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.
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.
The Dardanians are mentioned for the first time in the Egyptian account describing the events of 1274 B.C.E. According to the Egyptian description, the Dardanians participated in the battle of Kadesh as allies of the Hittites and their king Muwatall II (r. 1295-1272) against the Egyptians led by their pharaoh Rameses II (r. 1279-1213). The two sides signed a peace treaty in 1258 B.C.E. but the Dardanians are not reported again among the concerning parties. It is unclear whether the Dardanians mentioned here refer to the Illyrian tribe that centered on Kosova during the antiquity, or refer to another tribe that carried the same name. Other reports linking the Dardanians with the city of Troy can be mentioned but they also deserve a separate study. The focus here is on the Illyrian Dardania located in the southwestern Balkans as descried by classical sources and not on the Dardanians of Asia Minor.
Episode II: Dardania and Dardanians as neighbours of Macedon
European Dardania was formed as a kingdom during the middle of the IV century B.C.E. It occupied the whole area of the current Republic of Kosova and its surrounding regions. Notably, in the north and northwest it bordered with the territories of the Triballi (Thracian tribe) and the Autariatae (Illyrian tribe) respectively; in the southwest it approached the territories of the Taulantii including within its possessions the area of present-day Gostivar and Kukës, with the later being the location of the Illyrian Pirustae. In the east the Dardanian state stretched up until the southern Morava. In the south, it controlled the lands of upper Axios (Vardar) including the region around Scupi (Skopje).
In different periods of time, the Dardanians controlled much of Paeonia on their south, putting them into direct contacts and conflicts with the Macedonians. It is for this geopolitical situation that the Dardanians appear constantly in the reports of ancient writers since 345 B.C.E. At this time, Justin mentions them among the tribes that were forced by Philip II of Macedon (r. 359-336) to recognize the Macedonian rule. However, after some time, as Petrović suggests, “during the wars of the Diadochi, at the time Lysimachus created his empire, from 284 to 281 B.C.E., the Dardanians seem to have evaded Macedonian rule, and very soon they became a constant threat on the northern borders of Macedonia.”
The Dardanians, the population that inhabited Dardania, were an Illyrian tribe who was organized into several villages with few urban centers. The level of urbanization among Dardanians during the Hellenistic period seems to have been lower than in southern Illyria and Epirus. However, a few Dardanian centers such as Damastion are established during the IV century B.C.E. The ancient city of Damastion represents the first Illyrian city that produced its own silver coins. Scupi (Skopje), another important center, seems to have been the capital of Dardania for some time. The Dardanian society was characterized by a high degree of social stratification incorporating social classes such as land aristocrats, craftsmen, prisoners of wars and slaves (dulloi).
During the years 280-279, Dardania had to cope with the invasions of Celtic/Gallic tribes that came from the middle stream of the Danube (where Austria and Hungaria are located today). The Dardanians managed to handle this great invasion and pushed the Celtic tribes towards Macedonia. The report of Justin shows that the Dardanian had by now become one of the strongest regional states since their king offered the Macedonian king Ptolemy Keraunos (r. 321-279) 20,000 Dardanian soldiers to help the later deal with the Celtic/Gallic invasion. The Macedonian king refused the help reminding to the Dardanian delegates the glorious past of Macedon. This would prove to be an unwise decision and soon Ptolemy himself would be killed in battle against the Celts. The later, after having causing many damages across Macedon, were defeated only at Delphi. Turning north, the remaining Celts passed again through the Dardanian lands where they were crushed completely. Diodorus describes this situation as follows:
“…and when passing through the Dardani [Dardanians] land, they were all destroyed so that there was no one left to go back home“.
There seems to be an exaggeration in the account of Diodorus since it is known that a group of these Celts continued their journey north until they settled near the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. These seem to be the same people that are later labelled as the Scordisci.
Episode III: Battles against Philip V
After 221 the raids of the Dardanians towards Macedon become frequent. They capitalized on the fact that Philip V (r. 221-179), recently crowned king of Macedon, was young in age and thus inexperienced in political and military affairs. In 219, while the Macedonian king was in Peloponessus, the Dardaninans took control of the whole Paeonia along with its largest city called Bylazora (near Knezhje). Thus, Philip was forced to return from Peloponnesus in haste and reestablish Macedonian control it his northern border. This conflict against the Dardanians represented the first proper military campaign of the Macedonians under the new king. The fights were concentrated around the city of Bylazora because of the strategic importance of this settlement and along the valley of River Axios (Vardar). It seems that Philip was able to regain control of Bylazora and reestablish Macedonian authority over Paeonia. Philip continued to show concern for his northern frontier. Livy states that the Macedonian king returned in the northern lands in 211 B.C.E. and invaded the city of Sintia that was located north of Pelagonia and that controlled another important route used by the Dardanians to reach northern Macedon. With these measures taken along the northern border, the usual routes that the Dardanians had followed to carry out raids in northern Macedon were enclosed.
Although the measures taken by Philip strengthened the northern border of Macedon, they did not solve the Dardanian problem. Thus, the Dardanian assaults continued to target Macedonian lands. In 208, the Dardanians in collaboration with Eropus, a regional Illyrian ruler, stormed Macedon advancing into Orestis (northern Greece). For this advancement, the Dardanians used an alternative route that passed through the region of Dassaretis (southeast Albania), apparently using the support of the local tribe of the Dassaretae. The invasion of Orestis forced Philip to retreat from his war in Achaea and return into Macedon. Because of the damages caused by this assault, the Macedonian king was forced to postpone his planned actions against the Roman Republic. For now, the Macedonians had to deal with the Dardanian threat. Thus, during 208-206, Philip engaged in another proper military campaign against the Dardanians. However, the Macedonian ruler was unable to remove the Dardanian threat along the northern and northwestern border of his kingdom.
Episode IV: The activities of the Dardanians during the Second Macedonian War (200-197 B.C.E.)
At the beginning of the year 200, Dardanians, represented by their king Bato (r.206-176), the son and successor of the previous king Longarus (r. 231-206), established an alliance with the Romans that were in turn represented by their consul. In this anti-Macedonian coalition other regional chieftains were involved including the king of the Ardiaei, Pleuratus II, and the king of the Athamanes, Amynander. Apparantly, the Dardanians hoped that after the eventual conquest of Macedon from the Romans, they would gain possession of the region of Paeonia as a reward for their contribution. Therefore, the Dardanians participated directly in military actions against Macedon during the Second Roman-Macedonian war (200-197 B.C.E.).
Being aware of the Dardanian threat, Philip V took protective and fortifying measures in the northern frontier of his kingdom sometime during the first year of this war. For the same purpose, Philip sent into the narrow pass the allowed the entrance in the region of Pelagonia a Macedonian force under the command of his son and future king Perseus. This force was stationed here for a very short period of time since Philip had to recall Perseus and his soldiers from there into central Macedon in order to increase the ranks of the main army. In this way, the northern border along Pelagonia was left once again unprotected. Thus, a Dardanian assault that raided the northern regions of Macedon took place in the beginning of 199. The Dardanian raid forced Philip into sending a force from his own troops lead by one of his generals, Atenagora, in pursuit of the northern enemy. Atenagora reached the Dardanian enemy as they were retreating and a battle took place between the two sides. The descriptions of Tit Livy on this battle reveal that the Dardanians had a regular army, equipped with its own flags, organized, disciplined, and well-positioned. However, the heavy armory and possibly the considerable spoils gained from the raids made the movements of the Dardanian warriors slower than the movements of the Macedonian light infantry and cavalry. Nevertheless, the splendid resistance of the Dardanian soldiers and the familiarity that they had with the terrain enabled them to successfully deal with the Macedonian retaliation. The losses were few among both sides and the Dardanians succeeded in returning into their lands with the army and their spoils almost unharmed and untouched.
The collaboration between Rome and Dardania did not continue long. The relationships between the two entities seem to have weakened before the conclusion of the Second Macedonian War. It seems that the Dardanians realized that they were not going to be granted with the control of Paeonia. Also, with Macedon now weakened significantly, Dardania represented the next frontier of the Roman expansion towards inner Balkans and Danube. Furthermore, their usual raids towards Macedon had become less valuable enterprises since a weakened Macedon was unable and unwilling to invest in their land cultivation and urban development. Thus, the Dardanians carried out some indirect actions against the Romans while on surface still behaving as their allies. One such action was carried out in the beginning of 197, when the Roman-Macedonian War was reaching its conclusion. In this occasion, the Dardanians provided mercenary forces for the Aetolians who were also at the time fighting against the Romans.
On the other hand, during the war against Macedon, the Roman commanders had replaced one another. Publius Villius replaced Suplicius in the second year of the war, whereas in 198 Titus Quincius Flaminius replaced Villius. In 197, Flaminius defeated the Macedonians at the battle of Cynoscephalae forcing them to sign a peace treaty according to which the Macedonians would retreat from their possessions in central Hellenic lands. Macedon gradually turned into a client kingdom of Rome. Philip V continued to stay in power but in many aspects as a vassal king. The Dardanians, left empty-handed from their alliance with the Romans, engaged in their usual independent actions against Macedon. They even seem to have tried to gain control of Paeonia on their own, as it is known that a Dardanian force led possibly by king Bato engaged in raids along the northern Macedon at this time. To counter measure, Philip sent 6,000 infantrymen and 500 horsemen in the north and crushed the Dardanians near Stobi (Gradsko) in Paeonia. This represented one of the most significant victories of Macedon against the Dardanian state.
Episode V: A Macedonian Enterprise
Even though Philip recorded a decisive victory over the Dardanians, he still considered them a constant threat for his kingdom. Being unable to conquer Dardania directly and subdue them, Philip came up with a plan that would ensure his northern frontier. The plan of the Macedonian king involved encouraging the Bastarnae, a Gallic/Celtic or Germanic tribe living in the northern bank of the lower Danube, to invade Dardania and resettle there. In this way, Philip hoped to exterminate the Dardanians in mass or at least force their migration further away from northern Macedon. According to some scholars, Philip had selected the area of the Polog valley as the territory for the potential settlement of the Bastarnae. This arrangement would at least enclose the pass that the Dardanians usually used to carry out raids against northern Macedon. On a larger scale and in case of an outstanding success against the Dardanians, the Bastarnae, encouraged by Macedon, planned to head against the Roman Republic itself through a journey of about 700 km that would pass across the Save valley and over the Julian Alps all the way into the plains of Trieste. It is for this large-scale strategy that Philip secured an alliance with the Scordisci, a tribe that occupied the area of modern Belgrade where the rivers Sava and Danube met and where the route towards Julian Alps went through.
For now, Philip had already secured for the Bastarnae a relatively safe passage across Thracia and had also provided them with food reserves. The Macedonian king was conscious that the Bastarnae could not challenge the Roman power, but he hoped that the instability that they would bring would allow him the control over Dardania and even provide him with an opportunity to revive the independence of Macedon. However, Philip did not live to realize his venture. Thus, his son and successor, Perseus (r.212-166), continued his plan. Around 30,000 Bastarnae under the command of their chieftain named Clondicus, advanced towards Dardania. At the end of the year 179, they stormed Dardania, apparently helped by the forces of Perseus, and caused many damages to the local population. This situation continued for some time. Therefore, in 177 the Dardanians sent a delegation into the Roman Senate. Before the Senate, they expressed their concerns over the destructions occurring in their country and over the increased power and regional influence of Perseus. Despite their report, Rome apparently took no measures to change the situation.
With Rome unwilling to help, the Dardanians had to depend on their own strength in order to force the Bastarnae out of their domains. After some struggles, the major battle took place under the walls of a Dardanian city, the name and location of which it is unknown. Apparently, the battle was enduring and difficult but the Dardanians were able to defeat the enemy. The rest of the Bastarnae were forced to leave Dardania during the winter of 176-175. With the country now liberated but severely damaged, the Dardanians had to go through a period of slow recovery during 175-168. This meant, among others, that the Dardanian state had to endure the attacks of other local enemies. Livy reports one occasion in 169 when the Dardanians had to deal with an assault from certain Thracian tribes.
Episode VI: Resisting the Roman Strength
After the conquest of Macedon in 168 BCE and its official transformation into a Roman province in 148, the Dardanians left the alliance with Rome from which they had profit only the right to trade salt (salis commercium). During 168-148 BCE, the conquered Macedon remained divided into four small republics until the Senate decided to give to it the status of the province. The population was disarmed and the weapons were meld and burned. Rome, now a bordering force with Dardania, became the new major threat for the Dardanians in the region. While the Romans started their attempts to establish order across the province, the Dardanians tried to prevent them from doing so. Collaborations between Dardanians and the Thracian Maedi in the east and other Illyrian tribes in the southwest increased. Marital relations were conducted with these allies to strengthen the alliances like the marriage between the king Gentius and the princess Etuta, daughter of the Dardanian king, in 169 B.C.E.
The alliance of the Dardanians with the Maedi, a Thracian tribe, was especially efficient in preventing Rome to advance in their countries. In 98, the Dardanian along with the Scordisci and Maedi were partially defeated by Cornelius Sulla however they were able to successfully face the Roman attacks of the years 97 B.C.E and 85 B.C.E. In 86 B.C.E, Cornelius Sulla had crushed a Dardanian resistance after he returned from a winning campaign against Mithridates, king of Pontus. The attempts of Sulla during the years 86-85 BCE were finalized with regaining control of Athens by Rome at the expense of Mithridates, but were not followed by a fully stabilization of the Roman province of Macedonia. The Dardanians, along with the Scordisci and the Maedi conducted a military raid across the province of Macedonia during 84-83. This raid is thought to have reached as far as Delphi.
In 77, the Romans under the leadership of Clausius Pulcher, who was assigned proconsul of Macedonia one year before, achieved some level of success against the Dardanians and the Maedi, probably around the mountains of Rhodopa, south of today’s Bulgaria. A year later, the leadership of the Macedonian province was assigned to Scibonius Curio who arrived in the Balkans at the head of five legions.
Episode VII: Roman Invasion of Dardania
The first fully successful military campaign of Rome against the Dardanians must have been the one headed by Scribonius Curio during the years 75-73 (bellum Dardanicum). Few things are known on this campaign since there is a lack of written sources on this event. However, it can be suggested that the campaign was carried out with a great determination, coarseness, and impact. Ammiani Marcellini compares the cruelty that Curio exercised over the Dardanians with the cruelty that emperor Valentian exercised over his own troops. Regarding the campaign in itself, a force of 30,000 soldiers spread into four legions lead by Curio was enough to crush every resistance from the Dardanians. However, it should be mentioned that the Dardanians of that time were still one of the greatest power in the region and the Romans themselves were aware of this even before the initiation of their campaign. For this, it is useful to consider a fragment of the author Frontini who writes about an event occurring in the eve of the campaign as follows:
“The council S.Curio during the campaign against Dardania in the outskirts of Dyrrachium (Durrës), when one of the legions rebelled and avoided military service and stated that they had no intention to follow the unreasonable general into a difficult and dangerous expedition, ordered the four legions to position in fighting formation and with the arms engaged. Then, he ordered the soldiers of the rebelled legion to come unarmed and unclothed and, in front of the armed military, forced them to cut straw. Unaffected by the begging of this legion, he withdrew their flags, removed their name and redistributed them in the other legions.”
After he defeated the Dardanians, Curio advanced up north until he reached the banks of the Danube, becoming the first Roman general to reach there. In 72, Curio returned in Rome and celebrated the Dardanian triumph publicly. The campaign of Scribonus Curio has traditionally been considered as putting Dardania under Roman rule.
Hammond, N.G.L. & Wallbank, W. (1972). A History of Macedonia 336-167 B.C.
Iustini, M.I. Historiarum Philippicarum.
Petrović, V.P. (2007). Pre-Roman and Roman Dardania. Historical and Geographical Considerations. Balcanica, 27, 7-22.
Shukriu, E. (2008). Prehistory and Antique History of Kosovo. Thesis Kosova.