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.”