The course of Austrian history has been confusing to say the least, determined primarily by the region’s geographical position astride natural European highways where cultures met and usually clashed. Celts had been in the area for about 700 years when Roman legionnaires pushed northward through Alpine passes and into the Danube valley around 100 BC. The Romans introduced wine growing and established Roman law there, and traces of the baths, arenas, roads and fortified settlements they built are still in evidence.
During the Dark Ages, waves of barbarians flowed over the plains of the Danube intermingling and leaving their imprint on following generations. Germanic invaders, including Attila and his terrible Huns, steadily weakened the far-flung Roman Empire until the Romans finally vanished from Austria in 480 AD. More than five centuries of constant rivalries and invasions ended when Otto the Great was crowned as the first Holy Roman Emperor in 962. The newly-created eastern province of the Reich, Oesterreich, came into being as a separate country.
For nearly a thousand years, Austrian history was determined by two dynasties. The Babenbergs’ 270 year reign was a period of peaceful development and material attainment: salt, gold and silver were mined, peasants and merchants alike prospered, and the church accumulated vast wealth. Austria lay on the route of the Crusades, and Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned there when he was caught attempting to travel through the country in disguise In the 12th century, one of the last Babenberg rulers built his imperial palace in Vienna, it as his capital.
What happened in 1273 is a prime example of European confusion. The Electors of the Holy Roman Empire crowned the Swiss Rudolf von Habsburg in Aachen and put him on the throne in Vienna as King of the Germans. It worked though. Twenty Habsburg kings and emperors reigned for the next 640 years, concluding treaties and living by their motto: “Let others wage war. Maximilian I, the “Last Knight”, married the heiress of Burgundy and the Netherlands, and their sons’ marriages eventually added Spain, Hungary and Bohemia to the Habsburg’s vast empire. Maximilian’s grandson Karl ruled over it all as both king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, claiming that the sun never set on his dominion. Karl divided his territories with his brother in 1521, establishing two distinct Habsburg lines; one to rule over Austria and the other over Spain and the Netherlands.
The 16th and 17th centuries were full of conflict and tragedy. The Turks posed a threat for 200 years, beginning with the first siege of Vienna in 1529. Religious conflicts sparked by the K Reformation and Counter-Reformation triggered the Thirty Years War in 1618, and in 1679 the plague claimed some 100,000 victims in Vienna alone. The Turks, seeing a chance for victory over war-torn and decimated Austria, again laid siege to the capital in 1683. This time, allied forces routed the invaders, taking spoils of war that included the golden crescent now atop Saint Stephen’s Cathedral and a sack of unfamiliar brown beans which introduced coffee to Europe and led to the opening of Vienna’s first coffee houses that same year.
Empress Maria Theresia, who ruled from 1740 to 1780, is one of the outstanding women in world history. Despite the distraction of wars with Prussia and her domestic responsibilitie as the mother of 16 children, she championed a program of reforms that united the empire, reformed the government, updated the legal and financial systems, promoted trade, abolished cruel punishment, and established schools and universities. Hers was the golden age of high Baroque art and architecture and of Austrian classical music from composers such as Gluck, Haydn and Mozart.
Her successors had Napoleon to deal with. After a defeat at his hands in 1805, Austri.i its Italian possessions, Tirol and Vorarlberg, and was forced to renounce the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. An Austrian general led the army that finally defeated Napoleon, and bam him to Elba in 1813. The Austrian Prince Metternich presided over the Congress of Vi.
1814, and Vienna became the glittering center of European diplomacy, with the crown footing the bill. Austria regained both considerable territory and a dominant position in European politics under Metternich, until the revolutions of 1848 forced him to flee the country. That same year, Emperor Ferdinand abdicated in favor of his young nephew Franz Josef, who ruled for more than half a century. The Prussian defeat of Austria in 1866 resulted in the establishment the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy. It was generally a time of peaceful progress, but a series of governments was unable to solve the increasing tension generated by nationalism in a multi-national empire.