The legend of the Argonauts describes the pursuit of the Colchidians after the ship the Argo and the Golden Fleece. The subjects of the king of Colchis gave up further pursuit after the death of the king's son. Fearing that they would be punished for his death and the failure of their quest if they returned to Colchis, they decided to settle where the prince had died. Pula therefore became not only a harbor of refuge to the Colchidian fugitives, but also their place of exile. The most famous geographer of antiquity, Strabo, claims that this is how Pula was founded. According to legend, this took place about three thousand years ago.
In the Illyrian period, until the arrival of the Roman legions, Pula was no more than the surroundings of nearby Nesactium, a political, administrative, military and religious center. As a result of intensive colonization, being on good trade routes, and its military importance, Pula assumed a leading position. Numerous economic activities developed in this period: stone-cutting for the many buildings in Pula and its surroundings, agriculture, viticulture, olive-growing, fishing and pottery for the transport of olive oil, wine, wheat and fish.
In the imperial Roman period (1st-3rd centuries), the greatest classical monuments in Croatia were built in Pula. The most magnificent and undoubtedly central classical monument is the Amphitheater, popularly called the Arena. This Amphitheater, used for fights and battles between men and animals, was built in the 1st century AD during the rule of the Emperor Vespasian. The ground plan is elliptical, its size being about 130 m x 105 m, and it is 32 m high, which ranks it as the sixth largest existing Roman amphitheater. The Arena could once hold up to 23,000 spectators, whereas today it can seat some 5,000 people.
Classical Pula was supplied with all the major achievements of Roman civilization. It had its own water supply and sewage systems, the Forum, which was the administrative, commercial and religious center, the capitolium and temples (in the Forum), two theaters, a large city cemetery (mentioned by Dante in “The Divine Comedy”), and houses richly ornamented with mosaics and marble.
The city was fortified by walls and was entered through some ten gates. The greater part of these were destroyed at the beginning of the 19th century, so that only some of the gates have survived to the present. The Triumphal Arch of the Sergi is situated at the end of the street (Via Sergia) leading eastwards from the Forum. This triumphal arch leaned against the city gate (Porta Aurea) so that only its western, visible side was richly decorated. This monument was erected at the end of the 1st century BC by Salvia Postuma Sergi with her own money in honor of three members of her family who held important positions in Pula at that time. According to the inscription on the arch, the monument was constructed between 29 and 27 BC. For centuries, this impressive Roman monument has attracted the attention of famous artists, especially Italian ones, such as the great Michelangelo. Heading north, you can see the two other remaining city gates: the Gate of Hercules and the Twin Gates.
Outside the city gates lay cemeteries called necropolises. Fragments from monuments found at these burial sites are today kept in the Archaeological Museum of Istria. Not far from the Twin Gates are the remains of a sepulchral structure, an octagonal mausoleum dating from the 1st–2nd centuries AD.
The Forum, the central city square of ancient and medieval Pula, was surrounded on three sides by arcades with statues and reliefs, and on its northern side by temples. The Temple of Augustus, built between 2 BC and AD 14, has been completely preserved to the present day.
On the eastern slopes of the central hill of Kaštel, within the city walls, you can find the remains of a small Roman theater, including the foundations of the stage and parts of the tiered section for the audience. Nothing significant has been preserved of the large Roman theater situated outside the city. Only a fragment of a relief on the exterior wall is kept in the Archaeological Museum of Istria. This is situated close to the small Roman theater, and today houses numerous items from the prehistoric, Roman and early medieval periods found in the area of Pula and Istria.
Owing to its geographical isolation, Pula avoided the migrations, plundering and invasions of the barbarians until the 5th century when it was conquered by the Visigoths and then the Ostrogoths. Under the Eastern Roman Empire, the town prospered and gained military importance in the conflicts between Byzantine forces and the Goths.
In the second half of the 6th century, the Slavs began their invasion of the Istrian peninsula. After dreadful fighting, the population declined and trade and manufacturing came to a standstill. The new rulers of Istria, the Franks, brought with them the new feudal system, which enabled the settling of Slavic Croatian farmers. However, this was met with resistance from Istrian towns. With the development of feudalism and the establishment of city-states on its territory, Istria was confronted with the arrival of Venice. In 1150, Pula swore allegiance to the Republic of Venice and accepted all obligations towards it: paying tribute, building and equipping galleys, supporting it in wars, etc.
Pula was thus bound to Venetian economic and political aims. This defined its development for the next few centuries. During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Pula was attacked and conquered by Genoese, Croatian-Hungarian and Habsburg armies, causing the devastation of numerous medieval settlements and villages. Besides the calamity of war, the population of Pula and Istria was decimated by numerous epidemics of plague, malaria, typhoid and small-pox.
As a result of the dilapidation of its monumental buildings, ruined economy and decimated population, Pula declined in significance. However, due to its geographical position and the importance of its harbor for trade routes, Pula simply could not disappear. The town was saved by organized settlement by Croats and southern Slavs.
After the revolutionary year of 1848, the Austro-Hungarian Empire realized the importance of Pula's harbor and started the intensive development of a huge naval port and shipyard. This resulted in the gradual settlement of Pula and within 50 years the population had increased from 1,126 people to about 40,000.
Pula was still described as a village cut off from the rest of the world, but later on vast sums were invested in the sewage system and infrastructure. Eventually, these investments transformed rural Pula into a prosperous town. With the new railway, Pula gradually took over the role of Trieste and Rijeka as the main port for Dalmatia. This enabled Pula to develop two functions at the same time - military and trading. Under the rule of Vienna, the official language in Pula was German, while Italian remained the everyday language among various social classes. The use of Croatian, however, very soon disappeared. This was the situation during World War II under fascist rule, when Pula, as an anti-fascist town, organized resistance and fought for its future despite devastation and reprisals by the defeated side. After the War and German occupation, Pula came under Anglo-American administration.
In 1947, Pula finally turned to its natural hinterland - Croatia (in accordance with the 1943 Resolution that defined Istria as a part of Croatia), and therefore Yugoslavia. This caused yet another exodus of discontented Italian citizens. This marked the beginning of a new period in the history of Pula that lasted until Croatia gained independence.