Amazing History: Law & Order

Feb 22, 2021 | 0 comments

If you walk down the streets and squares of Dubrovnik today, you’ll see centuries of history with every step you take.  Its architecture is influenced by renaissance and baroque design and the buildings have witnessed much joy, sorrow and triumph. 


Here we take a look at Dubrovnik’s approach to law, order and diplomacy.


Dubrovnik was the centre of what was once the Republic of Ragusa and ruled itself as a free state from the 14th to the 19th century.  It prospered on its maritime trade, being ideally situated on the Adriatic sea.  In fact, many of the foundations of modern-day maritime law and insurance were laid in Dubrovnik.


Particularly during the 15th and 16th centuries it became noted for its skilled diplomacy which allowed its citizens to travel freely across the world in its huge fleet of merchant ships.  Machiavelli was so impressed by their widespread commerce and influence he applied to live in the city, but was turned down!


This diplomatic success was due to the fact the people had no interest in conquering other lands but trading under a white flag bearing the word freedom, for all to see.


Dubrovnik liked to do things its own way.  It was the first state to introduce a medical service with a pharmacy (1301) still open today, the first quarantine hospital, Lazarete (1377), an almshouse (charitable housing), opened in 1347) and an orphanage (1432) which a door mechanism that allowed parents to leave their baby without being seen.


The freedom and faith principles even extended to the customs process for goods being brought into the port which was based on good faith and honesty.  You can see the declaration today, inscribed into Sponza palace. 


As a free state, there was no autocratic ruler.  Instead, men over 18 from aristocratic families formed a grand council. Every 30 days a Rector was elected to be the figurehead and allowed to live in the Rector’s Palace until the next Rector was elected.  The position of Rector was only given to esteemed men over 50 years old.


This might seem like a strange way to run a government by today’s standard, however, it was an important principle that no one should be given too much power and control.


Like many other nations, Dubrovnik has its own executioner whose home can still be found behind the monastery.  Death was reserved for the most serious crimes but medieval Dubrovnik was quite imaginative in the punishments it would give to rule breakers.


If you were guilty of poisoning someone you would be burned to death and if you took part in a hard robbery then you would be drowned in the sea or poisoned. 


More unusual punishments were also given, for instance, if a woman was caught stealing or a servant brought someone into their master’s house without permission, their nose would be cut off.


Farmers caught stealing water from the city’s aqueduct could have their hand cut off and citizens were encouraged to report such a crime with the offer of a financial reward.


Punishments were supposed to put off citizens from committing the same offences whether they were servants or noblemen, but of course, the aristocrats had their own punishments.


Dubrovnik developed a bail bond system that allowed aristocratic men to pay cash as a guarantee until they appeared in court.  Aristocrats who did not have the money to pay would be given comfortable accommodation and allowed visitors.


As keen as Dubrovnik was in upholding law and order, they actually began freeing slaves two centuries before the official abolition in around 1416.  And those legendary diplomatic skills helped free many enslaved people by giving them loans to buy their freedom and negotiating for their release.


In many ways, Dubrovnik was ahead of its time, isn’t it time you explored Dubrovnik?