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.