Site icon Odyssey Traveller

Discovering Croatia’s History

Discovering Croatia's History

Discovering Croatia’s History: From the State of Illyria to Croatia as an Independent State

Croatia’s long history and natural beauty lure tourists from all over the world.

Croatia has a very long history. Human presence in the country dating back to the middle-Paleolithic (50,000 BC) has been recorded in the 19th century with the discovery of “Krapina Man”.

Around 1200 BC, Indo-European tribes, collectively called the Illyrians after the name of the Balkan region where they settled, traded amber with other Mediterranean people and traders in Europe. This was followed by centuries of struggle with foreign powers, the nation of Croatia rising and falling with the empires that held it within their grasp.

This article traces Croatia’s history from its beginnings in the Illyrian settlements in 1200 BC, through the years of invasion and conflict, to finally its full independence in the 20th century.

Croatia as an ‘Ancient Nation, Young Nation State’

Croatia is a small country located in the northwestern part of the Balkan Pensinsula. It has a long coastal strip along the Adriatic Sea. On land it is bordered by Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (with which it shares the longest border), and Montenegro.

The present republic is composed of:

  • Croatia-Slavonia (located in the upper arm of the country);
  • Istria (on the Istrian Peninsula on the northern Adriatic coast); and
  • Dalmatia (the coastal strip)

Those who have yet to visit this country have most probably already seen its beauty onscreen. Several Croatian locations were used in the wildly popular HBO series, Game of Thrones, with the city of Dubrovnik becoming King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms in the Game of Thrones universe.

In his introduction to his book Croatia: Travels in Undiscovered Country (2003), Croatian Canadian scholar Dr. Tony Fabijancic writes:

Croatia (Hrvatska) is an ancient nation, yet a very young nation state. Once a formidable kingdom under Tomislav in the tenth century, a naval power in the sixteenth and seventeenth, and an awakening national entity in the nineteenth, it had to endure a thousand years of foreign meddling, subjugation, incursions, and outright wars before being recognized in 1992 as a distinct entity.

The Illyrians, Celts, and Greeks

In the 4th century BC, the Scordisci tribe of the Celts sailed down the River Danube from Gaul (a region in Western Europe including present-day France), and the Greeks established isolated colonies in the Dalmatian region, including Issa (Vis), Pharos (Stari Grad, on the island of Hvar), and Trogir. The Celts eventually settled in northern Croatia and mixed with the Illyrians, and conquered some of the Greek colonies to fold them into the state of Illyria.

Fishermen’s harbour in Stari Grad, Island of Hvar, Dalmatia, Croatia
Old town of Trogir in Dalmatia, Croatia.

Clash with the Romans

Illyria had frequent clashes with the Romans, the first triggered by alleged Dalmatian attacks on Roman merchant ships. The Romans sent an ambassador to persuade the Illyrian queen Teuta to put a stop to the acts of piracy. Teuta responded by having the ambassador killed.

Roman revenge was swift, and it led to the fall of Illyria to Roman conquest in the 2nd century BC, forcing Illyrians to pay taxes. The Illyrians continued to push back against the invasion in the many years that followed, until their final defeat in 12 AD.


The Balkans became part of the Roman Empire as the province of Illyricum, composed of Dalmatia in the south, corresponding roughly to modern-day northern Albania; Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and coastal Croatia; and Pannonia in the north, corresponding to northern Serbia, northern Croatia, and the western region of Hungary. Illyricum’s capital was Salona (near modern-day Split in Croatia).

The inhabitants of the region became Roman citizens, with Illyria even producing several emperors, the most famous of which was Diocletian, born in Dalmatia and who ruled as emperor from 284 to 304, stabilising the Empire after the near-anarchy (involving a staggering 26 claimants to the imperial throne) of the 3rd century.

Emperor Diocletian. Photo source.

Roman Roads and Towns

The Romans built a huge network of roads in the region that linked the towns and followed the rivers Sava, Drava, and Danube. The roads made it easier for the Romans to move their legions and for the emperors to travel in the province.

The Romans built towns in the Balkans in the style of Roman towns, complete with forums, triumphal arches, thermal spas, aqueducts, and amphitheatres. The ruins of these monuments can still be seen in Croatia today, such as the aqueduct and Roman ruins of Salona, the remnants of Diocletian’s palace in Split (which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979), and the grand amphitheatre in Pula, which was built to host 25,000 spectators and mirrored the grandeur (albeit on a smaller scale) of the Colosseum in Rome.

The city of Split, Croatia at dawn, with an aerial view of Diocletian’s Palace
Roman Ruins near the town of Split, Croatia
The Roman amphitheatre in Pula, Croatia.

The Croats

After a period of relative peace under the Romans, the region suffered from a string of foreign invasions and a seemingly unending movement of power from one invader to another.

In 378, the Goths invaded Pannonia. This was only the first of a series of attacks on the Balkans by the ‘barbarian’ groups (Huns, Vandals, Visigoths, and Lombards) which greatly weakened the hold of the Romans in the region.

In 476, the German-born Roman soldier Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustus and brought about the end of the Western Roman Empire.

Odoacer invaded Dalmatia but lost it to the Ostrogoths led by Theodoric the Great. The Byzantine Empire fought the Ostrogoths in the Gothic Wars until the Byzantine emperor Justinian claimed Dalmatia in 535.

Emperor Justinian and Members of His Court. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Byzantines were conquered by the nomadic Avars, followed by other Slavic tribes who destroyed Salona in 614 and settled in the countryside and in the cities they sacked. Refugees from Salona moved into Diocletian’s palace to seek shelter after their city’s destruction.

The Byzantine emperor Heraclius reportedly enlisted the help of another Slavic tribe, the Croats, to push out the Avars. The Croats, the predecessors of Croatia’s current Slav population, settled in upper Pannonia and Dalmatia in the early 7th century. The Byzantine Empire eventually defeated the Slavs and retook their former territory, and the Croats were allowed to remain in the region.

Toward the end of the 8th century, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, conquered Dalmatia and began a campaign to convert the Croats to Christianity, moving the Croats’ loyalty closer to the Pope in Rome and away from the power of Constantinople.

After his death, Dalmatia remained under the Byzantines (Duchy of Croatia) while Pannonia remained under Frankish rule (Duchy of Pannonian Croatia).

Kingdom of Croatia

The Croats obtained autonomy from the Franks and formed their own state, which included a portion of Dalmatia. Tomislav, Duke of Croatia, was crowned king in 925 with the blessing of Pope John X, giving birth to the Kingdom of Croatia.

A statue of King Tomislav in Zagreb, Croatia

He was succeeded by Petar Kresimir IV, who united Croatia by conquering the rest of the Dalmatian islands. Petar’s successor Zvonimir married the sister of the Hungarian king Ladislaus, a matrimony that opened Croatia to Hungarian invasion.

Hungary, Venice, and the Ottoman Empire

In Hungary, Ladislaus was succeeded by Koloman, who claimed succession to the throne of Croatia. In 1102, an agreement was signed, uniting Hungary and Croatia under one dynasty. For the next four centuries, the Kingdom of Croatia was ruled by the Sabor (Croatian parliament) and a Ban (viceroy or governor) appointed by the king.

The islands of Istria in the Adriatic had a different fate. At the time they were under the rule of Aquileia, a Roman city in Italy. In the 13th century, some Istrian cities, which were already being used by Venice as ports for its merchant fleets, sided with the Republic of Venice for defence purposes against the Ottomans. Some cities peacefully agreed to be put under Venetian rule, but the city of Zadar fought back. Venice retaliated by employing crusaders on their way to the Holy Land to subdue the city.

It conquered Zadar, the rest of Istria, and eventually, even Dalmatia–with the exception of the independent city of Dubrovnik, then called the Republic of Ragusa, which gained independence in 1382 through a treaty with Hungary.

The old town of Dubrovnik is listed as a World Heritage Site. Travellers can visit its churches and monasteries, rebuilt after the devastation of an earthquake in 1667.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

The defence system built by Venice in Zadar and Šibenik (the fortress of St. Nicholas) is listed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage, hailed as an exceptional example of Venice’s technological and architectural prowess.

City gate to the walled city of Zadar in Croatia and a view of the harbour

Venice ruled Dalmatia until 1797, when Venice surrendered to Napoleon Bonaparte. The Republic of Ragusa came to an end as well in 1808 when Napoleon invaded the city.

The Ottoman Empire crossed into Europe with the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottomans invading many parts of the Croatian kingdom.

The Habsburgs

The Croatian Parliament, troubled by the advance of the Ottoman Empire, chose Ferdinand I of the House of Habsburgs to rule what was left of the Kingdom of Croatia to obtain his protection.

The Ottomans were driven out of the region in the 18th century. In 1868, Emperor Franz Joseph I incorporated Croatia into the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a member of an organisation (Young Bosnia) seeking an end to Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the imperial throne, and his wife, Duchess Sophie. This started a series of events that led to the First World War.

Before the end of the war in 1918, the Croatian Parliament severed ties with Austro-Hungary and joined the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, composed of the Southern Slavic territories formerly ruled by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. These were the former kingdoms of:

  • Serbia and Montenegro;
  • Macedonia (then controlled by Serbia);
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina;
  • the Austrian territory in Dalmatia and Slovenia;
  • the Hungarian land north of the Danube River;
  • and Croatia

A treaty signed between the Kingdom of Italy and the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in 1920 allotted Istria, Zadar, and other islands to Italy.

The war ended with the defeat of the Central Powers, and the House of Habsburg was dismantled.


The new multinational state faced difficulty in deciding what structure of government to use. The Serbs wanted a unitary form of government to unite its territories, but the Croats favoured a federal form in order to respect the diversity of its ethnic tribes.

The Serbian system won, and in 1921 a constitution was drafted, with power concentrated in the Serbian Karadjordjević dynasty headed by the Serbian king Peter I.

Revolts broke out among the discontented Croats. In 1929, Alexander I, who succeeded his father Peter, abolished the constitution, declared a dictatorship, and renamed the state the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (“Land of the South Slavs”).

Alexander was assassinated by a member of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation during his visit to France in 1934. As his son was still under-aged, Alexander’s cousin Paul ruled as Prince regent.

Paul stayed on the throne until 1941, when Yugoslavia was invaded and partitioned by the German-led Axis Powers. The royal family fled to London and established a government-in-exile.

Yugoslavia under Tito

Communist revolutionary leader Josip Broz Tito and the resistance movement called the Partisans liberated Yugoslavia from the Nazis at the end of the war in 1945, reuniting Yugoslavia with the territories given to Italy in World War I.

Tito followed the Soviet model and purged his government of non-communists, put opposition figures on trial, and removed the monarchy. The Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was proclaimed under a new constitution in November 1945. The new federal republic was composed of Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia.

Yugoslavia received aid and military assistance from the West, and saw changes in the Soviet Union following Stalin’s death in 1953 and the nearing end of the Cold War. Tito decided not to align himself with either blocs in order to maintain independence and to avoid being roped into a conflict between the major powers. He found like-minded statesmen in Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Jawaharlal Nehru of India. They, along with more than 20 nations, formed the nonaligned movement, which held its first official meeting in Belgrade under Tito’s sponsorship in 1961.

Tito’s communist government nationalised public utilities and large enterprises, and transformed the agricultural region into an industrialised one.

The state achieved remarkable growth in the 1960s, but development slowed until the federation crumbled under the discontent of the Croats and Slovenes, worsening after Tito’s death in 1980.

The Independent State of Croatia

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. That same year, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia voted to secede from Yugoslavia. The secessionists won by a wide margin in a national referendum, but a Serb faction supported by the Yugoslav People’s Army rebelled and started a civil war, taking over a fifth of the Croatian territory.

The Croatian Army embarked on a massive resistance campaign called Operation Storm and liberated the Serbian-controlled areas in 1995, a moment of freedom for the country after being battered by centuries of war and conflict.

Following a period of post-war recovery, Croatia joined the World Trade Organisation in 2000 and became part of the European Union in 2013. In 2015, Croatia made history by voting its first female president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. At 46 years old, she is also the youngest person to assume the Croatian presidency.

Croatia as a Tourist Destination

Croatia’s long history and natural beauty lure tourists from all over the world, and today the country’s tourism industry directly contributes 10.9% of the Croatia’s GDP. In 2017, it welcomed 18.5 million tourist arrivals in 2017, up 13% on the year.

Odyssey Traveller organises regular small-group guided tours to Croatia. The Croatia tour joins the Balkans small group tour, should you wish to extend your European coastal holiday. Sign up now and learn more about Croatia’s history by following its breathtaking coast and visiting its cities.

Practical Information for Tourists

Visa Requirements: Travellers from the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand do not need a visa to enter Croatia. They may stay for up to 90 days. EU citizens can enter even without a passport; they just need to bring their identity card. All third-country nationals who are holders of valid Schengen documents, as well as national visas and residence permits of Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania, do not require an additional (Croatian) visa for Croatia. Click here for more information.

Time Zone: Croatia is one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) in winter, and two hours ahead in summer.

Weather: Along the coast, winters are mild and summers are hot and dry. Inland, summers are hot and winters are cold. On average the hottest months are July and August (around 23 degrees Celsius), and the coldest month is January (around 5 degrees Celsius).

Currency: Croatia has yet to adopt the euro. The Croatian currency is the kuna.

Medical Cost: Emergency medical services is free for countries that have signed the Health Care Convention with Croatia (which is the case with the EU including the UK, Ireland, and Italy).

Electricity: The voltage in Croatia is AC 230 V / 50 Hz.

Public Transportation: The bus is a popular form of transportation in Croatia. There are also train lines that run between large cities.

About Odyssey Traveller

Odyssey Traveller is committed to charitable activities that support the environment and cultural development of Australian and New Zealand communities. We specialise in educational small group tours for seniors, typically groups between six to 15 people. Odyssey has been offering this style of adventure and educational programs since 1983.

We are also pleased to announce that since 2012, Odyssey has been awarding $10,000 Equity & Merit Cash Scholarships each year. We award scholarships on the basis of academic performance and demonstrated financial need. We award at least one scholarship per year. We’re supported through our educational travel programs, and your participation helps Odyssey achieve its goals.

For more information on Odyssey Traveller and our educational small group tours, visit our website. Alternatively, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!