Epirus

Episode I: A Non-Hellenic region

The name Epirus (Epeiros) originates from the ancient Greek language and it means “land” or “continent”. These term was apparently introduced by the inhabitants of the islands opposite of Epirus’ coast. The ancient region of Epirus covered the area from the Acroceraunian/Ceraunian Mountains (Mountains of present Llogara in southern coastline of Albania) in the north to the Ambracian (Arta) Gulf in the south; and from the Ionian Sea in the west to the Pindus Mountains in the east. The main tribes of Epirus were the Chaonians, Molossians, and Thesprotians. Although they inhabited the region of Epirus, the later tribes are never mentioned as “Epirotes” in the ancient sources. This suggests that these tribes differed from the Hellenic tribes and constituted a distinct entity.

The first records that support a non-Hellenic identity of the main tribes of Epirus are found in the works of Herodotus. While treating the Battle of Salamis that was conducted in 480 B.C.E between Helens and Persians, the ancient historian considered the tribes that came from the vicinities of Ambracia (Arta) as coming from the borders of the Hellenic realm. Thus, it is implied that the populations that inhabited the lands north of Ambracian Gulf were not Helens and accordingly, did not support either of the sides that fought in Salamis.

Thucydides while describing the Peloponnesian War supports the non-Hellenic identity of the populations across Epirus. In his materials, the author uses the term “barbarian” for all the populations that were not Helens. In addition, Thucydides states that “barbarians” were also involved in the Peloponnesian War. While describing a military campaign taken in 429 B.C.E. by the Ambraciotes (ancient inhabitants of Arta) and the Lacedaemonians against the Amphilochians and the Acarnanians (allies of Athens), Thucydides reveals that tribes such as the Chaonians, Thesprotians, Molossians, Atintanes, Orestaes, and Paroraioi were not part of Hellas as they were “barbarians”. During this military campaign, the Ambraciotes along with other “barbarian” tribes attacked the city of Argos in Amfilochia. Furthermore, Thucydides reveals that even the inhabitants of Ampilochian Argos had learned the ancient Greek language from the Ambraciotes while the other part of Amfilochia was considered as “barbarian”. Thus, a division between two worlds, the Hellenic and the “barbarians” is observed. The border between these two worlds was apparently placed near the Ambracian Gulf.

Thucydides contrasts even more between Helens and “barbarians” when he states that many of the later had no king. Also, the author adds that the Helens applied an organized military formation in combats while the Chaonians were not as organized in combat even though they were great warriors. The most important fact to be noted is that Thucydides admits that the “barbarians” that participated in the campaign of Ambracia did not known the ancient Greek language. This fact gets significant value especially when it is known that language is one the main elements that constitutes an ethnicity. Thus, it is appropriate to consider tribes such as Molosians, Chaonians, Thesprotians and other tribes of ancient Epirus as Illyrian tribes.

Episode II: An Illyrian region

An important fact that supports the Illyrian identity of Epirus is the presence of Helenian colonies along the Ionian coast, from the island of Corcyra (Corfu) in the north up to the Gulf of Ambracia (Arta) in the south. The presence of these colonies was noticed since the VIII century B.C.E. It is commonly known that Hellenic colonies were labeled “colonies” because they were founded in territories that were not inhabited by the Helenians but instead were inhabited by the “barbarians”. Furthermore, Hellenic colons often engaged in wars against the natives for territorial control. This was case when the Corinthian colons established Apollonia (modern Pojan near Fier) and in the process destroyed the nearby ancient Illyrian town of Thronion. This occurred also in Corcyra where the Corinthian colonists forced the Liburni out of the island in order to gain sole control. Also, to be noted is the conflict between the Ambracians and the “barbarous” Amphilocians. This conflict continued even after the Peloponnesian War. Despite their conflicts, the colonists and the natives established commercial, political, and cultural contacts. However, these contacts seem not to have harmed the Illyrian character of the lands of Epirus. As the history has proven, the ethnic identity is fairly resistant to any kind of cultural, economic, and government intrusion. Thus, if the inhabitants developed through time a governmental model inspired by the Helens or if they were influence by the Hellenic culture, this does not imply that they lost their Illyrian identity. On the contrary, the Hellenic colonies were often included within the organization of different Illyrian states. Thus, Ambracia would be included within the state of Epirus along with other colonies along the Ionian seacoast. The same thing occurred with Dyrrachion/Dyrrachium and with Apollonia that were included within the Illyrian kingdom of the Taulantii.

The Hellenic historian of the IV century B.C.E Ephorus of Cyme, testifies that the Hellenic world started with Acarnania which was also the first purely Hellenic region that had direct contacts with the tribes of Epirus. Scylax, a Helenian historian of the IV-V century B.C.E, who may have sailed along the coasts of Epirus himself, stated that after Molossia came Ambracia, a Hellenic city. It was only from here that the Hellenistic world started. Meanwhile, Skylax treats tribes up north such as the Molossians, Thesprotians, and Chaonians as “barbarians”. Despite this fact, Skylax does not state wether these tribes were Illyrians. This has lead some scholars to state that “Epirus”  (and its inhabitants, collectively called the “Epirotes“) constituted a distinct ethnical entity that was different from the Illyrian civilisation and very similar to the Hellenic civilisation. This assessment is not correct since Skylax himself never used the term “Epirus” or “Epirotes” in his works. It seems that the ancient author does not even know this term. It was only later that the term “Epirus” took on several meanings including the geographical one. Regarding the region, here is what Skylax writes:

After the Illyrians come the Chaonians. Chaonia has good coves; The Chaonians live in villages. The sail along Chaonia lasts half a day.  After Chaonia comes the Thesprotian tribe; they also live in villages; this place has good coves too; here stands the cove named Elaea. In this cove the river Acheron flows into and the lake Acherusia from which the river Acheron derives is here. The sail along Thesprotia lasts half a day. After Cassope comes the Molossian tribe; they also live in villages; a small part of their land stretches all the way into the sea while the largest part stands in the internal parts of the region. The sail along the Molossian Sea continues for 40 stadia. After Molossia comes Ambracia, Helenian city, 80 stadia away from the sea. Along the shore there is a wall and a good harbor. From here starts Hellada, without interuptions, until the river Phenea all the way into Homolium, a city in Magnesia located near the river. The sail along Ambracia continues for 120 stadia.”

 

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).