As the part of Croatia most exposed to influences from elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Dalmatia has had a distinct role in the country’s development, dating back to its colonization by Greeks and Romans. It was the Romans who first gave Dalmatia its name, probably inspired by the Illyrian word delmat, meaning a proud, brave man. Based in cities like Jadera (Zadar) and Salona (Solin, near Split), the Romans nurtured a Latinate urban culture which survived largely unaffected by the fall of the Roman Empire, and was soon reorganized into the Byzantine Province of Dalmatia. The Avar-Slav invasion of 614 destroyed Salona, although a new settlement founded by the fleeing Roman-Illyrian citizenry would eventually become Dalmatia’s largest city, Split. The Byzantines retained control of the coastal strip but increasingly left the hinterland to the Croats, who arrived here soon after the Avars.
By the eleventh century Dalmatia had become part of the Hungaro-Croatian kingdom and an increasing number of Croats moved into Dalmatia’s towns. In 1409 Hungaro-Croatian king Ladislas of Naples sold Dalmatia to Venice, opening up Dalmatia to Renaissance culture. However, the urban elite of fifteenth-century Dalmatia clearly saw themselves as Croats, and were keen to develop the local language as a medium fit for their patriotic aspirations. Prime movers were Marko Marulić of Split, whose Judita (“Judith”) of 1521 was the first ever epic tale “composed in Croatian verse”, as its own title page proclaimed; and Petar Zoranić of Zadar, whose novel Planine (“Mountains”) of 1569 contains a scene in which the nymph Hrvatica (literally “Croatian girl”) bemoans the lack of Dalmatians who show pride in their own language.
Venetian political control went largely unchallenged, however, because of the growing threat of the Ottoman Turks. Ottoman control of the Balkan interior had a serious impact on the make-up of the Dalmatian population, Slavs from Bosnia and beyond fleeing to the coast and its immediate hinterland. Many of those who settled the inland parts of Dalmatia belonged to the Orthodox faith, and were increasingly identified as Serbs when national consciousness became an issue.
The collapse of the Venetian Republic in 1797 was followed by a brief Austrian interregnum until, in 1808, Napoleon incorporated Dalmatia into his Illyrian Provinces, an artificial amalgam of Adriatic territories with its capital at Ljubljana. The French played an important role in Dalmatia’s development, building roads, promoting trade and opening up the region to modern ideas. There’s little evidence that the French were popular, however: their decision to close the monasteries offended local Catholic feeling, and they also dragged Dalmatia into wars with the Austrians and the British, who occupied Vis in 1811.
After 1815, Dalmatia was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire and Italian was made the official language. After the fall of the Habsburgs in 1918, Dalmatia was claimed by both Italy and the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (subsequently Yugoslavia). Yugoslavia received the lion’s share, but fear of Italian irredentism remained strong, especially after Mussolini came to power in 1922. The Italian occupation of Dalmatia between 1941 and 1943 only served to worsen relations between the two communities, and at the war’s end most remaining Italians fled.
The advent of socialism in 1945 failed to staunch major emigration to the New World and Australasia. After World War II, the traditional olive-growing and fishing economy of the Adriatic islands and villages was neglected in favour of heavy industry, producing a degree of rural depopulation which has only partly been ameliorated by the growth of tourism. The arrival of package tourists in the 1960s brought prosperity to the locals, while urban-dwellers from inland cities like Zagreb and Belgrade increasingly aspired to vikendice (“weekend houses”) on the coast, changing the profile of the village population and turning the Adriatic into a vast recreation area serving the whole of Yugoslavia.
During the break-up of Yugoslavia, Dalmatia suffered as much as anywhere else in Croatia. Serbian forces secured control of the hinterland areas around Knin and Benkovac but never quite reached the sea. Coastal hotels soon filled with refugees, however, and the tourist industry wound down owing to lack of custom. With the resumption of peace, tourists were quick to return to their former stomping grounds. Completion of the Zagreb–Split motorway (Autocesta Zagreb–Split) in 2004 placed the coast within easy driving distance of Central Europe, turning Dalmatia into one of the continent’s most cosmopolitan summer playgrounds.