A short historical overview of Istria and, especially, Pula

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 culture.

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 mythology.

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 festivals.

The largest cravate in the world, 2003

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 the height 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 Empire.

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 and Dante.

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 fall.

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 again.

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 in Croatia.

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:

Croatian Glagolitic Culture in Istria

Back to Croatia - an overview of its History, Culture and Science