Classical sources suggest that the Romans fought a brief war during 221-220 B.C.E. against the Istrians. According to these accounts, the war was caused by piratical assaults from the Istri against the Roman ships in northern Adriatic. Also, it is suggested that the Istri may have been collaborating as allies with Demetrius of Pharus against the interests of the Roman Republic. This short campaign against the Istrians has been treated by modern sources as part of the Roman expansion into Cisalpine Gaul as well as the securing of the frontiers just before the outbreak of the Second Punic War. Overall, the Roman engagement in this part of the Adriatic reflects the increased interest of the Republic on the matters of the eastern regions. Although it contributes to the more in depth understanding of the early Roman expansion, the Istrian War has received little attention from modern scholars in part because the evidence related to it are limited.
According to Roman accounts, the war against the Istrians in 221 was caused by Istrian assaults on Roman grain ships. The consuls of that year Marcus Minucius Rufus and Publius Cornelius Scipio led the campaign against the Istrians. The consuls used the naval base at Ancona to sail towards the Istrian peninsula. Both these Roman commanders were already highly valued as nobles but the career of Minucius saw a significant rise after 221 apparently due to his distinguished military leadership in the Istrian campaign. (Thus, in 220 Minucius was appointed dictator magister equitum and it was potentially voted dictator again in 217 after the famous loss at Trasimene). Even though the Romans won the war against the Istrians in general, Orosius implies that the Republican army suffered serious losses during this campaign.
Episode II: The Istrian-Illyrian connections
There are several reasons why the Istrian War has been linked with the Second Illyrian War. These reasons include: the fact that the campaign against the Istrians was concluded just one year before the outbreak of the Second Illyrian War; the mentioning of Demetrius of Pharus (the leader of the Illyrians during the Second Illyrian War) as an ally of the Istrians in the events preceding the Roman campaign in Istria; the listing of the Istri as an Illyrian tribe by Appian thus suggesting a cultural link between the Istri and the Illyrians under the leadership of Demetrius; the fact that both these anti-Roman entities were positioned northeast of the Adriatic and not far from each other.
Dell (1970) suggests that Appian has confused the events related with the Istrian War (221-220) with the events related to the Second Illyrian War just one year later (219). Therefore, the establishment of an alliance between the Istri and Demetrius against Rome is highly debatable. The doubts over the existence of such alliance should not be used to disregard the occurrence of the Istrian War. Classical sources offer enough insights to conclude that this war did actually happen and allowed the Romans to expand their possessions. Dell offers this rare interpretation of the war:
“ It is clear that the Scipio-Minucius campaign (221) was waged on land, taking some Istrian towns by storm and other by their outright surrender. Further, we are told that the consuls for the succeeding year (220), C. Lutatius Catulus and L. Veturius Philo, were occupied with a campaign, which reached as far as the Alps. This seems to have been a campaign to confirm the gains of the previous year by winning over the neighboring peoples without actually conquering them. This explains why the Romans were not ready to deal with Demetrius until 219; for their attention was still fixed on the north.”
Appian. Historia Romana. Illyrike.
Dell, H.J. (1970). Demetrius of Pharos and the Istrian War. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Gershichte, 19, 30-38.
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.
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.”
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.
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…”
Badian, E. (1952). Notes on Roman Policy in Illyria (230-201 B.C.). Papers of the British School at Rome, 20, 72-93.
Dell, H.J. (1970). Demetrius of Pharus and the Istrian War. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Gershichte, 19, 30-38.
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.
Velija, Q. (2012) Mbretëri dhe Mbretër Ilirë. West Print, Tiranë.