Dalmatian city-states

Areas of the Dalmatian city-states with own dialects, showing Veglia for the "Vegliot" and Ragusa for the "Ragusan"

Dalmatian City-States were the Dalmatian localities where the local romance population survived the barbarian invasions. Eight little cities were created by those autochthonous inhabitants that maintained political links with the Byzantine Empire (that defended these cities allowing their commerce).[1] The original name of the cities was Jadera, Spalatum, Crespa, Arba, Tragurium, Vecla, Ragusium and Cattarum. The language and the laws where initially Latin, but after a few centuries they developed their own neolatin language (the "Dalmatico"), that lasted until the 19th century. The cities were maritime centers with a huge commerce mainly with the Italian peninsula and with the growing Republic of Venice.


Dalmatia after the fall of the Roman Empire consisted of a group of autochthonous coastal cities functioning much like city-states, with extensive autonomy, but in mutual conflict and without control of the rural hinterland controlled by the Slavs who arrived after 640 AD.[2]

Ethnically, Dalmatia started out as a Roman region, with a romance culture that began to develop independently, forming the now-extinct Dalmatian language called "Dalmatico". So, these cities were characterized by common Latin laws, catholic religion, the same romance language, common commerce and same political/administrative structures and entities.

Since the seventh century there were eight areas of Byzantine Dalmatia that developed into eight "neo-latin" City-states, maintaining their Roman roots (language, ethnic population, customs, laws, etc..) despite the destructive barbarian invasions.

The eight City-states were:

Later were added other cities in north-central Dalmatia, like Sebenicum (actual Sibenik), Flumen (actual Rijeka) and Pagus (actual Pag).

Part of a series on the
History of Dalmatia
The great Slavonic migration into Illyria, which wrought a complete change in the fortunes of Dalmatia, took place in the first half of the 7th century. In other parts of the Balkan Peninsula these invaders Serbs, Croats or Bulgars found little difficulty in expelling or absorbing the native population. But here they were baffled when confronted by the powerful maritime city-states, highly civilized, and able to rely on the moral if not the material support of their kinsfolk in Italy. Consequently, while the country districts were settled by the Slavs, the Latin or Italian population flocked for safety to Ragusa, Zara and other large towns, and the whole country was thus divided between two frequently hostile communities. This opposition was intensified by the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity (1054), the Slavs as a rule preferring the Orthodox or sometimes the Bogomil creed, while the Italians were firmly attached to the Papacy. Not until the isth century did the rival races contribute to a common civilization in the literature of Ragusa. To such a division of population may be attributed the two dominant characteristics of local history the total absence of national as distinguished from civic life, and the remarkable development of art, science and literature. Bosnia, Servia and Bulgaria had each its period of national greatness, but remained intellectually backward; Dalmatia failed ever to attain political or racial unity, but the Dalmatian city-states, isolated and compelled to look to Italy for support, shared perforce in the march of Italian civilization. Their geographical position suffices to explain the relatively small influence exercised by Byzantine culture throughout the six centuries (535-1102) during which Dalmatia was part of the Eastern empire. Towards the close of this period Byzantine rule tended more and more to become merely nominal.[3]

Indeed, in the Early Medieval period, Byzantine Dalmatia was ravaged by an Avar invasion that destroyed its capital, Salona, in 639 AD, an event that allowed for the settlement of the nearby Diocletian's Palace in Spalatum by Salonitans, greatly increasing the importance of the city. The Avars were followed by the great South Slavic migrations.[4]

The Slavs, loosely allied with the Avars, permanently settled the region in the first half of the 7th century AD and remained its predominant ethnic group ever since. The Croats soon formed their own realm: the Principality of Dalmatian Croatia ruled by native Princes of Guduscan origin. The meaning of the geographical term "Dalmatia", now shrunk to the cities and their immediate hinterland. These cities and towns remained influential as they were well fortified and maintained their connection with the Byzantine Empire. The two communities were somewhat hostile at first, but as the Croats became Christianized this tension increasingly subsided. A degree of cultural mingling soon took place, in some enclaves stronger, in others weaker, as Slavic influence and culture was more accentuated in Ragusium and Cattarum while the influence from the Italian peninsula was stronger in the northern Dalmatia islands and in Jadera and Spalatum.

Around 950 AD as the Dalmatian city states gradually lost all protection by Byzantium, being unable to unite in a defensive league hindered by their internal dissensions, they had to turn to Venice for support. Each of the Dalmatian city states needed protection (even from Narentane piracy), based mostly on economic reasons. In the year 1000 AD an expedition of Venetian ships in coastal Istria and Dalmatia secured the Venetian suzerainty in the area, and the Narentines, Slav pirates, were suppressed permanently. In the occasion Doge Orseolo named himself "Duke of Dalmatia", starting the colonial Empire of Venice.

The Venetians, to whom the Dalmatians were already bound by language and culture, could afford to concede liberal terms as its main goal was to prevent the development of any dangerous political or commercial competitor on the eastern Adriatic. The seafaring community in Dalmatia looked to Venice as the new "queen" of the Adriatic sea. In return for protection, these 8 "neolatin" cities often furnished a contingent to the army or navy of their suzerain, and sometimes paid tribute either in money or in kind. Arbe (actual Rab), for example, annually paid ten pounds of silk or five pounds of gold to Venice. The Dalmatian cities might elect their own chief magistrate, bishop and judges; their Roman law remained valid and they were even permitted to conclude separate alliances.

In these centuries started to disappear the Dalmatian language, that was assimilated by the venetian dialect.Dalmatian was spoken on the Dalmatian coast from Fiume (now Rijeka) as far south as Cottorum (Kotor) in Montenegro. Speakers lived mainly in the coastal towns of Jadera (Zadar), Tragurium (Trogir), Spalatum[5] (Split), Ragusium (Dubrovnik) and also on the islands of Curicta (Krk), Crepsa (Cres) and Arba (Rab). Almost every city developed its own dialect, but the most important dialects we know of were Vegliot, a northern dialect spoken on the island of Curicta, and Ragusan, a southern dialect spoken in and around Ragusa (Dubrovnik).

The cities of Jadera, Spalatum, Tragurium and Ragusium and the surrounding territories each changed hands several times between Venice, Hungary and the Byzantium during the 12th century. In 1202, the armies of the Fourth Crusade rendered assistance to Venice by occupying Jadera, that started to be officially called Zara. In 1204 the same army conquered Byzantium and finally eliminated the Eastern Empire from the list of contenders on Dalmatian territory.

The late 13th century was marked by a decline in external hostilities. The Dalmatian cities started accepting complete foreign sovereignty, mainly the one of the Republic of Venice. The only exception was Ragusium, that remained independent creating the Republic of Ragusa that lasted until the 1807 Napoleon conquest.

From 1420 started the venetian domination of the other seven of the original Dalmatian City-States, that were fully integrated in the venetian (and Italian) society of the Italian Renaissance. Zara become the capital of Venetian Dalmatia - as part of the Stato da Mar- until the 1797 end of the Republic of Venice and in the next centuries the city was the main center of the Dalmatian Italians.

The last speaker of any Dalmatian dialect of the Dalmatian City-States was Tuone Udaina (Italian: Antonio Udina), who was accidentally killed in an explosion on June 10, 1898 in the island of Veglia (actual Krk)[6] With him disappeared the last vestige of the Dalmatian neolatin cities.[7] His language [8] was studied by the scholar Matteo Bartoli, himself a native of nearby Istria, who visited him in 1897 and wrote down approximately 2,800 words, stories, and accounts of his life, which were published in a book that has provided much information on the vocabulary, phonology, and grammar of the language. Bartoli wrote in Italian and published a translation in German (Das Dalmatische) in 1906: this book is considered the first on ethnic minority disappearance in world literature.

Dalmatian Pale

The boundaries of the eight original Dalmatian City-States were defined by the so-called Dalmatian Pale, similar to the one existing in Ireland under British control and called The Pale. The word pale derives ultimately from the Latin word palus, meaning stake, specifically a stake used to support a fence.[9][10] From this came the figurative meaning of boundary and eventually the phrase beyond the pale, as something outside the boundary. The term was used not only for the "Pale" in Ireland and in Dalmatia but also for various other English colonial settlements, notably Pale of Calais, and later for the Jewish Pale in Russia.

Historian Johannes Lucius added to the "Dalmatia Pale" (somewhat similar to the "English Pale" in Ireland, as boundary of Roman local laws) of these Dalmatian City-States even Fiume (actual Rijeka) and Sebenico (actual Sibenik), after the year 1000 when Venice started to take control of the region.

Indeed, Fiume was the former Roman Tarsatica: the city of that medieval period was a small fortified town under the Italian Aquileia (and Pola) bishops, enclosed within the town walls which had several defense towers. The town, called Flumen, was granted autonomy in the 11th century by the bishop and was divided into two parts: in the upper part, there was a medieval castle/formerly Roman fort and the church of St. Vitus (thus the name 'Flumen Sancti Viti'), while in the lower part - the popular- there was a commercial and trading center where around the year 1000 many Italian merchants settled.

16th-century map of Sebenicum

Sebenicum was the ancient Roman city of Burnum [11] destroyed by the Avars and rebuilt in the 9th century by the Croats. Pope Boniface VIII signed in 1298 a "bolla" that declared a bishop for the town, that so was to be a "Free City" from the local Ban Paul I Šubić of Bribir.[12]

Furthermore, about Sebenico Thomas Jackson [13] wrote that:

In 1167 Stephen III raised Sebenico to the rank of a 'free city' conferring on it a charter and privileges similar to those enjoyed by the old Dalmatian cities of Trau and Spalato, and from that time forward Sebenico must be reckoned as within the 'Dalmatian Pale', though a Croatian town by descent and tradition. Lucio says the Sebenzani were some time in learning to wear their new privileges easily; accustomed for so long to be governed despotically, they accommodated themselves with difficulty to the Dalmatian (latin) laws; they had Counts appointed for life, and not for a short term like the other cities, who were with difficulty restrained from their old habits of piracy, and they were more exposed than the other cities to the arbitrary interference of the Ban. Gradually however the Sebenzani became Latinized, and in later ages the city was described by Fortis as next to Zara the best built in Dalmatia, and inhabited by the greatest number of noble families, as far removed from the barbarous manners of ancient pirates as their houses are unlike the former cottages or sibice; and the same writer tells us that in the sixteenth century the arts and sciences flourished in this city more than in any other of Dalmatia.

Lucius wrote even that Pagus (the Venetian Pago, actually called Pag) had municipal autonomy virtually independent for centuries around the year 1000. In 1244 the Hungarian King Béla IV named it a "Free royal city" and in 1376 Louis I of Hungary granted it autonomy. In 1409, Pago, together with the whole island, passed permanently to the Republic of Venice and had reconfirmed their communal autonomy guaranteed by a board of 50 civic local aristocratic families (this board was created in 1451).

See also


  1. Thomas Jackson: Recovery of Roman municipalities. p. 14-16
  2. Giovanni Cattalinich. "Storia della Dalmazia" V chapter
  3. 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, p.774
  4. Curta Florin. "Southwestern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250". Introduction
  5. Colloquia Maruliana, Vol. 12 Travanj 2003. Zarko Muljacic — On the Dalmato-Romance in Marulić's Works (hrcak.srce.hr). Spalatum Romance (Spalatin) is studied by the author. Zarko Muljacic has set off in the only way possible, the indirect way of attempting to trace the secrets of its historical phonology by analysing any lexemes of possible Dalmato-Romance origin that have been preserved in Marulić's Croatian works.
  6. Eugeen Roegiest (2006). Vers les sources des langues romanes: un itinéraire linguistique à travers la Romania. ACCO. p. 138. ISBN 90-334-6094-7.
  7. William B Brahms (2005). Notable Last Facts: A Compendium of Endings, Conclusions, Terminations and Final Events throughout History. Original from the University of Michigan: Reference Desk Press. p. 183. ISBN 978-0-9765325-0-7.
  8. Romance languages in Istria and Dalmatia (in ancient Italian)
  9. "Palus". Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc.
  10. Palisade is derived from the same root.
  11. Sibenik: Rediscovery of Burnum (in Italian)
  12. History of Sibenik
  13. Thomas Jackson, Dalmatia, the Quarnero and Istria. 1887


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