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).



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.