We got some insight into Croatia’s prehistory in 1899, when the remains of of “Krapina Man”—an early cave dwelling Neanderthal—were discovered in Krapina, north of Zagreb. Krapina Man’s remains place humans in Croatia around the middle of the Stone Age. Though remains of other prehistoric cultures have been discovered in eastern Croatia’s Vukovar, Krapina Man remains Croatia’s most significant anthropological find.
Around 1000 B.C., an Indo-European people migrated to Croatia and formed an alliance of tribes known as the Illyrians. The Illyrians stretched over a region now covering Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, and Croatia, and though they shared similar architectural and burial customs, there’s little to suggest the tribes were assimilated.
The Greeks began setting up colonies and trading posts along the Adriatic coast in the 6th century B.C., trading for oil, wine, metals, salt, and more from the Illyrians. The warlike Illyrians were able to impede the Greek’s colonization efforts, though they also faced Celtic invasions from the north.
The Greeks, hoping for a greater Illyrian foothold, were aided by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire, who similarly felt threatened by the pirate forces of Illyrian Queen Teuta, sent messengers. Teuta responded with their execution—a catalyst for Rome declaring war on Illyria. The series of wars lasted over 60 years and ended only with the defeat of the Illyrian King Gentius and the creation of the Roman province of Illyricum.
ROMAN EMPIRE MOVES IN
The Roman province of Illyricum continued to expand until A.D. 9, at which point the Roman Empire encompassed Pannonia (Hungary), Dalmatia (Adriatic seacoast and previous Illyria), and Noricum (Austria and the northern territories).
The Romans ruled the region for 5 centuries, creating a network of roads that facilitated trade, troop movements, the further expansion of the Roman Empire, and the introduction of Christianity.
The most famous Roman Christian of the time was Emperor Diocletian. Diocletian’s lavish “retirement home”—now known as Diocletian’s Palace—in Split remains one of Croatia’s most-beloved, and best-preserved, remnants from the Roman era. Diocletian and his Roman legacy live on in the “home” that now serves as a city.
The Roman Capital of Salona (now known as Solin) is also studded with Roman ruins evocative of their former imperial glory, and the Ampitheatre of Pula crowns the impression.
The Roman Empire showed its first signs of cracking in the late 3rd century A.D., an internal fracture that struggled to fend off the northern Visigoths. The Roman Empire divided itself into Eastern and Western realms in A.D. 395, with Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia/Hercegovina taken up by the Western Roman Empire.
Visigoth, Lombard, and Hun incursions into the Western Roman Empire continued and wore down the empire until its collapse in the 5th century.
CROATS IN CROATIA
Exactly how the Croats began their migration into Croatia remains under dispute. While 10th century Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Croats were asked to enter Croatia to help Rome conquer the invading Avars. Others claim that while the Roman Empire was imploding, Croats and other Slavis tribes were living in modern Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus until they began to migrate South across the Danube.
In that account, Croats sometimes joined up with the Avars and other Eurasian nomads in their assaults on the Roman Empire and sometimes joined up with the empire to attack the Avars. Either way, Croats continued their southward migration with the first group settling in in the Pannonian plains and later Dalmatia.
The Croats forming two distinct communities throughout the 7th and 8th centuries: the Dalmatian Bijela Hrvatska and Pannonian Hrvrat. Croats continued to live under different foreign rulers until A.D. 924, when Tomislav I, the first king of Croatia, united the two Croatian duchies. You can learn more about Croatian history on our Journey Through the Colors of Croatia Tour.