The Adriatic
The Adriatic
Video Clips

HE Ambassador Zivorad Kovacevic

Talking about the history and political ecology of the Adriatic Sea would require more than a short presentation. Therefore, instead of giving you a long boring speech full of statistical data and references to historical dates, I selected only to sketch some of the salient features of the Adriatic region, the main events in its turbulent and complex demographic and political history, and to illuminate certain historic periods when the unity of the Adriatic society and economy was probably at its zenith.

As an introduction, let me start with some basic facts about the geography of the Adriatic region to set the stage for my stories.

The Adriatic, while sharing the main characteristics of the Mediterranean Sea, is nevertheless somewhat atypical. Longer than it is wide, it is in effect a relatively narrow north-south passage. To the north it is bordered by the flat stretch of coastline from Pesaro and Rimini to the Gulf of Trieste, where the plain of Po meets the Mediterranean. To the west it is bounded by the Italian coast, often low and marshy, although only a short way inland runs the ridge of the Appenines. To the east it is fringed with a string of rocky islands, the Dalmatian Islands, immediately behind which rise the barren mountains of the Balkan land mass, the unending white wall of the Dinaric Alps, forming the edge of the great karst plateau behind the Dalmatian coast. To the south, the Adriatic opens into the Ionian Sea through the narrow (72 km) Strait of Otranto. As early as the 3rd century BC ships could cross it in a day, under full sail with a favourable wind.

It was not always like that. The Mediterranean Sea is a remnant of the vast sea called Tethys which was squeezed, about 30 million years ago, between the crustal plates that carried Africa and Eurasias. The collision of these plates is still in progress and their grinding together causes the eruption of volcanoes such as Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli, and triggering frequent earthquakes occurring in parts of Italy, Greece and Turkey. The most devastating of these happened in about the middle of the 2nd millennium BC when Thera (the modern Santorini is what was left of it) exploded, contributing decisively to the decline and extinction of the high Minoan civilisation in Crete. The ash from the eruption of the Vesuvius in AD 79 that buried Pompeii and Herculanum, the earthquake that devastated Dubrovnik in the 17th century and Kotor in a more recent time, and the occasional rumbling of Etna are reminders that there are destructive forces of nature with which we have to reckon constantly.

Although the first man has probably seen the shores of the Adriatic several hundreds of thousands years ago, only after the end of the last glacial period (about 8,000 years BC), when the shores of the Adriatic Sea took their present shape, do we find material remnants which belonged to bands of hunter-fisher-gatherers that roamed the region and dwelled in its caves and other natural shelters. The first known farming communities appeared around 6,200 BC in Southern Italy, probably as a result of immigration from the Balkans and across the Adriatic Sea.

Classical authors refer to Celts, an ancient ethnic group, as occupying most of the temperate Europe (including what is now the northernmost corned of the Adriatic) during the 1st millennium BC, although they have been probably present there already for several hundreds if not thousands of years. They seem to have been the "fathers" of iron metallurgy and fierce warriors (they have sacked Rome in 390 BC and Delphi in 272 BC).

At about the same time when the Celts dominated the western and central Europe, the northern and eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea was inhabited by another ancient group, the Illyrians, a people of Indo-European stock, who are considered as ancestors of present-day Albanians. The arrival of Illyrians predated the establishment of Hellenic colonies along the Adriatic coast (between the 7th and the 3rd century BC), most of them on the eastern shores and many of them the nuclei of some modern cities .

The Romans, originating from a mix of unrelated ethnic groups (including the Etruscans), from their modest beginning (according to their tradition, Rome was founded in 753 BC) gradually developed into a formidable imperial power spreading from the Italian peninsula in all directions. The Illyrians were among their fist victims and by the closing of the millennium the Romans became the undisputed masters on the eastern shores of the Adriatic and in its hinterland. After the Roman conquest of Illyria, the Greek colonies along the eastern shores of the Adriatic became gradually Romanised and new Roman settlements sprung up in many places. The Illyrians, though defeated militarily, seem to have been able people, as attested by several Roman emperors who came from Illyrian stock. Diocletian, the founder of modern Split, is the most famous among them.

With the Roman military conquest of the Mediterranean world and the expansion of Hellenic and Roman settlements the way was open for cultural exchanges leading to a single cultural and economic area which left a lasting imprint on the Adriatic region. The civilisation fostered and promoted by Romans provided a vehicle not only for transmission of ideas, technology and institutions, but above all for diffusion of Christianity which became a powerful unifying bond in the Adriatic region.

But nothing lasts forever. Under the pressure of various people who moved into the European space (Vandals, Huns, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and others), and due to internal weaknesses of the ageing system, the Roman Empire started to crumble. The decay was gradual, punctuated with temporary successes and various administrative reforms, including the division of the Empire into the Eastern and Western Roman Empire in 395. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire (in 476) to the Visigoths, the former Illyrian provinces became part of the Eastern Roman Empire based on Constantinopolis. The Eastern Roman Empire, known also as the Byzantine Empire, proved to be more resilient. It lasted until 1453, when its capital fell to the Ottoman Turks, but not before it was sacked by Crusaders (in 1204) who came to protect it against the Ottomans.

Compared with the turbulent events on the eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea, the further development on the western shores was relatively uneventful: the invading people gradually became Romanised and became the modern day Italians. Not so on the eastern shores.

A key event that deeply and permanently marked the further developments on the eastern shores was the arrival of Slav tribes on the Balkan Peninsula between the 6th and the 8th century. They gradually overwhelmed and at least partly absorbed the native non-Slav population of their new homeland and coalesced into what became several distinct national groups: the Slovenes at the northernmost corner of the Adriatic; the Croats, Muslims and the Serbs in the central Balkan (with Croats settling most of the eastern shoreline and the adjacent islands); and the Montenegrins in the south, adjacent to the Albanians. The romanised and helenised inhabitants of coastal cities, which were, at that time, mainly under Byzantine influence or dominion, fell also under the sway of the newcomers.

For several centuries the Slavs were ruled by their native princes and kings, independently or under various forms of association with powers of those days (the Byzantine Empire, the Kings of Hungary, the Holy Roman Emperor, the Republic of Venice) until most of them lost their independence, particularly after the advances of the Ottoman Empire on the Balkans. The only Slav territory that could be considered as having retained its independence was the Republic of Dubrovnik. Of course, the situation was more complex than related above because, in addition to the players mentioned above, the eastern shores of the Adriatic were also exposed to the power play of every imaginable political and military force: the savage Tatars, the Normans, the Frank knights, the Genoese corsairs, the marauding Vikings, the haughty Spaniards, assorted Crusaders , the Saracens and other pirates from Barbary, the French "liberators" , etc. And as if it were not enough, the doctrinaire differences and the rivalry between the Catholic and Orthodox churches - which led, in 1054, to formal breach between Rome and Constantinople lasting to our days - were an important political factor complicating the life on the eastern shores of the Adriatic.

The emergence of Venice deserves, at this point, our special attention. However, we have to make a wider look at the world affairs to understand the circumstances which made it possible for a seemingly unimportant settlement in the marshy lagoons established by desperate refugees after their town (Acquileia) was sacked by Huns in 452, to become the "masters" of the Adriatic region. At the beginning, they certainly must have had a hard life although the lagoons and the surrounding marshes provided adequate protection from their enemies and sufficient food for their survival at a subsistence level. But the circumstances had radically changed by the turn of the millennium.

Between the 10th and the 13th century, Western Europe underwent a series of profound material and social changes on a scale not seen again until the industrial revolution. These changes coincided with the onset of drier and colder climate, which favoured the growth of cereals. The rise in production was dramatic, mainly thanks to an increase in the areas under arable land. This in turn sustained a rapid demographic growth. It is estimated that over three centuries the population of Europe doubled, reaching about 60 million people. The food surplus and the increased population led to growth of existing towns and to establishment of numerous new townships with new forms of organisation of trades and new political structures. The urban economy was increasingly tied up with lucrative long-distance trade of goods. The entire European economy was particularly stimulated by trade between two complementary economic zones: on one hand the Italian ports with their trading links with the Levant, and on the other the emerging north-western European trading and manufacturing centres.

The Adriatic Sea and Venice in particular, by their geographic position, gradually found themselves in the very centre of this trade channel. The period between the 14th and 17th centuries is, therefore, probably the most colourful and fascinating historic period of the Adriatic region and an excellent example illustrating the interwoven character of its past in which Venice, Dubrovnik and Corfu played a very significant role. Since we have just left Corfu, and are heading towards Dubrovnik to end our pilgrimage in Venice, let me give you a short sketch of this period.

Historically, the control of narrow passage at Otranto amounted to control of the Adriatic, politically, economically and militarily. But the gateway to the Adriatic could not be controlled from the Italian side. It was the opposite Balkan coast, which commanded the Adriatic. In fact, the key position was further south, on Corfu. In the centuries when the Adriatic represented one of the major word trade routes, to enter or leave the Adriatic usually meant sailing past Corfu. Venice possessed the island since 1386 and its Senate considered it as the "heart" of the Republic "regarding shipping as much as any other aspect".

For centuries Venice, the "Queen of the Adriatic", as the pre-eminent mercantile and maritime power of its time, linked the traffic of goods between central Europe and the Levant, and policed the sea using a fleet of galleons with skill and brutality, depending on circumstances. It demanded that all goods carried in the Adriatic must pass through Venice, a request that could be hardly approved by today's World Trade Organisation.

However, the Signoria was unable to prevent her larger neighbours from using the Adriatic: the Ottomans were in Vlore (Valona); the Spanish in Naples: the Papacy at Ancona and later in Ferrara and Urbino; the House of Austria at Trieste. Finally, there was Dubrovnik with its fleet of merchantmen. The tenacious Republic of St. Blasius played on its double status as protιgι of the Papacy and vassal of the Sultan. This neutral position was useful; Venice could not afford to ignore it and ships under the flag of Dubrovnik almost always passed unharmed.

Venice's supremacy in the Adriatic was further challenged by a colourful band of pirates, the Uskoks from Senj and Trieste, only a stone's throw from Venice. They were Slav and Albanian adventurers, continually reinforced by various outlaws. There was little the Venetians could do against the harassment and attacks of their tiny boats rowed at high speed, so light that that they could use the shallowest channels between the Dalmatian islands where the heavy Venetian galleys dared not follow them. The support the Uskoks had (today we would call it "patronage") from the House of Habsburgs in its efforts to loosen the grip of Venice on the Adriatic trade was essential for their successful and lucrative operations.

In order to protect her mercantile interests, and to meet the ever-present threat from Ottoman attacks, a string of Venetian outposts and coastal watch-towers ran along the shores of Istria, Dalmatia and Albania, as far as the Ionian islands and beyond. However, these frontier positions of Venice, most of them based on former Hellenic and Roman colonies, were merely a string of tiny settlements. The populations of the towns rarely exceeded a few thousand: in 1576 Zadar had just over 7000 inhabitants, Split just under 4000, Kotor only about a thousand after 1572. The "Adriatic Empire" of Venice was insignificant in demographic terms, compared with Venice and its hinterland, the Terraferma, the population of which was estimated about the same time as one and a half million.

In spite of all its efforts, Venice gradually lost its character as the exclusive Adriatic trading centre and by the end of the 17th century the trade with the hinterland fell increasingly in the hands of the growing community of travelling merchants and peddlers who were in touch with the privateers and commerce bypassing Venice.

The examples mentioned are a testimony and proof of the unity of the Adriatic region, a unity that was as much cultural and economic as it was political, and whose predominant flavour was Italian. This is not to suggest that Dalmatia, Corfu or the Albanian coast were 'Italian' in the sense that apologists of racial expansion would have understood it. The eastern coast is today inhabited by Slav population, Albanians and Greek in Corfu. And so it was in the 16th century in spite of superficial appearances.

At Dubrovnik at that time, 'Italianism' was a commodity: Italian was the commercial language and lingua franca of the entire Mediterranean. But fashion and snobbery into it as well. Not only was it considered desirable that the sons of noble families should go to study at Padua and that the secretaries of the republic should be fluent in Latin and Italian, but the ruling families unhesitatingly invented Italian genealogies for themselves. In fact, of course, these gentes were descended from some mountain Slav, the italianized names betray their Slav origins, the coastal population continued to be drawn from the Slav hinterland, Slav were the familiar and spoken languages of the ordinary people and even the elite. The registers of the republic frequently record strict orders to speak only Italian at the assemblies; if an order was necessary, clearly Slav languages were being spoken.

It is certain that the Adriatic region of the 16th century was attracted by the sophisticated civilisation of the nearby Appenin peninsula, and drawn into its orbit. Dubrovnik was a town of Italian art. Michelozzo and others worked there, along with artists and architects born in Dalmatia. And yet it was the one least influenced by Venice, since except for a very brief period it had always been an independent republic.

But the Adriatic was not exclusively Italian. It was open to influences from many sides and its civilisation was profoundly complex. Eastern, particularly Byzantine artistic and architectural influences are felt everywhere, even in the very heart of Venice. If Dalmatia remained loyal to Venice, it was because its loyalty lay basically beyond the Signoria, with Rome and the Catholic Church. Even a town like Dubrovnik, so aware of its own interests, firmly surrounded by the Orthodox and Ottoman world, was remarkable for its fervent Catholicism.

The eastern shores of the Adriatic mean more than idyllic landscapes of vines and olive trees and urbanised villages, overlooked by high mountain ranges in the hinterland. In contrast with the situation in the hinterland, only a modest living could be made on the rocky land of these shores. Therefore, people always had to turn to the sea to make their living as fishermen and, particularly, as seamen, traders and temporary or permanent economic emigrants. This made them familiar with the affairs of the world and wide open to cultural and other influences of the world that surrounded them. The wide-ranging contacts with other civilisations made them curious, sensitive and perceptive and, in turn, they became more understanding and tolerant towards the other nations, other religious feelings, and other customs. They did not strive to build territorial empires as their kindred tribes in the hinterland did. They wanted to live in piece and to be allowed to go about their business. These traits in the mentality of coastal population are very much in evidence until our days.

Against this historic background one has difficulties to understand the motives and forces behind the dark sides of the recent history and the tragic destructive events that shook the Balkans, including the eastern Adriatic coast, a decade ago. Towns of no military significance, such as Dubrovnik, were savagely attacked, and people who for the first time in their history lived almost fifty years in undisturbed peace are today separated by state borders. Did it make them happier, emotionally richer or more prosperous? I doubt it.


Until now, I was focusing on the political and economic history of the Adriatic region but it was always closely linked with environmental problems. Let me give you a few examples:

Fish was, of course, an important source of food for all coastal people, but to secure sufficient supply of agricultural products was always one of the main preoccupations of the coastal cities. Importing grain from far away was a solution that could have been practised reliably only by strong trading centres, such as Venice and Dubrovnik. The importance of maintaining sufficient food reserves is illustrated by the granaries built in these cities and the attention paid by the cities' rulers that the granaries are well stocked all the time. Other cities were not so lucky and tried to get their food supply from nearby land. However, land that could be cultivated is very limited along the coast. The coastal plains are mostly associated with estuaries, prone to frequent flooding and covered with extensive swamps and marshes unsuitable for agriculture without expensive hydraulic works.

To conquer the coastal plains has been the dream of the Mediterranean man since the dawn of history but taming swamps proved to be a far more demanding task than turning forests and scrublands into arable land. Even Venice realised that it can not rely only on grain trade and search for new arable land became of early public concern. The low-lying regions of Venetian countryside, which are also the richest and most populated, were the object of frequent improvements beginning before the end of the 15th century. These costly schemes were, however, marred by serious setbacks and even real human, ecological and economic catastrophes: massive floods due to burst dykes; drowning of people and property; destruction of crops. Obviously, it was not easy: Montaigne, writing in 1581, described the surrounding of Venice and the adjacent river valleys as "an infinite expanse of muddy sterile country covered with reeds".

In the case of Venice the fight for arable land was combined with fight against siltation of the lagoons on which Venice is built. The lagoons were created in estuaries of rivers flowing from the Alps by deposits carried by these rivers (Piave, Sila, Brenta). However, continuous inflow of deposits threatened the lagoons and the riverbeds had to be diverted to prevent the lagoons from filling up.

While the Venetian hinterland appears today as a well managed and protected arable land, and the lagoons are free from excessive siltation, disastrous floods can still occur in the Venetian hinterland, as it happened in the early 70s of the last century.

As in Venice, the reclamation of coastal areas for agriculture, estuaries in particular, was practised also elsewhere, although the swamps of Istrian rivers and the estuary of Neretva were brought under control only in the 20s and 60s of the last century.

The reclamation of coastal swampy areas had an important side effect, which was initially not fully understood and appreciated. Namely, by decreasing areas under swamps there was a marked drop in malaria, which was rampant in the vicinity of swampy areas as they provided fertile breeding ground for the mosquitoes that carried the cause of the illness.

The reduction of estuarine areas and elimination of swamps and other wetlands may seem as man's victory over nature. But this victory has a high environmental price tag. Estuaries and wetlands are the home of a rich variety of plant and animal life. Moreover, the wetlands on the fringes of the Adriatic Sea served, from time immemorial, as the natural wintering grounds for many migratory birds from the continental Europe and as places of stopover for many species migrating between Northern Europe and Africa. By the reduction of the Adriatic wetlands the normal life cycle of these birds has been disrupted with far reaching consequences for the European migratory birds.

Swamps and wetlands was not the only natural environment that suffered from "development". The vegetation cover of the Dinaric Alps became the victim of man's need for timber. These Alps, and the islands along the coast, have been once covered with considerable forests which were exploited to provide fuel-wood and building material. The natural growth of the forests would have easily met the needs of the small local communities but it is believed that the demand for wooden poles on which the Venetian houses are built and for timber used for the construction of the Republic's galleys led to almost total destruction of the forest. Once the protective forest cover was gone, the rains and winds removed the topsoil and, as you will see when we sail along the Dalmatian coast, the mountains and many of the islands look quite barren.

Water was always a scarce and therefore precious commodity along the eastern shores, particularly on the islands. In previous centuries in many places rainwater collected during the rainy season was the only water available for drinking and cooking. Naturally, today most communities are served with networks of piped water, but the legacy of the recent hostilities and politics created some bizarre problems. For instance, Hercegnovi, a lovely coastal resort, was traditionally supplied with water from sources near Trebinje by a pipeline passing through Konavle. You may not see the problem unless you become aware that today the source of the water, a segment of the pipeline and the end-user are in three different sovereign states: in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Croatia, and in Montenegro. The borders between these three newly created states cut across the previously well-integrated water supply system and often hinder the smooth delivery of water to Herzegnovi.

The problems with fishing and navigation rights are additional examples for the linkage between politics and environment.

The problem with fisheries is an old one. For political reasons the coastal states of the Adriatic did not determine the extent of their Exclusive Economic Zones, as envisaged by the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Thus everybody and nobody is responsible to safeguard the fish stocks and regulate their exploitation. The net result of such situation is that most stocks are overexploited. Moreover, there are frequent quarrels involving fishing boats from Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, as well as the police and legal authorities of these countries. The fining and confiscation of Italian boats by Croatian authorities due to illegal fishing in Croatian waters is a common event.

With the creation of new states of Croatia and Slovenia their maritime border became a hotly disputed controversial political issue, unresolved for the last 10 years. Aside from bearing on fishing rights, the dispute revolves around the insistence of Slovenia to have a direct access (navigation rights) to the high seas of the Adriatic.

In spite of the examples mentioned before about the poor cooperation between the coastal states of the Adriatic, there are also some encouraging signs indicating that the situation is, after all, gradually changing and regional cooperation is on upswing. Common environmental problems that can not be solved by individual countries alone are a fertile ground for cooperation. An example of such cooperation is a joint initiative of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Albania for municipal solid waste management in the Eastern Adriatic region. The initiative will be the subject of a separate presentation at this symposium.


My presentation was not intended as an exhaustive and detailed account of the historic events that shaped the present political scene of the Adriatic region. Neither was it intended to review the environmental problems of more recent origin, such as the massive destruction of coastal areas by unplanned or ill-planned development schemes, the pollution from land based sources threatening the traditionally clean sea, the frequent forest fires, or the threats from the predicted impact of global climate change.

What I wanted to convey is that since the antiquity the Adriatic region was a crossroad of civilisations and home for a unique multicultural and multiethnic community sharing a multitude of common problems but also a distinctly common destiny. Today this destiny seems to be inspired by a widespread desire for the whole region to be integrated into a wider European cultural and economic space, where borders between countries will cease to be borders between people.