Inventing Illyria for Gain and Glory

Being an ambitious and accomplished sailor in 16th century Spanish Empire could only get you so far. Despite being a hero of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 against the Ottomans, saving two ships in the failed attack of the Invincible Armada on the English in 1588 and sailing the world over, Petar Grgurić might have been an admiral but he faced a glass ceiling: he had no noble blood and could not reach the very highest echelons of the society. 

Born in Slano, then controlled by the Ragusan (or Dubrovnik) republic, Petar was a scion of Iveja Grgurić, a wheat merchant and sailor who hailed from Bosnia. Wealthy but not noble, Grgurićs allegedly moved to Dubrovnik’s prosperous city state after Bosnia fell under the Ottoman rule. 

Wanting to go further than his native lands, he and three of his brothers pledged allegiance to the Spanish crown in Naples. 

Decades after moving from south Dalamatia’s wonderful coast, Petar made the relative obscurity of his native lands work for him. Using local epic poetry, which remembered the hey-day of Nemanjić’s Serbian state, known then the world over, he set about “proving” (or rather, fabricating) his noble origins. To progress to the very highest ranks of the Spanish empire he needed to show that four out of eight of his great-grandparents were of noble birth and Catholic from both parental sides. The story of how he managed to do this and also create a spark for proto-Yugoslav movement was pieced together by Aleksandar Solovjev and related by the archeologist Aleksandar Palavestra who published significant research about Serbian and Balkan heraldry.

First off, was changing the last name and claiming origin from Ohmućevićs, a Bosnian noble family. Then, he tied the Ohmućevićs to Hrelja Krilatica, a figure in local epic poetry based on a high ranking nobleman (turned monk) at Emperor Dušan’s court.

(H)Relja Ohmućević

While Hrelja in reality did not have issue and his last name was unknown, for Petar purposes, Hrelja Ohumčević was made lord of Kostur and Prilep by Emperor Dušan through a decree signed in front of no less than Prince Lazar, Vukašin Mrnjavčević and Vuk Branković in 1349 (all probably somewhat known in baroque Europe), who, however, held no important positions at that time. Indeed, in 1349, Vuk Branković was 4, Lazar was 30, and Vukašin was 29, and Hrelja, well, he died in 1342 in Rila Monastery where he bequeathed a tower. Following the lore, Hrelja defended Dušans son Emperor Uroš against Vukašin Mrnjavčević, while his son Grgur Ohmućević (born an equally high-born mother from Balšić family) moved to Bosnia leading to the confusion between Grgurovićs and Ohmućevićs. 

While Petar got support from the bishop of Bosnia for his claims, he needed to produce proof and coats of arms, which were not as prevalent in medieval Serbian and Bosnian lands in the same way there were in the West. Petar was in luck once again and he “found” a Roll of arms in an obscure Athonite monastery, containing over a hundred coats of arms of local lands and noble families (including his own and those of his real and alleged relatives). The author of this was Stanisav Rubčić, who was “ban cimerija” (a made up title equivalent to master of arms) at Emperor Dušan’s court.

The roll of arms, the first of its kind in the Balkans, combined known feudal coats of arms  times with completely made up material. The historically sound heraldic symbols included Nemanjić two headed eagle, Croatian “šahovnica”, Serbo-Byzantine cross with “fire strikers”, some coats of arms collected or created for Serbian families in the Holy Roman Empire, including the famous coat of arms of Tribalia (Central Serbia – which the Holy roman Empire considered to have a right to) with a pigs head pierced by an arrow. 

Another interesting feature of Ohmućevićs roll of arms was that it included St Jerome of Illyria, a 4th century saint who was born in a Dalmatian town and was of Illyrian heritage. St Jerome was not only the patron saint of Ohmućevićs but also became linked with the whole of the Slavic Balkans (later, as you will see referred to as Illyria). Indeed since 15th century, the church of St Jerome in Rome has been the centre for South Slavic Catholics (finally renamed in 1971 as Pontifical Croatian College). 

This small trick was enough to get Petar confirmed as a nobleman by the Royal Council in Naples in 1595, making Petar Grgurić Don Pedro Ohmućević and allowing him to join the Order of St Jacob (San Iago), which he was a member of until his death in Lisbon in 1599. Don Pedro’s most notable presence in his home coutry is a donation of a large baroque altar piece to the church of St Jerome in Slano which was made in Naples. 

While Don Pedro’s ploy seems ridiculous, its success was not only a product of undeveloped Balkan historiography, but also of wider political currents which made the atmosphere more than receptive for a romanticised view of the Balkan states. 

The Pope and Catholic church, as well as Catholic empires of Spain and Austria, wanted to support the fight against the Ottomans to support the Balkan Slavs and also have something to unite their flock against a common enemy in the time when Reformation was spreading through Europe. As Palavestra notices, they were encouraged by the victory in the battle of Lepanto (which Petar Grgurović Ohumčević participated in) and wanted to build a momentum to crush their Islamic rival which was successful in taking over large swathes of Europe until then.

The Slavic-speaking Catholic clergy in Dalmatia, Dubrovnik and the Bay of Kotor not which was to lead the people into the rebellion against the Ottomans, remembered and romanticised conquered kingdom of Bosnia and Serbia, which were, according to Palavestra, to serve the purpose of stoking interest with the Poles and Russians to join the fight 

However they went further and made up histories highlighting importance of Slavic lands in a way that would resonate with Western nobles, who were increasingly obsessed with classical history. 

One of the claims is that all Slavs were liked to Illyrians, who lived in parts of the Balkans and that many historical personages, from Alexander the Great to Emperor Justinian were indeed Illyrian/Slavic. 

Although, according to Palavestra, there were conspiracies in Naples involving don Pedro’s cousins to launch attacks against the Ottomans and free their ancestral lands nothing directly came of them. 

This idea of the great Illyrian past of the lands from the Alps to the Black Sea was a speak which would develop into proto-Yugoslav movements, most directly the Illyrian movement in Croatia in 19th Century. This was greatly helped by Mavro Orbini’s book “The Kingdom of Slavs” published in Dubrovnik in 1601. 

These fanciful readings of history were not new: indeed the whole Holy Roman Empire claimed continuity with the Romans and Greeks in order to justify its power, despite being descended from those who fought the Roman Empire. The claims of dubious links with ancient nations with little material remains such as the Illyrians are still bread and butter of some regional ethno-nationalisms

Neither are ambitious ploys such as Don Pedro’s a thing of the past. Much most famous upstart in the Balkans was  Sćepan Mali – a Dalmatian who pretended to be Peter III of Russia and who successfully ruled Montenegro in late 18th century. The dubious claims of nobility once again became  popular in 1990s Balkans when many tricksters made use of the thirst of many emerging nations to feel part of aristocratic West. The most notable of those is the newly resurfaced Prince of Montenegro and Macedonia Stefan Černetić, who gave a medal to none other than Pamela Anderson, while Croatia also saw a few curious revived noble families and even the Royal house of von Radic

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