A short historical overview of Istria and, especially,
Written by prof.dr. Jadranka Skorin-Kapov,
College of Business
State University of New York, Stony Brook, New York
Where is Istria? Istria, with its 1100 square miles, and 200,000+ inhabitants
is the largest peninsula in Croatia, situated in the northern Adriatic.
(A smaller northwestern part of Istria is part of Slovenia.) Istria is
known for its gently rolling scenery, pleasant climate, good wines, coastal
tourist resorts and beautiful beaches. Its main economic center is Pula,
a city of 60,000+ people, situated on its south-western shore, around
one of the most beautiful bays in the Adriatic.
The geographical setting was certainly a big factor
in Istria's historical development. This is a place where Slavic, Romanic and
Germanic cultures touch each other, from the times they first 'met', some
time between the late antique period, and the beginning of
the middle ages.
The oldest traces of human life (about 1 million B.C) in this part of Europe
were discovered in the cave Sandalj near Pula. There are many discoveries
from neolithic times (6000-2000 b.c.), best documented through remains of
pottery from that period.
Bronze age left traces of developed settlements. The oldest known ethnical
group in Istria is the Illiric tribe called Histri. Their main center was a city
(Nezakcij) in the interior, which in 177 b.c. fell to Roman legions, bringing
Istria into the boundaries of the Roman empire.
The first mention of the name Pula, in its plural as "Polai" occurred in 3rd
century b.c., in the work of Greek poets Callimachus and Lycophron in the
mythological story of Jason and Medea. Jason, of course, stole the golden
fleece, and with the help of Medea run away. Colchis were chasing them,
but could not catch Jason, a very skilled sea traveler. They didn't dare to
return without the golden fleece, so they settled in the upper Adriatic,
where the Illiric tribe lived, and named the city - The City of Refuges, in
their language - Polai. Centuries later greek pottery was found, as well as
parts of a statue representing Apollo, and some other traces of Greek
The beginning of Roman domination (177 b.c.) in the Istrian peninsula, was
the beginning of ethnic changes and romanization.
Around 46-45 b.c. Pula got the rank of a Roman colony, which resulted in
intense development, with a big surrounding area under its jurisdiction. The
formation of this Roman colony dates to the time of Caesar, and the task of
foundation was entrusted to a couple of influential Romans: one was Caesar's
father in law, and the other one was Cassius Longinus, brother of another
Cassius, who entered the history as Caesar's assassin. The names of founders
are engraved in the oldest standing Roman monument in Pula, the Hercules Gate,
which also shows the bearded head of this mythical hero who the Romans, along
with other deities and heroes, adopted from Greek
Then, in 42 b.c. the civil war broke between the Triumvirate of Octavian,
Antony and Lepidus on one hand, and Caesar's assassins Brutus and
Cassius on the other. The victory was Octavian's, after the battle at Actium
in 31 b.c. Pula, being founded by Cassius, took the side of Brutus and
Cassius, and was demolished following Octavian's victory. But, soon, due
to geo-strategic and political factors, during the time of Octavian-Augustus,
Pula was soon rebuilt, and one of the masterpieces of Roman architecture,
the Triumphal Arch of the Sergius family, was erected as a symbol of the
victory at Actium.
Augustus transformed Pula into an imperial city, and some of the
monumental examples of Roman architecture were built in Pula: e.g.
Augustus' Temple was built between 2 b.c. and 14 a.d. In the 1st century,
under Emperor Vespasian, a big amphitheater was built (6th largest in the
world) with the size to seat 23,000 spectators. Amphitheaters were buildings
specific to Roman culture, both in terms of purpose and architecture. They
were the site of gladiator fights and other brutal amusements for the
masses. Centuries later, actually millennia later, Arena (as it is called today)
provides an extraordinary setting for summer film and opera
CRAVATE AROUND ARENA IN PULA,
the largest cravate in the world, weighing 450 kg, 808 m long, maximal width
25 m, tied around Arena in Pula. The knot itself was tied at
of 21 meters,
and was 15 meters wide!
Anyway, to shorten the story, in the second part of the 5th century (476)
the Western Roman Empire collapsed, and Pula as well as the rest of Istrian
peninsula, fell under the rule of the Ostrogots. 60+ years later, the ruler
changed, and Istria came under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Roman
Ostrogots were only transitive inhabitants, they left only rare traces, and
proceeded to Italian peninsula. Croats (and Slovenes further north), arrived
at the end of 6th century, and started to conquer the territory. But, unlike
the Ostrogots, they decided to stay.
Feudalism arrived in the last part of the 8th century (788 a.d.) with
the rule of the Franks. Istria became part of the big, feudal state of
Charles the Great, or Charlemagne. A bigger state allowed more intensive
colonization of Croats. From 13th century Istria we have a very important
document of Croatian culture - "Istarski Razvod",
a work written in Latin, German, and Croatian, with the oldest Croatian
alphabet called glagoljica.
In the 13th century new political forces emerged. Over a century Venetians
have gradually taken the western part of the Istrian peninsula. In 1331
Venetians took over Pula. They ruled until the end of the 18th century
(1797). In those past centuries, Pula became a typical medieval town, in
Romanesque-Gothic style. Actually, the city palace is Romanesque-Gothic-
Renaissance, built on the remains of a Roman temple of the goddess Diana,
which speaks most eloquently of the passage of time and changing
influences. Many famous artists of their time visited Pula and left traces of
Pula in their work, to name the most famous: Michelangelo
The decline of Venice had a great impact on Istrian peninsula. After
numerous wars, and epidemics of plague and malaria, the republic of St.
Marco was over. Over the years Pula was gradually devastated. It is said
there are some documents suggesting ideas to turn down the amphitheater in
Pula to use the marvelous white stone to build Venice. Luckily, this did not
happen. Coupled with epidemics of plague and malaria, from a developed city,
Pula was a place with 600 souls at the time of the Venetian
In 1799 the Venetian part of the Istrian peninsula was handed to Austria
(which already had the rest of Istria).
But Austria started a war with Napoleon, and 6 years later, in 1805 Istria
became part of Napoleon's province of Illiricum. They say Napoleon liked
his army to march in shade, so many trees were planted alongside streets.
Unfortunately, Napoleon was gone by 1813, after 8 years, before the tree
crowns could develop, and Istria became part of Austria
A few decades later the events of 1848 established that year as one of the
most turbulent years in European history. There was unrest in France, the
German states, the Austrian empire, Italy, and some changes at the borders.
Having lost some land in northern Italy, Austria decided in 1859 to
establish Pula as its largest marine base. This period saw the transformation
of a small city with fading antique splendor to an industrial port with
newly formed and growing working blue collar class. Italian and German
administrators tried to repress growing requests by Croats for their language
rights. Croats were predominantly peasants and blue collar workers coming from
Istrian villages, but Croatian intelligence started to
develop as well.
The end of WWI, 1918, marked the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Istria was handed to Italy.
The times were hard, economically and politically. Workers in the Arsenal in Pula were laid off,
giving rise to explosive situations. Indeed, at the May 1st (international worker's day) demonstrations in 1920,
there was a bloody clash with police and 4 workers were killed: a Croat, a Czech, an Austrian,
and an Italian (as if somebody was applying a political diversification formula).
During the twenties and later, fascism was on the rise.
Then came WWII, and in 1943 Italy capitulated. In 1945 Istria became part
of Croatia's territory, smaller northern part went to Slovenia. But Pula's
fate was still undefined, and Pula (as well as Trieste) were placed under
Anglo-American military command until the beginning of 1947.
In that period Pula was twice bombed. In 1947 Pula joined the rest of Istria
The Istrian peninsula was given to conquerors, at times was devastated,
destroyed, but never completely, and never in spirit. Because of its
turbulent history, and a mixture of Slavic, Romanic and Germanic elements,
it developed a specific aroma of Istrian culture, which carries in itself a
tolerance (it has to - Istra saw them all) and an unbreakable spirit.
We consider this to be an integral part and an enrichment of
the Croatian cultural heritage.
Related web page:
Zvonko Springer: BRIONI alias BRIJUNI ARCHIPELAGO
Croatian Glagolitic Culture in Istria
Back to Croatia - an overview of its
History, Culture and Science