“Libertas” in Dubrovnik

Non bene pro toto libertas venditur suro
Liberty cannot be sold for all of the gold in the world

This is the motto of the city of Dubrovnik, a coastal trading port with a long and illustrious history of stalwart independence. For those of us who prioritize freedom as highly as this city does, we may have something to learn from its diplomatic successes.

While Dubrovnik is currently a part of Croatia, its national affiliation seems secondary. Formerly called “Ragusa”, this Mediterranean city settled by Romans and Slavs has been a part of the Byzantine Empire, Venice, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Napoleonic France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Yugoslavia during its roughly 1400 years of existence. Because of its unparalleled location on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea – close enough to both Europe and Asia to trade with a huge variety of countries, but far enough away to maintain independence from them – nearly everyone has coveted this prosperous port.

What matters is not who owned Dubrovnik; what matters is who ran Dubrovnik. Citizens may have paid tribute and taxes to a variety of world powers and at times been subsumed by other governments, but throughout most of their history, Dubrovnik’s residents have managed themselves and maintained a uniquely progressive and independent character. Diplomacy has been the city’s survival strategy, and liberty its unwavering goal.

How does a tiny settlement keep calling its own shots in the face of constant external pressures and invasions? The way I see it, their strategy had three essential elements:

  1. Play to your strengths and know your weaknesses

Dubrovnik was a major world trade center from its founding in the 7th century through its peak in the 17th century, and was, as a result, very well-connected in the global arena. Maintaining consulates in places like Goa, India and representatives in Africa and the Cape Verde Islands enabled the city a to play a powerful role in international affairs and make up for in intelligence and influence what it lacked in firepower and population. Being a trade center also meant that Dubrovnik had money, and the city’s leaders used their resources to buy their freedom on more than one occasion.

Dubrovnik was also quick to acknowledge that it did not have the population base necessary to support an army, so it never tried to assemble one. When Napoleon came bounding through the city in 1806, the leaders of Dubrovnik made no attempt whatsoever to fight him. Again, they let him have nominal control of the city, knowing that he did not have the manpower to put his leaders in place. This left the locals with enough autonomy to more or less govern as they wished.

In 1989, Slobodan Milosovic’s JNP, the army of Serbian nationalists attempting to “cleanse” the Balkans to create an ethnically homogeneous Serbian state, bombed Dubrovnik and placed it under siege for seven months. This military action was the most violent attack on Dubrovnik in its 1400-year history. The international community was outraged, both because Milosovic had the gall to attack this pillar of diplomacy and because his campaign caused unspeakable damages to this unique settlement. About half of Dubrovnik’s buildings were damaged; however, the majority have since been repaired, thanks to the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

While Dubrovnik no longer has money flowing in from trade, it now has its coffers filled by a thriving tourism economy. Currently, Dubrovnik has some of the most expensive real estate in Europe, with Hollywood stars and British soccer players lining up to buy apartments and houses there. The city still knows where its resources are coming from, and is still playing them to its advantage.

 

  1. Maintain strong boundaries

From the time of its first wave of settlement, Dubrovnik’s residents began building walls around the city. Originally protected by wooden palisades, the city saw stronger walls with each successive century’s passing. By the close of the 13th century, the city was completely encircled by fortifications. Citizens continued to rebuild and repair the walls as needed, maintaining their integrity through generations.

Dubrovnik’s walls form a 6360-foot continuous circle around the city, which modern visitors can walk around, gazing down at tiled rooftops and out towards the turquoise sea. At their tallest point, the walls are 82 feet high and their thickness varies from 13 to 20 feet. There are four fortresses and four gates built into the system, as well as an arsenal and a well-protected harbor. These potent barriers kept the residents of Dubrovnik alive during at least eight sieges, repelled quite a few enemies, and intimidated many more. The city’s shrewd diplomacy was always backed up with strong boundaries.

  1. Keep your eyes on the prize

Unlike nearly every other powerful nation in the history of the world, Dubrovnik never once tried to conquer other states. Its “prize” was liberty – at all costs. By keeping this in mind, its citizens avoided wasting resources on expansion and instead conserved funds for the maintenance of strong bargaining positions. At the same time, Dubrovnik’s leaders invested heavily in the well-being of its constituents, seeing their health and happiness as part of the fruits of liberty.

Dubrovnik already had a public water system, including fountains, mills, and aqueducts, by 1438. The city had unparalleled medical services during the 1300’s, having established the first ever quarantine hospital and a pharmacy that can still be visited today. During the 14th century, both an orphanage and an almshouse were constructed. Most significantly, perhaps, Dubrovnik outlawed the slave trade in 1416 – about 450 years before the United States did so. As any visitor can see, public art and architecture were a priority; the city is an aesthetic wonder.


I loved Dubrovnik. The setting was heavenly to me – clear, warm water with semi-tropical fish punctuated by scenic rocky islands, oak- and vine-covered hills rising steadily above the land, electric blue skies, and a lovely ocean breeze. The enclosure of the city walls was like a nurturing cocoon for me, with the solid limestone turrets providing protection, warmth, and an amazing vantage point from which to look out towards Italy and the rest of the world. Medieval history co-mingled with modern convenience at every turn, and exploration awaited up blind side alleys lined with flowerpots.

But it’s not just the setting that drew me to this place. We share a narrative, this city and I, and walking the city walls I could feel this connection.

I, too, value liberty above all the gold in the world, and maintaining this priority has not been easy. While I have spent my life watching traditional social and political alliances be forged and dissolved around me, I have managed to steer clear of them – for better or worse. I’ve made career and lifestyle choices that were not the ones I was expected to make, and pursuing these choices has required the construction of walls as strong as Dubrovnik’s. Every day I ask myself if it the resulting liberty has been worth it, so I have found myself looking towards Dubrovnik for advice in navigating these waters.

I think I’m doing well with strategies one and two enumerated above; number three is a bit tougher. Unlike Dubrovnik, I lose sight of the prize; and I think this is because the prize needs to be bigger than liberty itself. After all, once you are free, what do you DO with that freedom?

Dubrovnik used its independence to implement progressive and forward thinking social structures – the abolition of slavery, running water, and health care – structures that improved the lives of its citizens, yes, but also created examples for others and a legacy for its successors. Here we are six hundred years later, still marveling at what they did.

Like Dubrovnik, I have shrewdly and persistently negotiated for freedom, often at the cost of ease and happiness. Now what do I do with it? How can I create an example that is worth the price of the effort? How can I envision a prize that will keep me going when the Ottoman army has me under siege?

I know I don’t have 1400 years to figure this out, so I’d better get after it.

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