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Principality of Zeta
Capital Podgorica
Language(s) Old Slavic
Religion Christianity
Government Principality
Historical era Medieval
 - Independence from Rascia November 3, 1341
 - Acceded into Serbian Despotate January 18, 1397

Zeta (Serbian and Montenegrin Cyrillic: Зета) was a principality whose territory approximately encompassed present-day Montenegro. It was named after the Zeta River.

Zeta was first noted as a vassalage of Rascia, ruled by heirs to the Serbian throne from the Nemanjić dynasty. When the principal heir became Grand Župan of Rascia or King of Serbs, the fief would be granted to second in line to the throne.

Zeta became an independent fiefdom in 1356, during the gradual disintegration of Serbian Empire that followed the death of Tsar Stefan Dušan Uroš IV Nemanjić (Dušan the Mighty) in 1355.

During the late 15th century, Zeta became better known as Montenegro, which means Black Mountain in the Venetian language. It was succeeded by theocratic Montenegro and Ottoman-ruled Montenegro.



History of Montenegro
Coat of Arms of Montenegro
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Principality of Zeta
Montenegro Province, Ottoman Empire
Principality of Montenegro
Kingdom of Montenegro
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Starčevo culture · Vinča culture
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Rascia · Doclea / Zeta · Zachlumia
Travunia · Serbian Empire
Moravian Serbia · Battle of Kosovo
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Zeta in Rascian State

After Constantin Bodin's death, fighting among his potential successors weakened the state of Duklja and the region succumbed to Rascia's reign between 1183 and 1186.

In 1190, Grand Župan of Rascia Stefan Nemanja's son, Vukan II, asserted his right to the Dukljan crown. In 1219, the regent of Zeta and King Vukan's oldest son, Đorđe Nemanjić, became king of Duklja/Zeta. He was succeeded by his second oldest son, Uroš I, who built the 'Uspenje Bogorodice' monastery in Morača.

Between 1276 and 1309, Zeta was ruled by Queen Jelena, widow of Serbia's King Uroš I. She restored around 50 monasteries in the region--- most notably Saint Srđ and Vakh on the Bojana River. The name Crna Gora (Montenegro) was formally mentioned for the first time in 1296, in the charter of St. Nicholas' monastery in Vranjina. This charter was issued by the Serbian King Stefan Milutin Nemanjić, who was the youngest son of Uroš I and Jelena Kurtene. Crna Gora (Montenegro) was to be understood as the highland region under Mount Lovćen, within the confines of Zeta. By the beginning of the 14th century, during King Milutin's reign, the Archdiocese in Bar was the strongest feudal lord in Zeta.

From 1309 to 1321, Zeta was co-ruled by the oldest son of King Milutin, Young King Stefan Uroš III Dečanski. Similarly, from 1321 to 1331, Stefan's young son Stefan Dušan Uroš IV Nemanjić, the future Serbian King and Tzar, co-ruled Zeta with his father.

After Tzar Dušan's death in 1355, the Serbian state Kingdom started to crumble and its holdings were divided among Prince (Knjaz) Lazar Hrebeljanović, the short-lived (1353-1391) Bosnian state of Ban Tvrtko I Kotromanić, and a semi-independent chiefdom of Zeta under the House of Balšić, whose founder Balša I came to power in 1356.

The House of Balšić

States in the Central Balkans (including Realm of Zeta of the House of Balšić) in the 14th century
The earliest State of Balsic
House of Balšić Coat of Arms

Autonomy of Zeta

The most prosperous and mightiest era of Serbia's history was brought to an end by the death of the Dušan in 1355. Seizing the opportunity, the leading dynasty in Zeta, the Balšićs, reasserted Zeta's autonomy in 1356.

Mention of the House of Balšić

The very first written document relating to the House of Balšić is in the chart of Uroš issued to the Republic of Dubrovnik from 1360.

Balša I

The founder of the House of Balšić, Balša I, originally controlled one village but with the help of his sons Stracimir, Đurađ I and Balša II, he conquered Upper Zeta and the towns of Skadar, Kotor and Bar.

Đurađ I and Balša II ruled Zeta from 1362 to 1378 and from 1378 to 1385, respectively. However, the most influential Balšić is considered to have been Đurađ I, who enlarged and consolidated Zeta's renewed power and conquered Prizren (previously Nemanjić's royal capital, in Metohija).

Đurađ I

Đurađ I's rule of Zeta extended from 1362 to 1378. During this time, he forged an alliance with King Vukašin Mrnjavčević, but Vukašin Mrnjavčević was killed soon afterwards at the Battle of Marica in 1371. Đurađ I married Vukašin's daughter, Olivera.

Đurađ I ran Zeta as a modern ruler of the time. Zeta's institutions were functioning well, while the coastal towns enjoyed considerable autonomy. Commerce was well developed and enhanced by the existence of Zeta's currency, the dinar.

Đurađ I allied with his neighbors Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović of Serbia, Ban Tvrtko I Kotromanić of Bosnia, Prince Nikola I Gorjanski and King Louis I of Hungary, to defeat the ambitious Herzegovina'a ruler Nikola Altomanović in 1373. In spite of this, the defeated and blinded Nikola Altomanović found a refuge in Zeta until his death.

While he was battling in the south of Kosovo, Đurađ's younger brother Balša II, married Komnina, a close cousin of the mighty Tzar Dušan Uroš IV Nemanjić's wife, Jelena. By marrying Komnina, Đurađ II received a generous dowry in land, including Avlona, Berat, Kanina, and some additional strategically important regions.

Upon the division of Herzegovina, the Balšićs took the towns of Trebinje, Konavle and Dračevica. Subsequent dispute over these towns led to a conflict between Zeta and Bosnia, led by Ban Tvrtko I. The fight was eventually won by Bosnia, supported by Hungary, after Đurađ's death in 1378.

Balša II

In 1378, following Đurađ's death, his brother Balša II became the King of Zeta. In 1382, Ban Tvrtko I conquered Dračevica, and built the town later known as Herceg-Novi. Both Tvrtko I and Balša II aspired to ascend to the throne of the House of Nemanjić.

During his rule, Balša II's could not maintain the control of the feudal lords as his predecessor did. His power was strong only in region around Skadar, and in the eastern part of Zeta. The most prominent feudal lords who did not recognize Balša's rule was the House of Crnojević, who were consistent encouraged by the Venetians to rebel against him.

Balša II needed four attempts to conquer Drač, an important commercial and strategic center. Defeated, Karl Thopia appealed to the Turks for help. Turkish forces led by Hajrudin Pasha inflicted heavy damage to Balša II's forces and killed him at a major battle at Saurian Field near Berat, in 1385.

Đurađ II

Picture of coat of arm in silver coin Đurađ II, about 1400 AD

The successor of Balša II, Đurađ II Stracimirović Balšić, ruled Zeta from 1385 to 1403, was Balša's nephew and son of Stracimir. He also had difficulties controlling the local feudal lords, with no control over the feudal lords in the entire Upper Zeta. In addition, the feudal lords around Onogošt (Nikšić) accepted the Venetian protection. The most prominent of those lords was Radič Crnojević, who controlled the area between Budva and Mount Lovćen. Moreover, a number of Arbanas feudal lords, particularly Lekë Dukagjini and Paul Dukagjini joined the conspiracy against Đurađ II.

With this in mind as well as the constant danger from the Turks, Đurađ II maintained strong family ties with the Serbia's main lord of the time, Prince Lazar. To help Prince Lazar defend the Serbian lands from Ottoman invasion, Đurađ II sent his troops along with Ban Tvrtko I Kotromanić's forces (with whom he had a dispute over Kotor) to meet the Ottoman army at Kosovo Polje. Despite Sultan Murad I's death, the Serbian army suffered a defeat at the epic Battle of Kosovo in 1389. According to the sources, Đurađ II did not participate in the battle but was in Ulcinj in Southern Zeta.

In later years, Đurađ II played skillful diplomatic games to enhance the rivalry between the Ottomans and the Venetians. To that purpose, he offered Skadar to both hoping that eventually he would be able to keep it. After two years of fighting, Turks and Venetians agreed to leave it to Đurađ II, who was neutral in the conflict. Similarly, the rivalry between Venetians and Hungarians brought a benefit to him. After a serious defeat of his forces by Turks near Nikopolje, the Hungarian King Sigismund gave him the title of Prince of Arbania and the control over the islands of Hvar and Korčula.

In the feud between Đurađ Branković and his uncle, Stefan Lazarević (son of Prince Lazar), who later received the title of Byzantine Despot, Đurađ II sided with Stefan. Due to Đurađ's support, Stefan defeated Turkish forces led by Đurađ Branković in the Battle of Gračanica on Kosovo Field in June 21, 1402.

Balša III

In 1403, Đurađ II's 17-year old son, Balša III, inherited the throne of Zeta after his father died as a consequence of the injuries he suffered in the Battle of Gračanica. As he was young and inexperienced, his main advisor was his mother Jelena, a sister of the Serbian ruler, Stefan Lazarević. Under her influence, Balša III declared Montenegrin Orthodox Christianity as the official state religion; however, Catholicism was tolerated.

Balša III continued the policies of his father. In 1418, took Skadar from the Venetians, but lost Budva. In the following year he made an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Budva. Afterwards he went to Belgrade to ask for help from Despot Stefan, but never returned to Zeta.

Zeta in the Despotate (1421-1451)

Stefan Lazarević

In 1421, before his death and under the influence of his mother Jelena, Balša III passed the rule of Zeta to Despot Stefan Lazarević. He fought Venetians and regained Bar in mid-1423, and in the following year he sent his nephew Đurađ Branković, who regaining Drivast and Ulcinium (Ulcinj).

Đurađ Branković

In 1427, Despot Stefan died and Serbian was inherited by his nephew, Despot Đurađ Branković who, at the time, needed to confront the more serious threat of the Ottoman Empire, and so could not pay particular attention to Zeta.

House of Crnojević

House of Crnojević Coat of Arms

Ascent to Power

The House of Crnojević began with two brothers, Đurađ and Aleksa Đurašević-Crnojević, from the area around Mount Lovćen. But far more important roles in establishing this family's rule in Zeta were played by Stefan I Crnojević (1451-1465) and his son Ivan Crnojević (1465-1490). Ivan's son Đurađ Crnojević (1490-1496) was the last ruler from this dynasty. Beginning with the House of Crnojević rule, Zeta began to be referred to commonly as Crna Gora (Montenegro).

Stefan I

Stefan I Crnojević consolidated his power in Zeta and ruled for 14 years, from 1451 until 1465. During his rule, he saw the Despotate completely subdued by Turkey soon after the death of Despot Đurađ Branković. Under Stefan Crnojević, Montenegro comprised the Lovćen area around Cetinje, 51 municipalities which included Rijeka Crnojevića (Crnojević River), the valley of the River Zeta and the clans Bjelopavlići, Pješivci, Malonsići, Piperi, Hoti, Klimenti (Kelmendi) and others. The population of the territories controlled by Stefan was about 30,000. Total population of Zeta (including regions under the Venetian, Kosača's and Turkish rule), was about 80,000 people.

Capitalising on the weak position of Despot Đurađ, the Venetians and Herzog Stjepan Vukčić Kosača of St. Sava (the region of Herzegovina is named after him) conquered parts of his territory. Stefan I Crnojević, who had already established himself as the head of House of Crnojević (around 1451) in Upper Zeta was forced to make territorial concessions. In addition, Kosača took Stefan's son, Ivan a hostage, hoping that this will force Stefan to side with him when needed.

Stefan married Mara, a daughter of a prominent Albanian Gjon Kastrioti, whose son was the Albanian national hero, Skanderbeg. In 1455, Stefan entered into an agreement with his ally Venice, stipulating that Zeta would recognize the nominal supremacy of Venice while maintaining its factual independence in virtually every respect. The agreement also stipulated that Zeta would assist Venice militarily on specific occasions in exchange for an annual provision. But in all other respects, Stefan's rule in Zeta was undisputed.


Ivan Crnojević became ruler of Zeta/Montenegro in 1465. His rule lasted until 1490. Immediately after taking the throne, Ivan attacked Venice breaking the alliance his father had forged. He fought Venice in an attempt to capture Kotor. He had some success, gaining increasing support from the coastal Slavic tribes of Grbalj and Paštrovići in his quest to assert control over the Bay of Kotor. But when the Ottoman campaign in northern Albania and Bosnia convinced him that the main source of danger to his country was to the East, he sought a compromise with Venice. Ivan fought numerous battles against the Turks.

The State of Crnojević in XV century

Zeta and Venice fought against the Ottoman Empire. The war ended with the successful defense of Skadar, where the Venetian and Zetan defenders fought off forces of against Turkish Sultan Mehmed II and eventually won the war in 1474. However, this victory was short-lived, since the Sultan's forces conquered Skadar in 1479 and signed a peace treaty with Venice. Ivan had aspirations to organise an anti-Turkish alliance consisting of Napolitan, Venetian, Hungarian, and Zetan forces. However, his dream could not be fulfilled since the Venetians did not dare to help Ivan after their peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire in 1479. Left on his own, Ivan single-handedly managed to preserve Zeta from frequent Ottoman offensives.

Knowing that the Ottomans would try to punish him for fighting on the Venetian side, and in order to preserve his independence, in 1482 he moved his capital from Žabljak on Lake Skadar to the mountainous area of Dolac, under Mount Lovćen. There he built the Orthodox Christian monastery (Cetinje Monastery) around which the capital, Cetinje, would emerge. This event marks the end of the history of Zeta, since the country permanently changed its name to Montenegro during Đurađ Crnojević's rise to power.

Đurađ IV

Đurađ IV Crnojević became ruler of Zeta in 1490. His rule lasted until 1496. Đurađ, Ivan's oldest son, was an educated ruler. He is most famous for one historical act: he used the printing press brought to Cetinje by his father to print the first books in southeastern Europe, in 1493. The Crnojević printing press marked the beginning of the printed word among Serbs. The press operated from 1493 through 1496, turning out religious books, five of which have been preserved: Oktoih prvoglasnik, Oktoih petoglasnik, Psaltir, Molitvenik, and Četvorojevanđelje. Đurađ managed the printing of the books, wrote prefaces and afterwords, and developed sophisticated tables of Psalms with the lunar calendar. The books from the Crnojević press were printed in two colors, red and black, and were richly ornamented. They served as models for many books printed in Cyrillic.

After the rule of Zeta was handed to Đurađ, his youngest brother, Staniša, with no chance to succeed his father, Ivan, went to Constantinople and converted to Islam. As a loyal servant of the Sultan, Staniša later became the Shkodrian Sanjak-Bey under the name of Skender. His brothers, Đurađ and Stefan II continued the struggle against Ottomans. The historical facts are unclear and disputed, but it seems that the Venetians, frustrated by their own inability to subdue the House of Crnojević to their own interests, managed to kill Stefan II and deceitfully sent Đurađ to Constantinople. Principally, Đurađ visited Venice to work on the wide anti-Ottoman campaign, but was kept in captivity for some time while Stefan II was defending Zeta against the Ottomans. It is likely that upon his return to Zeta, Đurađ was kidnapped by the Venetian agents and sent to Constantinople under the accusation that he had been organizing a Holy War against Islam. There are some unreliable claims that Đurađ was given Anatolia to rule, but in any case the reports about Đurađ's whereabouts ceased after 1503.

The End of the Principality

After the death of Đurađ Crnojević, Zeta was ruled by his brother Stefan II, as an Ottoman vassal. The end of the 15th century and of Stefan's rule marked the end of the House of Crnojević. In the new administrative division of the Balkans, Zeta was a part of the Sanjak of İşkodra (Skadar) from 1499 to 1514. During this period, while Brda and North-West of Montenegro were nominally independent, the part of Zeta under Mount Lovćen remained entirely independent. By the end of the 15th century, Upper Zeta comprised Katunska, Riječka, Crmnička, and Lješanska Nahijas.

In 1514, Zeta was proclaimed as the separate Sanjak of Montenegro, by the order of Sultan Beyazid II. Ivan Crnojević's son Staniša (Skenderbeg), who converted to Islam was chosen ad the first Sanjak-Bey and governed until 1528. Despite Skenderbeg's emphasized cruelty, Ottomans did not have real power in Zeta. The real power was in the hands of tribal heads. From 1534 onwards, there is no more mention of the Crnojevićs in Zeta. They reappeared in Montenegrin history as Čarnojevićs. Their most prominent member was Archbishop of Peć and Patriarch of Slavs Arsenije III Čarnojević (1633-1706).

In 1516, there was a shift in the constitution of Zeta. The last person of the House of Crnojević retired to Venice and married a Venetian. This conferred the succession upon the bishops of Cetinje. In Zeta, the position of vladika, as the prince-bishop was known, brought stability to that country's leadership. The link between church and state elevated it in the eyes of the peasantry, gave it an institutionalized form of succession that prevented its becoming a matter of contest between minor chieftains, and excluded the possibility of compromising alliances with the Ottomans.

The Principality of Zeta officially ended when it was turned into a theocratic state by the Vladikas (Prince-Bishops or Prince-Episcopes) when they took over in 1516. Zeta became known internationally as "Montenegro" (meaning black mountain) because the mountain realm, though isolated, was visible to Venetian speaking merchants and seamen operating out of the ports of Cattaro and Ragusa on the Dalmatian coast. Indeed, access to the principality was only possible by way of the perilous Steps of Catarro that twist their way steeply into the dark, forbidding mountains above the town. The Ottomans had controlled a part of Zeta since 1498, that was known as the Sanjak of Montenegro, the Republic of Venice controlled Cattaro and the Vladikas of Montenegro controlled the rest.

List of rulers

House of Nemanjić

House of Balšić


House of Crnojević


  • J. Jovanović, Stvaranje Crnogorske Države i Razvoj Crnogorske Nacionalnosti, 1947, Cetinje pages 18, 28, 36, 43, and 54-55
  • D. Živković, Istorija Crnogorskog Naroda, 1989, Cetinje

See also


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