Montenegro sits on the fault-line of what Samuel Huntington called the clash of civilisations: "In the Balkans, of course, this line coincides with the historical division between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. It is the cultural border of Europe." The border line has existed for two millennia: the lands of modern Montenegro were already contested by the Greek and Roman empires. When the Roman Empire split in the fourth century AD, the new divide between Rome and Constantinople ran through Montenegro. The lands became the border-zone of Orthodoxy and Catholicism after the ecclesiastical schism of 1054.
The rise of the Ottomans in the fourteenth century brought Islam to the region. The coastal ports were the focus of competing powers: the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and the Catholic Venetian, and later Austrian, empires. The French Emperor Napoleon, the Italians and the Germans, the Russians and the British have all intervened at different times.
The modern-day Montenegrin state is a product of the past 130 years. It combines the towns of the Adriatic coast with the mountain areas of inland North Montenegro, Old Montenegro, the Brda, the Highlands, and the areas round Lake Skadar.
In describing their national identity, Montenegrins emphasise the autonomy that individual coastal cities such as Kotor have enjoyed over the centuries, the self-governing roles of the tribal assemblies, and the role of the Prince Bishop, or Vladika, a unique Montenegrin institution. The birth of the Montenegrin state dates back to 1481, when the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II allowed the Montenegrin tribal leader Ivan Crnojević to occupy a small area. To protect himself from future Ottoman attacks, Ivan Crnojević chose a remote site at the foot of Mount Lovćen for the future "royal" city of Cetinje. He brought in his monks and commissioned masons to build a court and a monastery to form the 'capital' of his remaining lands. With the church completed in 1485, the Metropolitan of Zeta was brought to Cetinje to establish the bishopric. The bishopric itself was to prove the single most durable institution – indeed the central core – of the future Montenegro.
Until the end of the 18th century, the small province remained within the Ottoman Empire. It was governed by orthodox "Vladikas", prince bishops.
The coastal lands of what is now Montenegro were held by the Republic of Venice until its collapse in 1797. In 1815 they became part of the Habsburg Empire. The last King of Montenegro, Nikola I, not only succeeded in achieving full international recognition for his country at the Berlin Congress in 1878, but also expanded its territory during the Balkan wars. At the end of the First World War, Nikola I was forced to abdicate by a pro-Serbian assembly.
Following the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, Montenegro united with Serbia under the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, a state governed by the Serb Royal Family. In 1929 the Kingdom was transformed into the Kingdom of the South Slavs – hence the name Yugoslavia.
Occupied by the Italians and Germans in the Second World War, and the scene of bitter fighting, post-war Montenegro became one of the six constituent republics of President Josip Tito's Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
"Who are the Montenegrins?" asks Elizabeth Roberts at the beginning of her book on the country. "Montenegrins are not simply a collection of mountain Serbs, nor are they 'pure' Montenegrins. Identities are neither primordial nor set in stone, as nationalists would have us believe. Instead they are, within limits, fluid and opportunistic; they evolve over time." Of Montenegro's 672,000 people some 26% belong to minorities (Albanians, Slav Muslims/Bosniaks, Croats and Roma), all of whom, as Roberts notes, are "'Montenegrins' in the political sense of being citizens of that territory." However, it is amongst the Orthodox majority that one finds ambivalence and a contest for identity:
"Why if Croats define themselves clearly as Croats and Serbs as Serbs are Montenegrins different? The most common explanation is that the sense of shared Serbian-Montenegrin identity conferred by religion and language – both powerful totems of ethnicity in the Balkans – is offset in Montenegro's case by recent political history."