History of Croatia – Early History up until the Ottomans

Medieval Croat tribes
Medieval Croat tribes

Many people think that Croatia is a relatively new nation but in reality, it has a fascinating history that goes back thousands of years. To understand Croatia and the Croatian people, it is very important to learn about this history. The following takes a look at the early years before Croatia came into being up until the arrival of the Croat tribes and their interaction with the peoples around them.

Pre and Ancient History

No one really knows exactly when the first humans roamed through Croatia, although evidence has been uncovered that a type of Neanderthal, the famous “Krapina Man,” was present in the area north of Zagreb around 30,000 years ago. However about 9000 years ago, ancient Neolithic farmers were occupying what is now the Dalmatian coast as well as the nearby islands in the Adriatic. Evidence of this has been uncovered in the modern-day city of Hvar, where 5000-year old painted pottery and ceramics have been found. Other evidence of prehistoric peoples has also been unearthed near the town of Vučedol, near modern Vukovar. Known as the Vučedol culture, this group of people are believed to have lived in the area from 3000 – 2000 BCE.

The famous Vučedol dove of Croatia's ancient Vučedol culture.
The famous Vučedol dove of Croatia’s ancient Vučedol culture.

By about 1000 BCE, the first real recorded civilization in what is now Croatia and other parts of the Balkan peninsula emerged with a group known as the Illyrians. This group consisted of many tribes with a common culture, some of which became powerful tribal states such as the Histri and the Liburnians.


During the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, neighboring Greek city-states, foremost Syracuse in modern Sicily, began colonizing areas of the Adriatic coast. One of these colonies was Issa, on present-day Vis. The native Illyrians were obviously perturbed at these foreign invaders encroaching on their territories and being fierce warriors, put up stiff resistance to the Greeks. The most famous of these warrior-rulers was actually a woman, a certain Queen Teuta, who controlled a stretch of land from what is now Zadar in the north to present-day Albania in the south.

Unable to make any real gains against the Illyrians, the Greeks in 229 BCE asked the nearby Romans for aid against Queen Teuta. The Romans accepted, though not out of any altruism or love for the Greeks. They were determined to forge their own empire in the Mediterranean and push further into ancient Illyria, completing their conquest of the region about 9 AD. What was once the Illyrian coast became the Roman province of Dalmatia while the northern and eastern areas were renamed Noricum and Pannonia, respectively. As the Greeks had done a few centuries earlier, the Romans began their own colonization of the region, forming the cities of Salona and Jadera. What remained of the Illyrians was assimilated into this new Roman state. Lying directly on the busy trade routes connecting Greece to the eastern portions of the Roman Empire, this region became extremely prosperous.

Illyrians against Romans
Illyrians against the Romans

Unfortunately as is the case with nearly all civilizations, the Roman Empire eventually went into decline and due to internal strife, corruption and also attacks by various barbarian tribes from the north. One of these tribes was the Ostrogoths, who seized Dalmatia from the Romans in 493. The region was technically reconquered for the Roman Empire by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 544 (Roman in name only; in reality the Byzantine Empire was really a separate political entity.).

The arrival of the Croats

Arrival of the Croat tribes into the Balkans
Arrival of the Croat tribes into the Balkans

With the Avars encroaching on Byzantine possessions in the Balkans, the Emperor Heraclius decided to bolster his defenses in the region by inviting southern Slav peoples such as the Croats to settle there. Of course this could have merely been to save face. It is just as likely that the Croats were already on their way to occupying the lands surrounding Dalmatia and that their “invitation” was meant to weaken them against the Avar tribes who were marauding the area.

The origin of the name “Croat” is interesting. Many believe it to be of Iranian origin and that the Croats were once a Persian subject people or even of Persian origin themselves. Scholars deduce this by the their name, Hrvati, meaning Croat. As Marcus Tanner writes in his history of Croatia:

the word Horvat or Hrvat is not of Slavic origin – a source of frequent scholastic controversy. Some Croat scholars have opted for the Iranian theory, point to Greek accounts of the Horvatos, or Horoatos, a community of Iranians who lived at the mouth of the Don around 200 BC. Partisans of this theory refer also to a region of Iran that the ancient Persians called Harahvatis. 1

No one really knows for sure. However what is known is that by the time they arrived in the land that now bears their name, they were a distinct people with their own Slavic language and customs.

The Croats who moved into the region soon became vassals to the Byzantines, who intern made them overlords of the population still living in Dalmatia, including what remained of the Illyrians. As time went one, the Croat tribes began to assert their independence from their original Byzantine patrons and boosted their position in an increasingly Christianized world by converting to Christianity. Two Croat states emerged, one in the north that by the end of the eight century had become subject to the Franks and the other in the south who preserved a greater deal of independence, though mostly siding with the Byzantines when needed. These political arrangements and alliances proved beneficial for both Croat states since the Franks and Byzantines helped to keep Venetian and Arab raiders in check.

The first Croatian King, Tomislav
The first Croatian King, Tomislav

Eventually the Croats became powerful enough to declare independence under their leader, Branimir, who was recognized by Pope John VIII as an independent ruler. However, it was his son and successor, Tomislav (910–928) who really transformed the Croats from an insignificant state into a regional power. He expanded Croatian lands to the north after battling the Hungarians and took over parts of modern-day Bosnia from the Bulgarians. In 925, Tomislav declared himself King of the Croatians.

Croatia and the Balkans in 910, around the time of King Tomislav's rule.
Croatia and the Balkans in 910, around the time of King Tomislav’s rule.

The reigns of Tomislav and a his successors brought stability and prosperity to the Croatians for about 70 years until a succession crisis weakened the kingdom. This enabled the Venetians to take part of the Adriatic coast while the Hungarians conquered parts in the north. The Kingdom of Croatia become so weak that even the Byzantines, who were losing lands to the Turks in the east, were able to grab Croatian lands.

A reversal in fortune came under King Petar Krešimir IV (1058–75) who was able to take back northern Croatia by making Dimitr Zvonimir, the ruler of Slavonia, his co-ruler. However, in 1075 when Petar Krešimir died without an heir and Zvonimir (1075–89) became the sole ruler. In 1089 he also passed on without leaving a successor, forcing the nobles to choose Stjepan II (1089–91). There must have been some sort of curse on Croatia at the time because even he couldn’t produce an heir! This led to the eventual weakening and disintegration of the kingdom and allowed the Hungarians to eventually annex parts of Croatia to the north. The last independent king of Croatia was finally defeated by the Hungarian King Koloman at the battle of Gvozd Mountain, south of modern Zagreb.

Though Hungarian rule of Croatia was confirmed in 1102 by the Pacta Conventa, the final version of the agreement allowed the Croatians to keep at least some autonomy. The Pacta stated that Croatia and Hungary would remain separate states but united or ruled by the same royal family. The Croatians were allowed to keep their own institutions, such as a parliament, and have their own governor, or Ban, who was appointed by the Hungarian king.

The Hungaro-Croatian kingdom that formed was made up of a strong feudal order. As this system became more entrenched in society, the rural population suffered and became overburdened under their obligations to various feudal lords. However in northern Croatia, many towns such as Varaždin, Samovar, Vukovar and Zagreb became prosperous centers of commerce. However over time, the Hungarian Crown steadily eroded the power of the Croatian nobles and integrated Croatia more into the Hungarian system.

In 1242, the Croatia was invaded by the Tartars. Though many urban settlements as well as farms were devastated by this invasion, the Croatian state itself was kept alive by King Bela IV who managed to move from city to city along the coast and conduct an armed resistance against the Tartars while on the move.

As the Tartar advance slowed and eventually disintegrated, the Venetians advanced and took over much of coastal Croatia that formerly belonged to the Hungarians. In 1358, the Hungarians had just about had enough of Venetian interference in what they considered their domain and under King Louis of Anjou (1342–82), kicked out the Venetians from the Adriatic coast. Like many of his predecessors, a few centuries before, Louis died without leaving an heir. To resolve yet again another succession problem, the Croatian nobles invited Ladislas of Naples to be their ruler in 1403. This turned out to be a disaster as he proved to be a very weak and both lost parts of Croatia’s interior once again to the Hungarians and ended up selling the Dalmatia (with the exception of the city of Dubrovnik) to the Venetians for a mere 100,000 ducats. Due to this, the Venetians were able to rule over the Dalmatian coast for approximately 350 years. It was during this time that much of Croatia’s Adriatic coast came heavily under the influence of Italian art and culture. In the northern part of the country, Croatians were being pressured and losing territory to the Bosnians, Byzantines and Serbs.

Croatia was at times blessed with wise and powerful rulers such as Kulin (1180–1204) and Tvrtko I (1353–91) who were able to expand Croatian lands. However, by the 15th century, a new threat appeared on the horizon from Asia: the Ottoman Turks. Ottoman expansion would forever change the history of both the Croats and the many peoples that surrounded them.

Part of the Series, “History of Croatia”


History of Croatia


Early History up until the Ottomans
The Ottoman advance and Austro-Hungarian rule
The Revolutions of 1848 and the Rise of Croatian Nationalism
World War I and the Creation of Yugoslavia
1930s until World War II
Croatia during War II
Croatia under Tito’s Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia: The Beginning of the End
The Homeland War and the Road to an Independent Croatia


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