Istria was a country of Europe, forming a triangular peninsula in the northern part of the Adriatic Sea. The Peninsula of Istria stands at the head of the Adriatic, and is separated from the Alps by the hills of the Karst district, a barren, stony desert. The western shore is flat, but the peninsula rises towards the east, and that shore is bold. The only actual mountain is Monte Maggiore, near Fiume, which approaches 5000 ft. in height. It is bounded on the north by the duchy of Carniola, and on the other parts by the Gulf of Trieste, the Gulf of Carnero, or more properly the Channel of Farisina, by which it is separated from the island of Cheso, and by the Adriatic. That portion forming the base of the triangle extends between 80 ;tnd 90 miles in length, from east to west; it stretches between 70 and 80 from north to south; and probably the superficial area may amount to nearly 3500 square miles.
Istria was divided into two districts, the Venetian to the west, and the Austrian to the east; the latter, also called the Littoral district, had pertained, during a long time, to the circle of Austria ; the former was annexed to it also by the treaty of Campo Formio. Several pleasant islands are dispersed along the coast, as the two islands of St. Nicholas, one of which is covered with olives, and the other, nearly five miles in circuit, was full of shrubs, but inhabited only by quarriers, working a coarse grey marble, which is sent to Venice. The island Brioni is likewise celebrated for the same substance.
The history of Istria, which can be obtained only from meagre materials, ascends to a very early date. It is considered to have been one of the Illyrian provinces, but its ancient dimensions are not clearly ascertained. The Colchians, on returning from their celebrated expedition, are supposed to have established themselves here ; and when the country was conquered by the Romans, they found the worship of Isis established in it.
The name "Istria" is derived from the Istro, confounded by the ancient geographers with the Danube (Ister), and therefore supposed to be a branch of it. Considering the testimony of ancient writers as to the migration of Thracians, it appears probable that the Istrians were of these people, a band who left Pontic Istria by ascending the rivers Danube, Save, and Lubiana, crossed the Julian Alps, and descended to the Adriatic. Some such migration may be at the root of the story of the passage of the Argonauts, pursued by the Colchians. In the ninth century B.C. lonians from Miletus settled colonies in Istria, who were followed by Corinthians in 735 BC. It has been claimed that the name " Adriatic " is derived from Adar, the Asiatic sungod, or god of fire. Plenty of stone implements and other prehistoric objects have been found in caves and burial places, and there are many Celtic place-names; the Celts arrived in the fourth or fifth century BC, and contested the country with the older immigrants. Under Roman rule the two peoples ultimately intermixed, the Celts being in the majority.
Closely connected with the conquest of Cisalpine-Gaul was the conquest of the other non-Italian lands within the boundaries of modern Italy. These were Liguria to the south-west of Cisalpine Gaul and Venetia to the north-east. Both these lands held out longer than Cisalpine Gaul; but by the time of Augustus they were all, together with the peninsula of Istria, counted as part of Italy. Istria was conquered by Rome in B.C. 177, and the Roman period was one of prosperity. Istria, like the neighbouring land of Venetia, was actually incorporated with Italy, and Pola, under the name of Pietas Jidia, became a Roman colony.
The country was populous, and throve both in manufactures and agriculture. Istria, when united to the empire, shared in its diversified fortunes, but its history is so much interwoven with that of the neighbouring regions, that the same observation may be applied to both. Crispus, the son of the Emperor Constantine, having been banished to Pola on an accusation of an incestuous passion for his step-mother Fausta, was compelled to swallow poison. The inhabitants, believing him innocent, decreed magnificent obsequies to his memory, and Fausta soon became the victim of her own dissolute conduct. The monuments yet seen in Istria testify the advanced state of the arts} but the decline of the empire admitted new and more barbarous invaders.
Under the just and wise rule of Theodoric the province flourished; but the people always regarded the Goths as barbarians, and when the Byzantines attacked Istria in 539-544 and 552 the troops of Vitalius, Belisarius, and Narses were welcomed. They called the Greek Government "Sancta Respublica," and erected basilicas in gratitude for the freeing of the land from the Arian Goths. Justinian re-established the Roman constitution with certain alterations, among which was the power of appeal to the court of the bishop, which gave him control and surveillance over the municipal functionaries. His power was not supreme, however, the military defence of the frontier being equally important.
The peninsula of Istria, stretching forth into the Peculiar Adriatic Sea at its northern end, whose coast, during of the the sixth century, was still lined with fair cities which 0f istria. owned the sway of the Empire, formed one province with the mainland and islands to the West which bore the name of Venetia1. But this province was now so circumscribed by the conquests of the Lombards, especially in the Western portion, that its full name, 'Venetia et Istria,' was often abbreviated, and it was called 'Istria' alone. The chief city of the province was Aquileia, for which, notwithstanding its awful destruction by Attila, its ecclesiastical supremacy had procured a fresh lease of life, though doubtless with greatly diminished splendor.
Great part of the history of Istria relates to incursions by the barbarians, either beaten off, or successful, with the destruction of towns, and the carrying off of slaves and booty. The descent of the Lombards was followed by a raid of the Avars in 599, but they were beaten off. Three years later they came again in company with Slavs and Lombards. In 611 the Huns or Slovens descended on Istria.in 670 they were defeated near Cividale by Duke Vetturi, and in 718 were conquered in three battles near Lauriana by Duke Pemmo. His son Ratchis copied the bad example of the Huns, sacking and killing far into Carniola. Between 620 and 630 the Serbo-Croats descended from the Carpathians and crossed the Danube by suggestion of Heraclius, driving the Avars from Dalmatia and taking their place. The result of these constant barbarian raids was the concentration of the population in the towns on the sea-coast.
This country at length fell under the dominion of the Venetians in 977. Negotiations were carried on without reference to the Imperial authority, the nominal feudal lord. Walking thus warily, avoiding offence to the Emperor of Germany, Venice took 200 years of continuous political action to acquire the Istrian cities. By 1145 Venice had obtained for herself liberty of commerce in most of the Istrian towns and complete exemption from any kind of taxation.
The mediaeval period was one of constant struggle, Venice, Genoa, Hungary, and Germany all contending for the possession of the peninsula, but whereas Dalmatia retained its vigour and a fitful independence throughout, Istria went under in the 15th century. Venice succeeded the patriarch as overlord of the Istrian communes in 1420, and after this the history of Istria is merged in that of the Republic. Istria never recovered till the Austrian rule re-established its prosperity in the 18th century. More recently it had some participation in the troubles which agitated Europe towards the close of the 19th century.
By the time of the Great War it would be difficult for even an honest census to give an accurate picture of the ethnic complexities of a province like Istria, which has been said to contain more fragments of diverse nationalities than any other province of similar size in Austria, and fragments that generally do not get properly classified in the census because there is no rubric for them. What is one to do with such ethnographic curios as the Chiches, the Morlaks, the Rumenes of Istria — people who do not know what they are themselves, nor can any philologist tell them? One of the best observers of the region discovered no less than thirteen "ethnographic nuances," and such a confusion and intermixture of tongues that even educated people had difficulty in deciding what language they spoke. He found here Croaticized Slovenes, and Slovenized Croats; Croaticized Rumenes, Italianized Croats, and Croaticized Italians; finally a population of whom all that could be said was that their costume was Italian, their manners Slav, and their language a mixture of everything.
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