Vienna's history has been heavily influenced by its position astride the Danube, midway between the trade routes linking the prosperous ports of northern Germany with Italy. Its location at the crossroads of three great European cultures (Slavic, Teutonic, and Roman/Italian) transformed the settlement into a melting pot and, more often than not, a battlefield, even in prehistoric times.
Early Times -- The 1906 discovery of the Venus of Willendorf, a Stone Age fertility figurine, in the Danube Valley showed that the region around Vienna was inhabited long before recorded history. It's known that around 1000 B.C., the mysterious Indo-European Illyrians established a high-level barbarian civilization around Vienna. After them came the Celts, who migrated east from Gaul around 400 B.C. They arrived in time to greet and resist the Romans, who began carving inroads into what is now known as Austria.
Around A.D. 10, the Romans chose the site of modern-day Vienna for a fortified military camp, Vindobona. This strategic outpost is well documented -- its location is bordered today by Vienna's Rotenturmstrasse, St. Rupert's Church, the Graben, and Tiefer Graben. Vindobona marked the northeast border of the Roman Empire, and it functioned as a buffer zone between warring Roman, Germanic, and Slavic camps.
Babenbergs & Bohemians -- In 803, the Frankish emperor Charlemagne swept through the Danube Valley, establishing a new territory called Ostmark (the Eastern March). When Charlemagne died in 814 and his once-mighty empire disintegrated, Vindobona struggled to survive. The earliest known reference to the site by the name we know today (Wenia) appeared in a proclamation of the archbishop of Salzburg in 881.
In 976, Leopold von Babenberg established control over Austria, the beginning of a 3-century rule. Commerce thrived under the Babenbergs, and Vienna grew into one of the largest towns north of the Alps. By the end of the 10th century, Ostmark had become Ostarrichi, which later changed to Österreich (Austria).
Toward the end of the 12th century, Vienna underwent an expansion that would shape its development for centuries to come. In 1200, Vienna's ring of city walls was completed, financed by the ransom paid by the English to retrieve their king, Richard Coeur de Lion (the Lion-Hearted), who had been seized on Austrian soil in 1192. A city charter was granted to Vienna in 1221, complete with trading privileges that encouraged the town's further economic development.
In 1246, when the last of the Babenbergs, Friedrich II, died without an heir, the door was left open for a struggle between the Bohemian, Hungarian, and German princes over control of Austria. The Bohemian king Ottokar II stepped into the vacuum. However, Ottokar, who controlled an empire that extended from the Adriatic Sea to Slovakia, refused to swear an oath of fealty to the newly elected emperor, Rudolf I of Habsburg, and the opposing armies joined in one of Vienna's pivotal conflicts, the Battle of Marchfeld, in 1278. Though Ottokar's administration was short, he is credited with the construction of the earliest version of Vienna's Hofburg.
The Habsburg Dynasty -- Under Rudolph of Habsburg, a powerful European dynasty was launched, one of the longest lived in history. The Habsburg grip on much of central Europe would last until the end of World War I in 1918. During the next 2 centuries a series of annexations and consolidations of power brought both Carinthia (1335) and the Tyrol (1363) under Habsburg control.
Many of these Habsburg rulers are long forgotten, but an exception is Rudolf IV (1339-65). Known as "The Founder," he laid the cornerstone of what was later consecrated as St. Stephan's Cathedral. He also founded the University of Vienna as a response to the university in neighboring Prague.
A turning point in the dynasty came in 1453, when Friedrich II was elected Holy Roman Emperor. He ruled from a power base in Vienna. By 1469, Vienna had been elevated to a bishopric, giving the city wide-ranging secular and religious authority.
Friedrich's power was not always steady -- he lost control of both Bohemia and Hungary, each of which elected a king. In 1485, he was driven from Vienna by the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, who ruled for a 5-year period from Vienna's Hofburg.
In 1490, Corvinus died and civil war broke out in Hungary. Maximilian I (1459-1519), Friedrich's son, took advantage of the situation in Hungary to regain control of much of the territory his father had lost.
The Habsburgs did not always conquer territory. Sometimes they succeeded through politically expedient marriages, a series of which brought Spain, Burgundy, and the Netherlands into their empire. In 1496, 4 years after Spanish colonization of the New World, a Habsburg, Phillip the Fair, married the Spanish infanta (heiress), a union that produced Charles I (Carlos I), who became ruler of Spain and its New World holdings in 1516. Three years later, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V. Charles ceded control of Austria to his Vienna-based younger brother, Ferdinand, in 1521. Ferdinand later married Anna Jagiello, heiress to Hungary and Bohemia, adding those countries to the empire.
In 1526, discontent in Vienna broke into civil war. Ferdinand responded with brutal repression and a new city charter that placed the city directly under Habsburg control.
Plagues & Turkish Invasions -- In 1529, half of the city was destroyed by fire. Also during that year, Turkish armies laid siege to the city for 18 anxious days. They left Vienna's outer suburbs in smoldering ruins when they withdrew, but they never breached the inner walls. Partly as a gesture of solidarity, Ferdinand I declared Vienna the site of his official capital in 1533.
In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation shook Europe. In the second half of the century, under the tolerant Maximilian II, Vienna was almost 80% Protestant and even had a Lutheran mayor. However, Ferdinand II was rigorous in his suppression of Protestantism, and returned Vienna to Catholicism. By the first half of the 17th century, Vienna was a bastion of the Counter-Reformation.
Incursions into the Balkans by Ottoman Turks continued to upset the balance of power in Central Europe. During the same period, there were outbreaks of the Black Death; in 1679, between 75,000 and 150,000 Viennese died. Leopold I commemorated the city's deliverance from the plague with the famous Pestaule column. It stands today on one of Vienna's main avenues, the Graben.
The final defeat of the Turks and the end of the Turkish menace came in September 1683. Along with a decline in plague-related deaths, the victory revitalized the city.
Maria Theresa & Political Reform -- Freed from military threat, the city developed under Charles VI (1711-40) and his daughter, Maria Theresa, into a "mecca of the arts." Architects like Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt designed lavish buildings, and composers and musicians flooded into the city.
In 1700, Charles II, last of the Spanish Habsburgs, died without an heir, signaling the final gasp of Habsburg control in Spain. Fearful of a similar fate, Austrian emperor Charles VI penned the Pragmatic Sanction, which ensured that his daughter, Maria Theresa, would follow him. Accordingly, Maria Theresa ascended to power in 1740 at the age of 23, and retained her post for 40 years. The only glitch was the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), which contested her coronation.
Austria entered a golden age of the baroque. During Maria Theresa's reign, the population of Vienna almost doubled, from 88,000 to 175,000. Her most visible architectural legacies include sections of Vienna's Hofburg and her preferred residence, Schönbrunn Palace, completed in 1769. Modern reforms were implemented in the National Army, the economy, the civil service, and education.
Maria Theresa was succeeded by her son, Joseph II. An enlightened monarch who eschewed ritual, he introduced many reforms -- especially in the church -- made himself available to the people, and issued an "Edict of Tolerance."
Napoleon & the Congress of Vienna -- The 19th century had a turbulent start. Napoleon's empire building wreaked havoc on Vienna's political landscape. His incursions onto Habsburg territories began in 1803 and culminated in the French occupation of Vienna in 1805 and 1809. Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and ordered the new Austrian emperor, Franz I, to abdicate his position as Holy Roman Emperor. The Viennese treasury went bankrupt in 1811, causing a collapse of Austria's monetary system.
In one of the 19th century's more bizarre marriages, Napoleon married the Habsburg archduchess Marie-Louise by proxy in 1810. His days of success were numbered, however, and he was finally defeated in 1814.
Metternich -- Organized to pick up the pieces and to redefine national borders after Napoleon's defeat, the pivotal Congress of Vienna (1814-15) included representatives of all Europe's major powers. The Congress was a showcase for the brilliant diplomacy and intrigue of Austria's foreign minister, Klemens von Metternich, who restored Austria's pride and influence within a redefined confederation of German-speaking states.
Metternich's dominance of Austria between 1815 and 1848 ushered in another golden age. The Biedermeier period was distinguished by the increased prosperity of the middle class. Virtually kept out of politics, the bourgeoisie concentrated on culture. They built villas and the first big apartment houses and encouraged painting, music, and literature.
Advancing technology changed the skyline of Vienna as the 19th century progressed. The first steamship company to navigate the Danube was established in 1832, and Austria's first railway line opened in 1837.
In the meantime, despite his brilliance as an international diplomat, Metternich enacted domestic policies that almost guaranteed civil unrest. They led to the eradication of civil rights, the postwar imposition of a police state, and the creation of an economic climate that favored industrialization at the expense of wages and workers' rights.
In March 1848, events exploded not only in Vienna and Hungary, but also across most of Europe. Metternich was ousted and fled the city (some of his not-so-lucky colleagues were lynched). In response to the threat of revolutionary chaos, the Austrian army imposed a new version of absolute autocracy.
Emperor Franz Joseph I, the last scion of the Habsburg dynasty, was the beneficiary of the restored order. At the age of 18, he began his autocratic 68-year reign in 1848.
The Metropolis of Europe -- Franz Joseph I's austere comportment created the perfect foil for an explosion of artistic development in the newly revitalized city. A major accomplishment was the vast Ringstrasse, the boulevard that encircles Vienna's 1st District. Franz Joseph ordered it built over the old city walls, and the construction of the "Ringstrassenzone" became a work of homogeneous civic architecture unparalleled throughout Europe.
Meanwhile, advanced technology helped launch Vienna into the Industrial Age, transforming the city into a glittering showcase. The empire's vast resources were used to keep theaters, coffeehouses, concert halls, palaces, and homes well lit, cleaned, and maintained. The water supply was improved, and the Danube regulated. A new town hall was built, and a new park, the Stadtpark, opened.
The foundations of the Habsburg monarchy were shaken again in 1889 by the mysterious deaths of 30-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf, an outspoken and not particularly stable liberal, and his 18-year-old mistress at the royal hunting lodge of Mayerling. The possibility that they were murdered, and the insistence of his family that every shred of evidence associated with the case be destroyed, led to lurid speculation.
In 1890, many of the city's outer suburbs were incorporated into the City of Vienna, and in 1900 a final 20th district, Brigittenau, was also added. In 1906, women received the right to vote. By 1910, Vienna, with a population of 2 million, was the fourth-largest city in Europe, after London, Paris, and Berlin.
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