Trieste – History of the City

This is an excerpt from the book “Trieste and Friuli”. by Enrico Massetti. Get the ebook for the complete content.

Trieste – Photo © paradiseintheworld.com

Discussing the origins of Trieste, historians sometimes set aside their customary academic rigor and cite ancient legends which tell that the city was founded by Tergeste, a friend of Jason and his Argonauts, who decided to make a landfall here. Other stories make mention of Noah, no less, and his son Japhet, who landed on these shores to create the kingdom of Japhidia on the Carso. Trieste was in fact founded by proto-Veneto tribes, as is witnessed by the prehistoric fortified settlements (defended by walls built with cut stone) constructed on San Giusto hill a number of Carso hilltops. But while – myths aside – there is clear pre-historical evidence as to the origin of the city itself, the same cannot be said of its name. There are two theories. The first has it that the Latin name Tergeste derives from Ter-egestum, meaning thrice-built, and according to the second name is formed of the Indo-European root Terg (market) and the Veneto suffix Este, meaning town or city.

Be that as it many, it was the settlement’s geographical position that determined its destiny. Realizing the strategic importance of these lands, the Romans sent their legions to conquer it and in so doing defeated the Istri, who were allied to Carthage. Having finally achieved victory in a demanding campaign, the Romans left a number of bases on the Carso and on the hill that dominated the settlement. This was the ancient Tergeste, a Roman colony that came into being in or about 178 B.C.

Though its induction into the Latin world brought about further warfare with neighboring tribes, it also led to commercial prosperity, cultural refinement, urban development and the construction of road communications, all of which started under the reign of Octavian (about 30 B.C.) and was consolidated during the imperial period. Christianity, which reached this part of the world late in the 1st century, was subject to persecution. One of its martyrs was Giusto, who later became patron saint of Trieste. With the Barbarian invasions that followed the fall of the Western Empire, the city name under the rule of the Goths, who were subsequently driven out by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

Then, after years of conflict and confusion, the Lomabrd razed Trieste to the ground. Its reconstruction was accompanied by the formation of the Numerous tergestinus, a military body organized for civil defense. One bright feature of the dark centuries which followed was the signing in 804 of the Placito del Risano, a decree by means of which the people of Trieste and Istria attempted to protect themselves from the mayhem and violence of the times. Meanwhile, local bishops were acquiring increasing temporal power as barons under the Carolingian system, and the figure of the Chamberlain (Gastaldo, an official elected by the people or appointed by a bishop) appeared in the context of burgeoning Venetian power. The bishop-barons tried to ward off the tide of Venetian expansion, but in 1202 Doge Enrico Dandolo took Trieste and forced it to swear allegiance to Venice. With the help of the Patriarchs of Aquileia Trieste rebelled against this dominion, which gave rise to a long series of wars between Venice and the Patriarchate.

Though the city was retaken by the Venetians, after the War of Chioggia Trieste finally gained recognition of its freedom. Since Venice continued to pose a threat, however, in 1382 Trieste placed itself under the protection of Duke Leopold of Austria, beginning a political relationship that was to last for more than five centuries. This was the final act of a stage in Medieval history marked by obscure intrigues such as the plot hatched by Marco Ranfo, a 14th century notable who tried to overthrow the Municipality and found a Signory, and the rise of a patrician class made up of 13 families, which actually ran the city for centuries. After a brief period of Spanish domination in the 16th century, and a series of disasters such as pestilence and famine, in the 18the century Trieste finally saw a new horizon. As the Habsburg Empire’s natural outlet to the sea, in 1719 Trieste was accorded the status of Free Port, which marked the beginning of a long period of prosperity for the city. The lifting of customs barriers brought large numbers of entrepreneurs and merchants from all over Europe and the Mediterranean area, which improved standards of living, stimulated urban development and gave rise to an unprecedented population increase.

Castello di Duino

The reign of Empress Maria Theresa saw the foundation and growth of great shipping (Lloyd Triestino) and insurance companies (Generali, RAS) as well as new industries, all of which contributed to remarkable economic development. At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries Trieste was occupied for three relatively brief periods by Napoleon’s armies. In the second half of the 19th century the Italian Risorgimento stimulated the growth of irredentism in the city. This process culminated at the end of the First World War, which marked the disintegration for the Habsburg Mitteleuropa to which Trieste had belonged for centuries, and the return of Italian rule to the city (November 3rd 1918).

Following Italy’s withdrawal from the Second World War on September 8th 1943, Trieste and Venezia Giulia were incorporated under the direct government of the Third Reich. But German defeat and the end of the war did not produce a solution to the area’s delicate position. After a 40-day occupation by Tito’s Yugoslav army in May 1945, Trieste spent no fewer than nine years under an Anglo-American military government before an international compromise was agreed to establish Italy’s eastern border, which had been subject to Yugoslav territorial claims. After years of tension and uncertainty with regard to its future, Trieste was handed over to the Italian government on October 26th 1954.

Where to stay in Trieste

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This is an excerpt from the book “Trieste and Friuli”. Get the ebook for the complete content.


This is an excerpt from the book “Trieste and Friuli”. Get the ebook for the complete content.