Medieval Croatian state

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The Croatian people trace their origins to Slavic peoples which moved into the territory of the former Roman provinces Pannonia and Dalmatia between the 7th and 8th centuries. No contemporary written records about these events have been preserved, especially not about the events as a whole and from the area itself. Instead, historians rely on records written several centuries after the facts, and even those records may be based on oral tradition.


Migration of the Croats

The most commonly accepted facts about the origin of the Croats are that they originate from Slavic tribes that lived in and around today's Poland or western Ukraine. Many modern scholars believe that the early Croat people, as well as the Serb people and other early Slavic groups, were agricultural populations that were ruled by the nomadic Iranian-speaking Alans. It is unclear whether the Alans contributed much more than a ruling caste or a class of warriors; the evidence on their contribution is mainly philological and etymological.

The book De Administrando Imperio, written in the 10th century, is the most referenced source on the migration of Slavic peoples into southeastern Europe. It states that they migrated first around or before year 600 from the region that is now (roughly) Galicia and areas of the Pannonian plain, led by the Turkic Avars, to the province of Dalmatia ruled by the Roman Empire. The second wave of migration, possibly around year 620, included the Croats and Serbs, who were invited by the Emperor Heraclius to counter the Avar threat on the Byzantine Empire. These two Slavic groups which are today nations were one of several in Dalmatia, including the people of Zahumlje, Narenta/Pagania, Travunia, Dioclea etc.

De Administrando Imperio also mentions an alternate version of the events, where the Croats weren't actually invited by Heraclius, but instead defeated the Avars and settled on their own accord after migrating from an area near today's Silesia. This record is supported by the writings of one Thomas the archdeacon, Historia Salonitana from the 13th century.

However, the record of archdeacon Thomas, as well as the Chronicle of the Priest of Duklja from the 12th century, state that the Croats did not arrive the same way that the Byzantine texts say. Instead, these works claim that the Croats were a group of Slavs that remained after the Goths (under a leader referred to as "Totila") had occupied and pillaged the Roman province of Dalmatia. The Chronicle of Dioclea, on the other hand, speaks of a Gothic invasion (under a leader referred to as "Svevlad", followed by his descendants "Selimir" and "Ostroilo") after which the Slavs merely took over.

Regardless of the different interpretations, the Croat tribes eventually settled in the area between the Drava river and the Adriatic sea, the western Roman provinces Pannonia and Dalmatia; western Balkans in modern usage. The Croat tribes had been organized into two dukedoms; the Pannonian duchy in the north and the Dalmatian duchy in the south.


The Christianization of the Croats began after their arrival, probably in the 7th century, influenced by the proximity of the old Roman cities in Dalmatia. The process was completed in the north by the beginning of the 9th century. The beginnings of the Christianization are also disputed in the historical texts: the Byzantine texts talk of duke Porin who started this at the incentive of emperor Heraclius, then of duke Porga who mainly Christianized his people after the influence of missionaries from Rome, while the national tradition recalls Christianization during the rule of Dalmatian duke Borna. It is possible that these are all renditions of the same ruler's name.

Missing image
The inscription of duke Branimir, ca. 880

Curiously enough, the Croats were never obliged to use Latin -- rather, they held masses in their own language and used the Glagolitic alphabet. This was officially sanctioned in 1248 by Pope Innocent IV, and only later did the Latin alphabet prevail. The Latin Rite prevailed over the Byzantine Rite rather early due to numerous interventions from the Holy See.

Rise of Croatia

Croatian lands in the Dark Ages were located between three major entities: the Eastern Roman Empire which aimed to control the Dalmatian city-states and islands, the Franks which aimed to control the northern and northwestern lands, and the Avars, later Magyars, and other fledgling states in the northeast. The fourth relevant group, but not so powerful with regard to the Croatian state, were the nearby Slavs in the southeast, the Serbs and the Bulgarians.

The north became subject to the Carolingian Empire around 800, when in 796 a Croatian Pannonian duke Vojnomir switched sides between the Avars and the Franks. The Franks established control over the region between Sava, Drava and Danube which was under the Markgraf of Furlania. The patriarchy of Aquilea was then allowed to Christianize the remaining Slavs in the region. Charlemagne invaded the Dalmatian portion of Croatia in 799, contesting its Byzantine suzerainty, and after a lengthy war, conquered it in 803. The duke who headed the Croats in the south at the time was called Višeslav.

Charlemagne's invasion of the Dalmatian cities provoked a war with the Eastern Roman Empire — after a peace deal was signed, the Byzantium restored the city-states and islands while Charlemagne kept Istria and inland Dalmatia. After the death of Charlemagne in 814, the Frankish influence decreased, and the Croatian duke Ljudevit (in Pannonia) raised a rebellion in 819. The Frankish markgrafs sent armies in 820, 821, and 822, but each time they failed to crush the rebels until finally Ljudevit's forces withdrew (likely to Bosnia). Most of the Pannonian Croatia would remain in Frankish suzerainty until the end of the 9th century. What is today eastern Slavonia and Srijem fell to the Bulgarians in 827 and it took until 845 before the Franks conquered it again.

In the meantime, the Dalmatian Croats were recorded to have been subject to the Kingdom of Italy under Lothair I since 828. The Croatian duke Mislav built up a formidable navy (ruling between 835 and 845, and in 839/840 signed a peace treaty with Pietro, doge of Venice. The Venetians soon proceeded to battle with the independent Slavic pirates of the Pagania region, but failed to defeat them. The Bulgarian duke Boris also waged a lengthy war against the Dalmatian Croats (840–860), trying to expand his state to the Adriatic. The Croatian duke Trpimir (845-864) succeeded Mislav and managed to finally win the war with the Bulgarians.

Croatia during duke 's reign
Croatia during duke Trpimir's reign

Duke Trpimir consolidated power over Dalmatia and much of the inland regions towards Pannonia, while instituting counties as a way of controlling his subordinates (an idea he picked up from the Franks). The first known written mention of the Croats dates from an 852 statute by Trpimir. Trpimir is remembered as the initiator of the Trpimirović ruling dynasty.

In the meantime, the Saracens, a group of Arab pirates, invaded Taranto and Bari in the 840s. The extent of their piracy forced the Byzantium to increase its military presence in the southern Adriatic. In 867 a Byzantine fleet lifted the Saracen siege over Dubrovnik (then known as Ragusa) and also defeated the pirates of Pagania. Facing a number of naval threats, the Croatian duke Domagoj (ruling 864 to 876) built up Croatian navy again and helped the Franks conquer Bari in 871. The Croatian vessels also forced the Venetians to start paying tribute for sail near the eastern Adriatic coast.

The duke Iljko, son of Domagoj, ruled Dalmatian Croatia between 876 and 878. His forces at attacked the western Istrian towns in 876, but were subsequently defeated by the Venetian navy. His ground forces defeated the Pannonian duke Kocelj who was suzerain to the Franks in 876/877, and thereby shed the Frankish vassal status.

The next duke Zdeslav reigned briefly, 878–879, only to see the Eastern Empire conquer large portions of Dalmatia. He was then overthrown by duke Branimir in 879, who was supported by the Western Church, and the country was recognized by Pope John VIII as an independent dukedom under Branimir in 879 (Branimir was dubbed dux Chroatorum). Branimir proceeded to repel the Byzantine incursion and strengthen his state under the aegis of Rome. After Branimir's death in 892, duke Muncimir/Mutimir, Zdeslav's brother, took control of Dalmatia and ruled it independently of both Rome and Byzantium as divino munere Croatorum dux, "with God's help, duke of Croats".

The last duke of the Pannonian Croats under the Franks was Braslav, mentioned in 896, who died in a war with the Magyars, who then migrated to the Pannonian plain. In 910, the Dalmatian duke Tomislav succeeded Muncimir, and decided to defend Pannonian Croats from the Magyar invasion. He successfully repelled the Magyars up to the Drava river, and at the same time came in contact with the Bulgarians in the northeast. In fighting the Bulgarians he made a pact with the Byzantium, which allowed him to control the Dalmatian city-states as long as he curbed the Bulgarian expansion.

Croatia during king 's reign
Croatia during king Tomislav's reign

Tomislav was crowned in the Duvno field in 925 (note that sources vary from 923 to 928), as the first King of Croatia. The central town of the Duvno field is nowadays named Tomislavgrad (Tomislavtown) in his honor. Tomislav was a descendant of Trpimir so he is considered the founder of the Trpimirović royal dynasty. He was recognized as King by Pope John X.

Tomislav, rex Chroatorum, created a sizeable state, including most of today's central Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, and most of Bosnia. The country was administered as a group of eleven counties (župa(nija)) and one banate (banovina), and each of these regions had a fortified royal town.

The Bulgarian Tsar Simeon tried to break the Croatian-Byzantine pact by sending his duke Alogobotura with a formidable army force against Tomislav in 926, but to no avail. He was defeated somewhere in the Bosnian mountains, according to the records of Emperor Constantine VII.

Tomislav was succeeded by Trpimir II (928-935) and Krešimir I (935-945), and they managed to hold on to their power and keep good relations with both the Eastern Empire and the Roman Pope. However, king Miroslav (945-949) was killed by his ban Pribin during an internal power struggle, and Croatia lost the islands of Brač, Hvar and Vis to the dukes of Pagania, the Dalmatian city-states to the Byzantium, lost control of the duchy of Bosnia, as well had as eastern Slavonia and Srijem taken by the Magyars.

Mihajlo Krešimir II then became king and restored order in the bulk of the state. He kept particularly good relations with the Dalmatian cities, him and his wife Jelena donating land and churches to Zadar and Solin. A 976 inscription is preserved the Church of St. Mary in Solin that names the Croatian royalty.

In 969, Mihajlo Krešimir II was succeeded by his son Stjepan Držislav, who established better relations with the Eastern Empire and again took control of the Dalmatian cities. But as soon as Stjepan Držislav died in 997, his three sons Svetoslav, Krešimir and Gojslav each contested the throne, weakening the state, which allowed the Venetians under Pietro II Orseolo and the Bulgarian Tsar Samuil to encroach on the Croatian possessions in the Adriatic. In 1000, Pietro Orseolo led the Venetian fleet into the eastern Adriatic and gradually took control of the whole of it, first the Kvarner islands and Zadar, then Trogir and Split, followed by a successful naval battle with the Narentines upon which he took control of Korčula and Lastovo, and claimed the title dux Dalmatiae.

The tenth century brought upon a segmentation of the society, where the local leaders župani were replaced by the subjects of the king, who in turn took land from the previous landowners and essentially created a feudal system. The previously free peasants became serfs and stopped being soldiers, which caused the military power of Croatia to fade.

The next king in this period, Krešimir III, tried to restore the Dalmatian cities and had some success up to 1018, but was defeated by Venice as well as the Langobards. His son Stjepan I succeeded him in 1030, who followed in his father's footsteps, but his success only went so far as getting the Narentine duke to join his state after 1050.

The reign of Petar Krešimir IV started in 1058 after Stjepan's death, and it would be this reign during which the medieval Croatian kingdom reached its peak. Petar Krešimir IV managed to get the Eastern Empire to confirm him as the supreme ruler of the Dalmatian cities. He also allowed the Roman Curia to get more involved into the religious affairs of Croatia, which consolidated his more power but disrupted his rule over the Glagolitic-using clergy in parts of Istria in 1060. Croatia under Petar Krešimir IV was composed of twelve counties and was slightly larger than in Tomislav's time, also including the four southern Dalmatian duchies (Pagania, Zahumlje, Travunia and Duklja).

However, in 1072 Krešimir helped the uprising of Bulgarians and Serbs against their Byzantine rulers, after which the Eastern Empire retaliated in 1074 by sending the Norman duke Amik to besiege Rab. They failed to capture the island, but did manage to capture the king himself, and the Croatians were then forced to settle and give away Split, Trogir, Biograd, Nin and Zadar to the Normans. In 1075, the Venetians banished the Normans and secured the cities for itself. The end of Petar Krešimir IV in 1074 also marked the de facto end of the Trpimirović ruling dynasty which had ruled the Croatian lands for over two centuries.

After that there was one more notable native king, Dmitar Zvonimir (1075-1089). He was previously a ban in Dalmatia who gained the title of king with the support of Pope Gregory VII, after which he aided the Normans in their struggle against the Eastern Empire and Venice between 1081 and 1085, helping to transport their troops through the Strait of Otranto, in the occupation of Durres and the battles along the Albanian and Greek coast. Due to this, in 1085 the Byzantines transferred their rights to Dalmatia to Venice.

Zvonimir's kinghood is carved in stone Baška Tablet, preserved to this day as the oldest written Croatian text, kept in the archaeological museum in Zagreb. Zvonimir's reign is remembered as a peaceful and prosperous time, during which the connection of Croats with the Pope was further affirmed, so much so that Catholicism would remain among Croats until the present day. In this time the noble titles in Croatia were made analogous to those used in other parts of Europe at the time, with comes and baron used for the župani and the royal court nobles, and vlastelin for the noblemen.

A rebellion against Zvonimir broke out at the sabor of Knin in 1089 because of discontent with warring in the interest of the Pope, and he was killed. After his death, Stjepan II of the Trpimirović dynasty nominally ruled Croatia, but died after only two years, during which time it became apparent that Zvonimir's brother-in-law Ladislaus of Hungary was the strongest candidate for the throne through his sister Jelena, Zvonimir's widow, who had much influence in Pannonian Croatia.

Ladislaus' army penetrated Croatian territory in 1091 and quickly occupied all of Pannonian Croatia, after which they were met with some unorganized resistance in Dalmatian Croatia. The Eastern Roman Emperor Alexius reacted by making the Cumans attack the Magyars, which made Ladislaus retreat from Croatia, but he did leave Prince ┴lmos (Almoš in Croatian) to rule over Slavonia.

Yet the Croatian feudal lords struggled for independence from Hungary, and elected a new Croat king Petar Svačić in 1093 who managed to unify the kingdom and banish Almoš from Slavonia. However, after Ladislaus died, Almoš's brother Coloman of Hungary came to power, made peace with Pope Urban II, and led an army into Croatia in 1097. Petar Svačić's army was defeated at the Gvozd hill and he was killed. Coloman and his forces were called back to the northeast to fight the Ruthenians and Cumans in Galicia in 1099, and the Croatian nobles took the chance to liberate themselves from Hungarian rule.

However, when Coloman returned in 1102, they yielded and recognized him as the common king for Croatia and Hungary in a treaty of 1102 often referred to as the Pacta Conventa. Croatia lost its independence by entering a personal union with Hungary, it became part of the Kingdom of Hungary, lost its navy, and had to heed king's calls to arms. Coloman did, however, retain the institution of Sabor and relieved the Croatians of taxes on their land. The two crowns would remain connected until the end of World War I.

See also


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