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Branimir Gabričević

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The earliest inhabitants of the Island of Vis, i. e. the Later Stone Agemen (between 3000 and 2000 B. C.), gave this Dalmatian island the name of Issa from which the later Slavic form Vis is derived.
Syracusan Greeks settled in the bay located on the northern side of the island in the early fourth century B. C., occupying the southern slope of the Gradina Hillock and Prirovo Peninsula where a city flourished for about a thousand years, i. e. until the Slavs took over the island.
In spite of gradual disappearance of the abandoned buildings in the ancient city area owing to their dressed stone being increasingly used for the construction of new dwelling houses, churches, and quays – particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries – abundant traces of the ancient Greek and the subsequent Roman Issa have survived bearing evidence to the island’s rich heritage of the ancient Greek and Roman periods.
Thirty-odd ancient Greek inscriptions, unearthed on the island thus far, are not only important for telling us the names of a number of citizens of Issa, but also for giving significant historical facts. Some of those inscriptions inform us that a new settlement had been founded by the city of Issa on the Island of Korčula and that representatives were delegated by Issa to Aquileia in 56 B. C. in order to discuss quite definite matters whit no less a personage than Gaius Julius Caesar. We also learn from the inscriptions that the highest legislative body of the city was the assembly as in other cities of ancient Greece. Since Issa was a self-governing city (polis) until the Roman conquest, it minted its own coins, the obverse bearing the images of Ionios, the legendary hero of Issa, or of Pallas Athene on the obverse, and of an animal (porpoise, goat, deer), a star, or a two-handed vase on the reverse.
The surviving parts of the ancient architecture include the ruins of the city walls and of large Roman thermae with mosaics, the walls of an arcade, cisterns, foundations of various buildings, etc. Particular attention deserve the surviving ruins of the theatre, built for an audience of 3,000, located in the Prirovo area. The semicircular form of the 16th century Franciscan monastery erected in the same area is due to the fact that the ruins of the semicircular auditorium served as its foundations.
The ancient cemetery lay to the west of the Graeco-Roman city. When clearing land for cultivation, the farmers unearthed a number of large graves, built of carefully dressed stone stabs, in which the Greek inhabitant of Issa used to bury their dead. That is why the area has been called Martvilo (i. e. the place of the dead) by the Slavs. A number of artifacts was laid into the graves together with the corpses, such as artistically ornamented pottery, terra cotta statuettes (Tanagra figures) representing women, oil-lamps, coins, etc. Among the unearthed pottery, that belonging to the period between 3rd and 1st centuries B. C. is particularly numerous. Shaped and ornamented like the pottery made in the ancient Greek cities in the Southern Italy, from where it originally had been imported to Issa, it was perhaps made also at Issa since a large oven, used for baking pottery, has been found in the Martvilo area.
Pots (skyphos) and wine jugs (oinohoe) abundantly occur in the excavated graves of ancient Issa. A water jar (hydria) deserves a particular attention owing to its artistic ornamentation representing a small temple-shaped structure (naiskos) with two richly robed female figures. The figure on the right hand side is seated, holding an open box in one hand and a mirror in the other: it is the image of the buried person, shown in a scene of her everyday life. The figure on the left hand side, stepping forward with a lowered wreath, represents a relative of the buried, expressing her sorrow at the bereavement.
Among the ceramic artifacts found in the graves at Issa, a small composition figuring Eros and Psyche (allegorical representation of Love and Soul) is especially worth mentioning. So is an oil-lamp bearing high reliefs representing the heads of Asclepius, the god of medicine, and Hyggeia, his daughter, the goddess of health.
In addition to the simple stone-slab graves, the excavated burial ground yielded a number of grave-stones with the names of persons buried there, as also some sculptures and ornamentally carved marble slabs, suggesting a monumental tomb or a mausoleum.
Although Issa was a peripheral Greek polis lacking outstanding artists and their workshops, a few exquisite items of plastic art, dating from the Hellenistic period, were found in the area. This is surely due to the fact that the inhabitants of Issa were engaged in trade with the cultural centres of the eastern Mediterranean region where they were able to purchase works of art with the idea of adorning both public and private place in their city. The most beatiful so far unearthed Hellenistic piece of sculpture brought from the east is no doubt a bronze head of a statue representing a goddess (belonging to the archaeological collection of the Vis Commune). With an ornamented metal diadem on the wavy hear tied in a knot on the back of its head, gracefully bent to the right, the sculpture’s delicately beatiful form reveal ideal serenity. This indicates that the unearthed head may have belonged to a copy of an original sculpture dating from the early 4th century B. C.
With Issa’s independence coming to an end in consequence of the Roman conquest in the year 45 B. C., the city was reduced to a provincial place of the Roman Empire, and the impact of the Roman way of life and of Roman ideas became evident also in the new architecture. It seems that the southern front of the ancient city wall was then destroyed, exposing to view the seaward part of the city, and making possible a series of architectural changes at the foot of Gradina Hillock (towards Prirovo). In addition to the thermae, a 60 metre long arcade was then built, one of its walls surviving to some extent. A number of statues place din niches adorned the wall. Some of the statues were unearthed. Two of them (unfortunately without heads) may be seen in the courtyard of the Dojmi palace at Vis, and one, probably representing Emperor Vespasian, has been in the possession of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna for about a century now. Other sculptures, or fragments there of, were found in the same area, i. e. not far from the ancient arcade. One of them, in the possession of the Archaeological Museum in Split, is the powerfully executed head of a statue representing a personage from the mid-first century A. D. Another, an armour-clad torso belonging to the satue of a Roman emperor, has been in the possession of the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb for about a century. These finds of monumental sculptures, dating from the period of Roman rule, illustrate the efforts made by the Roman administration to emphasize not only its presence but also the new socio-political system in the once independent Greek polis.
Fragments of two sarcophagi dating from the 3rd century A. D. seem to be the latest surviving evidence of Roman Issa. There have been no archaeological finds belonging to the following centuries, not even early Christian monuments. That is why no documented historical or archaeological conclusion can be drawn with regard to the probable extinction of life in the area until a reliable answer is provided by further explorations.

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