This is Illyria, Lady: A short history of the Adriatic

ImageThe stretch of sea that reaches, like the long neck of a bottle, from the Ionian to the foot of the Alps has been long overdue for its own narrative.  Everyone, it seems, has dipped a toe in its waters. Croatia claims primacy, with remains going back 10,000 years to the Neolithic cooks of Grapc’eva on the island of Hvar.  The Phoenicians (of course) traded along these rich coasts.  Even the Celts had a presence; Philip II of Macedonia was allegedly murdered with a Celtic sword.

The Etruscans and the Greeks were here, and that fascinating group the Illyrians.  The home of romance has real antecedents in these motley seafaring people, trading in the shallow basin between the Apennines and the Balkans.  The Romans took over both shores by the second century BC, but supremacy swayed to and fro between Rome, Constantinople and various invaders for the next millenium.  The Middle Ages were a bewildering patchwork of shifting allegiances.  The most prominent were the Byzantine Empire, the Serenissima, the Habsburg monarchy and the Ottoman Empire.  All of them were centred rather a long way away from the enduring peoples scratching a living from the sea and the terraces.

Along came restless Napoleon, who swept through here on his way east.  The British fought him to a standstill, leading to Austria’s takeover of most of the eastern shores and the Po Valley, which seems to have suited everyone except the French, although the inhabitants weren’t directly consulted.

The Italian Risorgimento, leading to unification, is one of those events that seems not have had a definite beginning or end.  After all, Trieste and Trento only became part of the Italian state after 1918.  At that time, with the end of both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the eastern shore became Yugoslavia and Albania, reaching down to northern Greece.

The Balkan wars of the late twentieth century created four new states along the Adriatic, with Croatia having the longest coastline, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Slovenia  dividing the rest between them.  Albania’s borders remain unchanged but the country itself is undergoing enormous change as it emerges from the Hoxha isolationism.

That’s just one version of the history, and it barely mentions religion. Faith has been a moulding force all around this central part of the Middle Sea.   My major criticism of Challis would be that he pays little attention to the religious divisions haunting these coasts. The complex questions of Islam in Europe are played out here today, way ahead of any discussion about Turkish accession, a fact he does not acknowledge.  Nonetheless, this book is welcome for anyone who is travelling the Adriatic.  Many tourists, it seems, go to one country and buy a guide book just for that.  For Italy there are hundreds, for Albania just the one.  The traveller who wants to spend a bit more time here, especially afloat, is inevitably interested in the story of the Sea itself, and it has been remarkably difficult to find a useful text.  Challis has helpfully provided a timeline, but then explores the Adriatic through chapters devoted to how and why people travelled.  Thus the chapter on naval warfare covers the triremes of Syracuse right up to the siege of Dubrovnik.  That event leads neatly on to consideration of the Adriatic as a sea of refuge and escape, typified not only by Shakespeare, but the experience of Albanian refugees navigating small boats through minefields to reach Italy.

The author illustrates his story with reference to the literary and artistic heritage of the region, and its inspirational role in the creative heritage of the rest of Europe.  As one might expect of the holder of the Morris Chair at the University of Hav, he has a sharp ear for language, making for an entertaining read.  Altogether, this is an excellent introduction for anyone contemplating extended travel in the area.  Challis implies that this is the shortened version of a much longer work he has been planning for years.  I hope that the welcome for this publication encourages him to finish the more academic piece, including a detailed study of the religious history, and make it available for us all.

 A Short History of the Adriatic by Isarin G. Challis (HUP 2012) Scudo20, from

About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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