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Dubrovnik: A History Paperback – October 1, 2006
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I had heard of Dubrovnik, and who hasn’t after the tragic events of the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But its Italian name “Ragusa” was completely new to me, and that demonstrated my ignorance of most of the places east of Venice to Byzantium after the collapse of the Western Roman empire.
In the 100 years after Diocletian’s retirement and death, the barbarian tribes poured into the northern part of the Roman Empire. These included the Goths and Visigoths, the Alans, the Huns and the Slavs. During the centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the remaining population along the Dalmatian shore was under the nominal rule of the barbarian successors of the Western Roman Emperors who adhered to the Roman Catholic rites. While north and east of Dalmatia – Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, Greece in particular - were under the Byzantine Emperors who adhered to Greek Orthodox rites.
Dubrovnik, was thus on the boundary between the two empires. The interior of the country of the southern Slavs was largely controlled by tribal rulers under Byzantine overlords where there was little urban development and the rulers had to rely upon frequent depredations in order to maintain their precarious existence. Throughout most of Dubrovnik’s existence in the ten centuries after it first emerged as a port on this strategic point on the Dalmatian coast it frequently suffered from such depredations.
Its strength was in the ability of its ruling elite to develop their city based on trade while surrounded by more powerful and unpredictable neighbours.. As it developed and became more organized, its ruling elite learned how to reach out to these competing powers by assigning their representatives (consuls) to the right places and who were tasked with providing them with the intelligence necessary to allow them to play off the various competing powers against one other and so protect the continued existence and development of their small city. How they did this and what they managed to achieve is the subject of this book.
It is a long book with about 400 pages of text comprising 16 chapters organised into three sections;
Part 1 The History of (Ragusa) Dubrovnik until 1667
Chapter 1 The Origins of Ragusa
Chapter 2 Ragusa under Byzantine Suzerainty to 1205AD
Chapter 3 Under Venetian Rule 1205AD to 1358AD
Chapter 4 Under Hungarian Rule 1358AD to 1433AD
Chapter 5 The Ragusan Republic 1433AD to 1526AD – Protected by the Ottoman Empire
Chapter 6 The Ragusan Empire 1526AD to 1667AD – The Ottoman/Habsburg wars
Part 2 Government Institutions, Merchant Venturing, Political and Cultural Life c 1272-1667
Chapter 7 The Institutions of Government and the Challenges They Faced (c. 1272-1667)
Chapter 8 Merchant Venturing: Economic Development (c. 1272-1667)
Chapter 9 Ragusan Society: Dubrovnik's Social Structure and Mores (c. 1300–c. 1667)
Chapter 10 Religious Life: Ecclesiastical Organization and Spirituality in Dubrovnik (c. 1190-1808)
Chapter 11 Cultural Life: Literature, Scholarship, Painting and Music (c. 1358–c. 1667)
Chapter 12 The Construction of Dubrovnik: Settlement and Urban Planning, Fortification and Defence, Public and Private Building in the
Ragusan Republic (c. 1272-1667)
Part 3 After the Great Erthquake 1667 to 1808
Chapter 13 Death and Resurrection: The Great Earthquake and its Aftermath (1667-1669)
Chapter 14 Sunset Years: Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Life (1669-1792)
Chapter 15. The Fall of the Ragusan Republic: The Background to and Circumstances of the Abolition of the Republic in 1808
Postscript Ragusan Shadows: Episodes from the Later History of Dubrovnik.
The fate of Ragusa was not unlike that of Venice – although it was a very small state which probably controlled no more than about 100 miles of coastline and outlying islands at its height. Politically its governing elite was a patriarchy which in many ways was not dissimilar to that of the early Roman Republic. Its ruling elite consisted of a number of noble families whose members had a rotating responsibility for various institutions of government. In other ways it can be compared with typical semi-independent Italian city states such as Genoa, Pisa, and Florence . It was certainly heavily influenced by the Renaissance and leaned much more towards Italian culture than it did towards that of the East
It was at the height of its powers during the 15th and 16th centuries, but the Portuguese explorations, the discovery of the Americas and the development of alternative trade routes which accelerated with the rise of the Habsburg Empire, and the emergence of large centralized nation states (such as France, Spain, Portugal, England, Austria etc.) meant that Ragusa had to adjust its trading business to the new reality – and the small state had increasing difficulty in dealing with the demands of these large and more powerful states after 1525. It was already in slow decline over the next 140 years and almost received a death blow when a devastating earthquake struck the city in 1667. The recovery from that was remarkable but it never achieved its previous status, and gradually declined much like Venice did until Napoleon Bonaparte gave the order to abolish the republic
I enjoyed the book very much and I learned a lot more about the nature and politics of the individual states which were part of the Yugoslav Republic of during the 20th Century. I now have a much better understanding of the roots of the civil war of the 1990s and can see how those hatreds go back many centuries to a time when Europe was divided between the Holy Roman Empire in the West and the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires in the East.
I had no particular expectations when I started to read this book, but I have to say that once I got into it I really wanted to know where is was going to lead to! I only had one problem in reading the book and that was understanding the location of many of the cities, towns, in the interior of the individual states of the ex-Yugoslavian Republic. There were only two crude maps at the beginning and end of the book - which except for those along the coast line gave me little idea of the nature of the terrain or location of interior communities of Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, etc.
There were a large number of colour plates of various works of art and illustrations of Dubrovnik, as well as a detailed chronology, copious notes and an extensive bibliography. I did check out “A History of Venice” to see what John Julius Norwich had to say about Ragusa, and could only find two passing references! That obviously indicates the real significance
of Ragusa to La Serenissima!
Considering that Ragusa was in reality a rather insignificant state in the grand scheme of things, recommending this book to other readers is perhaps going too far, but I do give it 4 stars because I certainly learnt a lot of important background information about south central Europe in the 12th-18th centuries which I was completely unaware of.