Croatia is a country that personifies the complex hybrid that is Europe. Based on her remarkably varied topography and her position between East and West, North and South, but based even more on the dazzling range of peoples and influences that resulted from those factors, Croatia is a country of extraordinary diversity in all regards, including her history.
Due to her position “between” cultures, Croatia is only rarely visible as a central theatre of history. This is an issue of perspective to some extent, but it also reflects an element of truth. While other areas underwent the glories and disasters that centre-stage brings, Croatia laboured on, uniting different cultural strands, contributing to historical developments on this side, that side or the other, and constantly absorbing, adopting and adapting whatever cultural developments affected her.
As a result, the country features impressive monuments reflecting much of European history, from prehistory via the Greek and Roman eras to the Baroque and beyond, but its own individual contributions are often overlooked. The prime example of this is the oft-forgotten Republic of Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik), which existed from the 14th to the 19th centuries, and was a major power in the Adriatic throughout, modelling herself on and rivalling Venice while hedging her bets between the West and the Ottoman Empire. Zagreb, Croatia’s inland capital, has an unbroken and complex urban history going back to the 11th century at least, and the same applies to many towns and cities, coastal and inland.
If Croatia is not “typical” of any history, that’s because it was often fragmented and it behaved neither as a Balkans region, nor as a Mediterranean or as a Central European one – Croatian history reflects all of those options, but it exemplifies none, as the country and area went their own way or ways. That is exactly why the cultural heritage of Croatia is so fascinating.
Below, we offer an overview of some of the key moments in the history of Croatia – its length reflecting the complexity it tries to explain.
Croatia: A Brief Timeline
Palaeolithic-Mesolithic: Croatia is first settled by Neanderthal humans well over 100,000 years ago. For countless generations, stone age hunter-gatherers roam the region. Modern humans probably arrive around 30,000 years BP (before present).
Circa 6500-3000 BC: The Neolithic era brings agriculture, animal husbandry and permanent settlement. These innovations reach Croatia from the East along two routes: one through the Adriatic, the other along the Danube. Various identifiable and separate cultures develop throughout the area.
Circa 3000-800 BC: The Bronze Age sees the advent of metal technology, an increase in social differentiation, the beginnings of cultural and trade connections with Central Europe and parts of the Mediterranean and the formation of local or regional power centres.
Circa 800-100 BC: During the Iron Age, the historical tribes form as warrior societies. They include the Dalmatai and Liburnians in Dalmatia, the Ardiaioi further inland and the Iapydes in northern Croatia. All these tribes are Illyrians, the dominant Indo-European culture in the Balkans and parts of Italy at the time. An exception are the Histrians in what is now Istria, whose ethnic connections are probably with Northern Italy.
Circa 400-100 BC: Unlike other parts of the Mediterranean coast, Croatia receives Greek colonies quite late and sporadically. An early and unsuccessful attempt to found a colony is probably undertaken by Knidos (Caria) and Korkyra (Corfu) on Korčula Island in the 5th century BC. The first definite Greek settlement is Issa on the island of Vis, founded by Dionysios of Syracuse around 400 BC, followed not much later by Pharos on the island of Hvar, probably founded by settlers from Paros in the Aegean. Others develop later at Tragourion (Trogir), at Spalathon (Split) and probably at Dubrovnik. The Greeks introduce wine-growing and urban settlement to the region; their cities coexist with the local tribes in an alternation of conflict and trade.
Circa 200 BC-AD 480: Roman involvement in Croatia begins with the Illyrian Wars of the 3rd and 2nd century BC. By the late 1st century BC, the whole region is under Roman control; the south of modern Croatia lies within the Province of Dalmatia, the north within that of Pannonia. Apart from military bases, Latin-speaking Roman cities develop throughout the region, the most famous being Salona near Split. At Split itself, Roman Spoletum, the Roman Emperor Diocletian, a Dalmatian, constructs an enormous palace for his retirement by AD 305. After the division of the Empire in AD 330, the region remains associated with the Western Empire until the Fall of Rome in AD 476. Christianity becomes widespread.
480-circa 810: The collapse of the Western Roman Empire marks the beginning of a long era of instability, migrations and parts of modern Croatia changing hands frequently. The era also includes the arrival of the Croats themselves. From 480 onwards most of the region belongs to the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, a Germanic tribe, with its capital in Rome. In 535, Justinian conquers the coast of Dalmatia for the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine “rule” will last for over 500 years, but is to remain tenuous and probably limited to individual cities, especially Ragusa (Dubrovnik). In the 6th and 7th centuries, the area is invaded and ravaged repeatedly by nomadic Avars and Slavs; Salona is destroyed in 614, the Avars prevail for about a century. By the 8th century, the Croats, a Southern Slavic tribe, dominate the area, legitimised variously as vassals of the Franks or the Byzantines. Split and Ragusa (Dubrovnik) form quasi-independent city states. In the 790s, the Frankish King and later Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne annexes Istria and briefly gains control of Dalmatia, officially returning it to Byzantium in 812.
circa 810-925: From the early 9th century onwards, the Croats begin to gradually gain identity as a people; they also adopt (Western) Christianity. Two Duchies of the Croats are formed around 810, one in Dalmatia, the other (its existence is less clear) in Pannonia. The Duchy of the Dalmatian Croats is ruled in relative stability by a succession of leaders and local nobles, engaging in warfare with Franks, Arabs and Venetians. In 867, a long Saracen (Arab) siege of Ragusa is repelled by the Byzantines. In 925, the pope recognises Duke Tomislav as King of Croatia.
925-1102: The Croatian Kingdom is one of the largest powers in the Balkans, ruled by Tomislav’s descendants until 1091. During this era, Croatia successfully repels invasions by the Bulgarians and the Hungarians; at its largest extent, the Kingdom controls most of modern Croatia and a considerable part of what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina.
1102-1527: In 1102, a rankling crisis of succession and a Hungarian claim to the Croatian throne culminate in war: the last Croatian king Petar Svačić is killed and Colomon of Hungary unites the Hungarian and Croatian thrones in a personal union that will last for over 800 years. Throughout the 12th century, the Hungarian-Croat kingdom is in sporadic conflict with Byzantium and at near-constant war with Venice, all wrestling for dominance over the cities of the Dalmatian Coast. Venice, emerging as the new major power in the Adriatic, takes Zadar and most of the islands. In 1205, following the defeat of Byzantium in the Fourth Crusade, Venice further gains control of Ragusa; in 1267 it annexes Istria. Meanwhile, the Mongol invasion of the 1240s, ravaging Zagreb, is followed by a long period of infighting within the Croatian-Hungarian nobility. In 1358, Ragusa gains independence from Venice and establishes itself as a Republic. After its conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire rapidly sweeps through the Balkans, taking Bosnia by 1463. From now on, Croatia/Hungary is a border state involved in constant warfare with the Ottomans. Meanwhile, in 1481, the Republic of Ragusa becomes an Ottoman protectorate.
1527-1797: After the disastrous 1526 Battle of Mohács against Suleyman the Magnificent, resulting in the loss of much of Hungary and the death of the last Hungarian King, Louis II, the remaining Hungarian/Croatian nobility offers the throne to the Austrian and Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I of Habsburg, hoping for greater protection. Internal autonomy is retained. Nonetheless, Croatia remains a military border zone under constant threat: in 1592, the Ottomans briefly conquer nearly all of Croatia, only to be repelled the following year. This period of uncertainty lasts until the failed Second Ottoman Siege of Vienna in 1683. During the same era, the Republic of Ragusa is thriving as a commercial power and a cultural centre in the Adriatic. The 18th century is an era of peace and prosperity for Austrian-ruled Croatia.
1797-1814: The Adriatic is one of the key theatres of the Napoleonic Wars: After Napoleon’s conquest and dissolution of the Venetian Republic in 1797, France and Austria wrestle over control of Venice’s erstwhile Dalmatian possessions, leading to the eventual defeat of France and the permanent unification of Dalmatia. The Republic of Ragusa, initially a main profiteer of the war, is its main victim in the region: it is dissolved and annexed to Austrian Croatia in 1814. Austria now owns Dalmatia and Istria, but administrates the coastal regions separately from her inland Croatian and Hungarian territories.
1814-1918: The 19th century is dominated by technological advances in the context of industrialisation and the ensuing growth of larger cities on the one hand, and by the development of nationalism on the other. In Croatia, different movements compete: Dalmatianism, Croatian nationalism, Panslavism and Italian nationalism (in parts of Dalmatia). During the 1848 “revolution”, Croatia sides with Austria, as it fears domination by the Hungarians. After the 1867 introduction of the Dual Monarchy, most Croatian lands are removed from Hungarian dominance: Austria-Hungary now contains two separate Croatian kingdoms: Dalmatia and Croatia-Slavonia.
1918-1941: During the final phase of the First World War, as the imminent defeat of the Central Powers is obvious, Croatia severs its ties with Austria, joining the short-lived State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, soon after transformed into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Italy seizes the opportunity to occupy and annex Istria, Rijeka, Zadar and several of the Dalmatian islands. The new Yugoslav State, formed to fulfill the ideal of uniting all “Southern Slavs” in one entity, proves a mixed blessing. Dominated by Serbia, it rapidly transforms into an outright dictatorship. Expressions of ethnic identity, especially on the part of Croats, are oppressed violently.
1941-1945: After the Axis conquest of Yugoslavia in April 1941, the Independent State of Croatia is established. This is a German-supported puppet state run by members of the Ustaše, an ultranationalist Croatian movement. The Ustaše regime is extremely violent, massacring minority populations such as Serbs and Roma and contributing willingly to the Holocaust. At the same time, part of Dalmatia is annexed to Italy, where an equally brutal policy of Italianisation is pursued until the 1943 surrender. Occupied Yugoslavia sees much resistance activity from its partisans, including many Croats. After the end of the war in 1945, Croatia rejoins Yugoslavia. In the Paris Treaty of 1947, Italy formally cedes its Istrian and Dalmatian possessions to Yugoslavia.
1945-1990: After World War II, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is formed. Its new leader, Josip Broz Tito, a Croatian who has distinguished himself in the Resistance, is not willing to submit his country to Russian dominance: as a result, post-war Yugoslavia takes a unique trajectory, remaining outside the Warsaw Pact and offering its inhabitants a higher level of freedom than other Eastern European states, including freedom of movement. Mass tourism begins to develop in Dalmatia and Istria in the 1970s. Tito’s death in 1990 is followed by a resurgence of nationalism across Yugoslavia.
1991-present: As the collapse of the Soviet Union leads to substantial realignments in Eastern Europe, several members of the Yugoslav Federation seek independence. Croatia is recognised as an independent state in 1991, triggering a hard-fought four-year war with rump Yugoslavia (Serbia). After its conclusion, Croatia stabilises gradually, entering the EU in 2014.