Dubrovnik: A History

Lauren Simmonds

Dubrovnik often finds itself on lists and the ”must see” list seems to be the most common. While it is a must see, there is much, much more to it than could ever meet the eye. A history so rich cannot be ignored and although Dubrovnik could easily rest on its aesthetic laurels, read on to find out why it shouldn’t.


The name Dubrovnik derives from the Croatian word ”dubrava” meaning oak grove. The Latin name for the city is Ragusa or Ragusium in its elder form, deriving from the word Lausa. Although the name ”Dubrovnik” was in use during the Middle Ages, it was adopted officially only in 1918, following the collapse of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire.

There are two versions of history when it comes to the founding of Dubrovnik, one takes place on an island named Laus in the 7th century and another involves the Greeks in the 8th. Here is a brief take on them both. 

History has since long claimed that Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th century on a rugged island named Laus, a place which is claimed to have readily provided shelter for those seeking refuge from the numerous problems in the nearby city of Epidaurum (modern day Cavtat). The Epidaurum refugees who fled allegedly rebuilt their lives on the small island of Lausa, while populations of other settlers built theirs along the coastline as the years went by, naming their settlement ”Dubrovnik”. Despite their suspicions of each other, the two settlements eventually united under the name of Dubrovnik and the channel which once acted as the division between them was filled in, giving birth to the now famous Stradun. A second theory came to light only in 2007, when new archeological excavations discovered a sizeable 8th century Byzantine basilica which pointed to a large settlement during its time, completely contradicting the first, otherwise widely accepted theory about the island of Laus. The scientific community supported the idea, claiming that construction on the site of Dubrovnik actually began before the Common Era (Anno Domini). The 2007 findings have since been boosted considerably owing to various finds in the Port of Dubrovnik, these include Greek artefacts. Drilling below the main city road has also revealed naturally occurring sand, furthering speculation around the idea of the island of Laus and the filling in of a channel.


The Republic of Ragusa

Dubrovnik has undergone a great many ”changes of hand” over the centuries, until eventually becoming a self-governing, autonomous state which flourished in peace and prosperity for some five consecutive centuries, let’s take a brief look at how it all began.

The Ostrogothic Kingdom (a Vassal state of the Byzantine Empire) collapsed in the year 553, causing the then Roman populated Dubrovnik to fall under the rule and protection of the wider Byzantine Empire. Following the seemingly endless Crusades, Dubrovnik came under the sovereignty of the then powerful commercial power of Venice in 1205 before the Treaty of Zadar gave it semi independence as a Vassal state of the Kingdom of Hungary very many years later in 1358. Dubrovnik was a self-governing free state from the 14th century until 1808 and was seen as a potential threat by Venice. Due to tensions, Dubrovnik became a close friend and ally of Ancona, another maritime republic and another rival of Venice. The unlikely alliance allowed both cities to successfully resist numerous attempts by the Venetians to turn the Adriatic into a Venetian Bay to secure greater control over all Adriatic ports. Owing to this, Ancona and Dubrovnik even managed to develop alternative trade routes.

The Republic of Ragusa, unlike its neighbouring states, managed to maintain a workable trade relationship with the Ottoman Empire through its skilled diplomacy and was ruled by local aristocracy with two city councils, maintaining a strict system of social classes. That being said, the Republic valued liberty and freedom above all and was a very early adopter of several progressive laws and public institutions. The very first pharmacy (which still operates to this very day) was opened in 1317, 16 years after the introduction of an official medical service. The first quarantine hospital was established in 1377 and a controversial law was passed to abolish the slave trade in 1418, an incredible 450 years before the founding of the USA. An orphanage for abandoned and illegitimate children was opened in 1432 and as the great European power of London bathed contently in its own sewage, Onofrio della Cava (a Neapolitan architect and engineer) constructed a 20 kilometre long water supply system, complete with an aqueduct, two public fountains and numerous mills, making Dubrovnik (Ragusa) one of the first places in Europe to elliminate many diseases associated with open sewage. Onofrio’s fountain can be seen today at the far end of Stradun close to the western entrance to the Old City near Pile gate.

The Republic’s economic wealth was due to both the land it developed and its impressive seafaring frade. Dubrovnik had an enormous fleet of merchant ships which travelled around the world. Unlike a great many other nations, the aim of the Republic was never to conquer land, but to trade under a white flag adorned proudly with the word Libertas (Latin: freedom). This flag was adopted following the abolition of the slave trade in 1418 and can be seen all over Dubrovnik to this day, it is the motto for the Dubrovnik Summer Festival and is even the name of the local city bus company.

The official spoken language in the Republic was Latin until 1472, with both Italian and Venetian language seen as important when it came to trade. Later, the Senate of the Republic ruled that the official language should be the Dubrovnik dialect of Romance Dalmatian, forbidding the use of common Croatian in any senetorial debate or governing body. Despite official prejudice against common Croatian, the Republic unwittingly became a cradle of celebrated Croatian literature and arts and the language slowly began to replace Romance Dalmatian from the 11th century onwards. Variations of the Dubrovnik dialect can still be heard and spoken in the area today.

The Ragusan Republic, like many autonomous areas of the sort, gradually went downhill. This was mainly due to the diastrous 1667 earthquake which wiped out 5,000 people and razed the majority of public buildings to the ground, but was also caused by problems related to the Mediterranean shipping crisis. Deterioration continued when the Republic was unexpectedly forced to sell some of its mainland territory to the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to avoid becoming collateral damage in the rising tension between them and the Venetians. In the modern day, this patch of land is known as Neum and belongs to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is significant in acting as their only direct access to the Adriatic sea. The end of the line came when the Republic was forced to surrender to the powerful Napoleonic army, seen as the only way to bring an end to a brutal month long siege at the hands of Russian and Montenegrin fleets. The charismatic Napoleon claimed to be a great admirer and friend to Dubrovnik, reassuring city officials that he had no interest in occupation and demanded only the free passage of his men. He soon backtracked, with French forces blockading the harbours and forcing the government into a tight corner, eventually leading to French troops entering the city. All city coats of arms and flags were painted black as a sign of the deep depression and grief felt by the once harmonious Republic of Ragusa. The French General Marshal Auguste de Marmont readily abolished the Republic, integrating the territory into Napoleons Kingdom of Italy, and later into the French governed Illyrian provinces. The famed Republic, built on a combination of freedom, liberty, peace and social progression, a tiny place which had so successfully balanced its sovereignty between the often strained and conflicting interests of Venice and the ominous Ottoman Empire was no more.


Austrian rule

In 1815, the Habsburg Empire annexed the area following the Congress of Vienna, establishing the Kingdom of Dalmatia with its governance based much further north in Zadar. Numerous modifications were gradually introduced with the intention of the centralisation of tax, educational, religious and trade policies. Much to the dismay of residents and to the loss of potential economic stimulation, this bureaucratic mission failed miserably. A combination of two forces (the failed Habsburg administrative system and a new national movement) came about after the area had overcome the damage caused by Napoleon and his gang, but they posed a significant problem: the Habsburg monarchy spoke German. The former governing body of Dubrovnik met for the final time at Ljetnikovac in Mokosica, discouraged by the situation, they attempted with all their will to rebuild the glorious Republic, but nothing came of it.


The Kingdom of Yugoslavia

Like all empires, Austria-Hungary collapsed in 1918 and Dubrovnik changed hands once again, this time it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which later became known as the Kindgom of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was divided in 1929 among 9 subdivisions (banovina) and Dubrovnik became a part of the Zea Banovina, which also included all of modern day Montenegro. It became part of the Banovina of Croatia ten years later in 1939.


World War Two and the Independent State of Croatia

During the tumultuous times of the second world war, Dubrovnik was part of the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska), under the leadership of Ante Pavelic (born 1889 in Bradina) and the Ustase movement. It was first occupied by Italian forces, followed by German forces in the later stages of 1943. Yugoslav Partisans occupied Dubrovnik in October 1944 and arrested more than 300 people, brutally executing 53 of them without trial, several of those murdered were prominent Dubrovnik public figures. The execution took place on a small, pine covered islet (Daksa) just off the Lapad peninsula, it later became known as the Daksa Massacre. Nobody was ever brought to justice for the mass killing. Communists and their sympathisers continued their witch hunts for several years after the war ended, concluding in 1947 with the imprisonment of more than 90 citizens of Dubrovnik. Becoming part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the city joined the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979.


The Breakup of Yugoslavia and the Siege of Dubrovnik

Croatia and neighbouring Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia (SFRJ) in 1991 following numerous attempts at political distance and finally a referendum, the Socialist Republic of Croatia became the Republic of Croatia. The Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), composed primarily of Serbian nationals, brutally attacked Dubrovnik, which had been demilitarised in the 1970’s to try to prevent it from ever becoming a war casualty. The JNA’s barbaric attack on the beloved UNESCO city of Dubrovnik was met with international condemnation and political outcry, resulting in the further economic isolation of the already estranged Serbia by the European community. Threats to Serbia from numerous powerful European politicians echoed around the globe, the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously stood defiantly with Croatia, claiming publicly that had it been up to her, she would have bombed Belgrade. The attack lasted seven long months, the heaviest attack took place on the 6th of December (now celebrated as the Day of the Defenders in Dubrovnik), killing 19 people and wounding 60. Artillery attacks on Dubrovnik damaged 56% of its buildings, and the Old City was the innocent victim of 650 shells. Neighbouring Montenegro grew ever hostile, led by president Momir Bulatovic and prime minister Milo Djukanovic who rose to power following the popular anti-bureaucratic revolution, the nation was allied to the fanatical Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. It was declared that Dubrovnik would not remain in Croatia, falsely claiming that it had never been a part of Croatia. The war ended with Croatian victory, with the siege lifted in May 1992 and the Croatian Army liberated Dubrovnik and its surroundings. The danger of sudden attacks from the internationally villified JNA remained a threat for a further three years.

Following the war, damage was repaired adhering to UNESCO guidelines between 1995 and 1999. ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) indictments were issues for the JNA Generals and officers involved in the disgraceful siege, with the architect of the attack, General Pavle Strugar sentenced for his role.


Modern day Dubrovnik is a beacon of history, culture and art. Much more than a ”must see” on a mundane list, it is an insult to its long and often arduous past to appreciate it it only with the eyes. 


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