The History of Dubrovnik - Palace Natali
Ljetnikovac Natali
Ljetnikovac Natali

The History of Dubrovnik

1. February 2023.

Spanning more than a millennium, the history of Dubrovnik is a tale replete with twists and turns that talks about great outcomes that happen when intelligence works in service of love for liberty.

From a rock to a town of stone

When you read about Dubrovnik, you will most often find it described as a medieval town. What you see today was largely designed in that era, but the earliest traces of a settlement are far older.

Dubrovnik was long thought to have been founded in the 7th century by Roman refugees fleeing their town of Epidaurum (a.k.a. Cavtat) in the face of brutal Slavic raids. But the 1980s discovery of the remains of a Byzantine basilica underneath the present-day Cathedral suggests that at the time, Dubrovnik was already a community large enough to have its own church.

Over the next centuries, Dubrovnik continued to exist as a small, fortified settlement on the cliffs, something that would give birth to its future name, Ragusa. In the newcomers’ language, the word for rocks was laus. Over centuries, the name evolved to raus, the people living there became Ragusans, and the small laus evolved into the great Respublica Ragusina.


Success rooted in intelligence

Entrepreneurial to the bone, Ragusans spent the following centuries developing their trading network by expanding routes between the hinterland and the Mediterranean. At these early times, Dubrovnik recognized Byzantine patronage, which was then followed by 150 years of Venetian rule.

When La Serenissima lost its coastal territories (Dubrovnik included) to King Louis I of Hungary, Dubrovnik saw this turmoil as an opportunity to negotiate its independence under the Hungarian crown. In essence, it remained a part of the kingdom, recognized the king and paid tribute, yet it was allowed autonomy to choose its own government and mastermind its own fate. In 1358, Dubrovnik became an independent Respublica Ragusina, a patrician state that would last 450 years.


Diplomacy as a trademark

Dubrovnik would repeat this kind of ingenious diplomatic maneuver again, one century later. At that time, the Ottoman Empire was spreading through Europe like a fire. Their mighty forces quickly reached the Republic’s borders. Well aware that a military battle would be lost before even starting, Dubrovnik set out to negotiate.

By agreeing to pay a yearly tribute to the sultans, Dubrovnik ensures not only their protection but also trading privileges within the Ottoman Empire. As a result, the city prospered from being an intermediary between the East and the West while at the same time preserving what it treasured most—its liberty.


The golden days and great accomplishments 

During its golden era, between the 15th and early 17th centuries, Dubrovnik was a mighty place. Its mercantile fleet was one of the strongest in the Mediterranean, with over 200 long-distance ships sailing as far as North Africa and England. The Republic’s international network counted over 50 consulates. The old town was completely fortified, with its streets and houses built of stone; there was running water at its fountains and a working sewer. There was a pharmacy, an orphanage, a public school, medical services, and epidemiological practices, including quarantine. In the 17th century, as many as 6,000 people lived in the walled town.

The beginning of the end

In 1667, the single most disastrous event in its entire history struck Dubrovnik: the Great Earthquake. Following days of trembles, fires, and looting, the town was left shattered in ruins to mourn its dead, nearly half of the population.

Even though the town was quick to reinstate governance and start rebuilding, the Great Earthquake still marked the beginning of the Republic’s demise. Despite another pop of prosperity in the 18th century, the town was taken by Napoleon’s forces in 1806, and the Republic abolished two years later, in 1808.

Drained economically and spiritually, the people of Dubrovnik never gave up the dream of reinstating their independent state. In 1814, in a last-ditch effort, they turned to the Ottoman Empire for assistance, sending Đivo Natali as their spokesman. But the Empire was weak, and Europe eager to rewrite its borders. When the 1815 Congress in Vienna officially made Dubrovnik a part of the Habsburg Empire, it was the end of the world as they knew it. Or as Đivo Natali said: “Tutto e finito.” (All is finished).

We now know that it wasn’t finished. The story of Dubrovnik continues, but still today, we look back on this great history as a legacy bestowed upon us to treasure, nurture, and continue.