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Duklja (Doclea), the first Montenegrin state under the first dynasty, the Vojislavljevic

The thousand-year history of the Montenegrin state begins in the ninth century with the emergence of Duklja, a vassal state of Byzantium. In those formative years, Duklja was ruled by the Vojislavljevic dynasty, the first Montenegrin dynasty. In 1042, at the end of his 25-year rule, King Vojislav won a decisive battle near Bar against Byzantium, and Duklja became independent. Duklja's power and prosperity reached their zenith under King Vojislav's son, King Mihailo (1046-81), and his son King Bodin (1081-1101).

As King Nikola I Petrovic of Montenegro declared in 1910: "Deep are the foundations of this renewed kingdom of ours. They descend to the old Zetan kings Vojislav, Mihailo and Bodin. Time had been destroying only what had been on this earth, but not what had been built into it, what had been planted in the hearts of the freedom-loving mountaineers of these mountains. And this no strongman could destroy. We started building on those deep foundations. And today, here is our old kingdom glistening under the heavenly sun!" (Glas Crnogorca, August 19, 1910).

The territory of Duklja comprised much of the southern Adriatic coast, most of present-day Montenegro, Skadar Lake, the town of Skodra and parts of present-day northern Albania. In the west, it included present-day Herzegovina, with its border about 50 kilometers west of the Neretva River.

The people of Duklja "were the oldest ancestors of Montenegrins. That people, in the feudal sense, was a particular mix of Illyrians, Romans and Slavs, synthesized under the name -- the Dukljans." (Dragoje Zivkovic, Istorija crnogorskog naroda, Cetinje, 1989, p.134).

The Dukljans were predominantly Catholics. The population also included Bogomils (members of a Bosnian Christian sect which originated in Macedonia) and pagans, but these faiths gradually disappeared under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church. The conversion to Orthodox Christianity began only after the fall of the Vojislavljevic dynasty, in the 12th century.

Mihailo received royal insignia from the Pope, and the image of King Mihailo with his crown is still found in the Church of St. Mihailo in Ston, a town in the Peljesac peninsula (in present-day Croatia). In a letter from 1077, the Pope refers to him as "Michaeli Sclavorum Regi" (Mihailo, King of Slavs). Recognizing Mihailo as a king, the Pope also considered his request that Duklja's bishopric in Bar be raised to an archbishopric. This request was challenged by the rival archbishoprics in Dubrovnik and Split.
But on January 8, 1089, the Pope issued a bull to Mihailo's son King Bodin raising the Bar bishopric to the status of archbishopric, with ten subordinated bishoprics and Archbishop Petar as head.

Following Mihailo's death around 1081 and a brief power struggle among his heirs, his son Bodin became king. Bodin fought the Byzantines and Normans and took the town of Durachium. He established vassal states in Bosnia (under Stefan) and Raska (under Vukan and Marko), which recognized his supremacy. After Bodin's death (around 1101), incessant struggles for power among his heirs weakened the state. These struggles culminated in the rise to power of pro-Raska rulers in Duklja. The rise of Raska under its ruler Stefan Nemanja (around 1166) thus led to the subordination of Duklja and the end of the first period of the Montenegrin state.

Nemanja's conquest of Duklja - or Zeta, as it was referred to from the 11th century on -ended with its incorporation into Raska. Nemanja destroyed entire towns in Zeta that never subsequently recovered. He persecuted the Bogomils and expelled the Greeks from Zeta, burning local churches and books. Pavel Rovinski, one of the most knowledgeable 19th-century historians of Montenegro, notes that "in burning books, there was no discrimination, whether they were religious, historical, geographic, literary or descriptions of nature" (Crna Gora u proslosti i sadasnjosti, Cetinje, 1993, p.279). Nemanja started forcefully converting Zeta's population to Orthodox Christianity - this in a country where "there was not one Orthodox priest. And when he consolidated his power in Zeta, the Greeks had already been expelled" (Rovinski, p. 281).

Despite the massive destruction during Nemanja's conquest, Zeta was culturally and economically one of the most advanced parts of Raska (Serbia). And Zetans constantly struggled to maintain and increase their autonomy. When the Serbian kingdom started crumbling in the mid-14th century, Zeta increasingly asserted its sovereignty.
It regained its independence under the second Montenegrin dynasty, the Balsic, which came to power in 1356.