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History of Dubrovnik 2: The foundation in the Dark Ages – balancing on a borderland

The Eastern Adriatic region had since Roman times been a borderland. This would continue to bear a stamp on Dubrovnik’s past, present and future. The borderland status would be skilfully exploited by the city through making itself and the region around it a decompression chamber between cultures and civilisation, religions and empires and opposing counties and ideologies. It was perching successfully on this precarious duality of being that allowed Dubrovnik to develop, interact and thrive.

During Roman times, the Emperor Theodosius had drawn the line between Eastern and Western Christianity on the Drina river in today’s Bosnia. Since the division of the Roman Empire between East and West, Dubrovnik has always been perched on the borderland between cultures, empires and countries. This status would be continually confirmed by successive historical events such as the Great Schism in 1054, the only free Slav Republic for much of the modern age, within Yugoslavia and at the far southern end of Croatia.

Dubrovnik’s history starts with the 7th-century onslaught of barbarians that wiped out the Roman city of Epidaurum (site of present day Cavtat). The remaining inhabitants fled to a rocky islet-settlement separated from the mainland by a narrow channel. Although the settlement had been inhabited, it seems that the refugees invigorated the islet, naming their new home Laus, Greek for ‘rock’. Though a semantic shift, it would become known as Rausa, Ragusa and Ragusium. This inaccessible settlement was located around the southern walls of present-day Dubrovnik.

The lack of a strong authority in the Eastern Adriatic borderland meant that the coast was peripherally perched on the edges of frequently competing spheres of influence, from the Roman period to the present day. Through internal contradictions and ‘barbarian’ invasions, the Western Roman Empire would collapse, leaving Byzantium as the sole survivor of the Roman legacy. Under the Emperor Justinian, they would re-conquer some parts of the former Western Empire. This led them to control the Eastern Adriatic, including Dubrovnik, with the administrative headquarters in Ravenna, today’s Italy.

In the Dark Ages, the Adriatic was a competing sphere for the Venetian, Arab and Byzantine empires. Borderland contested between Byzantine Empire, the only remnant of the Roman Empire and the new city state of Venice (Il Serenissima, Il Dominante). The situation was made more complicated by the arrival of the Slavs on the Adriatic, who settled on the coast. Some of these tribes were able to pick up seafaring skills and put it to use as pirates. They frequently attacked Venetian ships on their way to the Levant.

When the Langobards in 751 took Byzantine territory in Italy and destroyed Ravenna, the territory of Dalmatia, including Dubrovnik came under the authority of Zadar’s regional authority’.

Above photo is by Oton Ivekovic, a Croatian artist who became famous for his depictions of significant moments in Croatian history – The arrival of Croats at Adriatic Sea. This painting was painted in 1905.

With an ever present danger of pirates and barbarians, building walls was a matter of pressing urgency at the time, it appears that Dubrovnik was well fortified by the 9th century when it resisted a Saracen siege for 15 months. In 866, Sicilian Arabs entered the Adriatic and threatened Dubrovnik which sought help from its Byzantine ruler Emperor Basil the Macedonian (867-886). The Emperor sent under the command of Niketas Oryphas a fleet of some one hundred ships. Seeing such a large navy, the Arabs withdrew.

When in 923, the Eastern and Western Church came to a temporary accord; the patriarch of Constantinople renounced his claims to the Dalmatian coastal municipalities such as Dubrovnik. The Byzantine emperor Roman surrendered the Dalmatian municipal towns to the Croatian King Tomislav. In this way, Byzantine controlled Dalmatia was reunified with Croatia. Dubrovnik at this point had a population of Latinized Illyrians, who spoke a now extinct Romance Dalmatian language.

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As the Byzantine Empire weakened due to Ottoman attacks further east, Venice began to fill the vacuum. Its expansion meant that Dubrovnik was seen as a rival which needed to be brought under control. The Republic of St Mark attempted to conquer the city in 948 but failed. The citizens of the city attributed this to St Blaise (Sveti Vlaho) whom they henceforth adopted as their patron saint. Despite its city walls, the city state would henceforth face permanent existential threats from all its neighbours.

Above photo is a picture of St Blaise holding the city state of Dubrovnik

The Republic of St Mark would send occasional expeditions to combat piracy, which was threatening their important trading routes. During one of these expeditions in May 1000, the Venetian Doge Peter II Orsello without much struggle occupied most of the strategic islands and ports between Zadar and Dubrovnik. It was on the islet of Majsan near Korčula that the bishop of Dubrovnik pledged his city’s allegiance to the Venetian empire.

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Having returned from his successful expansionary expedition, the Doge was to add to his title Dux Dalmatiae or the Duke of Dalmatia. The ceremony with the Bucintorro, Venice’s colourful and renown ‘maritime marriage’ would annually commemorate this significant event. It brought the southern Adriatic into the Venetian sphere of influence if not outright control, where it was to remain directly and indirectly up to the late 18th century. Venice’s maritime pursuits meant that it was also Dubrovnik’s only major challenger for geopolitical dominance on the Adriatic.  (Vicko Marelic)

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Dubrovnik History Articles

  1. The History of Dubrovnik – an introduction
  2. The foundation in the Dark Ages – balancing on a borderland
  3. Early medieval times
  4. The beginning of trade
  5. Trade Agreements with Balkan Countries
  6. Breaking Away From Venice and Territorial Expansion
  7. The Ottomans Arrive
  8. Dubrovnik’s Golden Age
  9. Dubrovnik as the Focal Point of Dalmatian Enlightment
  10. Rudjer Boskovic – Dubrovnik’s Shining Example of the Enlightement
  11. The Jews of Dubrovnik