Traces of human life on the Istrian peninsula take us all the way back into ancient history. The ancient inhabitants of Istria lived in caves, and their traces have so far been discovered mainly in the Karst. The latest period has witnessed the discovery of the remains of the cave man in the pebbles of the Šandalj Cave in the vicinity of Pula (the upper left incisor tooth was found). For this reason, according to historians, this is the indisputable proof that the Istrian peninsula was the precise location where the Homo Erectus started building the foundations of the future civilization on the Old Continent, later called Europe.
THE HISTRI AND THE LIBURNI – In the Iron Age (I millennium B.C.) Istria was mostly inhabited by Illyrian tribes. In the areas of western and central Istria, all the way to the slopes of Učka, lived the Histri after whom Istria was named. The tribe familiar to the Histri—the Liburni—lived east of the Raša River stretching along today's Croatian coast to the Krka River in Dalmatia. This part of Istria was called Liburnia, which is today's name of the territory from Plomin to Rječina. West bordering parts of Istria were the home of the Iapodi, the tribe of Illyrian and Celtic origin.
Istrian Illyrian tribes had contacts with the Greek civilization, which is proved by the myth of the Argonauts and the legend of the foundation of Pula.
Numerous remnants of material culture date from the Illyrian period, and they can be found all around Istria. The most famous ones are the Illyrian hill-fort settlements, or hill-forts, built with the dry-wall technique and big stone blocks. Today's toponyms – gradina, gradinje, gradište, gračišće, kaštelir (after the Italian term castelliere), are proofs of these remnants.
THE CELTS - Around 400 B.C., the Celts were moving from the west to the east. One part of them colonized the northern part of Italy, and the other inhabited Pannonia. They also invaded Istria, where they conquered one part of the Illyrian population, especially the ones living in mountainous regions. However, in time they completely assimilated with the Histri.
ROMAN PERIOD – Spreading their rule eastwards, the Romans, following the occupation of the Cysalpine Galia and the lands of Veneto bordering Istria, built the fort of Aquileia (Oglej) in 181 B.C. thus creating a base not only for the defence of their eastern borders, but also for further invasions eastwards.
Realizing the danger for their land, the Histri attempted to disrupt the construction of Aquileia, in which they failed. The fact that they had accurately, both politically and militarily, evaluated the significance of Aquileia as the enemy stronghold, was evident later, when the rulers of Aquileia (the Aquileian Patriarchs) ruled a part of Istria for several centuries (until the 16th century). At the time of the construction of Aquileia, there were already towns in Istria, which proves a higher level of social organization. Many of these towns still exist and they have the same names, though modified according to linguistic rules of the subsequent inhabitants, first Romans, and then Slavs. Today's Plomin is the old Istrian Plomona (Lat. Flanona, Ital. Fianona), Labin is Albona, Pola - Pula, Tergeste - Trieste, Tarsatica - Trsat, the Histri's capital Nesactium is Vizače etc.
The war against the Histri (178 – 177 B.C.) was waged in two phases. After the initial failure in 178, Rome made more detailed preparations. In the spring of 177 B.C., the Roman army started conquering one by one Istrian fort. The decisive battle took place near the fortified hill-fort settlement of Nesactium, where the last Illyrian king Epulon and lots of his people fled the Romans. The historian Livy recorded that the defence became weaker only when the Romans cut the water supply. The Romans then conquered Nesactium, dishevelled it completely, while Epulon and his army leaders committed a suicide. Since that period, Istria witnessed the period of Roman rule. The Romans colonized Istria very successfully. Despite the still strong opposition of the Histri and the uprising in 129 B.C., the Roman conquerors completely defeated the Illyrian autochthonous inhabitants. They continued their conquers eastwards. In 50 B.C., they conquered the Liburni, which marked the beginning of the Roman rule in the whole today's Istria. A considerable number of inhabitants were expatriated, while about 15.000 Latins from Italy settled in Istria.
The first Roman Emperor Octavian Augustus, moved the border of the Roman Empire from the Rižana to the Raša River at the turn of the century. In such a way, he annexed a large part of the Istrian peninsula to the northern Italic region Venice called “Venetia et Histria”. The territory made up the Italic region. Eastern Istria, or Liburnia, remained a part of the Roman province of Dalmatia.
After the first colonization and Romanisation, when the old autochthonous population fled from the eastern and the western coast hiding in the hilly part of Istria covered with woods, marked the period of migrations in the opposite direction-from the interior to the coast. By that time, the predominantly Romanised population returns to the southern and western parts of the peninsula, where the land is more fertile and where the towns developed.
Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, Istria was initially ruled by the Goths (476 – 539), and then by Byzantium. The Byzantine rule will last in Istria until 788.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE SLAVS – In the 6th and the 7th century, the Slavs penetrated the Istrian peninsula. Pope Gregory I wrote to the Salona's bishop Maximus in 600 that the Slavs were advancing into Italy through Istria. A large-scale colonization of the Slavs occurred after 788, when the Frank State ruled Istria bringing a large part of Slavs as their serfs. The fact that Istria, from the Raša River to mountain Učka in the east, belonged to the Frank State, encouraged the inflow of Slav inhabitants into continental part of Istria. This period also marked a complete Croatisation of the Kvarner coast all the way to Učka and further up to Labin. The name of the old Croatian fortified settlement Gočan near Barban originates from the period of intense Slavic colonization.
FRANK RULE – Considering the numerous confrontations between the incomers- serfs – and the disinherited Roman autochthonous inhabitants, the Frank Emperor Charles the Great convoked the Assembly at the Rižana River in 804. Towns received the right of self-government through the Settlement, but without the return of the usurped land. Slav colonization continued, so that as early as the 11th century the immediate hinterlands of the towns were Slavic by the name of the inhabitants, which is also testified by the official names of the roads passing through these towns (via sclavonica).
The descendants of the Roman and the Romanised peasants remained in some villages of southern and western Istria as well – in Rovinj, Vodnjan, Bale, Galižan and Fažana, while all other agricultural surfaces were settled by the Slavs, or else the Slavs were so predominant that they Slavenised the old Roman or Romanised inhabitants.
According to the testimony of the Byzantine Emperor Constantin Porfirogenet, the Croatian state of the 10th century stretched up to the Raša River. The Croats in Istria organized a wide municipal community with County Presidents as their leaders.
VARIOUS RULERS – As a margraviate under the administration of Frank vassals, at first Istria composed the Aquileian mark with Furlania, subordinated to the Bavarian dukedom. A series of changes of feudal rulers followed, in which Istria was seceded from Bavaria and annexed to the dukedom of Koruška. In the mid-11th century, Istria became a separate margraviate, given in hereditary feud to various families of noblemen by German emperors.
In the 12th century, the Poreč bishops gave the Pazin County, as a separate unit, to the county from Gorica as a fief. In 1209, the Aquileian Patriarch received the Istrian margraviate as a feud of the Aquileian church from the German emperors. Istria kept this status until 1420. The Pazin County remained a separate territory.
In the period of relative peace, Istrian coastal towns increasingly kept becoming free from the rule of the Aquileian Patriarch, developing trade and generally getting more independent, although they formally recognized the rule of the Patriarch. In the 12th century, they were becoming richer through craftsmanship and maritime trade thus increasingly liberating themselves from feudal rule, which led up to the formation of town communes. Istrian towns got especially rich at the time of the Crusades.
The strengthening of Istrian towns led to frequent conflicts with Venice. Kopar, Izola, and Pula rose against Venice in 1145. Defeated, they had to take the loyalty oath to the doge. Four years later, Pula again rebelled against Venice. However, together with its allies – Rovinj, Poreč, and Umag – it was forced into signing peace and again swearing loyalty to Venice. In the new war of 1195, Pula had to tear down all town walls. In the Peace Treaty after the war of 1243, Pula took the obligation of accepting a Venetian as its head, and promised not to renovate its walls without the permission of Venice.
When the Patriarch’s rule weakened in the 13th century, the towns, considering the Venetians a lesser evil, kept surrendering to Venice - Poreč in 1267, Umag in 1269, Novigrad in 1270, Sveti Lovreč in 1271, Motovun in 1278, Kopar in 1279, Piran and Rovinj in 1283. Most frequently acting as an ally and the protector of coastal towns, but also fighting against some of them, Venice gradually dominated the whole coastal area of western Istria and the area to Plomin on the eastern part of the peninsula.
PERIOD UNDER VENICE AND THE HABSBURGS – In the mid 15th century, following the abolition of the rule of the Aquileian Patriarch, Istria, except the Pazin County and the Kvarner coast, fell under the Venetian rule. In the meantime the Pazin County at the end of the 14th century belonged to the Habsburgs, who also dominated the eastern coast of Istria. In this way, Istria was divided between Austro-German and Venetian-Roman administrative political rule.
Kopar was the administrative centre of the Venetian Istria. Since a unique rule had not been established, Venice nominated a special captain with the military power over the rural part of Istria (paisenatico), based in Sveti Lovreč Pazenatički. The Venetian military commander of the area bordering with the Austrian property had its centre since 1394 in the military base Rašpor, and since 1511, when Venice lost Rašpor, in Buzet.
Pazin remained the centre of the Habsburgs’ possessions in Istria. Since the Habsburg rule did not have a too strong influence, the situation for the Croatian inhabitants living in the area was somewhat more favourable. The Pazin County was the area that witnessed numerous examples of Croatian literature under a strong Glagolitic influence. The Glagolitic presence is witnessed by the Glagolitic inscription in Plomin, the fragment from Supetar, the Grdoselski fragment, the graffiti from Hum and the Glagolitic alphabetic name register from Roč. The “Istrian Razvod” holds a special place in the cultural history of Istria. It is a well-known medieval public and legal document that precisely explains the demarcation of Istrian rural municipalities and feudal rulers. The Razvod was created through a longer period (from 1275 to 1395). It is written in Croatian, German, and Latin.
TURKISH INVASIONS – Turkish invasions in the Balkans caused large migrations of the population which, fleeing the invaded and conquered areas, sought protection in Austrian and Venetian lands. The Turks invaded Istria nine times between 1470 and 1499. The invasions especially decimated the unprotected part of Istria, outside the town walls, especially areas on Ćićarija, Roč, Hum, Draguć… The last Turkish invasion occurred in Istria in 1511, when the Pazin County was significantly destroyed.
Along with Turkish invasions, the second pestilence destroying Istria was the plague, which raged from the 13th to the 17th century – in the 14th century for 12 times, in the 15th century 14 time, and in the 16th century 16 times. Large-scale epidemics of plague almost decimated the population of Istria, so that the entire areas became desolate.
Turkish invasions, the war between Venice and Austria from 1508 to 1523, and the Fugitives’ War from 1615 to 1618 brought more devastation to Istria. Almost the entire Istria suffered. Towards the end of the period, in 1649, Venice made the census according to which Istria had 51,692 inhabitants, out of which the Venetian part numbered 49,332, and the Pazin County 2,360 inhabitants.
Venice and the Pazin County were trying to attract new inhabitants to the desolate areas. With the settlers from the surroundings of Padua, Treviso, Furlania, and Karnia, it was trying to settle the depopulated Pula area.
However, the most numerous was the settlement of population which, fleeing from the Turks, sought shelter in the Venetian territory in Dalmatia and then moved to Istria from there. The new inhabitants were Montenegrins, Arbanases, and Romanians. In time, the Arbanases Croatised, while the Montenegrins preserved their faith only in Peroj. The Romanians kept their mother tongue only in Sušnjevica and in Žejane.
The Pazin County also had a similar need for newcomers, so that Emperor Ferdinand I in 1532 ordered his special commissioners to settle the wasteland with Bosnian refugees and fugitives.
After the Turkish defeat under Vienna in 1683, the migrations before the Turks came to an end, so that this event marked the end of the colonization of Istria.
ILLYRIAN PROVINCES – Following Napoleon’s occupation of Italy and the Peace of Campoformio in 1797, the French gave Austria Venice and the Venetian part of Istria and Dalmatia to Austria in exchange for the Netherlands and Lombardia. However, in the first few years Austria did not completely annex the Venetian part of Istria. Rather, it founded a special administration in Kopar called “Istria Austro-Veneta”. In the new war between France and Austria, Napoleon occupied the former Venetian Istria and annexed it as a special district, together with Venice, Kvarner Islands, and Dalmatia, to the Kingdom of Italy. At the Peace of Vienna in 1809, the entire Istrian territory was annexed to Napoleon’s Illyric Provinces. After Napoleon’s defeat in the “Battle of Nations” near Leipzig in 1813, Austria occupied Istria thus forming a unique province with Trieste as its capital. Since 1825, Istria was still a territorial unit but with Pazin as the capital.
ISTRA UNDER THE AUSTRIAN RULE – Upon their arrival in Istria, the Austrians abolished the French legislation. Following large constitutional reforms of the Austrian Empire in 1860 and 1861, Istria, under the title of margraviate, became an Austrian province with a certain decentralization of administration and with the provincial parliament in Poreč. Since 1867, the governor of the Istrian area was based in Trieste.
In 1856, Austria built its main naval arsenal in Pula, and since 1866, Pula became the capital port of the Austrian Empire Navy. It contributed to Pula’s sudden urban development. During only half a century, the population of Pula increased as much as thirty-fold.
The second half of the 19th century, as well as the period of the 1st World War, was marked by the fight for the national and the political rights of the Croatian and the Slovenian population in relation to the Italian population. Such course of events suited the Austrian administration because it helped blur the true picture of German domination. Croatian population was predominantly rural and, except for a part of the clergy of Croatian nationality, it was poorly educated. The Istrian population was mainly Italian. The relations in the Istrian Parliament suited the Italians thanks to the election law.
Bishop Juraj Dobrila was the leader of the battle for Croatian rights in Istria. His concept was the activation of the people in the field of the national self-defence, the preservation of tradition, the improvement of economic and political situation, the acceptance of new civilization and cultural achievements, and finding the way to take the people out of misery.
In one of his first demands to the Istrian Parliament in Poreč, he asked that the Croatian should become the official language along with the Italian language.
WORLD WAR I – The outbreak of World War I (1914) led up to the interruption of national fights. At the same time, Italian appetite for the eastern part of the Adriatic coast became very obvious. In its attempts to obtain as many as possible favours, the Kingdom of Italy launched secret negotiations with the Entente and the Central Powers, which lasted for almost a year. Eventually, a secret agreement was made in London in April 1915, according to which Italy was promised South Tyrol, Istria with Trieste and Gorizia, and a part of Dalmatia for its participation in the war on the side of the Allies.
Following the Rapallo Agreement of 1920, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia ceded Istria to Italy.
THE PERIOD OF FASCISM – Due to the fact that fascism soon came to power in Italy, the Italians launched a systematic eradication of Croatian and Slovenian public and national life soon after their arrival in Istria. They abolished all Croatian schools, cultural institutions and associations, Croatian names were Italianised. They even banned the use of Croatian in the family. For all these reasons, Croatian population emigrated to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on a large scale. Before the World War II, about 70,000 Croats and Slovenes who emigrated from regions under the Italian rule lived in Yugoslavia. The beginning of the organized revolutionary activities in Istria in 1941 was connected with the return of some emigrants to their native territories.
WORLD WAR II – The capitulation of Italy in World War II on 8 September 1943 caused a general national uprising in Istria. The fascist authorities were expelled, partisan squads were formed, the formations of the Italian army and police were disarmed, and the entire Istria was liberated with the exception of Pula, Vodnjan, Fažana, and Brijuni.
The National Liberation Committee (NOO) of Istria made the resolution on the liberation of Istria and its annexation to Croatia on 13 September 1943. Seven days after, on 20 September 1943, the Land Anti-Fascist Council of the National Liberation of Croatia (ZAVNOH) confirmed these resolutions. At the Istrian Parliament, the representatives of Istria confirmed the resolution of 13 September 1943 in Pazin on 25 September 1943, and they made the final decision on the total secession from Italy and the annexation to Croatia in the new Yugoslavia.
The German October offensive in 1943 temporarily suffocated the anti-fascist movement in the Istrian area. However, it was soon revitalised and reorganized. At the beginning of May 1945, as part of final operations of liberation of the entire South Slav area, Istria was liberated as well. On 9 May 1945, there were no more enemy units in the areas of Istria and the Slovenian coast.
Istria made a large contribution to the victory of the anti-fascist forces. In the war period from autumn of 1943 to May 1945, there were 28,754 active Istrian fighters. About 5,000 perished on various battlefields, and there were 5,802 civilian victims. At the same time, 21,509 persons were taken to concentration camps, additional 14,867 civilians were imprisoned. 5,567 residential and public facilities were burnt down and destroyed.
Immediately after the Yugoslav Army entered the towns, the National Liberation Committees took over the rule, which was prepared in the last months of the war. This tumultuous period characterized by large-scale turmoil, was marked by the unnecessary and the extremely sad exodus of one part of the autochthonous Istrian population, which caused new changes in the demographic picture of Istria. It was a time of immigration for both the Italian and the Croatian population, followed by the arrests of prominent individuals.
THE PERIOD AFTER WORLD WAR II- According to the Belgrade Agreement of 9 May 1945, the territory of liberated territories was divided in two zones- zone A and zone B. Zone “A” was under the Anglo-American administration, while Zone “B” was under the Yugoslav military administration. The demarcation line went from the Italian-Austrian border towards Tarvisio, wherefrom it followed the Soča River, turning east towards Gorizia, and reaching the sea south of Muggia after a wide detour of Trieste. Pula and a narrow circular band belonged to zone “A”. All the remaining territory made up zone “B”, so that the town of Pula was a small and closed enclave connected only with the Pula-Trieste road with the other part of zone “A”. Such division was definitively confirmed by the Duino Agreement signed on 20 June 1945.
According to the Paris Peace Treaty of February 1947 taking effect in September, Pula belonged to Yugoslavia as a part of zone “A”, and another absurd compromise was negotiated regarding the disputed territory north of the Mirna River to Milje and the former zone “A” called “The Free Territory of Trieste” (STT), so that zone “A” was intact, and the zone north of the Mirna (the Buje and Kopar areas) made up zone “B” of the STT. The territory never lived up the way the western powers had imagined, so that the border agreement signed by Italy and Yugoslavia on 5 October 1964 in London defined that the border between zone “A” and zone “B” and the remaining Slovenian territory should become a temporary state border between Italy and Yugoslavia.
The final border between the two states was defined in the agreement in the Italian town of Osimo on 10 October 1975.
In Yugoslavia, the largest part of the Istrian peninsula was divided between the republics of Croatia and Slovenia based on the principle of ethnic population. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the international recognition of independent states of Croatia and Slovenia, its republic borders became state borders.
THE REPUBLIC OF CROATIA – At the beginning of 1990s, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, Istria became one of the twenty Croatian Counties in the independent and free Croatian state.
The Istrian Region is a very important region in the independent and free Republic of Croatia. The significance of the extreme west Croatian Region, at the crossroads of three civilizations, is not based only on its extraordinary agricultural, industrial, and especially tourist potentials and a huge richness in monuments and art. This area populated by mixed inhabitants, traditions, and cultures represents a part of European civilization. For this reason, the Istrian Region belongs to the large European family, which was confirmed in 1994 and its acceptance in the Assembly of European Regions. Countries with developed democracy benevolently look upon Istrian regionalism as an authentic phenomenon in this part of Europe.