Damastion: The Secret Story of a Silver-Rich City
Damastion was a city that thrived during classical antiquity in the Balkan hinterland. It was famous for its nearby silver mines and silver coinage. The city was likely founded during the Peloponnesian War though the founders remain unknown.
Damastion as a colony of refugees from Aegina and Mende
According to a palmfest discovered in the Vatican which amends Strabo’s description of Aegina (VIII. VI. XVI), fugitives from Aegina (current Egina/Aegian) and Mende (current Kalandra) founded Damastion. If this is the case, then Damastion’s foundation happened likely sometime after the peace of Nicias (421). The settlement began to mint its own coins as early as 395.
If Strabo’s amended version is true, we can construct the following narrative on Damastion’s foundation. In 431, Athens launched a successful invasion of Aegina and evicted its entire population from that island. A major group of Aeginetans refugees found a new home in the town of Thyrea (current Chimerini Meligou) in eastern Peloponnesus. Other refugees scattered across other regions.
In 424, the Athenian fleet assaulted the Aeginetans at Thyrea, killing many at imprisoning many others. Only a year later, the Athenians set off to assault the town of Mende who had revolted against the Delian League. The Spartans came to the aid of the Mendaeans evacuating their families into the Chalcidian city of Olynthus. After the eventual fall of Mende under Athenian control, other Mendaeans of fighting age fled to Scione (current Nea Skioni). Here, these oligarchs, although besieged, continued their anti-Athenian resistance.
Olynthus as Aeginetans and Mengaeans’ springboard into Damastion
In 421, the peace of Nicias gave a pause to the Peloponnesian War. The clause of this peace allowed for exchange of prisoners between warring parties. It also explicitly stated that the Mendaean besiegers could leave Scione safely. In this context, the imprisoned Aeginetans in Athens were released (at least those left) yet they could not return to their homeland. Meanwhile, the Mendaeans who left Scione joined their families and their valuable possessions already evacuated in Olynthus. Here, the Mendaeans met with the Aeginetans refugees who also chose Olynthus as a place to regroup.
So we have two refugee groups at Olynthus. Both of them could not return to their respective homelands, at least not before 404. However, the condition of Nicias’ peace provided alternative opportunities. The Aeginetans and Mendaeans thus joined efforts and set off for a new home. The city of Olynthus seems to have helped them in their combined enterprise. The wanderers eventually found a new home somewhere in current Kosovo, where they founded Damastion. Such is the most convenient narrative that explains Strabo’s palimpsest “Greek 2306” of the Vatican library.
Damastion as a “Barbarian” settlement
Then we have Strabo’s original passage that mentions Damastion:
“…for above Epidamnus [Dyrrachium] and Apollonia as far as the Ceraunian Mountains dwell the Bylliones, the Taulantii, the Parthini, and the Brygi. Somewhere nearby are also the silver mines of Damastium [i.e. Damastion], around which the Dyestae and the Enchelii (also called Sesarethii) together established their dominion; and near these people are also the Lyncastae, the territory Deuriopus, Pelagonian Tripolities, the Eoerdi, Elimeia, and Eratyra.” (Strabo. VII. VII. VIII).
This passage supports Damastion’s “barbarian” background and identity. Also, it’s the only text that puts the city and its silver mines into a geographic perspective. Accordingly, Damastion was located east of the Illyrian tribes (Bylliones, Taulantii, and Parthini especially) that occupied current mountainous Albania. Also, the city stood north of Lyncestis and Pelagonia, thus well far away from any coast.
It’s position well inland makes the foundation of Damastion from Aeginetans and Mendaeans refugees an event without parallel. The Hellenes established all their colonies along seacoasts or near them, none being well into “barbarian” territory. Furthermore, the coins Damastion minted bear no resemblance with the coins of Aegina and/or Mende both in terms of weight and iconography. However, Damastion’s silver coinage bears similarities with those minted in the Chalcidian Olynthus.
With the new considerations we can offer the following interpretation of Damastion’s foundation. The city, located conveniently near silver mines, was founded around 420 or later as a “barbarian” arrangement; the Dyestae and the Enchelii (i.e. Encheleans) who “together established their dominion” over Damastion were Illyrian tribes thus “barbarian”; the Olynthians were Chalcidians, also indigenous in that peninsula, thus “barbarian” as well. A sensible interpretation puts the Dyestae as dwelling in the silver mines and the Enchelii as controlling the city and the countryside.
Trade with Olynthus
At around 400, the Chalcidians began issuing their first tetradrachms (coins of highest value denomination). This mint production needed a continuous and considerable supply of silver. In this context, Damastion began issuing its own tetradrachms in 395. Silver minted in Damastion provided a source of silver for Olynthus, if not the main source of it. In fact, Damastion tetradrachm’s main role was that of transporting the bullion silver into various markets rather than the tetradrachm actually acting as proper money.
Thus, Damastion, likely a toponym related to its native tribe, the Damasti, intensified commercial links with Olynthus, especially during 395-393. It’s easy to imagine Damastion exporting its resources while importing labor from cities such as Olynthus. Part of that labor may have been Greek masters in coin production, including Aeginatans and Mendaeans, famous for their early coin minting. These either remained in Damastion or trained the locals into the coin production process; thus earning an appearance in Damastion’s foundation tales.
Between Illyria, Dardania, Macedon, and Paeonia
During 393-358, Damastion fell under the rule of Bardylis. Interestingly, before rising to kingship, Bardylis had been himself a miner, although in coil. Possession of Damastion and its mines contributed to the overall prosperity of Bardylis’ state. It also oriented Damastion’ silver into new markets. At about 365, under the model of Damastion, Bardylis founded another mining center in current southeast Kosovo.
After Bardylis’ defeat from Philip II in 358, Macedon likely gained control of Damastion, in addition to areas around lake Lychnidos (Ohrid). This marked Philip’s first minerary gain, before he gained the more well-known mines of Crenides in Thrace. As such, control and exploitation of Damastion sponsored the early phase of Philip’s conquests.
After the rule of Philip (359-336), and especially after the rule of Alexander III (336-323), Macedon lost its control over Damastion. The location switched between the kingdom of Dardania and Paeonia, both neighboring each other. The Paeonians seem to have made the most of it, at least in terms of monetary use. Kings of Paeonia were famous for their silver coinage and some of those coins bear the inscription “Damastion” (“ΔΑΜΑΣΤΙΝΩΝ”). Ultimately, the Dardanian state succeeded in taking hold of Damastion, from no later than 220. The Dardanians even turned the city into their own capital. However, they made little use of its coinage, likely relying on traditional barter transactions instead.
With lack of any other literary source apart from Strabo’s small passages, this is how far we can bring Damastion’s history. Archaeological evidence would fill some aspects of the story but the exact location of this location remains unknown.
In its apogee, Damastion issued its coins in three denominations: tetradrachms (highest value), drachms, and tetrobols (lowest value). While tetradrachms reconstruct Damastion’s main trade partners, finding spots of tetrobols hint to Damastion’s own location. On the principle that the smallest denominators circulate mostly around the place of issuing, mapping them reveals Damastion approximate location.
Scholars have already done so and noted that the area with the most concentration of lowest denominations corresponds to current southeast Kosovo (i.e. ancient Dardania). Specifically, it points to a location somewhere near Artana/ Novo Brdo where there is also an old fortress. The geological composition supports the presence of silver mines in this region. Yet, the supposition is not definitive. Other candidates for Damastion include Kopaonik (Kosovo-Serbian border), Skopje (North Macedon), and other locations once part of the Dardanian kingdom.
Imhoof-Bumler. (1874). Ztschr.f.Numism. p. 99.
Pollozhani, M.(2015). Qytetet e harruara Ilire, lashtësi e pandriçuar. Retrieved from: www.arbresh.info/kulture/qytetet-e-harruara-ilire-lashtesi-e-pandricuar/.
Morgan, D.U. (2009). The pattern of Findspots of Coins of Damastion: A Clue to Its Location.
Morgan, D.U. (2018). Damastion – Its Foundation and the Beginning of its Coinage. Original Scientific Paper. Num. vijesti, no. 71., Zagreb.
Strabo. Geographica. VII & VIII.