Croatian history is both long and complex. The geographical location of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea has allowed it to serve as a prime trade route for East and West since ancient times. The cultures that have inhabited Croatia have both at times replaced the earlier culture and at other times assimilated it, a history that is a merging of many cultures over the centuries.
The earliest history of the region comes from the caves alongside the Adriatic Sea and also from the depths of the Adriatic itself. Prehistoric artifacts show that the caves along the east coast of the Adriatic were inhabited in the Stone Age and that the offshore islands were as well. As civilization grew and developed, Croatia was well situated along trading and nautical routes.
By the 6th century BC, the ancient Greeks had set up trading ports in Croatia and the islands of the Adriatic. These ports served in trade with the Illyrians and were an important part of the classical Greek mercantile network. While the Greeks made use of this region for trade purposes, it is in the time of ancient Rome that we first see grandeur in Croatia.
The ancient Romans left Croatia with palaces and summer residences, clearly revealing its importance and prestige within Roman society. Some of the most interesting archaeological finds from the Roman period in Croatia may be found in the Adriatic itself. The frequent use of the Adriatic Sea for trade purposes has left many artifacts on the bottom of the clear blue waters of the Adriatic, including pottery remains and shipwrecks. Amphorae, large vessels used for storing wine, oil, or other goods are common findings, but pythos, cargo vessels built into ships, have also been found in the Adriatic, particularly at Cavtat and Murter.
The next prominent culture that has left its mark on Croatia is the Slav culture. While this was a period of turmoil and necessary defense, culture and trade is evident as well. The republic of Dubrovnik was a leading cultural presence, attested to by the remains of a Venetian shipwreck off the coast of Dubrovnik. The ship was loaded with fine goods, including glasswares, and armed with cannons.
Napoleon’s march through Europe included the conquest of Croatia, but his reign was short lived. Following Napoleon, Croatia was the source and site of battles between Austria and Italy for control of the region. This dispute culminated in the Battle of Vis in 1866. Admiral Tegetthoff, commander of the Austrian fleet and the battleship Erzherzog Ferdinand Max, forced the withdrawal of Italian forces led by Admiral Persano on the Re D’Italia.
After the Battle of Vis in 1866, the region of Croatia was under Austro-Hungarian rule. These years saw a growth in trade and particularly in shipbuilding. Croatian ports were built and improved. The Adriatic Sea was an important site of many naval battles during World War I and II, as is evidenced by the many shipwrecks and remains that may be seen while diving in the waters of the Adriatic.
The grand history of Croatia is not only visible on land, but also under the sparkling blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. Shipwrecks from the Roman era dot the sea bottom, leaving visible relics of the important role of Croatia as a trade port, and of the Adriatic Sea as a trade route. Later relics, those of World War I and II, remind us of the importance of the region for sea trade and as an area of military significance even into modern times. Time has left Croatia with a rich culture and vibrant history, and one that reminds us of struggle and strife, as well as of the glories and grandeur of this land on the bright blue Adriatic Sea.