The earliest recorded mention of the name Croatia was found on a stone inscription of the Persian ruler Darius the Great (522-486 BC). In 229 BC, Rome conquered the region's first known inhabitants, the Illyrians. In the 7th century, various Slavic tribes immigrated to the area. By the 9th century they had converted to Christianity, with the Croatians practising Catholicism and the Serbs Eastern Orthodoxy. In 925, Tomislav united the Croatian lands into a strong kingdom and became Croatia's first king.

Croatia's attractions, such as its Adriatic coastline, fertile soil and location as an important European crossroad, attracted numerous conquerors over the following centuries. The Adriatic region fell under Venetian control, and in 1102, a Hungarian invasion led to the unification of northern Croatia with Hungary. Repeated Turkish invasions of Hungary over the next centuries led to its defeat in 1526. People in northern Croatia then turned to Austria for protection from the Turks and remained under Austrian influence until 1918. Serbian lands became an autonomous region under Austrian rule.

Croatia remained divided. When Napoleon conquered the Venetians in 1797, he merged the provinces of Dalmatia, Istria and Slovenia into an Illyrian region. After Napoleon lost his empire, Austria-Hungary gained control over both northern and southern Croatia. Some regions were united with Hungary, and others with Austria. The Croats helped Austria suppress the Hungarian revolution of 1848, hoping that Austria would, in gratitude, create a unified Croatia. Yet in the aftermath, northern Croatia was again united with Hungary, while Austria kept Dalmatia.

World War I saw the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1918, Croatia became part of the new Kingdom of the Serbs (later called Yugoslavia), with a central government at Belgrade, Serbia. During World War II, Germany invaded Yugoslavia. Hitler set up a puppet fascist government in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina that set about expelling and murdering ethnic Serbs, Jews and Gypsies in the region. Over 1 million Croatians died fighting the fascist government.

By the end of the war in 1945, postwar Croatia was one of six republics within Yugoslavia, which was controlled by a communist government led by Marshall Tito. When communism began to fracture in Eastern Europe, Croatia's independence movement strengthened. In a 1991 referendum, Croatians voted to become an independent state; however, some Serbians living in Croatia demanded union with Serbia. Fighting erupted and continued until 1995, when with United Nations' assistance, an agreement was signed that recognized Croatia's traditional borders and stipulated the return of Serb-controlled regions.

Today, over one million Croats live in other Slavic regions. Thousands of displaced Serbs are awaiting repatriation, and Croatians are working to recover from the economic and social costs of war.

  Did you know?
Signed in 1214, the Statute of the Island of Korcula was the first such document in Europe to prohibit trading in slaves. Korcula is also the birthplace of Marco Polo, the renowned explorer.