The Roman Conquest of Istra
The writers of ancient times make it clear that the Histrians (Histri) were well known for piratical activities. This was one of the main excuses for the Romans to conduct their first campaign against them as early as 221 BC, after they had conquered the north of Italy and the territory of the Veneti. To strengthen their defences the Romans created the military settlement of Aquileia/Oglej. The Histrians rightly regarded this as a threat to their independence, and in 181 tried to prevent the building of the settlement. They were defeated, but the peace did not last for long. 'King' Aepulo (whose name to the Romans resembled a Latin word which means a party-goer or even a drunkard), an uncompromising ruler, eager to fight, took the leadership of the Histrians and immediately began preparing to resist. The Romans sent an army against him in 178 BC, with expectations that were at first not fulfilled. On the contrary, one foggy morning the Histrians shrewdly surprised and routed it, so much so that the Romans had to abandon on the field of battle all their supplies of food and wine. This, however, was in turn fatal for the Histrians, who despite their physical superiority and warlike ardour were, according to contemporary descriptions, much given to dissolute habits. As a result, by late afternoon they were in a complete drunken stupor and were easily defeated, many being killed and the survivors taken captive.
Nonetheless this was not the definitive defeat of the Histrians. After the initial setback, the Romans subdued them only after receiving very substantial reinforce-ments from Rome. The decisive battle took place in 178-177 BC near the legendary Nesactium. For a long time the Histrians put up a resistance from their tribal, political and religious centre. But when the Romans diverted the river that for protection circled the fortifications, the Histrians became convinced that it was a miracle-'miraculo terruit abscissae aquae', as it was described by the Roman historian Livy-and seized by panic, in order that they should not be taken alive, they started killing their women and children and throwing them over the walls in front of their horrified enemies. King Aepulo also, like so many of his fearless warriors, died by his own hand, run through by his own sword.
The few who survived were taken prisoner by the Romans and became slaves. Even though the Histrians still put up a resistance in the fortresses of Mutila and Faveria, which the Romans completely destroyed after the battle just described, the defeat near Nesactium decisively ended the independence of Istra. The two days of popular festivities which were organised in Rome provided a tangible proof of the importance that the Romans gave to this victory over the Histrians.
Istra under Roman Rule
The Romans at first entrusted Istra to the authority of the governor of Gallia, who was charged with administering civil and military affairs. A third of the land became property of the State (ager publicus), and hence it could be claimed that the Romans carried out the first agrarian reform in Istra. The Istrans were particularly damaged by the prohibition of trade, which provoked repeated revolts against the authorities.
This is an indication that the Istrans were still not completely subdued, since the Romans at first had occupied only the towns of the coastal strip inherited from the Greeks and from the Histrians. In the interior of the peninsula the Illiro-Celtic Histrians continued for a long time to put up resistance from their forts until the Romans, during their centuries of domination, gradually succeeded in Romanising them-thanks principally to the spread of the large estates (latifundia) where the land was cultivated by serfs and by foreign colonists.
Labin, Roman tombstone (P Petronio, Memorie ...)
The three main coastal cities, which had self government, with a Curia (the local Senate) and elected administrators headed by two duumviri, also governed the vast Istran hinterland: Trieste/Trst administered the territory stretching between the rivers Timava/Timavo and Mirna/Quieto, Poreč the territory between the Mirna and the Limski Kanal/Leme Channel, and from here southwards there spread the territory
Cover illustration of the work by G.R. Carli, Delle antichita' italiche II,
taken from a Roman tombstone, which is now lost
By the time of Gaius Julius Caesar the border of Italy had been shifted to the Timava (Timavus) river. Shortly after his assassination the border was shifted to the river Rižana, then between 27 and 12 BC the emperor Augustus (formerly known as Octavian) moved the frontier of Italy to the river Raša (Arsa) and founded the so-called Tenth region of Italy - Venetia and Istria (Decima regio Italiae Venetia et Histria).
In this way almost the whole of the Istran peninsula was absorbed into the Italy of that time as a region on its own, where Istra was not subordinate to Venetia but only coupled with it. The eastern border of the province followed a line which went approximately from the Triglav mountain to Nanos and Snežnik, then alongside the river Raša to the Gulf of Kvarner/Quarnero. As Roman citizens, the Istrans were on a par legally, economically and culturally with the inhabitants of Rome and therefore they were exempted from specified taxes and services-that is to say they were privileged by comparison with other inhabitants of the Roman Empire.
The Romans conquered the territory to the east of the Raša, the so-called Liburnia, after 50 BC, but the territory between the Raša and Trsat/Tersatto was annexed to Italy only about 167 AD following the incursions of the Quadi and the Marcomanni and the wars with them that followed. However, no later than the end of the 5th century, when Roman power was declining, the border returned to the Raša. Evidence of the continuity of the border on the Raša river between Istra and Liburnia and between Istra and Dalmatia may also be found in the work of the emperor and Byzantine historian Constantine Porphyrogenitus, according to whom in 950 Istra to the east of the Raša and the Clana was part of Croatia.
From the second half of the 2nd century to the fall of the Western Empire (476), all the territory stretching as far as Ljubljana (Emona) and the Triglav area was also administratively part of Italy.
The Economy, Commerce and Industrial Production
The Romans brought prosperity to the region. There are many architectural remains which bear witness to this, especially at Trieste, Poreč and Pula, where even today one can admire the amphitheatre, the Arch of the Sergii and the temple of Augustus, besides various inscriptions and mosaics which are clear evidence of the vibrant cultural life of the region. Pula had become a prominent centre and many patrician Romans had properties and summer residences around the city, as elsewhere in Istra. The province was popular with veteran soldiers who received land there, and also with Roman investors; as is well known, the Romans did not like having underdeveloped provinces, for the simple reason that one could not trade with the poor.
By the side of the already prosperous agriculture of the area (whose principal products were wine, oil, oysters and wool sent from large Istran properties to regions to the north and to Mediterranean ports), handicrafts also developed. Cochineal colours were produced on the islands near Rovinj/Rovigno, a big woollen mill was located near Pula/Pola, on the Brioni islands textile manufacturing took place, whilst near Fazan/Fasana a full scale brick factory has been discovered -probably a branch of the Lombard brick factory at Vercelli. All over the province kilns were flourishing for the production of coarse and fine pottery, given that Istra abounded in the respective primary materials. At Črvar/Cervera near Poreč amphoras were produced specially for the emperors. Southern Istra was also rich in flinty sand, a fundamental primary material for the production of glass, the extraction of which has been established in a number of locations. An activity of outstanding importance was the quarrying of the Istran stone used for the most noble monuments.
Roman roads in Istra (drawn by M. Baldini, in A. Šonje, Putevi ...)
Commerce too contributed to the rapid Romanization of the population, since with the development of commercial traffic, the inhabitants of the various parts of the immense empire came to the province. The furthering of this activity necessitated a good network of roads and in Istra commercial traffic established two principal arteries which of course also satisfied military requirements.
The first, the so-called Via Gemina, went from Aquileia and Trieste through the Karst to Materija, Obrov, Lipa and Klana, from where, near Rijeka, it descended towards Trsat to continue along the Dalmatian coast. The second, the so-called Via Flavia, went from Trieste, crossing the Rižana, the Dragonja and, at Ponte Porton, the biggest Istran river the Mirna, it reached the Limski Channel, Dvigrad, Bale, Vodnjan and Pula. Here the road turned towards Visače, reaching the Raša, and crossing the river, continued as a local road through Labin and Plomin as far as Kastav, where it joined at an angle with the already mentioned Via Gemina. The network of roads was in general completed by linking roads which joined the Istran towns with the Via Flavia..
Two more main roads left the commercial and military centre of Aquileia, and traversed what was then and in the middle ages Istran territory, the more important being that which passed through Vipaccio and Ajdovščina and then led in the direction of Ljubljana, or towards Prem. However, by the end of Roman rule Aquileia became a centre of a very different type, a centre for the diffusion of Christianity.
The Diffusion of Christianity in Istra
There is no doubt that, after Rome, the most important centre for the dissemination of Christianity in Western Europe was Aquileia. As an approximation it is possible to date the appearance of Christian communities in Istran cities in the middle or in the second half of the 3rd century. There is historical evidence of the persecution of Christians in Aquileia and in Istra as early as the time of the Emperor Diocletian, when at least fourteen Christians died as martyrs. A genuine Istran saint from the 3rd century, who died a martyr's death, was Saint Servul from Socerb/San Servolo, while a number of more or less apocryphal saints are also known in Istra, particularly Saint Sergej (Sergius) from Črni Kal. The veneration of these two saints spread widely in surrounding areas as well, the former being much venerated in the Veneto, whilst even today Trieste bears as its city crest the halberd of St Sergius.
Because it was the point of contact between Italy and Illyria and the point of convergence of the sea and land routes leading there from the various parts of the empire, the spiritual aspect of Christianity took many forms in Istra. The Christian communities of the area originally had ethnic, cultural and spiritual traits which were more eastern in nature, but in that period began to acquire values which were more Western and Latin.
In Istra Christianity was at first limited to the cities, perhaps involving also people in nearby areas, while the population of the countryside was almost completely pagan.
The altar of the Italico-byzantine basilica at Old Muggia/Milje
Only after this victory, in the last decades of the 4th century, was the ecclesiastical organisation completed with the integration of the fundamental network of bishoprics (in theory every Roman city had a bishop's seat) and the configuration of the metropolitan system. Almost all the territory where at a later stage the Alpine Slavs would settle, as well as Istra and Venice, were part of the metropolitan church of Aquileia as early as the 4th century, even though the bishop of Aquileia gained the title of 'metropolitanus episcopus Venetiae' only in 442.
The irresistible rise of Christianity during this time is also documented by the material sources. The second half of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century was in fact a period of intense construction of churches in the territory of Aquileia and Istra (Aquileia, Grado/Gradež, Trieste, Poreč, Vrsar/Orsera, Pula). Evidently all the Christian communities in the cities, and also in major towns in the countryside, had their own seats of worship, in major cities even many seats.
In this period the church of Aquileia reached its maximum splendour, which manifested itself also in the flourishing of Christian literature, which grew in the circle of ascetics in Aquileia after 370. The highest expression of such literature was the great Jerome, born in the locality of Stridone, at the meeting of Istra, Pannonia and Dalmatia. Stridone is also the medieval name of the village of Zdrenj/Sdregna near Buzet, where the majority of Italian historians in the past placed the birthplace of the saint. However, the place of birth of this famous Christian writer has been much debated by ecclesiastical writers and recently R Bratož, in an extract from his book Zgodovina Cerkve na Slovenskem (History of the Church in Slovenia), published in 1991, has accepted the latest theory, in his opinion well-founded, according to which the place was located in the area of Čičarija, between Starad, Šapjane and Žejane.
Up to the end of the 6th century the following bishoprics were established in Istra: Trieste, Koper/Capodistria, Novigrad/Cittanova, Poreč, Cissa (?) and Pula, and up to the 10th century Pedena (Pićan) also, in central Istra. The areas of jurisdiction of the medieval dioceses became the basis for the administrative arrangements and delineation of borders in the centuries to come.