The oldest artefact in Croatia was found in Istria, and dates back to the Late Stone Age. The artefact is an ordinary river pebble that primitive man sharpened with simple blows to make a stone tool. Discovered in a cave at the Šandalja site near Pula, it is about 800,000 years old. In another cave at the same site, findings dating back to the Early Stone Age and estimated at being some 12,300 years old, include the remains of Cro-Magnon-like humans, the bones of hunted animals and a large fireplace. At that time during the Ice Age, the prehistoric inhabitants of Istria lived in Romualdo Cave near the Lim Fjord and in Vergotino Cave near Poreč.
Climate change in Istria around 6,000 BCE brought about the Neolithic era, the Early Stone Age. The Ice Age ended, climate change made living conditions easier, and plants and animals began to flourish. Neolithic humans emerged from caves and learned to make better stone tools, which they fastened to wooden handles. They discovered clay and learned to make pottery. Istrian earthenware products from that period have a simple, oval shape, decorated with the imprints of seashells and other items. In addition to crop farming and animal husbandry, weaving was developed. The ancient Istrians gave up their nomadic way of life and began to create the first settlements consisting of huts partially buried in the ground. Settlements such as these were located in the south of Istria, in the regions of Verudela, Vela Gromača, Vižula, Paradišele and other areas.
During the transition from the Copper Age to the Bronze Age, throughout the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE, many hill-forts or kašteljeri were built. These were prehistoric settlements with fortifications erected in strategically advantageous positions. The origin of the people inhabiting the hill-forts in the Bronze Age is not known, while Histrians lived in the hill-forts during the Iron Age.
The Histrians were the first known inhabitants of the Istrian peninsula, and they are mentioned in historical writings of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The peninsula carries the name of these ancient people of Indo-European origin who emerged at the beginning of the Iron Age. In addition to hunting and fishing, and raising goats and sheep, they also engaged in pirating, and historians refer to them as a dangerous people. The Histrians traded with the Greeks, believed in multiple deities and worshipped goddesses. Contemporaries considered them as being a tall people, the average man reaching 1.65 metres and the average woman, 1.53 metres.
The Histrians lived undisturbed lives, until they came into conflict with the Romans because of their pirating in the northern Adriatic. The historian Titus Livius wrote in detail of the defeat of the Histrians at the hands of the Romans in wars during the late 3rd and early 2nd century BCE. King Epulon led the Histrian tribes into battle. The final confrontation took place at the Histrian stronghold Nesactium near Pula. The Romans laid siege, and Epulon and his soldiers, realising they had no way out, committed suicide. Despite being defeated, the Histrians continued to live for some time in their hill-forts throughout Istria.
Istria in the Roman era
In the mid-1st century BCE, during the rule of Gaius Julius Cesar, the Romans pushed the Histrians into the interior of Istrian away from the coast, where they settled their own people and established the colonies of Pula and Poreč.
The Roman era in Istria saw the development of civilisation and a structured way of life. Literacy began to spread, towns emerged as a new form of society, roads and seaports were constructed, and a system for cadastral mapping of land was put in place. Civil engineering flourished, and a vast number of cultural and historical Roman monuments from that time have been preserved up to date, the best known being the Arena and the Temple of Augustus in Pula. Cesar’s successor, Emperor Augustus initiated a time of peace and prosperity, and the inhabitants of Istria were given the same rights as the citizens of Rome. In the centuries to come, many countryside villas were engaged in producing ceramic ware. Istria’s olive oils and wines were appreciated throughout the empire. The first Christian communities began to emerge in the Roman era.
The Western Roman Empire was already in the throes of a pervasive crisis. Barbarian invasions and internal problems brought about the fall of the Empire in 476, after which the reign of Germanic kingdoms and the Byzantine Empire alternated in Istria over a brief period. The rule of the Goths in the first half of the 6th century was seen as being unusually lenient, while sacred architecture thrived under Byzantium. The most impressive monument dating from this era is the Euphrasius Basilica in Poreč.
Even several centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the social relationships established in the Roman era remained mostly unchanged. However, the ethnical structure of the population began to change with the mass immigration of Slavs and the arrival of Germanic settlers. From the mid-6th century onwards, the Slavs began to mix with the local population, gradually embracing Christianity. Even after their Christianisation, the Slavs continued to observe certain pagan customs, some of which, such as bell-ringers (zvončari) and carnivals, have endured to this day.
In the late 8th century, when Charlemagne dominated the European scene, Istria became a part of the Frankish State. Only with the arrival of Frankish administration did the Roman-Byzantine social structure of Istria begin to change. Feudalisation, which had taken hold over all of Europe, reached Istria. Towns became the property of lords, their rule over the hinterland was taken away, and they lost the independence they had gained in earlier centuries. The immigration of Slavs continued in earnest, with Duke Ivan, the Frankish governor of Istria seated in Novigrad, coordinating the colonisation. He gave them uncultivated land and initially provided monetary aid. The duke also introduced new taxes and took over certain forests and pastures. While the power of bishops and Frankish vassals grew, the standing of the Roman elite in Istrian towns weakened.
The discontented towns appealed to Charlemagne, who convened an assembly in 804 at the Rižana River by Kopar. The assembly granted the towns self-government, but not ownership over the land, and Duke Ivan revoked the taxes he had initially imposed. The conclusions of the Assembly of Rižana reveal vital information about the social relationships and ethnical structure of Istria in the early 9th century, as well as the system of Frankish administration, and as a historical source, they are important on a European scale.
From the 10th century on, Istria was part of the Holy Roman Empire, whose central government, however, was very weak. Margraves left the task of administration to their governors, while the power of the nobility and prelates, who used military force to protect their feuds in Istria, grew. Some even set up their own private principalities and manorial estates. Taking advantage of this feudal anarchy, some Istrian towns gradually began to break loose of the rule of bishops and feudal lords and started to rebuild their self-government.
The time of the Venetian Republic and the Hapsburg Empire
By this time, the burgeoning Venetian Republic had become a naval power in the Adriatic Sea, and increasingly interfered with the state of affairs in Istrian towns. The first treaties were signed in which the Venetians granted the towns protection and the freedom of trade in Venetian territory, while the towns were obliged to provide the Venetians with military aid. This collaboration fostered the economic development of coastal towns in the 10th century: agriculture, fishing and salt production flourished; crafts and trades saw rapid development; and some of the elements of autonomy the towns had enjoyed in Antiquity were restored.
By the mid-14th century, the Venetian Republic had succeeded, either by peaceful or military means, in subjugating all towns on the western coast of Istria. Although the towns kept their internal autonomy and town council, they were ruled by a Venetian podest (governor). Heavy taxes and levies were imposed, and military strongholds were set up to protect Venetian holdings in Istria.
Once again, history took a different course in the interior of Istria. The inland became part of the Hapsburg Empire, confirming its centuries-long affiliation to the Austrian civilizational circle. Similar to the Venetian part of Istria, the Austrian part had no central government in the late middle ages, but consisted of manors and church estates. Heavy taxes and levies imposed by feudal lords triggered a number of peasant uprisings.
Throughout the 14th to the 18th century, Istria was constantly threatened by outbreaks of the plague and malaria. Some towns were almost completely depopulated, and people from present-day Dalmatia, Albania and Greece continuously arrived to settle in the region.
During the 16th and 17th century, the people of Istria fought among themselves along the border separating the Venetian and Austrian parts of the peninsula. Although they traded and inter-married, Istrians were deeply divided into Benečani, under Venetian rule, and Kraljevci, under Austrian rule. They waged bloody battles over pastures, woodlands, farmland and boundaries, destroying crops, stealing livestock and killing witnesses. Both the Austrian and the Venetian administrations did little to stop hostilities. When we add widespread occurrences of contagious diseases, draught and natural disasters, it becomes clear that this was one of the most difficult times in Istrian history. Robbery and plunder were widespread. Rich families, churches and travellers were robbed; livestock, stolen, and people, kidnapped and held for ransom.
In the late 18th century, the power of the Venetian Republic was failing. Major naval routes had shifted from the Adriatic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, and new naval powers such as Spain and Portugal were gaining control over world trade. These global processes affected Istria’s economy. This was also a turbulent time for Istria in the administrative and political arena, considering that four different countries ruled the region in the short span of 16 years.
With the fall of the Venetian Republic in April 1797, the Hapsburg Monarchy took over the Venetian part of Istria, and for the first time in many centuries, the entire peninsula was under a single ruler.
Not long after, however, Napoleon conquered Istria. His short reign from 1805 to 1813 is remembered for enforcing the Napoleonic Code that, among other things, separated judicial rule from administrative rule. The new masters were quick to exploit Istria’s natural resources, in particular oak logs, from the regions of Novigrad and Brtonigla, used in shipbuilding. At the time, the English sailed the Adriatic and, being the eternal rivals of the French, they attempted to entice the local population to rebel against Napoleon’s rule. At the same time, the actions of the English obstructed the trading and maritime activities of Istrian towns. On several occasions, they laid siege to and sacked Rovinj, while English pirates attacked merchant ships, stealing both cargo and vessels. Although Napoleon’s governor failed to establish a compact system of government in Istria, a part of the townsfolk nevertheless saw the introduction of the Civil Code as a big step forward.
Following Napoleon’s defeat, the Austrian Empire once again acquired Istria, and began to build a unified system of public administration in the region. New crops were introduced, such as potatoes and corn. Istria saw rapid growth in demographics: in 1848, it had more than 230,000 inhabitants living in 24 towns and 479 villages. A provincial assembly convening in Poreč was established for Istria in the second half of the 18th century, a time that witnessed a resurgence of Croatian national awareness.
In the First World War, Istrians were called to arms as soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. With the end of the war and the collapse of the Monarchy, the Kingdom of Italy occupied Istria. During the Second World War, Istrians organised a resistance movement against the fascism of Benito Mussolini. In the aftermath of the war, Istria began part of Yugoslavia until the country’s collapse in the early 1990s, when the Istrian peninsula was divided between Croatia and Slovenia.