Ban was a strong advocate of Serbian unity and independence, but was also a pan-Slavist. He is commonly regarded as being the first to use the term "Yugoslav", in a poem in 1835.
Matija Ban was born in Petrovo Selo, near the city of Dubrovnik (in today's Croatia), to a Roman Catholic family. After graduating from a lycee in Dubrovnik, he was supposed to join the Franciscan order, but suddenly changed his plans. His inquisitive mind and wanderlust made him travel to the East. He first lived and worked on the island of Halki (Heybeliada), near Istanbul (Constantinople); Bursa; and the metropolis of Constantinople. He also had an estate in Anatolia, Asia Minor, where he spent his holidays.
Matija Ban was influenced by pan-Slavists and romantic nationalists Michał Czajkowski and František Zach in Istambul, so much that he moved to Belgrade in 1844 in an attempt to promote his idea that Serbian patriotism must extend beyond Serb Orthodoxy and the borders of the Principality of Serbia.
In 1844 he arrived in Serbia where he obtained employment in the government service. At the same time he became seriously interested in Serbo-Croatian literature, under the influence of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, the great reformer, and Branko Radičević, the Romantic poet. In Serbia, Ban's group of enthusiasts worked with Serbia's minister of the interior Ilija Garašanin, the author of Načertanije, to enter the upper reaches of Serbian political life. They were not, however, met with uniform acceptance - Jovan Sterija Popović and others, with support of the Church in Serbia, protested against their ideas and by extension against Vuk Karadžić's notion that Serbian language and nationality extended beyond Orthodoxy.
Initially, Ban began writing early in 1834, in the Serbo-Croatian and Italian (then spoken along the Dalmatian littoral as a second language). During the 1840s he began producing literary work while in civil service.
Shortly before the Revolutions of 1848 in the Habsburg areas, Matija Ban was sent from Belgrade on special missions to Novi Sad, Karlovci, Zagreb, Zadar, Dubrovnik and Cetinje. Ban first arrived in Cetinje in middle of April, 1848, in the capacity as a confidential Serbian emissary on a secret mission. Before that, he had visited Karlovci—the centre of the Vojvodina Serbs—and Zagreb—the Croatian centre, Ban was generally a very suitable choice as intermediary between Belgrade and Zagreb and as loyal collaborator with Petar II Petrović Njegoš in the organization of a conspiratorial network in the south, spreading from Herzegovina. Bishop Petar II greeted Ban with open arms, even ceremoniously. Ban immediately recognized Njegoš among the chieftains, by his bearing and demeanor. He was to visit him twice more. Ban left some fine notes which reveal the Bishop's political image. True to the Montenegrin cause as well as to the Serbian reality, Njegoš, according to Ban, believed that it was first necessary to settle age-old accounts with Turkey (before redeeming Serbian territories under the Habsburgs and the Republic of Venice). The subject of Njegoš-Ban negotiations was the raising of a rebellion in Turkey—in Old Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia—with the aid of the two Serbian states (Montenegro and Serbia).
When Ban appeared before Njegoš in the spring of 1849, Njegoš read a letter that he wrote to Prince Alexander (14 April 1849), had we marched on Bosnia instead of Vojvodina, today we would have in our hands something that could not be easily lost. But the collapse of the revolution meant an end to plans of liberating Serbs from Ottoman rule, which Njegoš suspected all along. Ban's last visit to Cetinje was to inform the ailing Bishop (who had full-blown tuberculosis by then) that the insurgents had been dissolved in Austria.
In his travels to Croatian lands, Ban advocated for pan-Slavic as well as pro-Serbian ideas, claiming the Kingdom of Dalmatia should be unified with the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia, but also describing the language of Dubrovnik as Serbian. By 1850, the revolution was over and Ban, particularly because he had acquired Serbian citizenship in 1844, became suspicious to the Austrian police in Dubrovnik, who started to monitor him. At that point, he was summoned to Belgrade where Garašanin suspended all of his operations and ordered him to permanently return to Belgrade. He hesitated, but was persuaded by Prince Aleksandar and others to comply. He did however leave his family in Dubrovnik and published two more issues of the journal Dubrovnik in Ljudevit Gaj's publishing house in Zagreb in 1851 and 1852.
From 1853 till 1861 two volumes of his were published in Belgrade under the title Različnih Pisma (Different Letters).
He's one of the most prolific of Serbian dramatists, however, he failed to produce plays of lasting value: Mejrimah (1849); Milijenko i Dobrila (1850); Smrt kneza Dobroslava (1851); Smrt Uroša V, ilio poslednji Nemanjići (1857); Kralj Vukašin (1857); Car Lazar (1858); Cvijeti Srbske(1865); Vanja (1868); Kobna tajna (1869); Marta Posanjica (1871); Marojica Kabora (1879); Jan Hus (1880); Knez Nikola Zrinjski (1888).
Ban was named among the first four members of the Academy of Arts of the Royal Serbian Academy of Sciences, named by King Milan I of Serbia on 5 April 1887. Metropolitan Mitrofan Ban of Montenegro is his nephew.
Ban died in 1903.
As a poet he's lacking in talent and his writing is long-winded and bureaucratic in style. Relatively more worthy are his dramas. All his works have a lot of Slav history and patriotism, but also are lacking in great creativity and poetry. Overesteemed as a poet, he had been forgotten in that area, his true worth really lay, as a politician and diplomat.
Matija Ban was always something more than an intermediary between Belgrade, Cetinje and Zagreb. He was a man of vast and refined culture, and having grown up in a Catholic milieu in Dubrovnik, he knew its mentality and also found working with Serbs in Belgrade and Cetinje or Croatians in Zagreb quite natural. He was a poet—and has been remembered and appreciated as such—but his was not a great talent, despite his sincerely patriotic ideas. This facilitated his contact with Njegoš and turned their political collaboaration into a friendship and understanding. He was a reflective, rational nature—such was needed in that time and for that task. He enjoyed the confidence of Belgrade and of Prince Alexander Karadjordjević himself, whose children he tutored.
Though Ban did not contribute anything innovative or creative to Serbo-Croatian literature, he represents the end of the Serbian Romanticism and the start of Serbian Realism. He was a fruitful and influential writer, a man of cultured background and one who knew European literature well.