffs were lifted, which triggered an economic boom. The port developed into one of the most important in Europe and is still of the third most important importance for trade on the continent after Rotterdam and Hamburg. At the beginning of the 20th century, around 300,000 people lived in the city.
During the First World War, Antwerp was the scene of skirmishes that affected parts of the city. However, she was able to recover and hosted the Summer Olympics as early as 1920 . In the Second World War, Antwerp was occupied by German troops. Hundreds of Antwerp Jews were deported and murdered, but the majority managed to save themselves. On September 4, 1944, the city was liberated by British troops. After the liberation, however, the city was massively bombed by German V-1 and V-2 missiles. Significant parts of the city were destroyed.
After the end of the war, the port could continue to operate and the town’s trading position was strengthened. The city made efforts in the post-war period to bring the displaced Jews back into the city. Thousands followed this initiative, so that today Antwerp has the largest Jewish community in Europe. Much has also changed culturally in the course of the 20th century. In 1993 the city was declared the European Capital of Culture.