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).

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.

 

Bibliography

Imhoof-Bumler.(1874). Ztschr.f.Numism. p. 99.

Pollozhani, M.(2015). Qytetet e harruara Ilire, lashtësi e pandriçuar. Retrieved from: www.arbresh.info/kulture/qytetet-e-harruara-ilire-lashtesi-e-pandricuar/.

Morgan, D.U.(2009). The pattern of Findspots of Coins of Damastion: A Clue to Its Location.

Strabo. Geographica.