There is little archeological evidence of Paleolithic communities in the area of modern-day Serbia. A human jaw piece discovered in Sievo (Mala Balanica) is thought to be up to 525,000—397,000 years old.
During the Neolithic period, approximately 6,500 years ago, the Starevo and Vina civilizations flourished in or around modern-day Belgrade and controlled most of Southeastern Europe (as well as parts of Central Europe and Asia Minor). Lepenski Vir and Vina-Belo Brdo, two significant local archeological sites from this period, still remain along the Danube’s banks.
During the Iron Age, the Ancient Greeks met Thracians, Dacians, and Illyrians during their 4th century BC advance towards the south of current Serbia; the town of Kale-Krevica was Alexander the Great’s empire’s northwesternmost point. The Greeks were quickly followed by the Celtic Scordisci, who settled across the region in the 3rd century BC. In this region, the Scordisci established their own tribal state and constructed numerous fortresses, notably their state capital at Singidunum (modern-day Belgrade) and Naissos (modern-day Niš).
In the second century BC, the Romans controlled most of the area. The Roman province of Illyricum was founded in 167 BC; the rest was captured about 75 BC, forming the Roman province of Moesia Superior; the modern-day Srem area was taken in 9 BC; and Baka and Banat were conquered in 106 AD after the Dacian wars. As a consequence, modern Serbia encompasses all or parts of many ancient Roman provinces, including Moesia, Pannonia, Praevalitana, Dalmatia, Dacia, and Macedonia.
Upper Moesia’s (and broader) principal cities were Singidunum (Belgrade), Viminacium (now Old Kostolac), Remesiana (now Bela Palanka), Naissos (Ni), and Sirmium (now Sremska Mitrovica), the latter serving as a Roman capital under the Tetrarchy. Seventeen Roman Emperors were born in modern-day Serbia, ranking second only to modern-day Italy. Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor, was the most renowned of them, issuing an edict mandating religious tolerance across the Empire.
When the Roman Empire was split in 395, the majority of Serbia fell under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire, while the western portions fell under the control of the Western Roman Empire. Southern Slavs were present in considerable numbers across the Byzantine Empire by the early sixth century.
Serbs in the Byzantine era resided in the so-called Slav territories, which were originally autonomous and uncontrolled by the Byzantines. In the eighth century, the Vlastimirovi dynasty founded the Serbian Principality. Serbs “inhabited the major portion of Dalmatia” in 822, and Christianity was established as the official religion about 870. By the mid-tenth century, the polity had evolved into a tribal confederation spanning the Neretva, Sava, Morava, and Skadar rivers to the Adriatic Sea.
The kingdom dissolved following the death of the last recorded Vlastimirid monarch; the Byzantines seized the area and controlled it for a century, until 1040, when Serbs led by the Vojislavljevi dynasty rebelled in Duklja, a coastal region. The Vukanovi dynasty founded the Serbian Grand Principality, headquartered in Raka, in 1091. (Rascia). In 1142, the two parts were reconnected.
Stefan Nemanja ascended to the throne in 1166, ushering in a prosperous Serbia under the reign of the Nemanji dynasty. Rastko (posth. Saint Sava), Nemanja’s son, achieved autocephaly for the Serbian Church in 1217 and wrote the earliest known constitution, while Stefan the First-Crowned founded the Serbian Kingdom. During the reign of Stefan Duan, who took advantage of the Byzantine civil war to double the size of the state by conquering territories to the south and east at the expense of Byzantium, reaching as far as the Peloponnese and being crowned Emperor of Serbs and Greeks along the way, medieval Serbia reached its zenith.
The Battle of Kosovo against the expanding Ottoman Empire in 1389 represents a watershed moment and is seen as the start of the medieval Serbian state’s demise. Following that, the magnate families Lazarevi and Brankovi controlled the suzerain Serbian Despotate (in the 15th and 16th centuries). Following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 and the Siege of Belgrade, the Serbian Despotate collapsed in 1459 after the siege of Smederevo, the temporary capital. The Ottoman Empire had fully overrun central Serbia by 1455. After resisting Ottoman assaults for almost 70 years, Belgrade fell in 1521, allowing Ottoman expansion into Central Europe. As part of the Habsburg Empire, Vojvodina fought Ottoman control until the 16th century.
Ottoman and Habsburg rule
Following its loss of independence to the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, Serbia temporarily recovered autonomy under Jovan Nenad. Three Habsburg invasions and several rebellions continually posed a threat to Ottoman authority. The Banat Uprising of 1595, which was part of the Long War between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, was one of the most notable incidents. The current Vojvodina region was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for a century until being surrendered to the Habsburg Empire at the end of the 17th century by the Treaty of Karlowitz.
The aristocracy was exterminated in all Serb territories south of the Danube and Sava rivers, and the peasants was enslaved to Ottoman rulers, while most of the clergy fled or was confined to isolated monasteries. Serbs, as Christians, were deemed an inferior class of people under the Ottoman Empire and were subjected to high taxes, and a tiny percentage of the Serbian population was Islamised. The Ottomans dissolved the Serbian Patriarchate (1463) but reinstated it in 1557, allowing for the limited survival of Serbian cultural traditions inside the empire.
As the Great Serb Migrations depopulated much of southern Serbia, Serbs sought shelter across the Danube River in Vojvodina to the north and the Military Frontier to the west, where the Austrian crown gave them privileges via measures such as the Statuta Wallachorum of 1630. The Serbs’ ecclesiastical headquarters likewise shifted northward, to the Metropolitanate of Sremski Karlovci, when the Ottomans dissolved the Serbian Patriarchate in 1766. Following numerous requests, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I officially gave Serbs who wanted to retain their independent crownland the freedom to do so.
The Habsburg Monarchy conquered Central Serbia and formed the “Kingdom of Serbia” from 1718 until 1739. Apart from Vojvodina and Northern Belgrade, which were incorporated into the Habsburg Empire, the Habsburgs invaded Central Serbia again in 1686–91 and 1788–92.
Revolution and independence
From 1804 until 1815, the Serbian Revolution for independence from the Ottoman Empire lasted eleven years. The revolution consisted of two distinct revolutions that won autonomy from the Ottoman Empire and ultimately led to complete independence (1835–1867). Serbia remained independent for almost a decade during the First Serbian Uprising, headed by Duke Karaore Petrovi, until the Ottoman army was able to reoccupy the nation. The Second Serbian Uprising started soon after. It concluded in 1815 with a settlement between Serbian rebels and Ottoman authorities, led by Milo Obrenovi. Similarly, Serbia was one of the first Balkan countries to eliminate feudalism. The suzerainty of Serbia was acknowledged by the Ackerman Convention in 1826, the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829, and, ultimately, the Hatt-i Sharif. On February 15, 1835, the first Serbian constitution was ratified.
Following battles between the Ottoman army and Serbs in Belgrade in 1862, and under pressure from the Great Powers, the remaining Turkish troops departed the Principality by 1867, granting it de facto independence. Serbian officials affirmed the country’s de facto independence by adopting a new constitution without consulting the Porte. Serbia declared war on the Ottoman Empire in 1876, declaring its union with Bosnia.
The country’s formal independence was recognized internationally at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which formally ended the Russo-Turkish War; however, this treaty prohibited Serbia from uniting with Bosnia by placing the latter under Austro-Hungarian occupation, alongside the occupation of Sanjak of Novi Pazar. The House of Obrenovi governed the Principality of Serbia from 1815 to 1903, with the exception of Prince Aleksandar Karaorevi’s reign from 1842 to 1858. Serbia established a kingdom in 1882, headed by King Milan I. Following the May Overthrow, the House of Karaorevi, heirs of revolutionary hero Karaore Petrovi, took control in 1903. The 1848 revolution in Austria resulted in the creation of the independent province of Serbian Vojvodina in the north; by 1849, the area had been converted into the Voivodeship of Serbia and Banat of Temeschwar.
Balkan Wars, World War I and the First Yugoslavia
During the First Balkan War in 1912, the Balkan League destroyed the Ottoman Empire and seized its European holdings, allowing it to expand into Raka and Kosovo. The Second Balkan War erupted shortly after when Bulgaria turned against its old allies, but it was defeated, culminating in the Treaty of Bucharest. Serbia increased its area by 80% in two years and its population by 50%; it also suffered heavy losses on the brink of World War I, with approximately 20,000 killed. Austria-Hungary grew apprehensive of the growing regional strength on its borders, as well as its ability to serve as an anchor for the union of the South Slavs, and their relationship deteriorated.
Following the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Young Bosnia group, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia deployed its forces in support of its ally Serbia, prompting Austria-ally Hungary’s Germany to declare war on Russia. Austria-response Hungary’s against Serbia triggered a series of military alliances that triggered a chain reaction of war declarations throughout the continent, resulting in the start of World War I within a month. Serbia won the first significant engagements of World War I, notably the Battle of Cer and the Battle of Kolubara, marking the first Allied successes against the Central Powers.
Despite its early success, it was defeated by the Central Powers in 1915. The majority of its army and people fled to Greece and Corfu, where they recovered, reorganized, and returned to the Macedonian front on 15 September 1918 to spearhead a decisive breakthrough through enemy lines, freeing Serbia and defeating the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bulgaria. Serbia, with its campaign, was a key Balkan Entente Power that made a substantial contribution to the Allied triumph in the Balkans in November 1918, particularly by assisting France in forcing Bulgaria’s surrender. Serbia was designated a minor Entente power.
Serbian fatalities accounted for 8% of overall Entente military deaths; 58 percent (243,600) of Serbian army troops died in the conflict. The total number of fatalities is estimated to be approximately 700,000, representing more than 16 percent of Serbia’s prewar population and the majority (57 percent) of its male population. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled, Syrmia joined Serbia on November 24, 1918, followed by Banat, Baka, and Baranja a day later, putting the whole Vojvodina under Serb control. The Podgorica Assembly ousted the House of Petrovi-Njego on November 26, 1918, and unified Montenegro with Serbia. Serbian Prince Regent Alexander of Serbia established the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes on December 1, 1918, under King Peter I of Serbia.
In August 1921, King Peter was replaced by his son, Alexander. In parliament, Serb centralists and Croat autonomists fought, and most administrations were weak and short-lived. Until his death, Nikola Pai, a conservative prime minister, led or controlled most administrations. King Alexander renamed the nation Yugoslavia and reorganized the country’s internal divisions from 33 oblasts to nine new banovinas. Alexander’s tyranny had the consequence of further alienating non-Serbs from the concept of unification.
During an official visit to Marseille in 1934, Alexander was murdered by Vlado Chernozemski, a member of the IMRO. Alexander’s eleven-year-old son Peter II succeeded him, and a regency council was led by his cousin, Prince Paul. As a response to Croatian concerns, the Cvetkovi–Maek Agreement created an independent Banate of Croatia in August 1939.
World War II and the Second Yugoslavia
Despite Yugoslav efforts to stay neutral in the war, the Axis forces attacked Yugoslavia in 1941. The area of contemporary Serbia was split between Hungary, Bulgaria, the Independent State of Croatia, and Italy (larger Albania and Montenegro), while the rest of Serbia was put under German military rule, with Serbian puppet governments headed by Milan Aimovi and Milan Nedi. The seized area saw civil conflict between royalist Chetniks led by Draa Mihailovi and communist partisans led by Josip Broz Tito. Axis auxiliary troops of the Serbian Volunteer Corps and the Serbian State Guard were deployed against these forces. The Draginac and Loznica massacre of 2,950 villagers in Western Serbia in 1941 was the first large-scale execution of civilians by Germans in occupied Serbia, with the Kragujevac massacre and Novi Sad Raid of Jews and Serbs by Hungarian fascists being the most notorious, each with over 3,000 victims. After one year of occupation, about 16,000 Serbian Jews were killed in the region, accounting for approximately 90 percent of the area’s pre-war Jewish population. Throughout the region, several concentration camps were constructed. The Banjica concentration camp was the biggest, with the majority of victims being Serbian Jews, Roma, and Serb political prisoners.
The Independent State of Croatia, an Axis puppet state, perpetrated widespread persecution and genocide against Serbs, Jews, and Roma. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 320,000 and 340,000 ethnic Serb inhabitants of Croatia, Bosnia, and northern Serbia were killed during the Ustae extermination campaign; the Jewish Virtual Library supports the same numbers. Official Yugoslav sources used to estimate over 700,000 fatalities, the majority of them were Serbs. So far, the Jasenovac monument contains 82,085 names of those who died at this concentration camp alone, out of an estimated 100,000 fatalities (75 percent of whom were of Serbian origin). Up to 1944, there were about 250,000 Serbians of various nationalities among the approximately 1 million fatalities in all of Yugoslavia.
The Republic of Uice was a short-lived freed territory created by the Partisans and the first liberated territory in World War II Europe, operating as a military mini-state in the fall of 1941 in the west of occupied Serbia. By late 1944, the Belgrade Offensive had turned the civil war in favor of the partisans, who had subsequently taken control of Yugoslavia. The Syrmian Front, which followed the Belgrade Offensive, was Serbia’s last major military engagement of World War II.
The Communist Partisans’ triumph led in the monarchy’s overthrow and a following constitutional referendum. The League of Communists of Yugoslavia quickly created a one-party state in Yugoslavia, and between 60,000 and 70,000 people were murdered in Serbia during the communist takeover. All forms of resistance were repressed, and anyone believed to be advocating anti-socialism or separatist were imprisoned or killed for sedition. Serbia became a constituent republic inside the SFRY known as the Socialist Republic of Serbia, and it had a republic-branch of the federal communist party known as the League of Communists of Serbia.
In Tito’s Yugoslavia, Serbia’s most prominent and important politician was Aleksandar Rankovi, one of the “great four” Yugoslav politicians, along with Tito, Edvard Kardelj, and Milovan ilas. Rankovi was subsequently dismissed from office due to disputes about Kosovo’s nomenklatura and Serbia’s unification. The removal of Rankovi was widely condemned by Serbs. Pro-decentralization reformers in Yugoslavia were successful in achieving considerable decentralization of powers, significant autonomy in Kosovo and Vojvodina, and recognition of a Yugoslav Muslim identity in the late 1960s. As a consequence of these changes, there was a major makeover of Kosovo’s nomenklatura and police, which changed from being Serb-dominated to ethnic Albanian-dominated by massively firing Serbs. In reaction to the turmoil, further concessions were given to Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, notably the establishment of the University of Pristina as an Albanian language school. Serbs were fearful of being regarded as second-class citizens as a result of these developments.
Breakup of Yugoslavia and political transition
Slobodan Miloevic came to power in Serbia in 1989. During the anti-bureaucratic movement, Miloevic pledged a decrease in powers for the autonomous regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina, where his supporters later gained power. This sparked conflicts with the communist leaderships of the other republics and sparked nationalist sentiment throughout the country, leading to Yugoslavia’s disintegration, with Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo declaring independence. Serbia and Montenegro remained together under the banner of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).
The Yugoslav Wars arose, fueled by ethnic tensions, with the most serious hostilities taking place in Croatia and Bosnia, where ethnic Serb majorities resisted independence from Yugoslavia. The FRY stayed outside of the wars while providing logistical, military, and financial assistance to Serb troops in Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. In response, the United Nations imposed sanctions on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in May 1992, resulting in political isolation and economic collapse.
In 1990, Serbia formally abolished the one-party system by instituting multiparty democracy. Critics of Miloevi argued that despite constitutional reforms, the administration remained authoritarian because Miloevi retained significant political control over the state media and security apparatus. Serbians staged massive demonstrations against the government when the governing Socialist Party of Serbia refused to acknowledge its loss in municipal elections in 1996.
Peace was shattered again between 1998 and 1999, when the situation in Kosovo deteriorated due to ongoing battles between Yugoslav security forces and the Albanian guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army. The clashes sparked the brief Kosovo War, which resulted in the departure of Serbian troops from Kosovo and the installation of UN authority over the region. Following the September 2000 presidential elections, opposition groups accused Miloevi of electoral fraud. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), a wide alliance of anti-Miloevi parties, launched a campaign of civil opposition. This culminated on 5 October, when 500,000 people from all across the nation gathered in Belgrade, forcing Miloevi to accept defeat. Miloevi’s demise ended Yugoslavia’s international isolation. Miloevi has been handed up to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The DOS said that FR Yugoslavia will pursue membership in the European Union. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was renamed Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, and the EU began talks for the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the nation. Serbia’s political environment remained hostile, and in 2003, Prime Minister Zoran Ini was murdered as part of a plan hatched by organized crime and former security officers.
Montenegro conducted a referendum on May 21, 2006, to decide whether to dissolve its union with Serbia. The results indicated that 55.4 percent of voters supported independence, which was slightly more than the 55 percent needed under the referendum. The National Assembly of Serbia proclaimed Serbia to be the legal successor to the previous state union on June 5, 2006. On February 17, 2008, the province of Kosovo proclaimed unilateral independence from Serbia. Serbia promptly denounced the announcement and maintains its denial of Kosovo’s independence. The statement has elicited a range of reactions from the international community, with some praising it and others condemning the unilateral decision. The EU is mediating status neutral negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo-Albanian authorities in Brussels.
Despite the alliance’s diplomatic schism over Kosovo, Serbia was asked to join the Intensified Dialogue initiative in April 2008. Serbia formally filed for EU membership on December 22, 2009, and obtained candidate status on March 1, 2012, after a delay in December 2011. Following the European Commission’s and European Council’s favorable recommendation in June 2013, talks to join the EU began in January 2014.