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.


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)


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.

Demetrius of Pharos

Episode I: Disputed Origin

Demetrius of Pharos was a political leader who ruled among the Illyrians during the late III century B.C.E. The sources available do not allow for determining Demetrius’ year of birth. As his name suggests, he was apparently born and/or raised in the island of Pharos (Hvar, Croatia), at the time a Hellenic colony. Demetrius is mostly known for leading Illyrians against the Roman conquerors in the Second Illyrian War (219 B.C.E.). Regarding his origin, it is unclear whether Demetrius was of a Hellenic or Illyrian descent, or both. The scarce literal evidence suggests that Demetrius knew both the ancient Greek and Illyrian language. Judging from his actions, it is possible that Demetrius himself did not particularly care about his origin. Rather, he used connections he must have had on both the Hellenic and the Illyrian side and the ones he was to create with the Romans and the Macedonians, to rise in power and increase his individual political authority.

Episode II: Demetrius’ role during the First Illyrian War (229-228 B.C.E.)

 According to classical sources, Demetrius first appearance is recorded in the events related to the First Illyrian War (229-228 B.C.E.) Prior to that war, the limited information available suggests that Demetrius was the ruler of Pharos and continued to be in control of the island during and after the war. According to Appian, Demetrius ruled over Pharos as a governor on behalf of the Illyrian king, Agron (r. 250-231 B.C.E.). This means that Demetrius had already achieved an important political position among the Illyrians possibly that of an Illyrian dynast. When the Illyrians conquered Corcyra (Corfu) in 229 B.C.E., Demetrius of Pharos was left to control that island by being in charge of an Illyrian garrison stationed there while the main Illyrian navy sailed north. The island of Corcyra was strategically important since it controlled the sailing routes that linked the Italian peninsula with the Balkan Peninsula through the Straits of Hydruntum (Otranto) and the commercial sea routes that linked the Adriatic Sea coast with the Ionian Sea coast. Demetrius, apparently aware of the strategic importance of Corcyra, used his delegated status as the island’s commander to gain individual credits and emerge as an autonomous leader in the region. Thus, he distanced himself from the Illyrian queen Teuta and entered into private discussion with the Romans promising them the surrender of the island to the Roman Republic without resistance. In exchange, Demetrius seems to have been promised by the Romans a ruling position over the Illyrian coast once the planned campaign against the Illyrians would successfully be concluded.

Episode III: Joining the winning side

The Hellenic citizens of Corcyra apparently supported the offer made to the Romans by Demetrius and may have assisted him in his negotiations. These inhabitants preferred Republic’s lenient policy on Hellenic commerce instead of the absolutist regime of the Illyrian queen. Delegations were sent in Rome by Demetrius to express these views. Taking all the above factors into considerations, it is no surprise that the Romans initiated in 229 the campaign that is known as the First Illyrian War by first advancing towards Corcyra. A fleet of 200 Roman ships under the command of the Roman consul Gn. Fulvius Centumalus arrived in Corcyra where they took the possession of the colony as promised. The Illyrian garrison stationed in the island was forced by the Hellenic citizens and Demetrius to surrender itself to the Romans. This action completed the treachery of Demetrius at the expense of the Illyrian queen of the Ardiaei. Upon surrendering the city, Demetrius himself joined the ranks of the Romans where he was welcomed as an individual who knew a great deal about the Illyrian monarchy. Thus, he followed the Roman forces in their advance towards the important city of Apollonia (Pojan near Fier), another Hellenic colony that represented the Republic’s next mission. The other Roman consul Lucius Postimus Albinus on the head of 20,000 infantrymen and 200 horsemen joined Fulvius and Demetrius in Apollonia. The city welcomed the Romans and accepted their protection and friendship. The rest of the Illyrian kingdom fell under the Roman arms. In the spring of 228 the Illyrian queen was forced to sign a peace treaty that limited her possessions and naval actions and paid to the Romans a war indemnity. Demetrius, who enjoyed the support of the Romans, became the ruler of the territories that the Romans won over during the First Illyrian War apart from Corcyra and Apollonia and that consisted mainly of the coastal region along the Adriatic and northern Ionian Sea.

Episode IV: Internal and foreign issues

After the First Illyrian War, it is unclear what happened to Teuta. Sources do not mention her again. Thus, scholars suggest that Demetrius succeeded her on the Illyrian throne, sometime during 228-226 B.C.E. possibly gaining control even over the inland territories of the Ardiaei. It seems that the territories under Demetrius’ possessions were centered in the area between Scodra (Shkodër) and Lissus (Lezhë). Also, during this time, Demetrius married Triteuta, the widow of king Agron and the mother of the infant Illyrian heir Pinnes, securing in this way a stronger legitimacy over the Illyrian kingdom of the Ardiaei. Although Demetrius used this marital relation to establish his authority among the Illyrians, it appears that he never enjoyed a large and uncontested support among his subjects. Apparently, he had to share part of the authority with the previous Illyrian commander of Teuta and possibly an Illyrian dynast, Scerdilaidas. Thus the ruling period of Demetrius is characterized by this duality between him and Scerdilaidas. This situation reflects the difficulty of ruling over the Illyrians who were a population group that consisted of many tribes and where internal rivalry was often intense.

Regarding his relationship with Rome, Demetrius of Pharos was at first cautious not to provoke Rome or other Hellenic states. However, after some time, Demetrius may have noticed the almost complete lack of interest on the Roman part for the Illyrian region. This Roman absence encouraged Demetrius towards his own political and military aims in the region. Furthermore, as Polybius suggests, Demetrius may have perceived the Gallic/Celtic invasion of Italy (225) as a sign of Roman crisis. As a result, Demetrius may have concluded that his friendship with Rome was insufficient for his private ambitions and expansionist projects in the region and thus started to act autonomously and directed himself towards other foreign powers.

Map showing the approximate possessions of Demetrius during 228-220 B.C.E. and his expansion during 225-220 B.C.E.
Map showing the approximate possessions of Demetrius during 228-220 B.C.E. and his expansion during 225-220 B.C.E.

Episode V: Illyrian expeditions

While the Romans were fighting on the Gallic/Celtic frontier (225-222), Demetrius expanded his possessions and areas of influence in the Illyrian region. These areas consisted of Atintania, presumably located east of Apollonia, and Dassaretis, located further southeast. Thus Demetrius encouraged the Atintani, an Illyrian tribe, to distance from Rome and join his protection. Dassaretis, a strategic region for Illyrian-Macedonian communication, also gradually fell under Demetrius control. Regarding Demetrius’ expansionist activities, Appian goes further when he states that Demetrius in collaboration with the Istri, the natives of Istria, engaged in naval raids along the Adriatic. These raids apparently targeted Roman grain ships that must have sailed north in order to supply the main Roman army that was fighting in the Cisalpine Gaul.

Sometime during 225-223, Demetrius established an alliance with the Macedonian regent ruler Antigonus III Doson (r. 229-221). With this alliance, Demetrius may have wanted to expand his influence over southern Illyria all the way into mainland Hellas. The alliance with the Macedonian king had apparently allowed Demetrius an unobstructed advance and control over the strategic Illyrian region of Dassaretis (current southeast Albania). On his part, the Macedonian ruler had similar expansionist goals, which explain his alliance with Demetrius. He aimed at reestablishing the Macedonian control over Hellas and reviving the strength of the Macedonian state. Thus, in 223 a contingent of 1,600 Illyrian soldiers headed by Demetrius joined the mixed Macedonian force of Antigonus in his campaign against the Spartan king Cleomenes III in Peloponnesus. A year later, Demetrius and his forces played a crucial role in helping the Macedonians defeat the Spartan king at the battle of Sellasia in Laconia. This victory allowed the Macedonians to take possession of Sparta. On the other hand, Demetrius secured the control of Dassaretis and potentially, other territories across southern Illyria or other near Paeonia.

During 221, the Roman Republic carried out a short campaign against the Istri who had previously raided the Roman grain ships allegedly with the support of Demetrius. However, Demetrius is left unharmed from this campaign making Appian’s statement on Demetrius collaboration with the Istrians highly doubtful. During the same time, the Macedonian king Antigonus, after completing the aforementioned victory over Sparta, was killed in battle against the Illyrians led by Scerdilaidas in the northwestern border of Macedon. These anti-Macedonian actions reflected once again the deep divisions that were present between the Illyrians led by Scerdilaidas and the ones led by Demetrius of Pharos. Having lost Antigonus as an ally, Demetrius tried to keep the same friendly relationship with the successor of Antigonus, Philip V. The new and young ruler of Macedon had inherited his fathers’ appreciation for Demetrius but could not support Demetrius with Macedonian forces on the upcoming war that Demetrius was to have against the Romans.

In the beginning of 220, the Illyrian forces on board of 90 naval vessels (called lembus) led by Demetrius and Scerdilaidas sailed south of Lissus. This action is considered by Polybius to be in violation of the Roman-Illyrian settlement of 228 that, in essence, limited the Illyrian sail south of the Lissus line. At first, these Illyrians disembarked at Pylos (otherwise known as Navarino), a town southwest of Peloponnesus. They sieged and assaulted the city but were unable to conquer it. Just when they left the site through sea, the Illyrian fleet was divided in two. Scerdilaidas decided not to follow Demetrius and apparently returned north. On the other hand, Demetrius continued his voyage around Peloponnesus with 50 remaining ships and arrived into the Cyclades where he raided many places. After carrying out profitable raids across the Cyclades, Demetrius sailed back to Cenchreae (Kechries) on the Saronic Gulf, where Taurion, a commander of the Achaeans, approached him. Polybius writes the following:

“…[Taurion] begged him [Demetrius of Pharos] to assist the Achaeans, and after conveying his boats across the Isthmus, to fall upon the Aetolians during their crossing. Demetrius, whose return from his expedition to the islands had been much to his advantage indeed, but somewhat ignominious, as the Rhodians were sailing to attack him, lent a ready ear to Taurion, who had engaged to meet the expense of transporting the boats. But having traversed the Isthmus and missed the crossing of the Aetolians by two days, he returned again to Corinth, after raiding some places on the Aetolian coast.

Demetrius expedition against Pylos, Cyclades, and Aetolian coast in 220 B.C.E. The course of the naval route followed by Demetrius and Scerdilaidas and then by Demetrius only is fictional. The image serves only for putting Demetrius expedition into a geographical perspective.
Demetrius’ expedition against Pylos, Cyclades, and Aetolian coast in 220 B.C.E. The course of the naval route followed by Demetrius and Scerdilaidas and then by Demetrius alone is fictional. The image here serves only for putting Demetrius’ expedition into a geographical perspective.

The pass of Demetrius’ fleet across the Isthmus, made the voyage of the Illyrians back home way shorter and much safer. By apparently making use of the diolkos, the Illyrian ships were immediately transported on the waters of the Ionian Sea without having to sail around Peloponnesus again. This transportation arrangement must have also helped Demetrius escape the revenge of the Rhodians mentioned above.

Graphic representation of carrying ships using Diolkos. In the absence of a water canal that passed through the Isthmus, a man-made road transportation system for ships called diolkos was used in the ancient times to transport ships from the Aegean Sea into the Ionian Sea and vice-versa. In the same manner, the ships of Demetrius of Pharos were transported from the Saronic Gulf into the Ionian Sea around 220 B.C.E.

Episode VI: Fighting the Romans

Classical sources record other activities of Demetrius against the interests of the Roman Republic in the Illyrian region carried out also in 220, this time on land. Thus, Demetrius allegedly marched through Atintania, an Illyrian region he already controlled and arrived in Dassaretis. From here he assaulted the lands of the Parthini, an Illyrian tribe under Roman protection, and of Apollonia. The aforementioned activities of Demetrius were part of the Romans’ accusation towards him and formed Rome’s casus belli. The Romans called for Demetrius to appear before the Senate to confront their accusations but Demetrius never complied apparently being aware that this would not change Rome’s decision towards him. Thus, the Roman Senate decided to go into another war against the Illyrians, a campaign that was carried out in 219 and that is known as the Second Illyrian War. The Roman Republic sent into Illyria the two consuls of that year, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Marcus Livius Salinator, giving to the campaign the highest priority. The military force under their command must have been similar in size and strength to the military force used in the First Illyrian War.

The Roman campaign against Illyria did not catch Demetrius unprepared. Apparently, he had learned from the First Illyrian War and must have built his informative system along the shore. Thus, when learning of the Roman approach, the Illyrian leader initiated a defensive tactic that was concentrated around two cities: Dimale/Dimallum (Krotinë) and Pharos. These settlements may have represented the two extremes of his ruling area, the southern and northern borders respectively. According to Polybius, Demetrius “sent a considerable garrison to Dimale/[Dimallum] with the supplies requisite for such a force. In the other cities he made away with those who opposed his policy and placed the government in the hands of his friends while he himself, selecting six thousand of his bravest troops, quartered them at Pharos.

Upon arrival in Illyria, the Romans decided to assault Dimale with all their force, realizing that its fall would discourage the Illyrians fighting for Demetrius. Their strategy proved right and Dimale fell in Roman hands within a week. Local tribes and leaders approached the Romans offering to them their servitude. After establishing appropriate treaties with the locals, the Romans sailed north all the way into Pharos where Demetrius was sheltered. Through a well-conducted stratagem, the Romans took the city but were unable to capture Demetrius who, after realizing he had lost the cause, boarded a ship that awaited him on a hidden spot and sailed away. “At Actium, he [Demetrius] joined Philip of Macedon, who had inherited Antigonus’ friendship with him and had himself visited Scerdilaidas in the winter of 220-219”. From now on, Demetrius would stay as a refuge in the Macedonian territory under the protection of Philip V. Meanwhile, the Roman forces razed the entire city of Pharos to the ground and from there took possession of the remaining part of the Illyrian coast where they established or renewed the adequate agreements with the main native tribes and cities.

Episode VII: Advisor of Macedon

In 217, the Romans sent delegated into Macedon and demanded that Demetrius of Pharos be surrendered to them. King Philip obviously refused such a bold request that did not treat Macedon as an independent entity. Furthermore, Demetrius had become one of the closest advisors of the Macedonian king, eager to offer his knowledge on Romans to Philip. In June of the same year, while king Philip and Demetrius were attending the Nemean festival at Argos, the Macedonian king was informed about the loss of Rome against Carthage at the battle of Thrasymene. Initially Philip showed the letter informing on the victory of Hannibal only to Demetrius considering him the most trusted friend. Upon hearing the news, Demetrius urged the Macedonian king to hastily conclude a peace with the Aetolians and direct all his forces towards Illyria. By possessing the Illyrian coast and its ports, the Macedonians could join easily with the forces of Carthage against the Roman Republic. Polybius cites these words as being told by Demetrius to Philip:

For Greece is already entirely obedient to you, and will remain so: the Achaeans from genuine affection; the Aetolians from the with terror which their disasters in the present war have inspired them. Italy, and your crossing into it, is the first step in the acquirement of universal empire, to which no one has a better claim than yourself. And now is the moment to act when the Romans have suffered a reverse.

According to Polybius “Demetrius did not do this out of consideration for Philip, whose cause was…only of third-rate importance to him in this matter, but actuated rather by his hostility to Rome and most of all for the sake of himself and his own prospects, as he was convinced that this was the only way by which he could recover his principality of Pharos.

Philip decided to follow the advice of Demetrius and in the following years tried to capture the Illyrian coast. Also, an alliance between Macedon and Carthage was established in 215 against Rome where the name of Demetrius appears in one of its clauses as follows: “the Romans shall no longer be masters of Corcyra, Apollonia, Epidamnus, Pharos, Dimale, Parthini, or Atintania, and they [the Romans] shall return to Demetrius of Pharos all his friends who are in the dominion of Rome”. As it is known, this scenario was not realized and Demetrius never returned as a ruler in Illyria. Polybius offers a useful insight on Demetrius and his latest deed:

“He [Demetrius] was a man of a bold and venturesome spirit, but with an entire lack of reasoning power and judgment, defects which brought him to an end of a piece with the rest of his life. For having, with the approval of Philip, made a foolhardy and ill-managed attempt to seize Messene [in 214], he perished in the action…”



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Hammond, N.G.L. (1968). Illyris, Rome and Macedon in 229-205 B.C. The Journal of Roman Studies, 58, 1-21.

Hammond, N.G.L. (1966). The Kingdoms in Illyria circa 400-167 B.C. The Annual British School at Athens, 61, 240-253.

McPherson, C.A. (2012). The First Illyrian War: A Study in Roman Imperialism.

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