Top Ten Castles to Visit in Albania

I. The castle of Kruja.

The castle of Kruja is located in central Albania on an impressive rocky peak 557 meters above sea level. Only 30 minutes away from the national airport, the castle is one of Albania’s most visited touristic sites. This medieval fortress is known for the remarkable resistance of the Albanians led by Scanderbeg against the Ottomans in the 15th century. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the castle of Kruja became the most important stronghold in the war of the West against Ottoman expansion. Under Scanderbeg’s leadership, the fortress endured three consecutive sieges from 1450 to 1469 until it fell under Ottoman control in 1478. Even nowadays, the city has retained its medieval flavor. An old bazaar with a walking street going through it directs the visitors inside the walls of the castle. Within the complex, visitors can observe not only the old ruins of the original castle but also walk along the corridors of the historical museum dedicated to the figure of Scanderbeg as well as enter inside the premises of ethnographic museum where 18th century housing traditions of the Albanians can be experienced.

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Illyria and the Illyrians

Episode I: The composition of Illyria

The Illyrians were a population group that inhabited most of the southwestern Balkans along the Adriatic seacoast during the antiquity. In essence they inhabited all the northern area from mainland Hellas reaching as far as the Danube where they bordered and intermingled with the Celts. Eastward they bordered with the Thracians. Several Hellenic colonies were established along their seacoast so they also bordered these city-states and even intermingled in some cases and at various periods with their citizens. Their land is commonly referred to as “Illyria” but with the notion having little or no political meaning. Thus, it would be speculative to treat Illyria as referring to an ancient, inclusive, and coherent state organized and run by the Illyrians. Instead, the Illyrians were organized into different tribes and tribal association provided the main sense of identity and belonging.

It is generally accepted that the Illyrians were first a Bronze Age population group, tribe, or community. Later, the term “Illyrian” was used by classical writers to refer to all the peoples that shared a similar culture and language and that inhabited the large region north of Hellas. Although they were labeled with a common name, the Illyrians were internally divided into many tribes. These tribes fought constantly against each other and against neighboring states, making this region relatively unstable. Intertribal wars were mainly caused by two reasons: to ensure the control over scarce resources in a region with limited agricultural resources and to maintain the authority of the tribal leader over his/her subjects and expand it. Thus, it should be noted that when an “Illyrian kingdom” or “Illyrian king” is mentioned in literary sources, it does not refer to the whole “Illyria” as a region but only to a part of this region where numerous Illyrian tribes had been joined by force or will into one state. Among the many Illyrian tribes, the strongest were the Autariatae, the Ardiaei, and the Dardanians.

On elf the first attested Illyrian king is Bardylis I (r. 393-353). Various scholars have linked Bardylis with various Illyrian tribes. For some time, it was assumed that he was a member of the Dardanians and thus the king (and even founder) of Dardania. Other have linked Bardylis with the Ardiaei in an attempt to establish him as a dynastic predecessor of the later kings of the Ardiaei. The generally accepted version is that Bardylis was a member of the Enchelei, an Illyrian tribe that occupied the area around Lake Lychnidus (Ohrid). However, it should be noted that Bardylis was able to create a state in which various Illyrian tribes were included in addition to the Enchelei, such as the Dassaretae, the Taulantii/Parthini, the Labeates, and potentially the Dardanians. Thus, he may be considered as the first Illyrian that ruled over a multi-tribal Illyrian state.

Map of the Illyrian tribes and the neighbouring entities during antiquity.
Map of the Illyrian tribes and the neighbouring entities during antiquity.

Episode II: Decoding “Periplus”

One of the oldest sources mentioning the Illyrian population is the “Periplus” (“Navigation”) of Pseudo-Skylax. It is thought that this work was compiled sometime during the mid-fourth century B.C.E. The work consists of descriptions of various places and populations located around the coasts of the whole Mediterranean Sea. These descriptions include the regions along eastern Adriatic, where the Illyrians as a population are introduced along with important geographical features related to them. The distances are measured in stades or in days of voyage (sailing). A stade represents an ancient unit of measurement equivalent to 177 meters. Accordingly, the “Periplus” presents the northernmost Illyrian regions as follows:

Chapter XXII. Illyrioi

And after Libyrnians are the Illyrian nation, and the Illyrians live along beside the sea as far as Chaonia by Kerkyra, the island of Alkinoös [Alkinous]. And there is a Hellenic city here, which has the name Herakleia [unknown], with a harbour. The barbarians called Lotus-eaters are the following: Hierastamnai, Boulinoi (Hyllinoi), coterminous with Boulinoi the Hylloi. And these say Hyllos son of Herakles settled them: and they are barbarians. And they occupy a peninsula a little lesser than the Peloponnese. And from peninsula parastonion is upright: Boulinoi live beside this. And Boulinoi are an Illyric nation. And the coastal voyage is of the territory of Boulinoi of a long day up to Nestos River.

Chapter XXIII

And from Nestou the voyage is gulf-shaped. And all this gulf is called Manios. And the coastal voyage is of one day. And there are in this gulf islands, Proteras [Tragyra; Trogir], Krateiai [Brattia; Brac], Olynta [Šolta]. And these from one another are distant 2 stades or a little more, by Pharos [Hvar] and Issa [Vis]. For here is New Pharos [Hvar], a Hellenic island, and Issa [Vis] island, and these are Hellenic cities. Before sailing along the coast up to the Naron River, much territory extends very much into the sea. And there is an island near the coastal territory, which has the name Melite [Mljet] and another island near this, which has the name Kerkyra the Black [Korčula]: and this island runs out very much with one of the promontories from the coastal territory, and with the other promontory it comes down to the Naron [Neretva] river. And from Melite [Mljet] it is distant 20 stades, and from the coastal territory it is distant 8 stades.

Chapter XIV. Manloi

 And past the Nestoi is the Naron [Neretva] river: and the voyage into the Naron is not narrow, and even a trireme sails into it, and boats do so into the upper trading-town [Emporion; Narona; Vid], distant 80 stades from the sea. And these people are a community of the Illyrioi, the Manioi. And there is a lake inland from the trading-town, a great one, and the lake extends to the Autariatai [Autariatae], an Illyrian community. And there is an island in the lake of 120 stades And from this lake the Naron [Neretva] River flows away.”

The first one of the above chapters describes the coastal lands in between the rivers Krka and Nestos (Cetina). This area represents what can be called as the northernmost part of coastal Illyria. Three Illyrian tribes (the Hierastamnai, the Boulinoi, and the Hylloi) are mentioned as situated in this area. The later were apparently only small Illyrian tribes with no significant impact on the power dynamics of the region. From these tribes, the name of the Hylloi is linked with Hyllos, the mythological son of Heracles. This name continued to be used even in Roman times to refer to the cape on the coast south of current Šibenik/Shibenik (Hylla peninsula). The later was connected with the cult of the Trojan hero Diomedes who apparently wondered in this shores after the fall of Troy.

The text of the “Periplus” presented above mentions several Illyrian tribes notably the Nestoi/Nestaioi, the Manloi/Manioi, and the Autariatae/Autariatai. The later are of significant importance since according to Strabo they represented one of the strongest Illyrian tribes. Thus, an understanding of the descriptions of the “Periplus” and especially of the features mentioned in chapter XIV is necessary for putting the Autariatae into a right geographical context.

According to “Periplus”, the lands of the Autariatae begin east of a “great lake” from which the Naron (Neretva) River flows away. Thus, the identification of this lake is crucial for determining the westernmost border of the Autariatae. Many proposals have been made presented as representing the lake of Pseudo-Skylax. The proposals include lake Scutari, lake Ohrid, and Mostarsko Blato. None of them seems satisfactory and does not fit the description of the ancient text. A recently revived thesis based on a proposal made by C. Patsch in 1906 seems more plausible.

C.Patsch suggested that the “great lake” mentioned in the “Periplus” actually referred to the current marshy region of Hutovo Blato. In ancient time, the marshes of Hutovo Blato may have actually formed a significant water surface. Hutovo Blato is located 10 km east of Metković and 7 km southeast of Čapljina. Furthermore, in its northernmost corner a real lake is located, the one named Deransko (Deransko Jezero). The later divides Hutovo Blato into two parts. From Deransko, the Krupa River stems from. Krupa itself is a branch of the Neretva River (ancient Narona). Thus, the interpretation of the “Periplus” of Narona steming from the “great lake” is technically correct if this “great lake” is indeed identified whith Hutovo Blato. During the raining seasons, the whole region of Hutovo Blato turns into a large water surface that resembles a proper lake with a depth of 1-1,5 meters.

Hutovo Blato covers a surface of 7,411 ha. The small peninsula of Ostrovo gives the impression of an island located within the lake, as described in the Periplus. Ostrovo, about 123 meters above the sea level, is located in between Deransko and Hutovo Blato. The surface of Ostrovo, although not small, is not as large as the island of the “Periplus”. Thus, it is not 20 km (120 stades). However, it is unclear if the 120 stades of the island refer to its size or longitude. C. Patsch suggests that the current villages of Teoc, Čeljevo, Zgoni, Višići, Skočim, and Trsana represent the island mentioned in the “Periplus”.

One of the main Illyrian settlements mentioned in the “Periplus” is the “upper trading town” identified with ancient Narona. The city of Narona served as an important center of the Illyrian civilization. Its ruins are now found in Vid near Metkovic south of present day Croatia. The ancient city of Narona represented one of the most typical Illyrian cities. It had a pure Illyrian identity since it is one of the fewest places along the Adriatic where almost no ancient Greek inscription has been found. This is especially incredible considering that the city was already established by the IV century B.C.E. Although it is known that the city was founded and inhabited by the Illyrians, it is difficult to specify the name of the specific tribe in its territory. However, it has been suggested that the Illyrian tribe of the Daorsi ruled the city before the Illyrian Ardiaei subdued them. The old Illyrian fortresses in this area are concentrated on the hill near Vid as well as the hills of Marusica Gradina (375 m) and Velika Mitrusa (460 m).

The Istrian War

Episode I: An Ignored War

Classical sources suggest that the Romans fought a brief war during 221-220 B.C.E. against the Istrians. According to these accounts, the war was caused by piratical assaults from the Istri against the Roman ships in northern Adriatic. Also, it is suggested that the Istri may have been collaborating as allies with Demetrius of Pharus against the interests of the Roman Republic. This short campaign against the Istrians has been treated by modern sources as part of the Roman expansion into Cisalpine Gaul as well as the securing of the frontiers just before the outbreak of the Second Punic War. Overall, the Roman engagement in this part of the Adriatic reflects the increased interest of the Republic on the matters of the eastern regions. Although it contributes to the more in depth understanding of the early Roman expansion, the Istrian War has received little attention from modern scholars in part because the evidence related to it are limited.

According to Roman accounts, the war against the Istrians in 221 was caused by Istrian assaults on Roman grain ships. The consuls of that year Marcus Minucius Rufus and Publius Cornelius Scipio led the campaign against the Istrians. The consuls used the naval base at Ancona to sail towards the Istrian peninsula. Both these Roman commanders were already highly valued as nobles but the career of Minucius saw a significant rise after 221 apparently due to his distinguished military leadership in the Istrian campaign. (Thus, in 220 Minucius was appointed dictator magister equitum and it was potentially voted dictator again in 217 after the famous loss at Trasimene). Even though the Romans won the war against the Istrians in general, Orosius implies that the Republican army suffered serious losses during this campaign.

The map of Istria during Roman rule.
The map of Istrian peninsula during Roman rule.

Episode II: The Istrian-Illyrian connections

There are several reasons why the Istrian War has been linked with the Second Illyrian War. These reasons include: the fact that the campaign against the Istrians was concluded just one year before the outbreak of the Second Illyrian War; the mentioning of Demetrius of Pharus (the leader of the Illyrians during the Second Illyrian War) as an ally of the Istrians in the events preceding the Roman campaign in Istria; the listing of the Istri as an Illyrian tribe by Appian thus suggesting a cultural link between the Istri and the Illyrians under the leadership of Demetrius; the fact that both these anti-Roman entities were positioned northeast of the Adriatic and not far from each other.

Dell (1970) suggests that Appian has confused the events related with the Istrian War (221-220) with the events related to the Second Illyrian War just one year later (219). Therefore, the establishment of an alliance between the Istri and Demetrius against Rome is highly debatable. The doubts over the existence of such alliance should not be used to disregard the occurrence of the Istrian War. Classical sources offer enough insights to conclude that this war did actually happen and allowed the Romans to expand their possessions. Dell offers this rare interpretation of the war:

It is clear that the Scipio-Minucius campaign (221) was waged on land, taking some Istrian towns by storm and other by their outright surrender. Further, we are told that the consuls for the succeeding year (220), C. Lutatius Catulus and L. Veturius Philo, were occupied with a campaign, which reached as far as the Alps. This seems to have been a campaign to confirm the gains of the previous year by winning over the neighboring peoples without actually conquering them. This explains why the Romans were not ready to deal with Demetrius until 219; for their attention was still fixed on the north.



Appian. Historia Romana. Illyrike.

Dell, H.J. (1970). Demetrius of Pharos and the Istrian War. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Gershichte, 19, 30-38.



Episode I: Background

Bardylis was king of the Illyrians during 393-358 B.C.E. He was born around 448 B.C.E. as a member of the Illyrian tribe of the Enchelei. The Enchelei inhabited primarily the area around lake Lychnidus (Ohrid). Although from a humble origin, Bardylis would soon become the ruler of many Illyrian tribes and form one of the strongest states in the region. It can be assumed that he was the founder of the first multi tribal Illyrian kingdom in contrast with the previous Illyrian states that had been limited only around one specific Illyrian tribe. The rise of Bardylis I on the Illyrian throne in 395 seems to reflect important social changes that the Illyrian society was experiencing. These changes included the move towards a slave-owning society and towards a militarized state. The adoption of the hoplite weaponry from the Illyrian soldiers contributed to their superiority towards other regional states, including Macedon. Also, under Bardylis, the use of an Illyrian cavalry in marches and battles became frequent. The elite members of the Illyrian society may have formed the cavalry units as the Illyrian king himself led them.

Prior to his rule over the Illyrians, Bardylis is reported to have been a collier. Later, he became the leader of a band of freebooters. As the leader of this band, Bardylis gained the respect of his followers especially because of his exceptional fairness in the division of the spoils. During his raids, Bardylis must have been gained valuable experience in combat tactics and military leadership. The lands of northwestern Macedon may have been among the targets of Bardylis’ band of freebooters. As for the dynamics of his rise into Illyrian throne, there is no evidence describing them. It can only be assumed that Bardylis, being not an heir, must have seized power by force. Accordingly, a previous undesired and/or unpopular ruler (potentially one named Sirras) must have been overthrown. It has been suggested that the movement that resulted in the rise of Bardylis into Illyrian throne occurred as a reaction of the general population towards an undesired treaty with Macedon.

Episode II: The realm of Bardylis

The borders of the kingdom ruled by Bardylis are not clear. It now seems that the lands controlled by the Illyrian ruler may have been greater that it had been traditionally perceived. Pajakowksi based on the large number of troops that Bardylis was able to deploy later against Philip II and on a fragment preserved by Kalisthenes, claims that Bardylis ruled over a vast territory. Notably, in its zenith, his kingdom stretched from the Gulf of Rhizones (Kotor) in the northwest to the lands of the Bylliones in the south, including the important colonies of Dyrrachium and Apollonia in his domains. In the southeast, it clearly controlled the lands around Lake Lychnidus and Dassaretis whereas in the east it bordered with the lands of the Paeonians and the Dardanians.

The claim of Pajakowksi does not seem far from the truth. The recent discovery of two Illyrian royal palaces (one built before 260 B.C.E.) in what was then Rhizones (Risan in current Montenegro) confirms the presence of Illyrian royal authority in these parts. On the other hand, other modern scholars have supported the southern border proposed by Pajakowski. This borderline can be naturally placed in the lower and middle stream of the Aoos (Vjosa) River and then into southern Dassaretis. As for the colonies of Dyrrachium and Apollonia, it cannot be stated for certain that they were put under the direct authority of Bardylis. However, the lack of literal sources regarding these colonies pertaining to the ruling period of Bardylis indicates at least the establishment of productive and peaceful relationships between these Hellenic colonies and the Illyrian kingdom.

During his rule, Bardylis was able to take into control the important Dardanian city of Damastion and its silver mines. The control over Damastion must have improved the financial prosperity of the Illyrian state and may have encouraged the Illyrian commerce with other populations and tribes of the north. Furthermore, under the example of Damastion, Bardylis founded in 365 another center for coin emission in Daparri of current Kosova.

The control over Damastion has led some modern scholars to view Bardylis exclusively as “king of the Dardanians”. This view should be regarded as an outdated one. Treating Bardylis as king of the Dardanians would imply that he ruled only over one particular Illyrian tribe (in these case over the Dardanians). This does not seem to have been the case. Although Dardania may have fallen under the control of Bardylis, his kingdom included other Illyrian tribes such as the Encheleii, the Dassaretae, the Taulantii/Parthini, and so on. Thus, a “king of the Illyrians” labeling is more plausible.

Episode III: Battling Macedon

Upon establishing himself on the Illyrian throne, Bardylis turned his attention towards Lyncestis, a region located just east of lake Lychnidus. The lands of this region had traditionally been an area of conflict between the Macedonians and the Illyrians. Both these entities aimed at ensuring their control over Lyncestis or at establishing their influence there. Furthermore, even in a broader geographical perspective, the Illyrian tribes and the Macedonians maintained a continuous hostile behavior towards each other. Bardylis was certainly aware of the power dynamics of the region and the general strength of Macedon. The political crisis that had spread across Macedon after the assassination of the Macedonian king Archelaus I in 399 B.C.E. provided a striking opportunity for the Illyrians. Having apparently noticed the instability of the Macedonian state, Bardylis took the initiative in 393 B.C.E. In this year, the Illyrians stormed Macedon, apparently passing through the lands of Lyncestis and having faced no significant resistance during their march. During this incursion, the Illyrians took control of the whole Upper Macedon and drove out of his kingdom the then king of Macedon, Amyntas II. The Illyrians established Argaeus, presumably a member of the royal house of the Lyncestae, on the throne of Macedon in the place of the exiled Amyntas. The establishment of Argaeus from Lyncestis on the Macedonian throne indicates a prior agreement between the Illyrians of Bardylis and the inhabitants of Lyncestis. This agreement seems to have included the safe passage of the troops of Bardylis through Lyncestis and additional military support.

It has been stated that Argaeus ruled over Macedon for two years (393-391). During this time, he must have acted as a puppet king in favor of Illyrian interests. Meanwhile, Amyntas had found refugee in Thessaly where he apparently still enjoyed support. With the help of troops from Thessaly, Amyntas managed to reenter Macedon and reclaim its throne. A state of tension must have followed Amyntas comeback since the later was able to reestablish himself over the throne only after having made a peace treaty with the Illyrians of Bardylis. Accordingly, Amyntas committed into paying yearly tributes to the Illyrians. Furthermore, the Macedonian king delivered his youngest son, Philip, as a hostage and peace guarantor at the hands of the Illyrians. The later left the young prince (who would later become the famous Philip II of Macedon) in Thebes, at the custody of the Thebans.

Diodorus provides an account referring to another major incursion of the Illyrians against Macedon sometime during 383-382 B.C.E. Some have argued that this account represents merely a repetition of the campaign carried out a decade ago. However, it can well be that the account of Diodorus constitutes an authentic source referring to a second expedition of the Illyrians against Macedon. In such as case, this Illyrian invasion forced the Macedonian king Amyntas II to leave the country for a second time. The occurrence of this expedition may have been the result of several reasons. One of them may relate to potential efforts made by Amyntas to escape from the yearly tributes owed to Bardylis. The later, being clearly superior in military capacities, would have assaulted accordingly to reestablish the favorable terms of the peace treaty.

Around 370 the Illyrians of Bardylis conquered Upper Macedon once more. The newly crowned king of Macedon, Alexander II was forced to make a large payments to the Illyrians in order to preserve his authority. Also, this was the only way for Alexander to establish e peace with Bardylis and his superior forces. However, the peace established would not continued long as in 368, Alexander II was killed by Ptolemy Aloros who in turn was killed by Perdikkas III. According to the diplomatic standards of that time, a peace between two states (two kings) was in power as long as both of their kings were alive. This would explain the campaigns of Bardylis against Macedon each time a new king had come into power (393, 370, and 368 B.C.E.).

Perdikkas, unwilling to accept the tributes imposed on Macedon by Bardylis, relied on military solution to curb down the Illyrian influence. Eventually, a major battle took place between the two sides where the Illyrians of Bardylis came up victorious. Diodorus reports this event as follows:

[Perdikkas] was defeated in a great battle by the Illyrians and fell in the action…the Macedonians…lost more than four thousand men in the battle, and the remainder…had become exceedingly afraid of the Illyrian armies and had lost courage for continuing the war” (Diodorus, XVI, 2)

A statue of the Illyrian king Bardylis (r.393-358) made by Benard Lekgegaj.

A modern statue of the Illyrian king Bardylis (r.393-358) made by Benard Lekgegaj.

Episode IV: The Alliance with Syracuse and the Campaigns in Epirus

In between the two Illyrian campaigns against Macedon, an important development is noticed regarding the relations of Bardylis with western polities. Notably, in 385 Bardylis established an alliance with the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I the Elder (r. 405-367). This alliance was mediated by the exiled Molossian prince of Epirus, Alcetas I. The later had found refugee in Syracuse after being forced out of his country by a pro-Spartan party in Epirus. As such, a term of the alliance between Bardylis I and Dionysius I included the establishment of Alcetas on the throne of Epirus. From restoring the Molossian prince in the royal court of Epirus, Bardylis would keep out the Spartan and Macedonian influence in the region. On the other hand, Dionysius of Syracuse would strengthen his commercial position on both sides of the Adriatic and Ionian Sea.

Accordingly, Dionysius sent about 2,000 of his own troops into Illyria as well as 500 units of military equipment. Alcetas crossed the sea as well to reclaim his throne. Dionysius himself did not join the expedition. An injury the tyrant had received while fighting against the Rhegines a year ago prevented him from engaging personally. Thus, the troops from Syracuse were put under direct command of Bardylis. Furthermore, Diodorus states that the troops from Syracuse were ordered by the Illyrian king to intermingle with his Illyrian troops.

The cooperation between Bardylis and Dionysius included the establishment of a Syracusan base along the Illyrian coast. Thus, a corpus of engineers and constructors from Syracuse must have crossed the sea and arrived into Lissus, the place chosen for such a base. They erected important fortifying structures around the settlement. However, soon the project of a Syracusan base in Lissus was abandoned in the upcoming years. Thus, it continued to be used by the Illyrians as their own base and urban settlement.

Having integrated the Sicilian contingent into his own army, Bardylis advanced into Epirus. It is reported that the Illyrian incursion was so aggressive that 15,000 Molossians (apparently part of the pro-Spartan party) were killed in combat. Alcetas was restored in the throne of Epirus while other regions along the southern border of the Illyrian kingdom were liberated. The campaign was clearly successful and it may have advanced more that it was initially planned. Ultimately, the Illyrians had to retreat after the Spartans arrived to prevent any further Illyrian advance. A direct clash between the Illyrian and the Spartans may have been undesired at this point, as Dionysius had established an important alliance with Sparta. However, the campaign of 385 had already ensured the Illyrian influence over northern Epirus.

The Illyrians would conduct another campaign against central Epirus in 360. This time the ruler of Epirus had to rely on a planned ambush to cope with the enemy. Frontinus describes the events that ensued:

When Harrybas, king of the Molossians, was attacked in war by Bardylis, the Illyrian, who commanded a considerably larger army, he dispatched the non-combatant portion of his subjects to the neighbouring district of Aetolia, and spread the report that he was yielding up his towns and possessions to the Aetolians. He himself, with those who could bear arms, placed ambuscades here and there on the mountains and in other inaccessible places. The Illyrians, fearful lest the possessions of the Molossians should be seized by the Aetolians, began to race along in disorder, in their eagerness for plunder. As soon as they became scattered, Harrybas, emerging from his concealment and taking them unawares, routed them and put them to flight.” (Frontinus, Stratagems)

Although forced into retreat, northern Epirus continued to remain under the influence of Bardylis. The superiority of Illyrian arms implied by Frontinus would not have allowed the king of Epirus to pursue the enemy and attempt to regain the lands lost to Illyrians 25 years ago. Epirus would have to wait for the reign of Pyrrhus to revive its strength.



Frontinus. The Strategemata.

Velija, Q. (2012). Mbretëri dhe Mbretër Ilirë. West Print, Tiranë.


Episode I: A Non-Hellenic region

The name Epirus (Epeiros) originates from the ancient Greek language and it means “land” or “continent”. These term was apparently introduced by the inhabitants of the islands opposite of Epirus’ coast. The ancient region of Epirus covered the area from the Acroceraunian/Ceraunian Mountains (Mountains of present Llogara in southern coastline of Albania) in the north to the Ambracian (Arta) Gulf in the south; and from the Ionian Sea in the west to the Pindus Mountains in the east. The main tribes of Epirus were the Chaonians, Molossians, and Thesprotians. Although they inhabited the region of Epirus, the later tribes are never mentioned as “Epirotes” in the ancient sources. This suggests that these tribes differed from the Hellenic tribes and constituted a distinct entity.

The first records that support a non-Hellenic identity of the main tribes of Epirus are found in the works of Herodotus. While treating the Battle of Salamis that was conducted in 480 B.C.E between Helens and Persians, the ancient historian considered the tribes that came from the vicinities of Ambracia (Arta) as coming from the borders of the Hellenic realm. Thus, it is implied that the populations that inhabited the lands north of Ambracian Gulf were not Helens and accordingly, did not support either of the sides that fought in Salamis.

Thucydides while describing the Peloponnesian War supports the non-Hellenic identity of the populations across Epirus. In his materials, the author uses the term “barbarian” for all the populations that were not Helens. In addition, Thucydides states that “barbarians” were also involved in the Peloponnesian War. While describing a military campaign taken in 429 B.C.E. by the Ambraciotes (ancient inhabitants of Arta) and the Lacedaemonians against the Amphilochians and the Acarnanians (allies of Athens), Thucydides reveals that tribes such as the Chaonians, Thesprotians, Molossians, Atintanes, Orestaes, and Paroraioi were not part of Hellas as they were “barbarians”. During this military campaign, the Ambraciotes along with other “barbarian” tribes attacked the city of Argos in Amfilochia. Furthermore, Thucydides reveals that even the inhabitants of Ampilochian Argos had learned the ancient Greek language from the Ambraciotes while the other part of Amfilochia was considered as “barbarian”. Thus, a division between two worlds, the Hellenic and the “barbarians” is observed. The border between these two worlds was apparently placed near the Ambracian Gulf.

Thucydides contrasts even more between Helens and “barbarians” when he states that many of the later had no king. Also, the author adds that the Helens applied an organized military formation in combats while the Chaonians were not as organized in combat even though they were great warriors. The most important fact to be noted is that Thucydides admits that the “barbarians” that participated in the campaign of Ambracia did not known the ancient Greek language. This fact gets significant value especially when it is known that language is one the main elements that constitutes an ethnicity. Thus, it is appropriate to consider tribes such as Molosians, Chaonians, Thesprotians and other tribes of ancient Epirus as Illyrian tribes.

Episode II: An Illyrian region

An important fact that supports the Illyrian identity of Epirus is the presence of Helenian colonies along the Ionian coast, from the island of Corcyra (Corfu) in the north up to the Gulf of Ambracia (Arta) in the south. The presence of these colonies was noticed since the VIII century B.C.E. It is commonly known that Hellenic colonies were labeled “colonies” because they were founded in territories that were not inhabited by the Helenians but instead were inhabited by the “barbarians”. Furthermore, Hellenic colons often engaged in wars against the natives for territorial control. This was case when the Corinthian colons established Apollonia (modern Pojan near Fier) and in the process destroyed the nearby ancient Illyrian town of Thronion. This occurred also in Corcyra where the Corinthian colonists forced the Liburni out of the island in order to gain sole control. Also, to be noted is the conflict between the Ambracians and the “barbarous” Amphilocians. This conflict continued even after the Peloponnesian War. Despite their conflicts, the colonists and the natives established commercial, political, and cultural contacts. However, these contacts seem not to have harmed the Illyrian character of the lands of Epirus. As the history has proven, the ethnic identity is fairly resistant to any kind of cultural, economic, and government intrusion. Thus, if the inhabitants developed through time a governmental model inspired by the Helens or if they were influence by the Hellenic culture, this does not imply that they lost their Illyrian identity. On the contrary, the Hellenic colonies were often included within the organization of different Illyrian states. Thus, Ambracia would be included within the state of Epirus along with other colonies along the Ionian seacoast. The same thing occurred with Dyrrachion/Dyrrachium and with Apollonia that were included within the Illyrian kingdom of the Taulantii.

The Hellenic historian of the IV century B.C.E Ephorus of Cyme, testifies that the Hellenic world started with Acarnania which was also the first purely Hellenic region that had direct contacts with the tribes of Epirus. Scylax, a Helenian historian of the IV-V century B.C.E, who may have sailed along the coasts of Epirus himself, stated that after Molossia came Ambracia, a Hellenic city. It was only from here that the Hellenistic world started. Meanwhile, Skylax treats tribes up north such as the Molossians, Thesprotians, and Chaonians as “barbarians”. Despite this fact, Skylax does not state wether these tribes were Illyrians. This has lead some scholars to state that “Epirus”  (and its inhabitants, collectively called the “Epirotes“) constituted a distinct ethnical entity that was different from the Illyrian civilisation and very similar to the Hellenic civilisation. This assessment is not correct since Skylax himself never used the term “Epirus” or “Epirotes” in his works. It seems that the ancient author does not even know this term. It was only later that the term “Epirus” took on several meanings including the geographical one. Regarding the region, here is what Skylax writes:

After the Illyrians come the Chaonians. Chaonia has good coves; The Chaonians live in villages. The sail along Chaonia lasts half a day.  After Chaonia comes the Thesprotian tribe; they also live in villages; this place has good coves too; here stands the cove named Elaea. In this cove the river Acheron flows into and the lake Acherusia from which the river Acheron derives is here. The sail along Thesprotia lasts half a day. After Cassope comes the Molossian tribe; they also live in villages; a small part of their land stretches all the way into the sea while the largest part stands in the internal parts of the region. The sail along the Molossian Sea continues for 40 stadia. After Molossia comes Ambracia, Helenian city, 80 stadia away from the sea. Along the shore there is a wall and a good harbor. From here starts Hellada, without interuptions, until the river Phenea all the way into Homolium, a city in Magnesia located near the river. The sail along Ambracia continues for 120 stadia.”


Gentius, the young king of the Illyrians

Episode I: A New King

Gentius was king of the Illyrians (Rex i Illyricorum) during 181-167 B.C.E. Gentius was a royal member of the Illyrian tribe of the Ardiaei, son of Pleuratus and Eurydice. Thus, his state is referred either as the kingdom of Illyria or as the kingdom of the Ardiaei. According to Livy, Gentius had one brother, Plator and one half-brother from his mother Eurydice, Caravantius. Gentius succeeded his father Pleuratus III (r. 200-181) on the Illyrian throne during a time when the Roman Republic had spread its control and influence over the Illyrian coast and Macedon. King Gentius is mostly known for leading an Illyrian resistance against the Roman Republic during 168-167 B.C.E. This stance is known as the Third Illyrian War. Also, Gentius represents one of the Illyrian kings for whom we have most classical literal information on. However, this evidence is still limited when compared with other figures of the Roman and Hellenic world.

During his reign, Pleuratus III had stayed loyal to the Roman Republic and had acted mostly as a vassal king. On the other hand, his son had other ambitions. He aimed at increasing his regional authority and gaining almost complete independence from Rome. Also, efforts were put into established a more centralized system of monterary, fiscal, and military authority along the Illyrian lands. These efforts and the inherited hostile view on the Illyrians may have incited Polybius to write that Gentius “treated his subjects with great cruelty”. On the same passage, Polybius writes the following:

Genthius, king of Illyria, owing to his intemperate habits, was guilty of many licentious acts being constantly drunk night and day. Having killed his brother Plator, who was about to marry the daughter of Monunius, he married the girl himself…” (Polybius, XXIX)

Part of this passage may well be an exaggeration and as such we cannot determine if Gentius was responsible for the kill of his brother or if this is part of the Roman tendency to depict Illyrians as savages. However, the marriage mentioned above may in fact be accurate since the same event is mentioned in other classical sources. Accordingly, in 169 B.C.E., one year before the outbreak of the war against the Romans, Gentius married Etleva/Etuta, daughter of Monunius, the Dardanian king. This marital arrangement may have been part of Gentius efforts to ally himself with other regional powers. However, this was not the case at the beginning of his reign. Initially Gentius acted as an ally of the Roman Republic against the kingdom of Macedon but later showed sings of neutrality or autonomy. The Romans and the Roman propaganda did not welcome these signs. Although the king of the Ardiaei did not engage in hostilities against Rome before he allied with the Macedonians of Perseus, the Roman Republic had already put his actions under close observation and scrutiny.

Episode II: Roman-Illyrian relations

Rome was the one that began the hostilities with the Illyrian king after the later had just seized power over the Ardiaei. Thus, in 180, the Roman praetor L.Duronis confiscated 10 Illyrian ships owned by Gentius and brought them at Brundisium (Brindisi). Duronis then went in Roma and stated before the Roman Senate the Illyrian ships were caught committing piracy and abducting Italian merchants on the eastern waters of the Adriatic Sea. The Illyrian king was directly accused of instigating such actions. Furthermore, the Romans made the Illyrian king responsible for the capturing of Roman/Italian ships and imprisoning of their crew at the island of Corcyra Negra (Korcula).

The accusations for piracy against the Romans were clearly artificial constructs. In fact, the labeling of the Illyrians as leaders of piratical raids along the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea had been a recurrent theme of the Roman propaganda and had preceded all the Illyrian-Roman wars. Thus, the diplomatic aggressiveness of the Republic towards Gentius may indicate that the Romans were preparing for another military campaign against the Illyrians and against other various independent and semi-independent polities across the Balkans. The expansionist project of Rome towards eastern Adriatic would soon culminate with their victory over both the Illyrian kingdom of Gentius and the kingdom of Macedon by 167 B.C.E. Regarding the Illyrian king, Gentius cannot have been the instigator of piratical raids against Roman ships in the Adriatic at this time even if he wanted to achieve complete independence from the Romans. The Illyrian ruler had no interest in opening a conflict against the Romans after he had just sat on the throne of the Ardiaei. Thus, Gentius sent an Illyrian delegation before the Roman Senate in order to dismiss the accusations of piracy and abduction of Roman ships and merchants. The Illyrian delegation was apparently successful in their mission since no punitive action and/or penalty against Gentius is recorded. Thus, the Illyrian ruler could concentrate on securing his authority domestically.

Episode III: Internal Administration and Composition

When Gentius came into the Illyrian throne, the Dalmatian, an Illyrian tribe that occupied the Dalmatian coast and that had previously been under the control of Pleuratus III, established an independent state separate from that of Gentius. Their separation and the risk of losing control over other tribal lands must have encouraged Gentius into pursuing a new administrative strategy from his predecessors. Now, the boundaries of the kingdom of Gentius were as follows: in the northwest, it extended up to the lands of the Daorsi and the valley of river Naro (Neretva). In the north and northeast, the lands of other independent Illyrian entities were located, notably those of the Autariatae and the Dardanians. The eastern border went through the Mount Scardos (Sharr mountains) and the lower course of the Drin River up to Lychnidos (Ohrid). The southern line is the most difficult to determine because it may have represented a common Illyrian-Roman borderline. It can be assumed that this line started in Lissus, then it followed the upper course of river Ardaksan (Mati) until it reached the Mountains of Candavie (Mountain of Polis). The southern border would thus eventually join the eastern one around Lake Lychnidos (Lake Ohrid).

Under the rule of Gentius, the internal territories of the kingdom were divided into administrative units that were based around an important city. Also, around the main cities, several fortresses were in place or were constructed to protect the regional centers as well as the entire administrative unit. The main cities and their respective units were each administered by a principa illyriorum. They were appointed into their districts from the king himself. Meanwhile, along the central areas of the kingdom, a regional ruler may have not been needed since the king exercised his authority directly.

Gentius established his royal seat in Scodra (Shkodra), turning this city into the capital of his kingdom and into the center of the Ardiaei. Prior to Gentius’ rule, Scodra was the center of the Labeatis, another Illyrian tribe included within the borders of the Illyrian kingdom. The establishment of the Illyrian royalty in Scodra forced the Labeatis to move their capital in Medeon (Medun). Apart from Scodra and Medeon, one of the most important units of that time was based around Rhizon (Risan, near Kotor). The city of Rhizon controlled the naturally protected bay of Kotor ensuring an easy and safe access into the open waters of the eastern Adriatic. Furthermore, small fortresses were positioned around the bay to ensure additional security and control. Southeast of Scodra, the lands of the Penestae, another Illyrian tribe, presumably formed another administrative unit. The capital of the Penestae seems to have been Uscana, an Illyrian city the exact location of which remains unknown. However, based on the descriptions offered by classical sources, the location of Uscana should be searched somewhere in and around modern Kicevo. At the time, several fortresses surrounded Uscana, increasing the geostrategic importance of the settlement at the southeastern most part of the Illyrian kingdom. Located in between the Illyrians of Gentius and the Macedonians, the lands of the Penestae and Uscana provided a corridor of communication between the Illyrians and the Macedonians that would prove to be important for the establishment of an alliance between these two entities later on.

Map of the Illyrian region and tribes
Map of the Illyrian region and tribes

The administrative reform of king Gentius was no spread into the mountainous regions of his country. In these remote locations, there was almost a complete lack of urban settlements thus making the establishment of an administrative authority inadequate. Across these highlands only small fortresses could be found as seats of local tribal chieftains. Overall, Hammond, based on Livy and other classical sources, makes this summary on the internal composition of the kingdom of Gentius:

It included the Pirustae Dassaretiorum, the Rhizonitae, and the Olciniatae who rebelled while the king, Genthius was still secyre; the Daorsi who changed over to the Roman side; the Scodrenses, the Dassarenses, the Selepitani, and “ceteri Illyrii” who had paid tribute to the king. Of these tribes the Daorsi were near the river Naro opposite Pharos, the Pirustae lay north of the Ardiaei (if they are the Peirustae of Strabo); the Rhizonitae were round Gulf of Rhizon (now Kotor); the name of the Olciniatae survives in Ulcinj on the coast to the south-west of Scodra; the Scodrenses round Scodra are separate evidently from the Labeates of Pomponius Mela; and the Selepitani are otherwise unknown. This scatter of tribes subject to Genthius gives us some idea of the Ardiaean kingdom in the period of its decline.” (Hammond, Kingdoms in Illyria circa 400-167 B.C.)

Episode IV: The Monetary Reform

During his rule, Gentius tried to unify the monetary system across his kingdom. Thus, he decided to stop the old production of Scodra’s minting factory and put into production and circulation new coins. The new royal coins had in one side the portrait of the king and in the other side the symbol of the Illyrian ship. The title and the name of the king replaced the legend of the city. The old coin with a helmet and a shield on its sides that was issued since the rule of Pleuratus III continued to be produced. However, this coin was redesigned as well. The old legend was replaced with the title and the name of Gentius. Furthermore, putting the name of the king into the coins was clearly an efficient way to legitimize and strengthen the authority of Gentius over his subjects.

After taking control of the minting factory of Lissus, king Gentius decided to implement the same monetary measures as in Scodra. The king removed the monetary autonomy of the city of Lissus, integrating it into his royal monetary system. Now, a unified monetary system was formed across the central zones of the kingdom along the coast of Adriatic where Scodra and Lissus where the main cities with crucial minting capacities. This new unified system was comprised of three main coins: the coin with the portrait of the king and the Illyrian ship; the coin with the shield and the helmet; and the small old coin of Lissus that now was labeled by the title and the name of the king. The first two coins were produced in Scodra. Regarding their value, the coin with the portrait of the king and the ship had the highest value whereas the other two coins where denominators of the former.

The unification of the monetary system did not include the peripheral zones of the kingdom of Gentius. Thus, Rhizon (Kotor) continued to mint its own silver coins and Lychnidos (Ohrid) continued to mint its own bronze coins with a shield and part of a ship on its sides. These cities, although within the administrative boundaries of the kingdom, were allowed by king Gentius a monetary autonomy. This fact suggests that the authority of the king was not that strong in certain peripheral cities. Also, the northern tribes of Labeates and Daorsi continued to mint their own coins.

Although the production of the royal coins remained limited geographically, their usage spread over most parts of the kingdom, reaching even remote mountainous areas. This is supported by the discovery of these coins in several areas such as in northern, Montenegro, as well as in the areas of ancient Dyrrachium and Apolonia. This fact suggests for a high trading activity and confirms the integration of the most remote areas in the monetary and economic system of the kingdom. The facilitation of the trading exchanges through the spread of a single currency proved to be an important stimulus in the increase of trade volume.

The monetary reforms taken by king Gentius seem to have improved the finances of the kingdom. Tit Livius implies this when he states that the Romans, after defeating the Illyrians, found in the royal treasure of Gentius 19 pounds of silver, 27 pounds of gold, 13,000 denarii and 120,000 Illyrian drachmas. The Illyrian king might have collected this considerable amount through fees collected from large royal landowners and from high taxes imposed on his subjects. An important reason that had forced the king to concentrate this wealth can be connected with measures to cope with the Roman threat. It should be noted that since 178 B.C.E., only two years after Gentius came into power, the Roman Senate had appointed a fleet of 10 ships to patrol the waters from Ancona to Tarentum, along the Adriatic. Thus, in order to face this threat, great expenditure had to be made for maintaining a large military force. Spreading the royal coins among the army troops and shipyard constructors must have been one of the main ways through which these coins entered into the economy. At the beginning of the war against the Romans, the regular army of king Gentius numbered about 15,000 soldiers mostly concentrated around Lissus. Also, at the end of the war, the Romans captured 220 Illyrian ships confirming the efforts put on building this fleet by the king.

Reconstructed portrait of king Gentius of Illyria (r. 181-167) based on his portrait over the Illyrian coins. This same portrait is now printed over the Albanian currency banknote (LEK).
Reconstructed portrait of king Gentius of Illyria (r. 181-167) based on his portrait over the Illyrian coins. This same portrait is now printed over the Albanian currency banknote (LEK).

Episode V: Alliance between the Illyrians and Macedon

In 172 B.C.E. Gentius reenters into the focus of the Roman Republic. This time, the island of Issa, a Hellenic colony sent a delegation into the Roman Senate where they accused the Illyrian king of assaulting their lands in two different occasions. Furthermore, they accused the Illyrian ruler for conspiring with the Macedonian king against Rome. In fact, there is no reason to support such a claim made by the Issaeans since Gentius had not yet allied with the Macedonians at this time. Illyrian delegation was sent to dismiss such claims but the Romans did not consider their arguments and treated them with despise. Apparently, the Romans had already decided to intervene east of the Adriatic against the Illyrians and certainly against the Macedonians.

In 170 B.C.E. the Macedonian domains would approach those of Gentius when king Perseus conducted a successful campaign against the Romans in the region of the Penestae. Through effective military actions in the lands of the Penestae, Perseus temporarily pushed away the threat of a Roman invasion from the west and opened a direct road of communication with king Gentius of the Ardiaei. Thus, upon returning to Stuberra (Prilep) Perseus started to work for establishing an alliance with Gentius against the Roman Republic. Polybius describes the details that led to this alliance as follows:

Perseus sent Pleuratus [not Pleuratus III] the Illyrian, who had taken refuge with him, and Adaeus of Beroea, as envoys to King Genthius, with instructions to announce to him what had happened in the war he was engaged in against the Romans and Dardanians, and for the present at least with the Epirots and Illyrians; and to solicit him to enter into an alliance with himself and the Macedonians. The envoys, crossing Mount Scardus [Sharr Mountain extending from current Kosovo to northwest of current FYROM and northeast of present Albania], journeyed through the so‑called Desert Illyria, which not many years previously had been depopulated by the Macedonians in order to make it difficult for the Dardanians to invade Illyria and Macedonia. Traversing this district, and enduring great hardships on the journey, they reached Scodra [Shkodra, current Albania]; and, learning that Genthius was staying in Lissus [Lezhë, current Albania], sent a message to him [in January 169 B.C.E.]. Genthius at once sent for them, and they conversed with him on the matters covered by their instructions. Genthius did not seem to be averse to making friendship with Perseus; but he excused himself from complying at once with their request on the ground of his want of resources and the impossibility of undertaking a war against Rome without money. Adaeus and his colleague, on receiving this answer, returned. Perseus, on arriving at Styberra [Prilep, current FYROM], sold the booty, and rested his army waiting for the return of the envoys. Upon their arrival, after hearing the answer of Genthius, he once more dispatched Adaeus, accompanied by Glaucias, one of his bodyguard, and again by Pleuratus owing to his knowledge of the Illyrian language, with the same instructions as before, just as if Genthius had not expressly indicated what he was in need of, and what must be done before he would consent to the request. Upon their departure the king [Perseus] left with his army and marched towards Hyscana [Uscana].” (Polybius, XXVIII)

At this time the envoys sent to Genthius returned, having achieved nothing more than on their first visit, and having nothing further to report; as Genthius maintained the same attitude, being ready to join Perseus, but saying that he stood in need of money. Perseus, paying little heed to them, now sent Hippias to establish a definite agreement, but omitted the all-important matter, saying that if he . . . he would make Genthius well disposed.” (Polybius, XXVIII)

On the return before winter of Hippias, who had been sent by Perseus to Genthius to treat for an alliance, and on his reporting that that prince was ready to enter upon war with Rome if he received three hundred talents and proper sureties all round, Perseus, on hearing this, in the judgment that the co-operation of Genthius was an urgent necessity, appointed Pantauchus, one of his “first friends,” his envoy, and dispatched him with instructions to consent in the first place to give the money, and then to exchange oaths of alliance. In the next place Genthius was to send at once such hostages as Pantauchus chose, while he was to receive from Perseus such hostages, as he should name in writing. Finally Pantauchus was to make arrangements for the conveyance of the three hundred talents. The envoys started at once, and, on arriving at Meteon [Medun, current Montenegro] in Labeatis [Illyrian region] where he met Genthius, very soon induced the young man to throw in his fortunes with Perseus.” (Polybius, XXIX)

The negations between Perseus and Gentius for establishment of an alliance continued for about one year. The classical authors explain this large period of time in part as an attempt of Gentius to gain as much as possible financially as well as in military weapons. However, the reluctance of Gentius to join Perseus could be related with different viewpoint on military tacticts and styles that these kings might have had. Accordingly, the goal of Perseus was to overcome Rome through force whereas Genthius of the Illyrians may have hoped in a peaceful solution that would enable him to remain king in the main parts of his kingdom.

Episode VI: Roman Triumph

In 168 B.C.E. the Romans turned their arms against Gentius, initiating the Third Illyrian War. Luc Anicius and App Claudius were sent to fight against the Illyrian ruler. The Illyrian ruled had mobilized 15,000 soldiers and had concentrated them around Lissus. Also, an Illyrian fleet raided the territories of Dyrrachium and Apollonia while the Romans were advancing towards Illyria inland from the south. A naval battle was conducted where the Roman fleet that was based at Apollonia defeated the Illyrian ships. Then, the desisive battle was conducted under the walls of Scodra where the Romans crushed the initial stance of the Illyrians until the Illyrian king with the rest of his army surrendered.

“…After taking possession of Scodra, he (Anicius) immediately dispatched Perperna to seize the king’s friends and relations, who, hastening to Medeon, a city of Labeatia, conducted to the camp at Scodra, Etleva, the king’s consort; his brother Caravantius; with his two sons, Scerdiletus and Pleuratus. Anicius, having brought the Illyrian war to a conclusion within thirty days, sent Perperna to Rome with the news of his success; and, in a few days after, king Gentius himself, with his mother, queen, children, and brother, and other Illyrians of distinction”. (Polybius, XLIV)

Gentius spent the rest of his life (until 146 B.C.E.) in exile, at Gubbio in the region of Perugia in Italy. Apart from the activities mentioned above, Gentius is also credited with first discovering the healing powers of the plant Gentiana lutea, accordingly named after him. This plant, which is now used into several beverages such as the Aperol Spritz, was used in the ancient times as an antidote for bites made by poisoning animals and for healing other wounds.



Akademia e Shkencave e Shqipërisë. Instituti i Historisë. Historia e Popullit Shqiptar, I, p. 137. Botimet Toena, 2002.

Hammond, N.G.L. (1966). The Kingdoms in Illyria circa 400-167 B.C. The Annual British School at Athens, 61, 240-253.

The Genius of Gentius (2016). Retrieved from:

Dardania under Roman Rule

Episode I: Establishing Roman Rule over Dardania

The successful campaign of Sribonus Curio (75-73 B.C.E.) against Dardania was not followed by the immediate annexation of this region from the Roman Republic. The Dardanians continued the resistance against the Romans. It can be stated that, after Curio’s campaign, their territory was turned into a semi-independent state (foedus iniquum). The Dardanians resisted the Roman invasion and were even able to destroy the military force of the Roman proconsul Gaius Antonius Hibrida around 63 B.C.E. Later, the Dardanians are involved in the battle of the triumvirs (49-46 B.C.E.) supporting Pompey against Julius Caesar. Notably, a contingent of Dardanian cavalry is mentioned as part of the ranks of the Pompey’s army. Some scholars have taken this participation of the Dardanians as evidence that Dardania was put under Roman rule by this time. It follows that they must have had the obligation to supply the Roman army with troops. However, this evidence is not enough in itself to make such a claim. The Dardanian support towards Pompey could have well been of a voluntary nature. Therefore, the status of Dardania remains unclear during this time. It can be suggested that Dardania continued to remain unconquered in a large scale. This Dardanian resistance would explain the other campaigns that were undertaken by Romans against them in the following years. Marc Antonius himself conducted one such campaign in 38 B.C.E, when he sent his troops in Dardanian lands. Later, in 29 B.C.E., Marcus Crassus led another Roman campaign that involved Dardania. This time the main enemies of Rome were the Dacians and the Bastarnae. Cassius Dio, while writing on the causes of this campaign, reveals the following:

Bastarni [Bastarnae], having then crossed the Ister [Danube], conquered Moesia which was opposite their land, and then also the Triballi who were her neighbours, and the Dardani [Dardanians] living in their [Triballian] land. And all the time they did that, they had nothing to do with the Romans, but when they crossed Mount Haemus… [modern Stara-Planina]” (Cass. Dio, Historia Romana, LI 23, 2)

Petrović suggests that the Dardanians of the Triballian land refer to the area of South Morava and Nišava rivers. It follows that this territory was not of primary concern to the Romans prior to the campaign of Crassus. These struggles clearly show that the Romans were trying to establish their authority upon an otherwise unconquered region. Regarding the Dardanians themselves, there is no report on whether the troops of Crassus fought against them directly.

The Roman rule over Dardania must have officially been established around 28 B.C.E. through the Moesian War. This war would link the administrative status of Dardania with the soon to be created Roman province of Moesia and then with that of Moesia Superior. It was the Roman emperor Octavian Augustus who can be granted with the establishment of Roman rule over Dardania. On the celebrated triumph of Augustus in August of 29 B.C.E. Appian writes the following:

Augustus subdued the whole Illyrian country, not only the parts that had revolted from the Romans, but those that had never before been under their rule. Wherefore the Senate awarded him an Illyrian triumph, which he enjoyed later, together with one for his victory over Antony.” (Appian, Historia Romana, Illyrike, 28)

The fragment presented above apparently also refers to Dardania either as an entity that had revolted against the Romans or as one that had resisted the Roman rule. In fact during 28-15 B.C.E., Dardania may have temporarily been included within the administrative boundaries of the Macedonian province. It can be assumed that no permanent Roman garrison was stationed in Dardania prior to 16 B.C.E. This assumption is made based on the fact that in 16 B.C.E., the assault of the Scordisci against the province of Macedonia was not met with an organised resistance in Dardanian territory. It was only one year later (15 B.C.E.), that the large province of Moesia was created including within it the Dardanian territory.

Artistic depiction of an Illyrian soldier equipped with an Illyrian helmet and shield with a mountain suggesting the roughness of the terrain on his back.
Artistic depiction of an Illyrian soldier equipped with an Illyrian helmet and shield with a mountain on his back suggesting the roughness of the terrain.

Episode II: Roman Administration

The inclusion within the province of Moesia put the Dardanians under an unnatural administrative and legal framework. The traditional relations of Dardania with the southern territories of the Mediterranean were ignored in favor of an administrative unit that was oriented towards the northern regions of the Danube. The general population apparently did not support this administration. Their dissatisfaction was expressed in continuous raids against Roman cargos and merchants, carried out by Dardanian rebels (latrones Dardanianicii). In 86, the administrative reform of emperor Domitian resulted in the division of the Roman province of Moesia into two parts: Moesia Superior and Moesia Inferior. This main purpose for this division was the Roman aim to better protect the Danube front line. This division did not change the northern orientation of Dardania, now part of Moesia Superior. However, it may have increased the importance and the weight of the Dardanian territory as a land rich in ores within a province that was roughly twice as small as the previous province of Moesia. Also, a Romanization process helped in establishing a more efficient Roman rule over the territory.

Dardania and Upper Moesia was considered of crucial mining importance for the Roman Empire in the same manner the Africa proconsularis was considered of crucial agricultural importance. Within the province of Moesia Superior (Upper Moesia), apart from the military/legionary territories, municipal territories, and private estates, Dardania represented one of the four major divisions each named after local tribes, alongside the lands of the Pincenses/Picenses, Tricornienses/Tricornenses, and Moesi up north. The rich mining lands across Dardania, as in all Upper Moesia, belonged to the imperial treasury (fircus). The remaining territories were occupied by native tribal settlements (civitates peregrinae). The native inhabitants had the obligation to work into the mines or in other estates of the imperial treasury.

An important administrative centre was established in Ulpiana. Meanwhile, the whole Dardanian territory was composed of several centres grouped together into some few areas (civitates Dardanicae). These areas were developed in accordance with the economic interests of the fiscus and especially based on the mining centres that constituted the Metalli Dardanici complex. There were at least five such areas established across Dardania and their centres were notably: I) Municipium Dardanorum (Socanica), II) Ulpiana, III) Remesiana (Bela Palanka), IV) Timacum Minus (Ravna) and an additional centre located somewhere near Lamudum (Lopate), Vizianum (Konjuh), or Kratiskara (Kratovo).

The Roman military administration was responsible for the unity of fiscal organisations and peregrine. The Roman troops protected the mining areas while also being involved in the ore mining process itself and mining administration. The road network, along which precious monetary cargos were transported, also required the protection of the armed troops (especially after 250). Thus, along the territory of the Dardanians, the order was maintained by the cohorts or local militias such as cohorts I Aurelia Dardanorum and II Aurelia Dardanorum. These cohorts were presumably established by emperor Marcus Aurelius around 169, during the wars of the Marchomani. The I Aurelia Dardanorum must have been based somewhere at Timacum Minus (Ravna) and/or Timacum Maius (Knazhevc). The II Aurelia Dardanorum was based at Naissus but the epigraphic evidence suggests that it also served in other forts, notably at Timacum Minus (Ravna), and Praesidium Pompei (near Aleksinac). Both these cohorts, each with 600 soldiers, were apparently created out of Dardanian latrons. By distributing them at the northern border of Dardania, the emperor Aurelius decreased the danger of cargo raids from latrons across Dardania. Regarding the protection of the mine districts, other local units were established to carry out this function during the I-II centuries. This was the case of the Ala Vespaziana Dardanorum, that consisted of 500 Dardanian knights and that protected the mine region of Artanë/Novobërdë-Kopaonik.

Ptolemy mentions Naissus as being one of the four main towns in Dardania. The epigraphic text Naisso Dardaniae discovered in Rome and pertaining to the Early Principate period supports the statement of Ptolemy.

In 279, the province of Dardania was created as part of the prefecture of Illyricum (praefectura praetorio per Illyricum). This reform by emperor Diocletian reestablished the traditional relations of Dardania with the Mediterranean realm. The borders of the Dardanian province were almost the same as the ones of the ancient Dardanian kingdom, apart from the northeastern part which was awarded to the already established province of Dacia Ripensis.

Map of Upper Moesian Dardania published by Vladimir P. Petrović. The borders of ancient Dardania and modern Kosova are also shown. The land route Lissus-Naissus-Ratiaria (Lezhë-Nish-Ratiaria) provided the shortest land route that linked the Adriatic Sea with the Danube River and Danubian frontier.
Map of Upper Moesian Dardania published by Vladimir P. Petrović. The borders of ancient Dardania and modern Kosova are also shown. The land route Lissus-Naissus-Ratiaria (Lezhë-Nish/Nis-Ratiaria), that passed mostly through Dardania, provided the shortest land route that linked the Adriatic Sea with the Danube River and Danubian frontier.



Appiani, Historia Romana, Illyrike, 28.

Dionis Cassii Cocceiani, Historia Romana, LI.

Petrović, V.P. (2007). Pre-Roman and Roman Dardania. Historical and Geographical Considerations. Balcanica, 27, 7-22.

Shukriu, E. (2008). Prehistory and Antique History of Kosovo. Thesis Kosova.

Lissus, the Illyrian city built with stones

Episode I: Navigating controversial accounts

In his work “Bibliotheca Historica”, Diodorus Siculus, after writing about the alliance of Dionysius I of Syracuse (the Elder) (r. 432-367) with the Illyrian king Bardylis (r. 393-358), suggests that the tyrant of Syracuse sent a group of colons east of the Adriatic to establish a settlement there. Diodorus writes the following:

“…the Parians, in accordance with an oracle, sent out a colony to the Adriatic, founding it on the island of Pharos, as it is called, with the cooperation of the tyrant Dionysius. He had already dispatched a colony to the Adriatic not many years previously and had founded the city known as Lissus.” (Diodorus, XV, 13)

Based on the narrative of Diodorus, the Syracusan expedition and the establishment of the city of Lissus were carried out in 385 B.C.E. This alleged enterprise is seen as an attempt of Dionysius to expand his influence on the other part of the Adriatic Sea and ease the communication with his eastern Hellenic allies. Thus, a seaport east of Adriatic would secure a safe base for Syracusan ships heading towards this region.

The narrative of Diodorus Siculus should not be taken bluntly. Various scholars have cast doubts on the truthfulness of Diodorus’ narrative and on the real origin of the city of Lissus (or Lissos). In addition, the modern scholar R. L. Beamont has stated that the surrounding walls of Lissus pertain to a period well before 385 B.C.E. However, Beamont accepts the version that a Hellenic commercial settlement may have been set in Lissus before the Illyrian-Syracusan alliance mentioned by Diodorus. On the other hand, some Albanian archeologists have suggested that the city of Lissus was actually established after 385 B.C.E., notably sometime during the late IV century B.C.E. Along the ruins of Lissus, traces of Syracusan constructions can be observed. Although this may seem in support of the account of Diodorus, most of the scholars agree that these Syracusan elements represent only mere additional fortifications that an already established settlement received during the IV century. Another simple reason suggests the erection of the city of Lissus by native inhabitants rather than by foreign Syracusan colons: the fortifications of the outer walls are oriented towards the seawater and towards the lower valley of the Drin River and not towards the hinterland. This means that the inhabitants were more concerned from an invasion from the sea than from an invasion from the hinterland. If the city would have been built as a Syracusan colony the orientation of the outer fortifications would have been the opposite: the hinterland would have been their main concern while the sea waters would have provided the main in and out communications.

Part of a map, published by N.G.L. Hammond and drawn by Helen Waugh based on sketch-map by Hammond, showing the position of Lissus.
Part of a map, published by N.G.L. Hammond and drawn by Helen Waugh based on sketch-map by Hammond, showing the position of Lissus.

Lissus is mentioned by Diodorus in another controversial fragment, used by some scholars to support the thesis of the Syracusan origin of Lissus. The account describes a conflict between the Illyrian natives and the Hellenic colonies of the island of Pharos sometime around 384 B.C.E.

This year the Parians, who had settled Pharos, allowed the previous barbarian inhabitants to remain unharmed in an exceedingly well fortified place, while they themselves founded a city by the sea and built a wall about it. Later, however, the old barbarian [Illyrian] inhabitants of the island took offence at the presence of the Greeks and called in the Illyrians of the opposite mainland. These, to the number of more than ten thousand, crossed over to Pharos in many small boats, wrought havoc, and slew many of the Greeks. But the governor of Lissus appointed by Dionysius sailed with a good number of triremes against the light craft of the Illyrians, sinking some and capturing others, and slew more than five thousand of the barbarians [Illyrians], while taken some two thousand captive.” (Diodorus, XV, 14)

Even though Lissus is mentioned in this paragraph as the city that helped the colons of Pharos, according to Viali and other well-known scholars, Diodorus has surely made an error. Thus, it is suggested that it was in fact the governor of Issa (Vis) and not Lissus that came into the help of the Parians. Therefore, the name of Lissus is mentioned in the passage wrongly in the place of Issa. Furthermore, there is no concrete evidence that the city of Lissus had at any time a Syracusan governor placed there by the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysus the Elder. On the other hand, it is known that colons from Syracuse ruled the island of Issa at this time.

Other scholars treat the development of Lissus in relation with the development of the nearby settlement of Akrolissus. In this case, the narrative of Diodorus is way off. Akrolissus was a fortified settlement situated on the top of Mount Shelbun near modern Lezha. It was founded as early as the X century B.C.E. and as such it was surely erected by the native Illyrians. Akrolissus must have been the embryonic city of this region that later resulted in the creation of Lissus. In time, the settlement of Akrolissus was further fortified and it gained the function of an Acropolis as well as that of a military base. Positioned on top of high step slopes, Acrolisus was well protected from outside threats. During the VI-V centuries B.C.E. the inhabitants of Akrolisus expanded its territory and transferred its population into lower grounds, thus creating another more urbanised settlement, the one that is referred by Diodorus as Lissus.

A planimetry of Lissus.
A planimetry of Lissus by Camillo Praschniker and Arnold Schober (1919).
A planimetry of Akrolissus
A planimetry of Akrolissus by Camillo Praschniker and Arnold Schober (1919).

Episode II: A Well-Organized Settlement

The surrounding walls of the city of Lissus reached a longitude of over 2,200 meters that protected an area of 200,000 square meters. The city is based on the western face of a hill that is situated on the left bank of the Drin River. From this hill, the protective walls continued downwards, on the bottom of the hill, into the flat terrain all the way into the river where a tower on each side was raised. Also, another inner wall that went parallel with the river was constructed with the intention of further protecting the flat part of the settlement. Furthermore, another wall was erected within the settlement ensuring additional protective strength by dividing the city into two main parts: the upper and the lower city. The outer walls of Lissus were 3.5 meters wide and were composed of stone blocks each 0.6-1.6 meters long and 0.3-0.6 meters high. These blocks, after being worked with a hammer in the quarry, were immediately placed in the line of the structure next to each other.

The ancient city of Lissus was also equipped with watchtowers in several spots along the surrounding wall. These towers were filled with many big stones until they reached a certain level of altitude that allowed the passage of the guards throughout them. Only one tower is of a circular shape while all the other towers are of rectangular shape. The gates were also present in large numbers across the settlement. Ten from these gates are detected in the Upper City while in the Lower City it is difficult to identify any such spots because of the inadequate conditions of the walls here. The width of most of the gates reached 3-4 meters and towers on their side usually defended them. Thus, the chariots traveled easily throughout and across the city with the gates closing after their passage using a horizontal heavy wood chip.

Current Stone Structures of Ancient Lissus
Current Stone Structures of Ancient Lissus (Lezhë, Albania).
Current remnants of the ancient city of Lissus where the building technique of the city walls can be observed.
Current remnants of the ancient city of Lissus where the building technique of the city walls can be observed.
Tower fortification raised over the ancient city
Tower fortification raised over the ancient city of Lissus (Lezhë, Albania).



Paeonia and the Paeonians

Episode I: An Ancient Bridgehead

The Paeonians were an Illyrian tribe who in Antiquity were found along the upper valley of the river Axios (Vardar) all away into the river Struma in the east (current western Bulgaria). Their region was positioned in between the lands of the Dardanians and the ancient Macedonians. In the northwest Paeonia bordered the lowland of Pelagonia; in the north, the Illyrian tribes of the Dardanians and the Autariatae bordered them. In the east and southeast of Paeonia, Thracians were the ones that were most commonly found. In the south, the kingdom of Macedon was located. Domestically, apart from the Paeonians, Paeonia was composed of various generally Illyrian tribes such as the Agrianes, Laeaeans, Odomantes, Paeoplae, Almopians, Doberes, and Siropaiones. The lands of Paeonia correspond in large parts with the current lands of the FYR Macedonia. It should also be noted that Paeonia should not be confused with Pannonia (a Roman province near the Danube River).

The Paeonians are first mentioned in the epic work “Iliad” attributed to Homer. In that poem, the Paeonian tribe is listed among the allies of the Trojans in the Trojan War (c. 1180 B.C.E.). The Paeonians founded their own kingdom sometime during the first half of the IV century B.C.E. According to Polybius, the most important city of Paeonia was Bylazora (near Knezhje in modern FYR Macedonia). This city was positioned along the main road that leaded into Pelagonia through the valley of Babuna and Raec, thus connecting Macedon with Dardania. As a result of its strategic position, Bylazora was the target of both the Dardanians and the Macedonians. For the side that controlled the city, it meant holding a secure bridgehead into the lands of the other rival. In fact, the whole region of Paeonia was often turned into a buffer zone situated between the stronger states of Dardania and Macedon. It was in Paeonia where the Macedonians and Dardanians often clashed with one another. It appears that Bylazora itself soon fell into the hands of the Dardanians until in 217 B.C.E. was conquered by Philip V of Macedon (r. 221-179). As a result of the Dardanian conquest, the capital of the Paeonian kingdom moved further south into Stobi (Gradsko).

The Paeonian tribes made use effectively of the natural defences such as highlands and water bodies. The ability to adapt to difficult terrains allowed most of the Paeonian tribes to remain free from the Persian invasion. They even developed lake dwelling settlements that the Persians were unable to conquer. Herodotus describes in detail the presence of such settlements among the Paeonians:

“There is set in the midst of the lake a platform made fast on tall piles, to which one bridge gives a narrow passage from the land. In olden times all the people working together set the piles, which support the platform there, but they later developed another method of setting them. The men bring the piles from a mountain called Orbelus, and every man plants three for each of the three women that he weds. Each man has both a hut on the platform and a trap door in the platform leading down into the lake. They make a cord fast to the feet of their little children out of fear that they will fall into the water. They give fish as fodder to their horses and beasts of burden, and there is such an abundance of fish that a man can open his trap door, let down an empty basket by a line into the lake, and draw it up after a short time full of fish.” Herodotus (V, 16)

Episode II: War against the Persians

Megabazus, a Persian general, was appointed by Darius to control the Persian conquest in Europe. Herodotus states that the general conquered first the Perinthians who inhabited the area around the Hellespont. After the victory over the Perinthians, Megabazus was ordered directly by Darius (who at the time resided in Sardis) to advance further west, into Paeonia. The plan of the Persian ruler consisted in opening a clear way into Macedon by forcefully relocating some of the Paeonians who blocked this way and replacing them with other more friendly Thracian tribes. Upon hearing on the march of Megabazus against them, the Paeonian tribes joined forces and prepared a defence near the coastal area (near Philippi) assuming the Persians would assault them there. Megabazus, aware of the prepared defence of the Paeonians, avoided the direct clash near the seacoast by following a different route that passed through the highlands (Gazoros). Thus, the Persians entered eastern Paeonia that was left unprotected from the Paeonian ineffective mobilisation further south. Here, the Persians captured many Paeonian families that he exiled into Asia Minor.

The successful campaign of Megabazus against the southeastern part of Paeonia allowed the Persians the control of the strategic area from the mouth of the Strymon up to Prasiad Lake and the Rupel defile. However, Megabazus did not advance further north for either he was not instructed and/or unwilling to do so, or he found it unwise to further engage in battles against other better positioned Paeonians that held naturally defended positions at the foot of the Pangaeum. Megabazus may have been content to advance as far as the mountain of Belasitsa that he must have considered a natural border that separated the lower Strymon with the hinterland. The Persians had already increased their presence along the Aegean coast that was their priority at this time and thus did not marched towards the hinterland, although the Pangaeum, where gold and silver mines were present, could have provided an important target and possession. Ultimately, Herodotus writes the following as concerning the other parts of Paeonia:

Those [Paeonians] near the Pangaean mountains and the country of the Doberes and the Agrianes and the Odomanti [Paeonian tribes] and the Prasiad Lake itself were never subdued to Megabazus

Other lands of Paeonia were conquered by Alexander I of Macedon during 498-454 B.C.E. Notably these consisted of the narrow portions along the lower Axios (Vardar) including Pella and the seacoast. These conquests would deny the remaining Paeonians any direct access into the sea. During the same time, the Paeonian lands that had previously been invaded by the Persians, fell under the control of Macedon. Furthermore, during the same century, the Thracian tribes would overrun other portions of Paeonia. These parts that were annexed by the Thracians included the lands around Lake Prasiad as well as those of the Pangaion. These changes would limit the Paeonians into the middle stream of Axios and along the valleys of its rights and left tributaries. It was these area that should be regarded as the political entity of Paeonia including within it important cities such as Prilep (Stuberra), Bylazora (Veles), and Astibos (Štip). This condensed entity would border Macedon on the place called the Iron Gate (Demir Kapija) just north of Gortynia (Gevgelija). On the other hand, the mountains in between Scupi (Skopje) and Bylazora (Prilep) would separate Paeonia from Dardania. These would be the extents of the Paeonian entity during 454-358 B.C.E. The victory of Philip over the Paeonians would allow the Maedonians the annexation of some of their territories, notably the lands around Stobi after 356 B.C.E.

The reduction of the Paeonian lands during 512-358 B.C.E.
The reduction of the Paeonian lands during 512-358 B.C.E.

Episode III: Philip’s Campaign against Paeonia

Paeonia returns into the attention of ancient writers by the time Philip II was proclaimed king of Macedon. In the spring of 358 B.C.E., Philip II marched with his army through the mountainous region in the north of Macedon and entered Paeonia. This represented the first campaign of the Macedonian king after he had reformed his army and introduced the “phalanx” among his forces. It seems that the Paeonians did not constitute an immediate threat to Macedon at this time. Their actions were limited in sporadic raids at the northernmost border of Macedon. Thus, it can be argued that king Philip chose to wage a campaign against the Paeonians in order to further solidify and improve the capabilities of his army and test in an open battle the formations of his newly Macedonian phalanx “invention”. The Paeonians, now weaker than other neighboring states, would provide a descent “sparing partner” for the Macedonians.

Although in a declining stage, the Paeonians still preserved their military tradition. The Paeonian army was composed mainly of peltasts and javelin-armed light cavalry, similar to the military units used by tribes of western Thrace. Regarding the total number of troops that Paeonia could mobilize, we have no direct evidence on the figure. However, it is still possible to make assumptions on the number of Paeonian soldiers by counting on the reports that describe their participation in the ranks of Alexander’s the Great army. Accordingly, when the Macedonian forces of Alexander gathered in Egypt, about 600-650 Paeonian cavalrymen were present (presumably half of their total cavalry). Another 600 Paeonian horsemen joined later the main army of Alexander in Syria. Thus, it can be assumed that about 1,200 Paeonian cavalrymen were eligible for combat across all Paeonia in instances of mass mobilization. The campaign of Philip against them must have been one such instance and most of the 1,200 Paeonian cavalrymen must have showed up to face the Macedonian army. As for the number of Paeonian foot soldiers that the Paeonian deployed against Philip, Ray suggests that it consisted of about 5,000 soldiers.

Philip, in charge of a superior army, entered Paeonia in need of an open fight. From a tactical standpoint, the Paeonians had no reason to openly face Philip’s forces. They could have well chosen to avoid the clash until the Macedonians would eventually retreat and return into Macedon. Instead, the Paeonians chose to fight apparently evaluating the situation from a strategic standpoint. Other reasons for this decision may be related with a cultural tendency of not avoiding a fight. Another influencer may have been the Paeonian king himself. Just recently declared king, the new Paeonian ruler may have been eager to prove his leadership skills in an open battle. In case of victory, he would secure his authority across the country.

Ultimately, the Paeonians may have decided to confront Philip’s forces because they simply thought they could win. At the time, the forces of Philip had not yet acquired the favorable reputation they were to gain in the upcoming years. While the Macedonians had a higher number of foot soldiers deployed, the Paeonians could count on their seemingly superior cavalry. If Paeonian horsemen could overcome the Macedonian cavalry at the flanks, they could come into the help of their infantry against the phalanx in the center. If such was the reasoning of the Paeonian chieftains, they must have chosen to await the forces of Macedon into an area that gave their cavalry, as an elite unit, a large space to maneuver. It would have also been wise to hold a place with tree-covered uplands near their backline formations in case a covered retreat was required.

Upon seeing the Paeonian army waiting for him from a distance, Philip ordered his soldiers to shift from their marching formation into phalanx formation. It can be assumed that the Macedonian phalanx at this time was ten men deep. Philip himself apparently stood on the right side of the army along with his hypaspists and hoplite mercenaries. Cavalry units were positioned on both wings. Meanwhile, the Paeonian army was positioned in a similar fashion. The core part of their infantry, composed of approximately 4,000 soldiers, stood in the centre to face the phalanx while the cavalry was deployed on the flanks.



Statue of an Illyrian chieftain in modern Skopje (FYR Macedon)
Statue of an Illyrian chieftain in modern Skopje (FYR Macedon)


The Ancient Silver City of Damastion

Episode I: Evaluating Strabo’s account

One of the most discussed issues regarding the Illyrians of classical antiquity has to do with the presence of a major city with rich silver mines in the Balkan hinterland. This city minted its own silver coins and was controlled for a long time by the major Illyrian tribe of the Dardanians. It even turned into the capital of Dardania for some time. This city was called Damastion and its location, being of cultural and economic importance, remains unknown to this day.

For the first time Damastion is mentioned by the ancient historian and geographer Strabo who states that the silver mines of the city were located near the lands of the Illyrian tribes of the Taulantii, Parthini, Brygi and Bylliones. Thus, the geographical location of these tribes may help in pinpointing the potential area where Damastion stood. In addition, the Taulantii inhabited the area around Dyrrachium/Epidamnos (Durrës) in current central Albania. The Parthini, who may have represented a tribal branch of the Taulantii, were located north of the later, in the hinterland between Dyrrachium and Lissus (Lezhë). The Brygi, who seem to have been a small tribe, may have been located horizontally somewhere in the lands between Dyrrachium and Lychnidos (Ohrid). The Bylliones were the Illyrians who inhabited the city of Byllis (Hekal,Albania) and its surrounding region. They, as the Parthini, were part for a long time of the Illyrian kingdom of the Taulantii. Thus, if we refer to the description of Strabo, then the silver mines of Damastion and the city itself were located near the lands of the tribes mentioned above.

Strabo adds that the tribes of the Dyestae and the Enchelii (Encheleae) ruled over Damastion. Here he may be referring to a possible rule of king Bardylis of the Encheleae (an Illyrian tribe) over Damastion. A possible rule of Damastion by Bardylis may have helped substantially the financial prosperity of his kingdom. The other mentioned tribes of the Dyestae may have been of Thracian origin. In such a case, Strabo may have implied a common Illyrian-Thracian rule over the city and its silver mines.

Position of the ancient tribes and regions including the ones mentioned in the article (from Papazoglu 1988b as illustrated by Morgan 2009)
Position of the ancient tribes and regions including the ones mentioned in the article (from Papazoglu 1988b as illustrated by Morgan 2009).

Episode II: The proposals on the location of Damastion

Many scholars have given their assumption regarding the possible location of Damastion. Their proposals include Epirus, the hinterlands of Dyrrachium and Apollonia, and even regions as far north as Dalmatia (current Croatia). Various proposals include Dassaretis, the region south of lake Lychnidos (lake Ohrid). However, the issue with this area stands in the fact that the geological structure of its lands makes the presence of the silver mines here impossible. In addition, Strabo mentiones other places in relation to Damastion, notably the Eoerdi, Elimeia, and Eratyra. The first two were part of the region of Lyncestis while the position of Eratyra remains unknown. Thus, it is reasonable that the regions corresponding with the ancient Lyncestis be taken into consideration as possible locations of ancient Damastion.

Among the proposals, Paeonia represents an interesting option. Paeonian kings are well known for having produced various coins with the inscription “Damastion” (“ΔΑΜΑΣΤΙΝΩΝ”) in them. The Paeonian option seems more plausible when we consider the existence of several silver mines in the area between Scupi (Skopje) and Pautalia (Kyustendil). The main problem with this area is that it is located further east from the Illyrian tribal lands mentioned by Strabo.

Alternative proposals include current southern region of Albania; current regions of Mati and Dukagjini in northern Albania, and Pelagonia in FYR Macedonia. Another option proposed by Mirdita states that Damastion might have been located near the current village of Kishnica in Kosova, between modern Janjeva/Janjevo and Prishtina/Pristina. This area is also known as a mining region where antique mines have been reported. Thus it makes Kishnica an option worth considering. Further northwest, another potential location is found. It refers to the rich in minerals area of Kopaonik mountain range (south of modern Serbia). The mountainous region of Kopaonik was known by the Roman references as Municipium Dardanicum and served as a mining center in the Roman imperial period. The only issue with this area, as with Paeonia, is that it is located somewhat far from the suggested lands of Strabo.

Episode III: A brief ancient history of Damastion

Based on another fragment of Strabo, provided by a document stored and recently discovered in the Vatican, Damastion may have been established initially as a Hellenic colony. According to the fragment, the colons came from Aegina and Mandra after Athens forced them out of their lands in 420 B.C.E. If this is the case, then this represents a unique case in the history of Hellenic (Greek) colonization since such colonies were usually established along the coastlines whereas Damastion appears to have been established deep into the hinterland. The city may have taken the name of the leader of the colons, “Damastes” or “Damastos” (from an attested ancient Greek personal name), followed by the ancient Greek particle “on”. In such a case, the Hellenic colons must have had problems retaining the control of the city since it lacked the access on sea routes and hence the crucial communication with other Hellenic trade centers. Thus, even in such case, Damastion soon fell in the hands of the native Dardanians.

It is assumed that Damastion started to emit its first silver coins around 395 B.C.E. After some time it apparently fell under the rule of the powerful Illyrian monarch Bardylis I (r. 393-358). The control over Damastion may have helped Bardylis expand his commerce with other populations of the north and other tribes around his state. Furthermore, under the model of Damastion, Bardylis established in 365 B.C.E. another center for coin emission in Daparri of current Kosova.

The mentioning of a common Illyrian-Thracian rule over Damastion suggests that the city should be searched in an area located in between the Illyrian tribes and the Thracian tribes. As such, Dardania, inhabited by the Illyrian tribe of the Dardanians, in modern Kosova, represents the area that best suits this description. It should be noted that the Dardanians expanded their control way east, all the way into the borderlands of the Thracian tribe of the Triballi. This Dardanian expansion occurred after Alexander the Great defeated the Thracian Triballi. As a result of this situation, the search for Damastion and its silver ores is narrowed down into the area that was once controlled by the Dardanians.

Episode IV: A Treasure Hunt

In order to determine a more precise location of Damastion, we can observe the places where coins emitted from this city have been discovered. However, it is at first useful to make a summary of the types of coins that Damastion emitted. Its coins are divided into three types: the tetradrachmas, the drachmas, and the tetrobols. The coins with the most value, the tetradrachmas, have the figure of Apollo featured on them while the two other types of smaller values, the drachmas and the tetrobols, manifest figures illustrating the activities of the people and the mine. The drachmes also feature a female head while in the tetrobols reapers the figure of Apollo.

There are more than 40 coins of Damastion discovered in various places across the southwest Balkans including countries such as Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Kosova, Serbia, and Croatia. However, it has been noted that most of the smaller denominators of drachmas and tetroboles are found in the area that consists with current region of southern Kosova. This is of special interest when considering that smaller denominations are usually concentrated around the mines from which they have been emitted. Also, the geological structure of this area allows for the presence of an ancient silver mine. Based on the same view, the area around modern Skopje should also be evaluated as a region where in antiquity the Illyrian kingdoms of Dardania and Paeonia bordered. The ancient literature available also tends to put Damastion in the current region of southern Kosova and/or Skopje. These sources mention Damastion as the capital of Dardania while also allowing other interpreters to assume that Paeonia controlled Damastion in certain periods.

The pattern of find spots of coins produced by Damastion. Larger dots represents coin hoard discoveries whereas smaller dots represent single coin finds. The grey area illustrates a concentration of finds, especially of smaller denominators (drachmas and tetrobols) in current south of Kosova. As such the grey area represents the most adequate location for ancient Damastion according to this pattern.
The pattern of find spots of coins produced by Damastion. Larger dots represents coin hoard discoveries whereas smaller dots represent single coin finds. The grey area illustrates a concentration of finds, especially of smaller denominators (drachmas and tetrobols) in current south of Kosova. As such the grey area represents the most adequate location for ancient Damastion according to this pattern.

One recent proposal suggests that Damastion is located in the current village of Popovë, west of Podujeva/Podujevo, in Kosova. In this locality, the traces of an ancient city with its surrounding walls can be noticed along with the remnants of a castle and traces of melted metals. Towards the castle, that is distanced about 1,500-2,000 meters from the surrounding walls, an ancient road 2.5 meters wide made up of stones is directed. Furthermore, this site is located near the rich mines of Kopaonik Mountain (also known as the “Silver Mountain”). The nearby river of Kaqandoll must have served for washing the metals and the coins. Thus, the ancient city of Damastion may have well been located in this city that fulfills all the criteria presented by ancient writers and modern scholars.



Imhoof-Bumler.(1874). Ztschr.f.Numism. p. 99.

Pollozhani, M.(2015). Qytetet e harruara Ilire, lashtësi e pandriçuar. Retrieved from:

Morgan, D.U.(2009). The pattern of Findspots of Coins of Damastion: A Clue to Its Location.

Strabo. Geographica.