Rab Island, Croatia Historical Overview
from 4th Century B.C. to 20th Century A.D.
(For Croatian Version, click here)

Map of Rab island in Croatia, 1598.

Publisher: [ROSACCIO, Giuseppe.Viaggio da Venetia, a Costantinopoli : per mare, e per terra& insieme quello di Terra Santa, da Gioseppe Rosaccio, con brevitā descritto, nel quale, oltreā settantadui disegni, di geografia e corografia si discorre, quanto in esso viaggio si ritroua, cioč : cittā, castelli, porti, golfi, isole, monti, fiumič mari : opera utileā mercanti, marinari&ā studiosi di geografia, Venice, Giacomo Franco, 1598.

The Croatian islands and the coast were settled in the Paleolithic Age. In the Neolithic, from 6-2 centuries B.C. the inhabitants were farmers or raised cattle, but they also knew the art of pottery decoration. Trade was with Greece, Asia Minor, Near East, North Africa and Italy. In the archaeological museum in Zadar, there are artifacts from the northern region of Dalmatia: stone axes, arrow tips and knives and even a fish hook found on Rab.

In Greek written sources from the 7th century B.C. Adriatic regions were mentioned, and legends tell of Greek merchants who guided by their instincts, reached this coast. It was through our islands that ancient Greeks mapped out two important trans-European routes. When the Greeks, who founded their state in the middle Mediterranean at the end of the 4th century B.C., became interested in the Adriatic coast the living and working conditions in these parts were changed. The Greek colonies of Vis (Issa), Hvar (Pharos), Trogir (Tragurion), Solin (Salona), Stobrec (Epetion), etc. were centres of viniculture and wine trade.

When the Romans arrived in this region they reorganized Illyricum, that is, the region of Histria and Dalmatia.

About the oldest history of Rab, similar to other Croatian lands, there are no written records, but some insight can be gleaned from legends and myths. Rab is first mentioned in 4th century B.C. by a Greek geographer where the islands of Rab and Pag are referred to with a common name of Mertorides. Later, Rab is mentioned as Arba in the works of Greek and Roman (Pliny the Elder - 23-79 A. D.) geographers. We find the name Arbe, Arbitana, Arbiana, Arbia, Arbum, Arba and Arva in Latin and Spanish archives of later times. It is thought that the island's name originates from the Illyrian word ARB, meaning 'dark, green, wooded,'. The contemporary Croatian name Rab is first mentioned in the year 1446 in a document dedicated to the construction of St. Eufemija monastery in Kampor.

The first inhabitants of Rab island were the members of the Illyrian tribe Liburni. An indo-european people, they migrated to this region around 1200 B.C. (at the same time as the Dalmati, who settled in t
Liburnahe southern part of Dalmatia). Liburni were able mariners as well as pirates and sowed fear on all the Adriatic sea routes. Their fast roving ships -- Liburne -- were later copied by the Romans. They labored in raising cattle, hunting, farming, ship building and fishing. In the encounters between Liburni and Greeks, we note the clash of a strong Syracusan fleet under the leadership of Dionysius THE YOUNGER (about 357-367 B.C.) with Liburni in the region between the islands of Krk and Rab; Liburni are defeated. After this, Dionysius constructs a number of military strongholds so as to ensure safe passage in the northern part of Adriatic and keep Liburni under control. The remains of these strongholds can be found on the Kastelina peninsula in Kampor and Punta Zidine in Lopar.

For the next 250 years, the Illyrians disrupt the maritime traffic in the Adriatic. Unable to withstand the strong attacks of the Ardeans (another Illyrian tribe commanded by queen Teuta) and the Liburni, the Greeks allied with Romans totally defeat all the Illyrian tribes in 29 B.C. Consequently the Illyrians recognize the rule of Rome.

The Romans repaired the military strongholds and build new ones. One of them was raised in 2nd century B.C. in the place of the present city of Rab. The Roman emperor Augustus (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus - 63 B.C / 14 A.D.) converted this area into a Roman municipality, built walls and towers around the city, so that Rab became Rome in miniature, with its own constitution, government, treasury, priest, and city council. Rome honoured Rab with the name FELIX ARBA, only bestowed on a few cities and provinces of the Roman Empire that excelled in their achievement and prosperity.   Numerous markets, temples, courhouses, baths, aquaducts, theatres, etc. were built at that time but today, of all of that very little remains.

ģ Under the control of Dalmatia is a close-set and very numerous archipelago, extending as far as Beneventum, so that ships never fear to be overwhelmed in those parts. One of these islands is the city of Vekla, and on another island Arbe... Ģ
Porphyrogenitus (905-959), De administrando imperio, ch. 29 - p. 137

Slavic names start appearing in the city of Rab in the begining of 11th century through the names of the city leaders. In the year 1018, paying their respects to the Doge Oton Oreol are Rab bishop Majus who carries a Latin name and prior Belota (written Belata), who goes by the Slavic name Bjeloslav. In the year 1050, bishop Drago who leads the Benedictines to the island, also goes by the Slavic name Dragoslav.

From the book: "Slavenstvo I Romanstvo na Jadranskim Otocima", Petar Skok, Zagreb, JAZU, 1950

The new superpower on the Adriatic - Venice had twice in the beginning of 11th century occupied the Dalmatian islands including Rab, but the mightiest Croatian king Petar Kresimir IV (1058 - 1073) absorbed the whole of Dalmatia into his kingdom. From those times, it is worth mentioning the gift by which in 1059 the bishop of Rab, Drago, bequeathed to the Benedictines a large parcel of land and the church of Saint Peter and Saint Cyprian in Supetarska Draga (the bequest was witnessed by king Kresimir IV on May 16, 1070), during the time that Rab took over a part of the island of Pag. The Benedictines significantly contributed to Rab's cultural advancement while many architectural edifices testify to the accelerated development of Rab during the times of the Croatian rulers.

st-christopher-gold.jpg (23500 bytes)
Reliquiarum of St. Christopher - The greatest treasure of Rab
(Unknown Byzantine artist, 11th-12th century) - Church of St. Mary, city of Rab.

St. Christopher (1) is the patron saint of the island Rab and its inhabitants, of travellers and sailors, a protector against misfortune, illness, tempest and hurricane. The following inscription usually stands underneath his picture: "Who casts the eye on St. Christopher will be unharmed by weakness that day."

In the year 251. in time of caesar Decimus reigning, who was the prosecutor of Christians, Christopher ended up on Greek island Samos where he was arrested and then wooed to give up Christianity. He was tortured and the taken to the scaffold to be fired at by 40 archers but all 40 missed as the arrows glanced off and returned to the shooters, guided by God´s hand. One of the returning arrows went through king's heart. Finally, not knowing how to harm him, he was beheaded.

Parts of the saint's body ended up as relics in numerous churches. The hand ended up in Sibenik, and his cranium in Rab where it is kept to present day as a precious relic. It is treasured in gilded box. The cranium contains the crown decorated with gems. The crown was according to one, given by the people of Rab and according to others, by queen Jelisaveta Kotromanic.

(After the Italic Normans ended their 15 day siege of Rab in 1075, islanders established yearly festivities to commemorate the occasion in the form of a tournament. The tournament was traditionally held twice a year: on 9th of May (Dies Victoriae, the day of deliverance from Normans by St. Christopher) and 27th July (Dies Natalis). These were the most important celebrations that lasted for a whole week. The revived games are now held on May 30th and July 27th (St. Christopher's day), while a grand procession takes place on Assumption Day (August 15th)).

The Hungarian king Koloman (1070--1116) became the ruler of Croatia, and in the year 1111 confirmed to Rab and other Dalmatian cities, the special status that Rab had previously enjoyed under Petar Kresimir IV, while presenting Rab with an expensive crucifix. But in the year 1116 Rab is under Venice, two years later Rab is given the old privileges, but Venice continuously meddles in the city's affairs which triggers Rab people to send emissaries to Venice; their protest is only partially validated. In the year 1166, Rab was forbidden to freely elect a prince, such that with four citizens of Rab they had to include two citizens of Venice. In the sign of protest, Rab approached the Croato-Hungarian king Bella III, but the rulers of Rab changed often - from Venetian to Croato-Hungarian.

We should mention that king Bela IV, escaping from the Mongol hordes (which had defeated him) in 1241 took refuge on Rab.

The next ruler of Dalmatia was Ladislas of Naples (1377-1414) of Angevin dynasty. Due to the waning of his power in the region, he sold Dalmatia, including Rab, to Venice for 100.000 gold coins. The islanders opposed Venice knowing that they would lose their properties on Pag, and attempted to negotiate with Venice to maintain their old privileges. Venice, in August 1409, took the island and the city of Rab by force. For the next 400 years, Venice becomes the absolute ruler of Rab and Dalmatia.

The document from the year 1446 commemorating the construction of St. Eufemija monastery in Kampor. Here, the Croatian name RAB, is officially mentioned for the first time
The document commemorating the construction of St. Eufemija monastery from the year 1446 At the end of the 14th century, Rab island had as many as 10.000 inhabitants, and the city of Rab 5.000. This was the time of the first renaissance, about which testify many valuable edifices. Venice had imposed its own laws and lifestyle, so Rab like other places had lost its autonomy. Even though at that time, many valuable objects were built, Venice instigated its slow demise, skillfully using the internal strife between the patricians and the populace. A greatly contributing factor was the Plague which in 1449 and 1456 decimated the population, and till then the most vibrant part of the city - Kaldanac - became a ghost town and a walled-in tomb of the Plague victims. Nonetheless, the refugees from the mainland (mostly Bosnia) fleeing the Turks and the newcomers from the Venetian dominions contributed to a continuous rise in population, but never approaching the numbers from the end of the 14th century. Another setback was the discovery of the New World in 1492 by Columbus and the route to Africa and the East Indies by Vasco da Gama in 1497. The result was the shifting of the world trade towards the Atlantic ocean. Thus the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, including Rab, lost their seafaring and trading importance.

In May 1797, Napoleon occupied Venice, with Rab falling under Austria which returned it in 1805 yet the first French forces disembarked on Rab as late as 1809.

With Napoleon's defeat in 1813, Rab again came under Austria under whose ownership it remained until 1918. Under Vienna'a domination, Rab diocese was terminated (1828) and assigned to the one in Krk. The island became a part of the province of Dalmatia.

After the First World War, Rab was part of Italy until April 23, 1921. From then and until 1939 Rab is part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

In 1941, Rab is occupied by Italians. The next year, they built the concentration camp in the Kampor valley. Its victims were mostly Slovenes, including Croats and Jews. The total death toll here was about 4000 souls. After the capitulation of Italy, and in the spring of 1944, the Germans occupy the island. The island was finally freed on April 12, 1945 by the partisans (see Note 1 below). Out of about 1000 soldiers from Rab, 118 lost their lives fighting the Axis forces in the WW II. On the site of the former concentration camp, from 1950-1955, a beautiful cemetery was built, commemorating the fallen victims.

From 1945, until 1991 Rab is part of Yugoslavia but on June 25, 1991 finally becomes a part of the Republic of Croatia.

In the year 1991, regions of Lun and Jakisnica separated politically from Rab county and joined with Pag Island.

Serbian aggression on Croatia from 1991-95 did not directly affect Rab but the island was impacted economically, especially in tourism. About 1000 fighters participated in the Homeland War, of which three gave their lives.

Today Rab thrives as one of the most popular tourist resorts on the Adriatic, offering its magical past and unforgettable beaches to all that come to its shores.


  1. The oldest public and independent pharmacy on Rab was recorded as of 1326.
  2. Regarding Kampor Valley Concentration Camp: As told to me by the Kampor cemetery caretaker in the early 1960's, in 1945 the partisans captured the camp's Italian commandant in Trieste and brought him back to Rab. They forced him to dig his own grave in front of the entrance to the Kampor cemetery and then shot him and buried him there. Thus before the any visitor enters the cemetery, they will first step on the commandant's grave. Poetic justice.
  3. Najstarija rapska maslina napunila 1.239 godina - Otoci - Novi list, 18. listopada 2011.
    The oldest olive tree on Rab is 1,239 years old. Oct. 18, 2011.


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