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    Yugoslavia PRE-SLAV HISTORY
    Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies


    Palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Dubrovnik
    Courtesy Sam and Sarah Stulberg

    Ancient peoples inhabited the lands that now make up Yugoslavia for millennia before Rome conquered the region in the first century A.D. Archeological findings reveal that during the Paleolithic period (ca. 200,000-8,000 B.C.) man's ancestors hunted and foraged in the mountains, valleys, and interior plains of today's Yugoslavia. In the Mesolithic period (8,000-6,000 B.C.), man expanded the use of tools and weapons and settled throughout the country. Farming came to the area at the dawn of the Neolithic Period (6,000-2,800 B.C.) and spread throughout the region by 4,000 B.C. Yugoslavia's Neolithic inhabitants planted cereal grains, raised livestock, fished, hunted, wove simple textiles, built houses of wood or mud, and made coarse pottery and implements.

    Man began working with pure copper in the region in the third millennium B.C. During the Bronze Age (2,800-700 B.C.), the population grew, settlements multiplied, and craftsmen began casting ornaments, tools, and weapons. After about 1450 B.C., smiths began working with locally mined gold and silver, horses and chariots became more common, and trade routes stretched to northern Europe and the Aegean. During the Iron Age (beginning 700 B.C.), trade flourished between the developing city-states of Italy and Greece and the region's first identifiable peoples: Illyrian-speaking tribes north of Lake Ohrid and west of the Vadar River (in present-day Macedonia), Thracian speakers in the area of modern Serbia, and the Veneti, who probably spoke an Italic tongue, in Istria and the Julian Alps (in present-day Slovenia and northwest Croatia).

    Greeks set up trading posts along the eastern Adriatic coast after 600 B.C. and founded colonies there in the fourth century B.C. Greek influence proved ephemeral, however, and the native tribes remained herdsmen and warriors. Bardylis, a tribal chief of Illyria (present-day northwest Yugoslavia), assumed control of much of Macedonia in 360 B.C.: Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great, later united Macedonia and campaigned as far north as present-day Serbia. In the fourth century B.C., invading Celts forced the Illyrians southward from the northern Adriatic coast, and over several centuries a mixed Celtic-Illyrian culture arose in much of modern Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia, producing wheelturned pottery, jewelry, and iron tools.

    In the third century B.C., Rome conquered the west Adriatic coast and began exerting influence on the opposite shore. Greek allegations that the Illyrians were disrupting commerce and plundering coastal towns helped precipitate a Roman punitive strike in 229 B.C., and in subsequent campaigns Rome forced Illyrian rulers to pay tribute. Roman armies often crossed Illyria during the Roman-Macedonian wars, and in 168 B.C. Rome conquered the Illyrians and destroyed the Macedonia of Philip and Alexander. For many years the Dinaric Alps sheltered resistance forces, but Roman dominance increased. In 35 B.C., the emperor Octavian conquered the coastal region and seized inland Celtic and Illyrian strongholds; in A.D. 9, Tiberius consolidated Roman control of the western Balkan peninsula; and by A.D. 14, Rome had subjugated the Celts in what is now Serbia. The Romans brought order to the region, and their inventive genius produced lasting monuments. But Rome's most significant legacy to the region was the separation of the empire's Byzantine and Roman spheres (the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, respectively), which created a cultural chasm that would divide East from West, Eastern Orthodox from Roman Catholic, and Serb from Croat and Slovene.

    Over the next 500 years, Latin culture permeated the region. The Romans divided their western Balkan territories into separate provinces. New roads linked fortresses, mines, and trading towns. The Romans introduced viticulture in Dalmatia, instituted slavery, and dug new mines. Agriculture thrived in the Danube Basin, and towns throughout the country blossomed into urban areas with forums, temples, water systems, coliseums, and public baths. In addition to gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon, Roman legionnaires brought the mystic cult of Mithras from Persia. The Roman army also recruited natives of the conquered regions, and five sons of Illyrian peasants rose through the ranks to become emperor. The Illyrian, Celtic, and Thracian languages all eventually died out, but the centuries of Roman domination failed to create cultural uniformity.

    Internal strife and an economic crisis rocked the empire in the third century A.D., and two ethnic Illyrian emperors, born in areas now in Yugoslavia, took decisive steps to prolong the empire's life. Emperor Diocletian, born in Dalmatia, established strong central control and a bureaucracy, abolished the last Roman republican institutions, and persecuted Christians in an attempt to make them identify more with the state than the church. Emperor Constantine, born near Nis, reunited the empire after years of turmoil, established dynastic succession, founded a new capital at Byzantium in A.D. 330, and legalized Christianity.

    In 395 the sons of Emperor Theodosius split the empire into eastern and western halves. The division, which became a permanent feature of the European cultural landscape, separated Greek Constantinople (as Byzantium was renamed in A.D. 330) from Latin Rome and eventually the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. It likewise separated the lands in what is now Yugoslavia, exercising a critical influence on the Serbs and Croats. Economic and administrative breakdown soon softened the empire's defenses, especially in the western half, and barbarian tribes began to attack. In the fourth century, the Goths sacked Roman fortresses along the Danube River, and in A.D. 448 the Huns ravaged Sirmium (now Sremska Mitrovica northwest of present-day Belgrade), Singidunum (now Belgrade), and Emona (now Ljubljana). The Ostrogoths had conquered Dalmatia and other provinces by 493. Emperor Justinian drove the invaders out in the sixth century, but the defenses of the empire proved inadequate to maintain this gain.

    Slavic tribesmen poured across the empire's borders during the fifth and sixth centuries. The Slavs, characteristically sedentary farming and livestock-raising tribes, spoke an IndoEuropean language and organized themselves into clans ruled by a council of family chiefs. All land and significant wealth was held in common. In the sixth century, the Slavs allied with the more powerful Avars to plunder the Danube Basin. Together, they erased almost all trace of Christian life in Dalmatia and the northwestern parts of present-day Yugoslavia. In A.D. 626 these tribes surrounded Constantinople itself. The Avar incursions proved key to the subsequent development of Yugoslavia because they immediately preceded, and may have precipitated, the arrival of the Serbs and Croats.

    Data as of December 1990

    NOTE: The information regarding Yugoslavia on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Yugoslavia PRE-SLAV HISTORY information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Yugoslavia PRE-SLAV HISTORY should be addressed to the Library of Congress.

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    Revised 04-Jul-02
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