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).

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.”