HomeUncategorizedGentius, the young king of the Illyrians

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: https://bubblyprofessor.com/2016/07/15/the-genius-of-gentius/

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