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.