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.”

 

Paeonia and the Paeonians

Episode I: An Ancient Bridgehead

The Paeonians were an Illyrian tribe who in Antiquity were found along the upper valley of the river Axios (Vardar) all away into the river Struma in the east (current western Bulgaria). Their region was positioned in between the lands of the Dardanians and the ancient Macedonians. In the northwest Paeonia bordered the lowland of Pelagonia; in the north, the Illyrian tribes of the Dardanians and the Autariatae bordered them. In the east and southeast of Paeonia, Thracians were the ones that were most commonly found. In the south, the kingdom of Macedon was located. Domestically, apart from the Paeonians, Paeonia was composed of various generally Illyrian tribes such as the Agrianes, Laeaeans, Odomantes, Paeoplae, Almopians, Doberes, and Siropaiones. The lands of Paeonia correspond in large parts with the current lands of the FYR Macedonia. It should also be noted that Paeonia should not be confused with Pannonia (a Roman province near the Danube River).

The Paeonians are first mentioned in the epic work “Iliad” attributed to Homer. In that poem, the Paeonian tribe is listed among the allies of the Trojans in the Trojan War (c. 1180 B.C.E.). The Paeonians founded their own kingdom sometime during the first half of the IV century B.C.E. According to Polybius, the most important city of Paeonia was Bylazora (near Knezhje in modern FYR Macedonia). This city was positioned along the main road that leaded into Pelagonia through the valley of Babuna and Raec, thus connecting Macedon with Dardania. As a result of its strategic position, Bylazora was the target of both the Dardanians and the Macedonians. For the side that controlled the city, it meant holding a secure bridgehead into the lands of the other rival. In fact, the whole region of Paeonia was often turned into a buffer zone situated between the stronger states of Dardania and Macedon. It was in Paeonia where the Macedonians and Dardanians often clashed with one another. It appears that Bylazora itself soon fell into the hands of the Dardanians until in 217 B.C.E. was conquered by Philip V of Macedon (r. 221-179). As a result of the Dardanian conquest, the capital of the Paeonian kingdom moved further south into Stobi (Gradsko).

The Paeonian tribes made use effectively of the natural defences such as highlands and water bodies. The ability to adapt to difficult terrains allowed most of the Paeonian tribes to remain free from the Persian invasion. They even developed lake dwelling settlements that the Persians were unable to conquer. Herodotus describes in detail the presence of such settlements among the Paeonians:

“There is set in the midst of the lake a platform made fast on tall piles, to which one bridge gives a narrow passage from the land. In olden times all the people working together set the piles, which support the platform there, but they later developed another method of setting them. The men bring the piles from a mountain called Orbelus, and every man plants three for each of the three women that he weds. Each man has both a hut on the platform and a trap door in the platform leading down into the lake. They make a cord fast to the feet of their little children out of fear that they will fall into the water. They give fish as fodder to their horses and beasts of burden, and there is such an abundance of fish that a man can open his trap door, let down an empty basket by a line into the lake, and draw it up after a short time full of fish.” Herodotus (V, 16)

Episode II: War against the Persians

Megabazus, a Persian general, was appointed by Darius to control the Persian conquest in Europe. Herodotus states that the general conquered first the Perinthians who inhabited the area around the Hellespont. After the victory over the Perinthians, Megabazus was ordered directly by Darius (who at the time resided in Sardis) to advance further west, into Paeonia. The plan of the Persian ruler consisted in opening a clear way into Macedon by forcefully relocating some of the Paeonians who blocked this way and replacing them with other more friendly Thracian tribes. Upon hearing on the march of Megabazus against them, the Paeonian tribes joined forces and prepared a defence near the coastal area (near Philippi) assuming the Persians would assault them there. Megabazus, aware of the prepared defence of the Paeonians, avoided the direct clash near the seacoast by following a different route that passed through the highlands (Gazoros). Thus, the Persians entered eastern Paeonia that was left unprotected from the Paeonian ineffective mobilisation further south. Here, the Persians captured many Paeonian families that he exiled into Asia Minor.

The successful campaign of Megabazus against the southeastern part of Paeonia allowed the Persians the control of the strategic area from the mouth of the Strymon up to Prasiad Lake and the Rupel defile. However, Megabazus did not advance further north for either he was not instructed and/or unwilling to do so, or he found it unwise to further engage in battles against other better positioned Paeonians that held naturally defended positions at the foot of the Pangaeum. Megabazus may have been content to advance as far as the mountain of Belasitsa that he must have considered a natural border that separated the lower Strymon with the hinterland. The Persians had already increased their presence along the Aegean coast that was their priority at this time and thus did not marched towards the hinterland, although the Pangaeum, where gold and silver mines were present, could have provided an important target and possession. Ultimately, Herodotus writes the following as concerning the other parts of Paeonia:

Those [Paeonians] near the Pangaean mountains and the country of the Doberes and the Agrianes and the Odomanti [Paeonian tribes] and the Prasiad Lake itself were never subdued to Megabazus

Other lands of Paeonia were conquered by Alexander I of Macedon during 498-454 B.C.E. Notably these consisted of the narrow portions along the lower Axios (Vardar) including Pella and the seacoast. These conquests would deny the remaining Paeonians any direct access into the sea. During the same time, the Paeonian lands that had previously been invaded by the Persians, fell under the control of Macedon. Furthermore, during the same century, the Thracian tribes would overrun other portions of Paeonia. These parts that were annexed by the Thracians included the lands around Lake Prasiad as well as those of the Pangaion. These changes would limit the Paeonians into the middle stream of Axios and along the valleys of its rights and left tributaries. It was these area that should be regarded as the political entity of Paeonia including within it important cities such as Prilep (Stuberra), Bylazora (Veles), and Astibos (Štip). This condensed entity would border Macedon on the place called the Iron Gate (Demir Kapija) just north of Gortynia (Gevgelija). On the other hand, the mountains in between Scupi (Skopje) and Bylazora (Prilep) would separate Paeonia from Dardania. These would be the extents of the Paeonian entity during 454-358 B.C.E. The victory of Philip over the Paeonians would allow the Maedonians the annexation of some of their territories, notably the lands around Stobi after 356 B.C.E.

The reduction of the Paeonian lands during 512-358 B.C.E.
The reduction of the Paeonian lands during 512-358 B.C.E.

Episode III: Philip’s Campaign against Paeonia

Paeonia returns into the attention of ancient writers by the time Philip II was proclaimed king of Macedon. In the spring of 358 B.C.E., Philip II marched with his army through the mountainous region in the north of Macedon and entered Paeonia. This represented the first campaign of the Macedonian king after he had reformed his army and introduced the “phalanx” among his forces. It seems that the Paeonians did not constitute an immediate threat to Macedon at this time. Their actions were limited in sporadic raids at the northernmost border of Macedon. Thus, it can be argued that king Philip chose to wage a campaign against the Paeonians in order to further solidify and improve the capabilities of his army and test in an open battle the formations of his newly Macedonian phalanx “invention”. The Paeonians, now weaker than other neighboring states, would provide a descent “sparing partner” for the Macedonians.

Although in a declining stage, the Paeonians still preserved their military tradition. The Paeonian army was composed mainly of peltasts and javelin-armed light cavalry, similar to the military units used by tribes of western Thrace. Regarding the total number of troops that Paeonia could mobilize, we have no direct evidence on the figure. However, it is still possible to make assumptions on the number of Paeonian soldiers by counting on the reports that describe their participation in the ranks of Alexander’s the Great army. Accordingly, when the Macedonian forces of Alexander gathered in Egypt, about 600-650 Paeonian cavalrymen were present (presumably half of their total cavalry). Another 600 Paeonian horsemen joined later the main army of Alexander in Syria. Thus, it can be assumed that about 1,200 Paeonian cavalrymen were eligible for combat across all Paeonia in instances of mass mobilization. The campaign of Philip against them must have been one such instance and most of the 1,200 Paeonian cavalrymen must have showed up to face the Macedonian army. As for the number of Paeonian foot soldiers that the Paeonian deployed against Philip, Ray suggests that it consisted of about 5,000 soldiers.

Philip, in charge of a superior army, entered Paeonia in need of an open fight. From a tactical standpoint, the Paeonians had no reason to openly face Philip’s forces. They could have well chosen to avoid the clash until the Macedonians would eventually retreat and return into Macedon. Instead, the Paeonians chose to fight apparently evaluating the situation from a strategic standpoint. Other reasons for this decision may be related with a cultural tendency of not avoiding a fight. Another influencer may have been the Paeonian king himself. Just recently declared king, the new Paeonian ruler may have been eager to prove his leadership skills in an open battle. In case of victory, he would secure his authority across the country.

Ultimately, the Paeonians may have decided to confront Philip’s forces because they simply thought they could win. At the time, the forces of Philip had not yet acquired the favorable reputation they were to gain in the upcoming years. While the Macedonians had a higher number of foot soldiers deployed, the Paeonians could count on their seemingly superior cavalry. If Paeonian horsemen could overcome the Macedonian cavalry at the flanks, they could come into the help of their infantry against the phalanx in the center. If such was the reasoning of the Paeonian chieftains, they must have chosen to await the forces of Macedon into an area that gave their cavalry, as an elite unit, a large space to maneuver. It would have also been wise to hold a place with tree-covered uplands near their backline formations in case a covered retreat was required.

Upon seeing the Paeonian army waiting for him from a distance, Philip ordered his soldiers to shift from their marching formation into phalanx formation. It can be assumed that the Macedonian phalanx at this time was ten men deep. Philip himself apparently stood on the right side of the army along with his hypaspists and hoplite mercenaries. Cavalry units were positioned on both wings. Meanwhile, the Paeonian army was positioned in a similar fashion. The core part of their infantry, composed of approximately 4,000 soldiers, stood in the centre to face the phalanx while the cavalry was deployed on the flanks.

 

 

Statue of an Illyrian chieftain in modern Skopje (FYR Macedon)
Statue of an Illyrian chieftain in modern Skopje (FYR Macedon)