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).

Lissus, the Illyrian city built with stones

Episode I: Navigating controversial accounts

In his work “Bibliotheca Historica”, Diodorus Siculus, after writing about the alliance of Dionysius I of Syracuse (the Elder) (r. 432-367) with the Illyrian king Bardylis (r. 393-358), suggests that the tyrant of Syracuse sent a group of colons east of the Adriatic to establish a settlement there. Diodorus writes the following:

“…the Parians, in accordance with an oracle, sent out a colony to the Adriatic, founding it on the island of Pharos, as it is called, with the cooperation of the tyrant Dionysius. He had already dispatched a colony to the Adriatic not many years previously and had founded the city known as Lissus.” (Diodorus, XV, 13)

Based on the narrative of Diodorus, the Syracusan expedition and the establishment of the city of Lissus were carried out in 385 B.C.E. This alleged enterprise is seen as an attempt of Dionysius to expand his influence on the other part of the Adriatic Sea and ease the communication with his eastern Hellenic allies. Thus, a seaport east of Adriatic would secure a safe base for Syracusan ships heading towards this region.

The narrative of Diodorus Siculus should not be taken bluntly. Various scholars have cast doubts on the truthfulness of Diodorus’ narrative and on the real origin of the city of Lissus (or Lissos). In addition, the modern scholar R. L. Beamont has stated that the surrounding walls of Lissus pertain to a period well before 385 B.C.E. However, Beamont accepts the version that a Hellenic commercial settlement may have been set in Lissus before the Illyrian-Syracusan alliance mentioned by Diodorus. On the other hand, some Albanian archeologists have suggested that the city of Lissus was actually established after 385 B.C.E., notably sometime during the late IV century B.C.E. Along the ruins of Lissus, traces of Syracusan constructions can be observed. Although this may seem in support of the account of Diodorus, most of the scholars agree that these Syracusan elements represent only mere additional fortifications that an already established settlement received during the IV century. Another simple reason suggests the erection of the city of Lissus by native inhabitants rather than by foreign Syracusan colons: the fortifications of the outer walls are oriented towards the seawater and towards the lower valley of the Drin River and not towards the hinterland. This means that the inhabitants were more concerned from an invasion from the sea than from an invasion from the hinterland. If the city would have been built as a Syracusan colony the orientation of the outer fortifications would have been the opposite: the hinterland would have been their main concern while the sea waters would have provided the main in and out communications.

Part of a map, published by N.G.L. Hammond and drawn by Helen Waugh based on sketch-map by Hammond, showing the position of Lissus.
Part of a map, published by N.G.L. Hammond and drawn by Helen Waugh based on sketch-map by Hammond, showing the position of Lissus.

Lissus is mentioned by Diodorus in another controversial fragment, used by some scholars to support the thesis of the Syracusan origin of Lissus. The account describes a conflict between the Illyrian natives and the Hellenic colonies of the island of Pharos sometime around 384 B.C.E.

This year the Parians, who had settled Pharos, allowed the previous barbarian inhabitants to remain unharmed in an exceedingly well fortified place, while they themselves founded a city by the sea and built a wall about it. Later, however, the old barbarian [Illyrian] inhabitants of the island took offence at the presence of the Greeks and called in the Illyrians of the opposite mainland. These, to the number of more than ten thousand, crossed over to Pharos in many small boats, wrought havoc, and slew many of the Greeks. But the governor of Lissus appointed by Dionysius sailed with a good number of triremes against the light craft of the Illyrians, sinking some and capturing others, and slew more than five thousand of the barbarians [Illyrians], while taken some two thousand captive.” (Diodorus, XV, 14)

Even though Lissus is mentioned in this paragraph as the city that helped the colons of Pharos, according to Viali and other well-known scholars, Diodorus has surely made an error. Thus, it is suggested that it was in fact the governor of Issa (Vis) and not Lissus that came into the help of the Parians. Therefore, the name of Lissus is mentioned in the passage wrongly in the place of Issa. Furthermore, there is no concrete evidence that the city of Lissus had at any time a Syracusan governor placed there by the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysus the Elder. On the other hand, it is known that colons from Syracuse ruled the island of Issa at this time.

Other scholars treat the development of Lissus in relation with the development of the nearby settlement of Akrolissus. In this case, the narrative of Diodorus is way off. Akrolissus was a fortified settlement situated on the top of Mount Shelbun near modern Lezha. It was founded as early as the X century B.C.E. and as such it was surely erected by the native Illyrians. Akrolissus must have been the embryonic city of this region that later resulted in the creation of Lissus. In time, the settlement of Akrolissus was further fortified and it gained the function of an Acropolis as well as that of a military base. Positioned on top of high step slopes, Acrolisus was well protected from outside threats. During the VI-V centuries B.C.E. the inhabitants of Akrolisus expanded its territory and transferred its population into lower grounds, thus creating another more urbanised settlement, the one that is referred by Diodorus as Lissus.

A planimetry of Lissus.
A planimetry of Lissus by Camillo Praschniker and Arnold Schober (1919).
A planimetry of Akrolissus
A planimetry of Akrolissus by Camillo Praschniker and Arnold Schober (1919).

Episode II: A Well-Organized Settlement

The surrounding walls of the city of Lissus reached a longitude of over 2,200 meters that protected an area of 200,000 square meters. The city is based on the western face of a hill that is situated on the left bank of the Drin River. From this hill, the protective walls continued downwards, on the bottom of the hill, into the flat terrain all the way into the river where a tower on each side was raised. Also, another inner wall that went parallel with the river was constructed with the intention of further protecting the flat part of the settlement. Furthermore, another wall was erected within the settlement ensuring additional protective strength by dividing the city into two main parts: the upper and the lower city. The outer walls of Lissus were 3.5 meters wide and were composed of stone blocks each 0.6-1.6 meters long and 0.3-0.6 meters high. These blocks, after being worked with a hammer in the quarry, were immediately placed in the line of the structure next to each other.

The ancient city of Lissus was also equipped with watchtowers in several spots along the surrounding wall. These towers were filled with many big stones until they reached a certain level of altitude that allowed the passage of the guards throughout them. Only one tower is of a circular shape while all the other towers are of rectangular shape. The gates were also present in large numbers across the settlement. Ten from these gates are detected in the Upper City while in the Lower City it is difficult to identify any such spots because of the inadequate conditions of the walls here. The width of most of the gates reached 3-4 meters and towers on their side usually defended them. Thus, the chariots traveled easily throughout and across the city with the gates closing after their passage using a horizontal heavy wood chip.

Current Stone Structures of Ancient Lissus
Current Stone Structures of Ancient Lissus (Lezhë, Albania).
Current remnants of the ancient city of Lissus where the building technique of the city walls can be observed.
Current remnants of the ancient city of Lissus where the building technique of the city walls can be observed.
Tower fortification raised over the ancient city
Tower fortification raised over the ancient city of Lissus (Lezhë, Albania).