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).


Episode I: Background

Bardylis was king of the Illyrians during 393-358 B.C.E. He was born around 448 B.C.E. as a member of the Illyrian tribe of the Enchelei. The Enchelei inhabited primarily the area around lake Lychnidus (Ohrid). Although from a humble origin, Bardylis would soon become the ruler of many Illyrian tribes and form one of the strongest states in the region. It can be assumed that he was the founder of the first multi tribal Illyrian kingdom in contrast with the previous Illyrian states that had been limited only around one specific Illyrian tribe. The rise of Bardylis I on the Illyrian throne in 395 seems to reflect important social changes that the Illyrian society was experiencing. These changes included the move towards a slave-owning society and towards a militarized state. The adoption of the hoplite weaponry from the Illyrian soldiers contributed to their superiority towards other regional states, including Macedon. Also, under Bardylis, the use of an Illyrian cavalry in marches and battles became frequent. The elite members of the Illyrian society may have formed the cavalry units as the Illyrian king himself led them.

Prior to his rule over the Illyrians, Bardylis is reported to have been a collier. Later, he became the leader of a band of freebooters. As the leader of this band, Bardylis gained the respect of his followers especially because of his exceptional fairness in the division of the spoils. During his raids, Bardylis must have been gained valuable experience in combat tactics and military leadership. The lands of northwestern Macedon may have been among the targets of Bardylis’ band of freebooters. As for the dynamics of his rise into Illyrian throne, there is no evidence describing them. It can only be assumed that Bardylis, being not an heir, must have seized power by force. Accordingly, a previous undesired and/or unpopular ruler (potentially one named Sirras) must have been overthrown. It has been suggested that the movement that resulted in the rise of Bardylis into Illyrian throne occurred as a reaction of the general population towards an undesired treaty with Macedon.

Episode II: The realm of Bardylis

The borders of the kingdom ruled by Bardylis are not clear. It now seems that the lands controlled by the Illyrian ruler may have been greater that it had been traditionally perceived. Pajakowksi based on the large number of troops that Bardylis was able to deploy later against Philip II and on a fragment preserved by Kalisthenes, claims that Bardylis ruled over a vast territory. Notably, in its zenith, his kingdom stretched from the Gulf of Rhizones (Kotor) in the northwest to the lands of the Bylliones in the south, including the important colonies of Dyrrachium and Apollonia in his domains. In the southeast, it clearly controlled the lands around Lake Lychnidus and Dassaretis whereas in the east it bordered with the lands of the Paeonians and the Dardanians.

The claim of Pajakowksi does not seem far from the truth. The recent discovery of two Illyrian royal palaces (one built before 260 B.C.E.) in what was then Rhizones (Risan in current Montenegro) confirms the presence of Illyrian royal authority in these parts. On the other hand, other modern scholars have supported the southern border proposed by Pajakowski. This borderline can be naturally placed in the lower and middle stream of the Aoos (Vjosa) River and then into southern Dassaretis. As for the colonies of Dyrrachium and Apollonia, it cannot be stated for certain that they were put under the direct authority of Bardylis. However, the lack of literal sources regarding these colonies pertaining to the ruling period of Bardylis indicates at least the establishment of productive and peaceful relationships between these Hellenic colonies and the Illyrian kingdom.

During his rule, Bardylis was able to take into control the important Dardanian city of Damastion and its silver mines. The control over Damastion must have improved the financial prosperity of the Illyrian state and may have encouraged the Illyrian commerce with other populations and tribes of the north. Furthermore, under the example of Damastion, Bardylis founded in 365 another center for coin emission in Daparri of current Kosova.

The control over Damastion has led some modern scholars to view Bardylis exclusively as “king of the Dardanians”. This view should be regarded as an outdated one. Treating Bardylis as king of the Dardanians would imply that he ruled only over one particular Illyrian tribe (in these case over the Dardanians). This does not seem to have been the case. Although Dardania may have fallen under the control of Bardylis, his kingdom included other Illyrian tribes such as the Encheleii, the Dassaretae, the Taulantii/Parthini, and so on. Thus, a “king of the Illyrians” labeling is more plausible.

Episode III: Battling Macedon

Upon establishing himself on the Illyrian throne, Bardylis turned his attention towards Lyncestis, a region located just east of lake Lychnidus. The lands of this region had traditionally been an area of conflict between the Macedonians and the Illyrians. Both these entities aimed at ensuring their control over Lyncestis or at establishing their influence there. Furthermore, even in a broader geographical perspective, the Illyrian tribes and the Macedonians maintained a continuous hostile behavior towards each other. Bardylis was certainly aware of the power dynamics of the region and the general strength of Macedon. The political crisis that had spread across Macedon after the assassination of the Macedonian king Archelaus I in 399 B.C.E. provided a striking opportunity for the Illyrians. Having apparently noticed the instability of the Macedonian state, Bardylis took the initiative in 393 B.C.E. In this year, the Illyrians stormed Macedon, apparently passing through the lands of Lyncestis and having faced no significant resistance during their march. During this incursion, the Illyrians took control of the whole Upper Macedon and drove out of his kingdom the then king of Macedon, Amyntas II. The Illyrians established Argaeus, presumably a member of the royal house of the Lyncestae, on the throne of Macedon in the place of the exiled Amyntas. The establishment of Argaeus from Lyncestis on the Macedonian throne indicates a prior agreement between the Illyrians of Bardylis and the inhabitants of Lyncestis. This agreement seems to have included the safe passage of the troops of Bardylis through Lyncestis and additional military support.

It has been stated that Argaeus ruled over Macedon for two years (393-391). During this time, he must have acted as a puppet king in favor of Illyrian interests. Meanwhile, Amyntas had found refugee in Thessaly where he apparently still enjoyed support. With the help of troops from Thessaly, Amyntas managed to reenter Macedon and reclaim its throne. A state of tension must have followed Amyntas comeback since the later was able to reestablish himself over the throne only after having made a peace treaty with the Illyrians of Bardylis. Accordingly, Amyntas committed into paying yearly tributes to the Illyrians. Furthermore, the Macedonian king delivered his youngest son, Philip, as a hostage and peace guarantor at the hands of the Illyrians. The later left the young prince (who would later become the famous Philip II of Macedon) in Thebes, at the custody of the Thebans.

Diodorus provides an account referring to another major incursion of the Illyrians against Macedon sometime during 383-382 B.C.E. Some have argued that this account represents merely a repetition of the campaign carried out a decade ago. However, it can well be that the account of Diodorus constitutes an authentic source referring to a second expedition of the Illyrians against Macedon. In such as case, this Illyrian invasion forced the Macedonian king Amyntas II to leave the country for a second time. The occurrence of this expedition may have been the result of several reasons. One of them may relate to potential efforts made by Amyntas to escape from the yearly tributes owed to Bardylis. The later, being clearly superior in military capacities, would have assaulted accordingly to reestablish the favorable terms of the peace treaty.

Around 370 the Illyrians of Bardylis conquered Upper Macedon once more. The newly crowned king of Macedon, Alexander II was forced to make a large payments to the Illyrians in order to preserve his authority. Also, this was the only way for Alexander to establish e peace with Bardylis and his superior forces. However, the peace established would not continued long as in 368, Alexander II was killed by Ptolemy Aloros who in turn was killed by Perdikkas III. According to the diplomatic standards of that time, a peace between two states (two kings) was in power as long as both of their kings were alive. This would explain the campaigns of Bardylis against Macedon each time a new king had come into power (393, 370, and 368 B.C.E.).

Perdikkas, unwilling to accept the tributes imposed on Macedon by Bardylis, relied on military solution to curb down the Illyrian influence. Eventually, a major battle took place between the two sides where the Illyrians of Bardylis came up victorious. Diodorus reports this event as follows:

[Perdikkas] was defeated in a great battle by the Illyrians and fell in the action…the Macedonians…lost more than four thousand men in the battle, and the remainder…had become exceedingly afraid of the Illyrian armies and had lost courage for continuing the war” (Diodorus, XVI, 2)

A statue of the Illyrian king Bardylis (r.393-358) made by Benard Lekgegaj.

A modern statue of the Illyrian king Bardylis (r.393-358) made by Benard Lekgegaj.

Episode IV: The Alliance with Syracuse and the Campaigns in Epirus

In between the two Illyrian campaigns against Macedon, an important development is noticed regarding the relations of Bardylis with western polities. Notably, in 385 Bardylis established an alliance with the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I the Elder (r. 405-367). This alliance was mediated by the exiled Molossian prince of Epirus, Alcetas I. The later had found refugee in Syracuse after being forced out of his country by a pro-Spartan party in Epirus. As such, a term of the alliance between Bardylis I and Dionysius I included the establishment of Alcetas on the throne of Epirus. From restoring the Molossian prince in the royal court of Epirus, Bardylis would keep out the Spartan and Macedonian influence in the region. On the other hand, Dionysius of Syracuse would strengthen his commercial position on both sides of the Adriatic and Ionian Sea.

Accordingly, Dionysius sent about 2,000 of his own troops into Illyria as well as 500 units of military equipment. Alcetas crossed the sea as well to reclaim his throne. Dionysius himself did not join the expedition. An injury the tyrant had received while fighting against the Rhegines a year ago prevented him from engaging personally. Thus, the troops from Syracuse were put under direct command of Bardylis. Furthermore, Diodorus states that the troops from Syracuse were ordered by the Illyrian king to intermingle with his Illyrian troops.

The cooperation between Bardylis and Dionysius included the establishment of a Syracusan base along the Illyrian coast. Thus, a corpus of engineers and constructors from Syracuse must have crossed the sea and arrived into Lissus, the place chosen for such a base. They erected important fortifying structures around the settlement. However, soon the project of a Syracusan base in Lissus was abandoned in the upcoming years. Thus, it continued to be used by the Illyrians as their own base and urban settlement.

Having integrated the Sicilian contingent into his own army, Bardylis advanced into Epirus. It is reported that the Illyrian incursion was so aggressive that 15,000 Molossians (apparently part of the pro-Spartan party) were killed in combat. Alcetas was restored in the throne of Epirus while other regions along the southern border of the Illyrian kingdom were liberated. The campaign was clearly successful and it may have advanced more that it was initially planned. Ultimately, the Illyrians had to retreat after the Spartans arrived to prevent any further Illyrian advance. A direct clash between the Illyrian and the Spartans may have been undesired at this point, as Dionysius had established an important alliance with Sparta. However, the campaign of 385 had already ensured the Illyrian influence over northern Epirus.

The Illyrians would conduct another campaign against central Epirus in 360. This time the ruler of Epirus had to rely on a planned ambush to cope with the enemy. Frontinus describes the events that ensued:

When Harrybas, king of the Molossians, was attacked in war by Bardylis, the Illyrian, who commanded a considerably larger army, he dispatched the non-combatant portion of his subjects to the neighbouring district of Aetolia, and spread the report that he was yielding up his towns and possessions to the Aetolians. He himself, with those who could bear arms, placed ambuscades here and there on the mountains and in other inaccessible places. The Illyrians, fearful lest the possessions of the Molossians should be seized by the Aetolians, began to race along in disorder, in their eagerness for plunder. As soon as they became scattered, Harrybas, emerging from his concealment and taking them unawares, routed them and put them to flight.” (Frontinus, Stratagems)

Although forced into retreat, northern Epirus continued to remain under the influence of Bardylis. The superiority of Illyrian arms implied by Frontinus would not have allowed the king of Epirus to pursue the enemy and attempt to regain the lands lost to Illyrians 25 years ago. Epirus would have to wait for the reign of Pyrrhus to revive its strength.



Frontinus. The Strategemata.

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

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.