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The earliest inhabitants of Montenegro were the Illyrians and Indo-European people. They were living predominantly in the area of the Dinaric Alps. The Illyrians were crude and warlike highlanders, shepherds known for their excellent cheese, and who buried their dead in large mounds on hilltops. Nevertheless, the one who lived by the sea gradually became skillful corsair. They were organized in large tribes under their “kings” who, periodically managed to form wider coalitions and attack their neighbors. The most powerful amongst the tribes were the Aradeans, notorious for their pirating and settled in the coastal area between the River Neretva in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Gulf of Kotor. The Enheleans also lived by the sea, inhabiting the area from Rhizon (today Risan), one of the most important Illyrian towns, to Buthua (Budva).


The Labeates inhabited the area around Lake Skadarsko, which is mentioned in Latin texts as the “Labeatian Lake” with the important town here being Scodra (Shkoder) and Meteon (Medun). The Docleates was centered around the town of Doclea close to present-day Podgorica. The north of Montenegro was inhabited by the Autariataes whose memory remains preserved in the name of the River Tara, and by the Pirustes who were known as skillful miners and therefore probably lived around Pljevlja, the area rich in ore. Fully justifying their reputation the first historical event in Illyrian history was a war. In 231 BC King Argon and his Queen Teuta, at the head of a coalition centered around the Aradeans, led a fleet of lightships in the sacking of Adriatic and Ionian islands. The Greeks called for the help of the Romans who quickly defeated the Illyrians, extending their influence to the eastern Adriatic coast for the first time.


Rome’s crisis in war with Hannibal created the opportunity for Illyrian King Gentius of Labeates to join forces with the Macedonian and act against the Romans, but he was defended in 168 BC and taken to Rome to be displayed in triumph. Thus perished organized Illyrian resistance, though the Roman influence remained effective only along the coast while the interior wasn’t subdued until Christ’s birth. After fully subjugating the Balkan Peninsula the Roman Empire started to build on its influence by means of roads, trade, and colonization of Roman citizens. During the following centuries, most of the native population gradually became Romans, embracing Latin language and Roman goods together with the benefits of civilized living in a great empire. The territory of Montenegro, as part of the province of Dalmatia, lived its life almost undisturbed until the turbulent 4th century AD. At the beginning of this country, in 305 AD, the southernmost part of Dalmatia was separated into a new province Prevalitana, which included most of present-day Montenegro, and which later contrasted to Dalmatia became part of East Roman Empire.


By this time Christianity had spread across the province and firmly established itself in the littoral. The final blow to the Roman way of life was inflicted by barbarian invasions. Though only briefly passing through the territory of present-day Montenegro, Visigoths and Ostrogoths plundered as they went bringing insecurity and announcing the arrival of the dark ages. By far the greatest change in the history of the region came with the Slavic invasion at the beginning of the 6th century. These numerous newcomers from the north, together with the Asiatic Avars broke the borders of the Empire and spilled across the Balkans. Contrary to the other barbarians who looted and then continued further, Slavs were intended on settling the territories. By 602 AD their raids reached the Adriatic coast, and in the next decade, all but the strongest of the towns were taken and destroyed.


Among the Slavic tribes on the west of the Balkans, the most powerful were the Serbs, who took the upper hand over the other Slavs and formed six states, three of which lay on the territory of present-day Montenegro. The most important of these three was Duklja, named after the ruined town Doclea. Duklja lay around Lake Skadarsko, incorporating the plain of the River Zeta and stretching along the coast from Kotor to Shkoder in present-day Albania. The northern tip of the coast was a part of Travunija the reached Dubrovnik and has its seat in Trebinje. The whole of the mountainous part of Montenegro became known simply as Serbia (later also called Raška) with the valley of river Lim as its center. In the second part of the 9th c. these states adopted Christianity on the basis of a Slavic liturgy created by the Greek brothers Cyril and Methodus, often dubbed the “Apostles of the Slavs”. Nevertheless, the proximity of these principalities of Constantinople left them open to both influences which were absorbed in equal measure is despite the increasing differences between them in the following centuries. Hence it was that Papal influence was prevalent in the maritime states while the interior clung to Eastern Orthodoxy.


In the 9th and 10th, c. these states struggled for survival against their mightier neighbors, the Byzantine Empire, and the Bulgarians. At the end of this period lived the ruler of Duklja Prince Jovan Vladimir, who died in 1018 as a martyr at the hands of the Bulgarian Emperor. The year of his death he saw the Byzantines regaining control over Balkan including Duklja. Vladimir left no heir but under the Vojisavljević dynasty in the 11th c. Duklja emerged as a leader among the Serbian states. Its founder was Stefan Vojislav (990-1055) who escaped from Byzantine captivity to his homeland, forced out the imperial troops, and managed to defeat two armies sent against him. His son Mihailo Vojisavljević (1046-1081) ruled in relative peace and was even crowned king. Although to the outside world Duklja seemed like one state under a Slavic king and actually had two distinctive characters. On one side were the Latins, descendants of the Romans who escaped to the fortified towns where they organized their own communities and who were usually artisans, traders, and priests, on the other side were the predominant Slavs, inhabiting the countryside and engaging in agriculture and livestock breeding.


The last important ruler of the Vojislavljević lineage King Constantine Bodin (1081-1101), the son of King Mihailo Vojisavljević, who for a brief period united all Serbs stated under his rule but then succumbed to consecutive Byzantine attacks. His successors were weak figures unable to restore the former glory of Duklja. During the 12th c., the name “Duklja” faded and was given to name Zeta after the river of the same name. The supremacy among the Serb states now passed on the Raška which contested Byzantium in installing rulers to the Duklja'ss throne. This trend ended with Stefan Nemanja (1168-1199), who in the 1180s united all Serbs states (except Bosnia) under his rule. The territory of Montenegro constituted the core of his state. The Nemanjić dynasty remained for the next two centuries, during which period the character of the land was changed for good.


Nemanja gave the rule over Duklja to his eldest son Vukan while he left the throne to his other son, Stefan. After his death, the two clashed over the throne but were pacified by their youngest brother, the monk Sava, later known as St Sava. Nemanja’s legacy was strengthened when in 1217 Stefan got the crown from the Pope, an act that earned him international recognition. Two years later (1219) Sava secured the independence of the Serb Orthodox Church from Byzantium and spread the network of churches, monasteries, and Orthodox bishoprics. Even though Nemanjić rulers were highly tolerant of Catholicism, their strong support for the Orthodox church meant that in the next two countries Catholicism lost ground and was present only inside the city walls of Latin maritime communes, which retained their old autonomies. Of these towns it was Kotor that profited the most, expanding its estates while its merchants roamed across the country controlling much of its trade.


Peace, stable central power and is a codified legal system meant growth in all fields. New churches and monasteries were founded and the schools were opened and books transcribed, the population rose and new villages grew beside the old ones. The first mine to be opened after almost a thousand years was Brskovo by present-day Mojkovac, managed by Saxon miners and populated with traders from Kotor and Dubrovnik, who profited from its silver. In the 14th century, Zeta enjoyed the status of a large fiefdom ruled by the queen-mother or by the heir to the throne. The territory of Montenegro gradually lost its importance as the borders of Serbia were expanded to the east and the south. The height of this expansion was reached under Stefan Dušan (1308-1355) who assumed the title of Emperor. However, Dušan’s son Stefan Uroš V ( called “ The Weak”, 1336-1371), as it turned out of last Nemanjićs, lost control over the mighty barons who disregarded his authority and usurped royal privileges. These unruly attitudes came at the worst time, just as the Ottoman Turks pushed deeper into the Balkans.


The north and the west of present-day Montenegro were for a period of time ruled by the house Altomanović, whose power was annexed by Bosnia. In the Littoral, virtually out of the blue, appeared the three Balšić brothers who started as pretty landowners but within only a decade managed to become rulers of the area stretching from the Adriatic to Prizren in Kosovo and from Trebinje in Herzegovina to Durres in Albania. The next generation of Balšićs wasn’t so successful, losing a good deal of the territories and ended up clinging to the coastal towns only by pledging alliances with the Turks and Venetians. Not least of their problems was dealing with the new rivals, the Crnojevićs, who copied their model of grabbing power. The last in the lineage, Balša III Balšić (1387-1421) dedicated not to play a puppet in Venetian hands and spent most of his rule in warfare against the Republic of St. Mark. On his deathbed, Balša left his lands to his uncle, the Serbian despot Stefan, who from 1410 already ruled over the eastern half of present-day Montenegro.


Learning of Balša’s decision, the Venetians quickly seized his maritime towns, an act that led to going along an inconclusive war with Serbia. The most profit from the war was gained by Stefan Crnojević who became a champion of Venetian rule in the towns while securing for himself a semi-independent area around Lake Skadarsko. In the meantime, the central power of Bosnia also waned and the northwest of Montenegro from Risan to Pljevlja was now held of the house of Kosača. After its most powerful member, Stjepan Hranić proclaimed himself Herzog of St Sava (herzog=duke) his land become known as Herzegovina, the name by which this region was known until the late 19th century.


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