The oldest traces of human presence in today’s Rijeka area date back to the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods, and the remnants of prehistoric castles (Solin above Martinšćica, Trsatski brijeg and Veli vrh – Gradišće above the Rječina River) to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Such settlement dominated over Rijeka’s Bay and protected the port as early as during the period of Illyrian (Liburnian) habitation.
The Romans moved the residential centre closer to the sea, right from the confluence of the Rječina River into the Adriatic, on the site of the present Old Town. Numerous archaeological finds (the foundations of the Roman walls, the walls of buildings, the remnants of the Roman baths, Roman doors) are proof of the urban level of Roman Tarsatica. Being situated on a mild slope, with a narrow shore zone, abundant sources of fresh water and a sheltered bay with natural characteristics of a port, this city had all the predispositions to develop into an important port and commercial city.
Flumen Sancti Viti – St. Vitus's Rijeka
The development of Rijeka impelled the newly arrived Slavic settlers – the Croats – to conquer Tarsatica and start building a new settlement. The first original mention of the medieval settlement dates back to the first half of the 13th century when two settlements appear in historical sources: TRSAT, on the hill on the left bank of the Rječina River, on the site of the Liburnian settlement TARSATA and RIJEKA, on the shore, on the site of the Roman TARSATIKA. Rijeka was a small, fortified town, crammed inside its walls protected by several defensive towers, divided into two parts: the upper part with a medieval castle and St. Vitus church (which is where the name Flumen Sancti Viti came from), and the lower residential, commercial and crafts settlement called Rika or Rijeka by its inhabitants.
Both at the beginning and at the end of the 14th century, Rijeka was ruled by the Devin noblemen, the princes of Krk (later Frankopans), then by the Walsee family and, since 1466, by the Habsburg family. During that period Rijeka had around 3000 inhabitants. The considerable economic development began in the 16th century, owing to the iron, oil, wood, wool, cattle and leather trade. In the 16th century, the town even had a printing house which printed books in the Croatian - Glagolitic script. At the time, the settlement on the left bank of the Rječina River, under Trsat, did not exist (Sušak). It was not formed until the 18th century.
The golden period of Rijeka’s commerce suddenly lost momentum in the second half of the 15th century. Frequent Ottoman attacks interrupted the traffic routes, as did the wars of the claimants for the Hungarian throne and the eternal conflicts between the Uskoci and the Venetians. The war began to pacify in the second half of the 17th century.
The arrival of the Jesuits in Rijeka and the foundation of their high school significantly improved education and cultural life, strengthening the Romanic influence to the detriment of the Croatian language and the Glagolitic script. Rijeka's economy began gaining significant advantage in the 18th century. That is when Emperor Charles VI proclaimed Rijeka a free port, but the soon-to-be strengthened Hungary, as a part of the Habsburg Monarchy, began to see Rijeka as its exit into the world. At the turn of the 18th into the 19th century, Rijeka was first under French and then once again under Austrian administration.
The turbulent 20th century
During the civil revolution of 1848, the city was annexed to the Banovina of Croatia, and the governor Josip Jelačić became governor of Rijeka. The fight over Rijeka between Croatia and Hungary was intensifying until the Croatian-Hungarian Treaty, the so called “Riječka krpica”, was signed in 1868, putting Rijeka under direct Hungarian rule. Hungary rapidly developed it into its largest maritime and port emporium.
After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1918, Rijeka and Sušak became part of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, having its capital in Zagreb, but was soon occupied by the Kingdom of Italy. Since Italy was previously not interested in Rijeka, but left it to Croatia, a transitional period followed. After D’Annunzio’s occupation in 1919 and the Free State of Rijeka in 1920, it nevertheless fell into Italian hands in 1924. Rijeka suffered a rapid economic decline and became an unimportant town. Sušak was annexed to the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs with capital in Belgrade and rapidly developed relying on the wider hinterland.
Apart from nearby Istria, Rijeka was the first place in the world to begin fight fascism and was, in the Second World War, a part of the anti-fascism front-line. After Italian capitulation in 1943, Rijeka and Sušak were occupied by the Germans who held them until 3 May 1945 when they were liberated. Owing to the conclusions of the Paris Peace Conference in 1947, Rijeka was once again returned to its parent country, Croatia, now a part of Yugoslavia. In 1948, the towns of Rijeka and Sušak merged into the city of Rijeka, which developed rapidly in a number of areas.
After reconstruction, Rijeka assumed the role of the main port in socialist Yugoslavia. Within the industrial structures, traditional Rijeka industries were revived: ship building, paper mill, oil refinery, the production of ship devices and engines, coke plant, textile industry, hydroelectric power plants as well as thermal power plants. Apart from the shipping companies, the crossing of five main roads leading to Zagreb, Ljubljana, Trieste, Pula and Zadar and the railroad ensured the development of the tertiary sector in Rijeka.
At the turn of the century
This expansive social and economic development also increased the number of inhabitants. Today, Rijeka and its surroundings have approximately 200.000 inhabitants. Simultaneously with its industrial development, Rijeka became the centre of western Croatia (Istria, Hrvatsko primorje and Gorski kotar). Since early 1960s new neighbourhoods have been built, and suburban settlements gained momentum.
Briefly, in late 20th century, Rijeka was a developed urban and industrial centre, as well as a centre for numerous developmental initiatives that played an important role in the total development of the Republic of Croatia. It became the centre of the newly founded Rijeka and Senj archdiocese as well as the centre of the metropolis and a university centre.
The Croatian ambitions for a rapid approach to the democratic and liberal western world views brought about some radical changes in the state and social systems. In 1991 Croatia became an independent and sovereign country and the Yugoslav and Serbian aggression could be directly felt in the city day in and day out, although there were no armed conflicts in Rijeka during the Croatian War for Independence. The war brought about economic stagnation and the redirecting of production into the war effort and the provision of assistance with supplying the battle areas throughout Croatia.
Many Rijeka volunteers fought on the Croatian battle fields. Rijeka accommodated and took care of numerous exiles from other parts of Croatia. Democratic changes and a turn towards the market economy led to significant changes – political party life blossomed, the investment of private capital into economic development began, the transition of public property was in progress, causing increasing unemployment and Rijeka became the centre of the Primorje-Gorski kotar County.
The war fostered spiritual resistance to violence; numerous valuable scientific and cultural goods have been created and a number of sporting achievements realized. Of course, the dead can never be replaced, but life goes on as it has been doing for hundreds of years.