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).

Glaucias, the Illyrian

Episode I: King of the Taulantii/King of the Illyrians

Glaucias was, according to Arrian, king of the Taulantti, an Illyrian tribe that occupied the current region of Central Albania. On the other hand, Plutarch and Diodorus describe him as the king of the Illyrians. However, there should be no confusion between the terms “king of the Taulantii” and “king of the Illyrians”. These are just alternative and complementary ways of illustrating the same picture. It should be noted that when Glaucias is referred here as king of the Illyrians, Illyria, or Illyrian kingdom, it is done for purpose of simplicity and it only suggests that he reigned over a territory that was inhabited by Illyrian tribes including the Taulantii. It does not suggest that Glaucias ruled over all the Illyrian tribes across the Balkans. Glaucias seems to have been the son of Pleuratus I and thus, around 335, succeeded him on the throne of the Taulantii. Regarding the center of his kingdom, it was located somewhere around Tirana (in the ancient ruins of Perqop), controlling the plain of that region.

Map showing the areas and cities mentioned in the text and the realm of Glaucias in its initial form and in its greatest expansion during 335-302 B.C.E.
Map showing the ancient areas (Illyria, Epirus, Macedon, Paeonia, Agrianes, Dardania) and cities mentioned in the text and the realm of Glaucias in its initial form and in its greatest expansion during 335-302 B.C.E.

Episode II: Battle against Alexander the Great

Glaucias appears for the first time as a political and military figure in the events related to the campaign of Alexander the Great against the Illyrians in the summer of 335. At that time, Alexander was conducting a campaign in northwestern area of his inherited kingdom, when he was notified that Cleitus, son of Bardylis, had rebelled against the Macedonian rule and that Glaucias was assisting him. Another Illyrian tribe, the Autariatae, who were apparently allied with Cleitus and Glaucus, had planned to assault Alexander on his march. Alexander, anticipating the interception of the Autariatae, engaged the king of the Agrianes, Langarus, to crush them in their own lands. Langarus did so energetically thus opening the way for Alexander to lead his forces against Cleitus and Glaucus. The Macedonians marched safely through the valley of the Erigon (Crna) River to arrive near the city of Pelion that was captured by the Illyrian forces of Cleitus and that dominated the area of Dassaretis. Meanwhile, the Illyrian forces of Glaucus were on their way to join Cleitus at Pelion. Hammond rightly states that Illyrian region was already familiar to Alexander:

As a royal Page, he had accompanied Philip on Illyrian campaigns, and then in 337 he had escorted Olympia to Epirus and gone from there to Illyria, where he stayed with one or more kings, perhaps indeed with Glaucias”.

The Illyrian forces were divided into two main parts. One was positioned within Pelion while others had occupied the highest peaks around the area and above the main passes. Upon arriving near Pelion, Alexander set his camp outside the city with the aim of recapturing it by keeping the Illyrian forces divided as they were. The arrival of Glaucias and his large number of troops in the area forced Alexander in a defensive position and changed his aim of recapturing the city. The first move of the Macedonian ruler was to sent Philotas, one of his commanders, with a cavalry unit, on a nearby expedition to secure food for the army. It is Arrian that gives us the description of the following events:

When Glaucias heard of the expedition of Philotas he marched out to meet him, and seized the mountains, which surrounded the plain, from which Philotas intended to procure forage. As soon as Alexander was informed that his cavalry and beasts of burden would be in danger if night overtook them, taking the shield-bearing troops, the archers, the Agrianians, and about four hundred cavalry, he went with all speed to their aid. The rest of the army he left behind near the city, to prevent the citizens from hastening forth to form a junction with Glaucias (as they would have done), if all the Macedonian army had withdrawn. Directly Glaucias perceived that Alexander was advancing, he evacuated the mountains, and Philotas and his forces returned to the camp in safety. But Cleitus and Glaucias still imagined that they had caught Alexander in a disadvantageous position; for they were occupying the mountains, which commanded the plain by their height, with a large body of cavalry, javelin-throwers, and slingers, besides a considerable number of heavy-armed infantry. Moreover, the men who had been beleaguered in the city were expected to pursue the Macedonians closely if they made a retreat. The ground also through which Alexander had to march was evidently narrow and covered with wood on one side it was hemmed in by a river, and on the other there was a very lofty and craggy mountain so that there would not be room for the army to pass, even if only four shield-bearers marched abreast.

Then Alexander drew up his army in such a way that the depth of the phalanx was 120 men; and stationing 200 cavalry on each wing, he ordered them to preserve silence, in order to receive the word of command quickly. Accordingly he gave the signal to the heavy-armed infantry in the first place to hold their spears erect, and then to couch them at the concerted sign; at one time to incline their spears to the right, closely locked together, and at another time towards the left. He then set the phalanx itself into quick motion forward, and marched it towards the wings, now to the right, and then to the left. After thus arranging and re-arranging his army many times very rapidly, he at last formed his phalanx into a sort of wedge, and led it towards the left against the enemy, who had long been in a state of amazement at seeing both the order and the rapidity of his evolutions. Consequently they did not sustain Alexander’s attack, but quitted the first ridges of the mountain. Upon this, Alexander ordered the Macedonians to raise the battle cry and make a clatter with their spears upon their shields; and the Taulantii, being still more alarmed at the noise, led their army back to the city with all speed.

As Alexander saw only a few of the enemy still occupying a ridge, along which lay his route, he ordered his body-guards and personal companions to take their shields, mount their horses, and ride to the hill; and when they reached it, if those who had occupied the position awaited them, he said that half of them were to leap from their horses, and to fight as foot- soldiers, being mingled with the cavalry. But when the enemy ‘saw Alexander’s advance, they quitted the hill and retreated to the mountains in both directions. Then Alexander, with his companions, seized the hill, and sent for the Agrianians and archers, who numbered 2,000. He also ordered the shield-bearing guards to cross the river, and after them the regiments of Macedonian infantry, with instructions that, as soon as they had succeeded in crossing, they should draw out in rank towards the left, so that the phalanx of men crossing might appear compact at once. He himself, in the vanguard, was all the time observing from the ridge the enemy’s advance. They, seeing the force crossing the river, marched down the mountains to meet them, with the purpose of attacking Alexander’s rear in its retreat. But, as they were just drawing near, Alexander rushed forth with his own division, and the phalanx raised the battle cry, as if about to advance through the river. When the enemy saw all the Macedonians marching against them, they turned and fled. Upon this, Alexander led the Agrianians and archers at full speed towards the river, and succeeded in being himself the first man to cross it. But when he [Alexander] saw the enemy pressing upon the men in the rear, he stationed his engines of war upon the bank, and ordered the engineers to shoot from them as far forward as possilile all sorts of projectiles which are usually shot from military engines. He directed the archers, who had also entered the water, to shoot their arrows from the middle of the river. But Glaucias durst not advance within range of the missiles so that the Macedonians passed over in such safety, that not one of them lost his life in the retreat.

The Illyrians had no reason to engage in close combat with the Macedonian force that was leaving the site in such an organized manner. Glaucus and Cleitus thought the initial Macedonian departure as a victory since they have managed to keep the city of Pelion into their possession. This initial impression caused the Illyrians to encamp carelessly near the city without expecting Alexander’s return. On noticing this weakness, Alexander returned on the site three days later and caught the Illyrian forces by surprise killing many of them and capturing many others. Cleitus himself managed to escape the slaughter and burned his city. Glaucias had also left the area with the surviving forces and returned to his kingdom through the surrounding mountains. After burning the city of Pelion, Cleitus went into the territory of the Taulantii and found refugee in Glaucus’ dominion.

The defeat that Glaucias suffered at Pelion did not challenged his authority over his central possessions, which were located further west from the battlefield. On the other hand, Alexander had no intention to pursue the army of Glaucias deep in the Illyrian hinterland and risk suffering further losses in a rough and unsuitable terrain for the military formations of the Macedonians. The victory of Macedon at Pelion served mainly to secure the kingdom’s northwestern border on the verge of the main expedition against Persia.

Despite the description of classical sources, the campaign against the Illyrians proved difficult for Alexander, so much so that a news that he was killed during battle spread out in Thebes and other places under Alexander’s control. This was another important reason why, soon after the victory over Glaucias and Cleitus, Alexander had to return into Thebes where his presence was required in order to reaffirm his authority and prepare for his major campaign against Persia. As e result, Glaucias continued his reign for another generation over the Illyrians, including into his possessions the lands of other surrounding Illyrian tribes.

Little is known about the activity of Glaucias during 334-317. Some scholars suggest that Glaucias, in addition to the lands of the Taulantii he already controlled, gradually took over the region that was once ruled by Cleitus, apparently capitalizing on the fact that Alexander was engaged far away in war against the Persians.

Episode III: Becoming the adoptive father of Pyrrhus of Epirus

In 317, Cassander, the ruler of Macedon, interfered in the internal affairs of Epirus, encouraging a civil unrest there, in a continuous effort to expand his authority over this region that was after all the homeland of Olympia, mother of Alexander the Great and thus Cassander’s ultimate enemy. As a result of the civil unrest and the Macedonian pressure, Aeacides, up until then the ruler of Epirus and supporter of Olympia, was forced to resign from the throne and leave his state. Aeacides’ two-year old son and the rightful heir of Epirus, Pyrrhus II, was saved from Cassander’s persecution and brought for protection in the court of king Glaucias. It was the same child that would later be known as Pyrrhus of Epirus or Pyrrhus the Great, one of the most skilled generals of his time who challenged the forces of the Roman Republic in the southern Italian peninsula. By the time Pyrrhus was brought in the Illyrian court, Glaucias had already established a friendly relationship with the monarchy of Epirus. Thus, the Illyrian king had married Beroea, a Molossian princess, who, as Pyrrhus, was a member of the Aeacide family. Plutarch describes romantically the encounter of Glaucias with the infant Pyrrhus:

Having thus outstripped their pursuers and reached a place of safety, the fugitives [supporters of Molossian monarchy] betook themselves to Glaucias the king of the Illyrians; and finding him sitting at home with his wife, they put the little child [Pyrrhus] down on the floor before them. Then the king began to reflect. He was in fear of Cassander, who was an enemy of Aeacides [Pyrrhus father], and held his peace a long time as he took counsel with himself. Meanwhile Pyrrhus, of his own accord, crept across the floor, clutched the king’s robe, and pulled himself on to his feet at the knees of Glaucias, who was moved at first to laughter, then to pity, as he saw the child clinging to his knees and weeping like a formal suppliant. Some say, however, that the child did not supplicate Glaucias, but caught hold of an altar of the gods and stood there with his arms thrown round it, and that Glaucias thought this a sign from Heaven. Therefore he at once put Pyrrhus in the arms of his wife, bidding her rear him along with their children; and a little while after, when the child’s enemies demanded his surrender, and Cassander offered two hundred talents [about 20,000 silver coins] for him, Glaucias would not give him up…

Nicolas René Jollain, le Jeune. Infant Pyrrhus brought before Glaucus (Original: Le jeune Pyrrhus présenté à Glaucias).Musée du Louvre.
Nicolas René Jollain, le Jeune. Infant Pyrrhus brought before Glaucus (Original: Le jeune Pyrrhus présenté à Glaucias).Museum of Louvre (Musée du Louvre).

Despite the intimate description of Plutarch, Glaucias had strategical reasons to keep the infant Pyrrhus under his protection. Epirus was of geostrategic importance in order for his kingdom to be secured from the south. The way to secure this influence over Epirus was to raise Pyrrhus safely in Illyria and to establish him on the throne of Epirus at a proper age. The establishment of Pyrrhus on the throne of Epirus would reactivate the marital relations Glaucias already had established with the family of Pyrrhus. Thus, from now on, Pyrrhus would be his adoptive son.

The sitting of Pyrrhus on the throne of Epirus was realized in 309 when Glaucias, carrying Pyrrhus with him, entered into that region with a large Illyrian force. The Illyrians crushed any opposition from the pro-Macedonian group centered on king Alketas and Pyrrhus was declared the legitimate king of Epirus. After leaving appropriate guardians to assist Pyrrhus, then 12 years of age, in governance, Glaucias returned into his kingdom victorious.

The relations between Glaucus and Pyrrhus remained friendly in the coming years. In 302, Pyrrhus, would return into Illyria to attend the marriage of a son of Glaucus, with whom Pyrrhus was reared and whom Pyrrhus considered to be his brother. This event serves also to suggest that in 302 Glaucias was still alive and still ruling over his Illyrian kingdom.

Episode IV: Struggle for coastal control

Before being able to put Pyrrhus on the throne of Epirus, Glaucias had to endure the military retaliation the Macedonian king. In 314, the Macedonians led by Cassander himself, sailed from Epirus and assaulted the Illyrian coast. They conquered the main cities of Apollonia and Dyrrachium and then entered the Illyrian hinterland. During this campaign, Glaucias and his Illyrian troops were defeated, thus forcing the Illyrian king to temporarily retreat from the coastal areas. Macedonian garrisons were put in both Dyrrachium and Apollonia in order to keep their citizens under Macedonian rule and keep away potential Illyrian assaults. The Macedonian pressure forced Glaucias to sign a treaty of neutrality where he promised not to intervene in Epirus and its affairs. Although in difficult position after this Macedonian invasion, Glaucias did not surrender Pyrrhus to Cassander and continued to keep him under his protection until eventually sat him on the throne of Epirus. For now, the Illyrian king aimed at regaining possession of the coastal area and forcing the Macedonians retreat from there.

Glaucias quicly reorganized his troops and in 313 sieged the city of Apollonia. It was during this time that Acrotatus from Sparta who, up until now, had almost nothing to do with this conflict, conducted a forced naval landing in the area around the sieged city, forced here by a sea storm while on his way towards Acragas (modern Agrigento). Inside the city of Apollonia, the Macedonian garrison positioned there by Cassander, was leading the stance against the Illyrian king, thus attempting at the same time to ensure the Macedonian authority over an otherwise free colony. Acrotatus came into close contact with king Glaucias with whom he entered into peace negotiations on behalf of the citizens of Apollonia who were apparently influenced by a pro-Macedonian party. These negotiations were concluded with the Illyrian king signing e peace treaty with the city of Apollonia and releasing it from the siege. The terms of this treaty are unknown, but it can be assumed that they favored the position of Glaucias and threatened the authority of the Macedonians. Thus, a political tension between a pro-Macedonian party and an opposition may have been triggered in the city of Apollonia.

The Macedonian rule was undesired by the Hellenic colonies along the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea. Thus, in 312 the citizens in both Dyrrachium and Apollonia revolted against the Macedonian rule and expelled the Macedonians from their cities. In their liberation the state of Corcyra provided the main military assistance but it seems that Illyrians offered their support as well. After their liberation, Corcyra awarded Glaucias with the control of Dyrrachium. The following attempt of Cassander to regain these possession and especially Apollonia was useless. The forces of Apollonia along with possible Illyrian reinforces defeated the forces of Macedon in front of the city walls. The whole coastal Illyria had now been freed from the Macedonian forces.

 

Bibliography

Arriani. Alexandri Anabasis.

Diodori. Bibliotheca Historica.

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

Hammond, N.G.L. & Wallbank, W. (1972). A History of Macedonia 336-167 B.C. pp.39-47.

Plutarchi. Vitae Parallelae. Pyrrhus.

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