Ancient States & Regions
Epirus before the reign of Alexander the Molossian

Epirus before the reign of Alexander the Molossian

Epirus was the name of an ancient region in the lands corresponding to current southern Albania and northwestern Greece. The name of Epirus seems to originate from the ancient Greek word “Epeiros” which means “land” or “continent”. It is clear that this term came from an islanders’ perspective, namely the Greek islanders settling in the many islands off Epirus’ coast.

Initially, Epirus had no more than a geographical meaning. Ancient authors used it to refer generally to the lands stretching from the Acroceraunian/Ceraunian Mountains (modern Llogara Mountains) into the Gulf of Ambracia (modern Gulf of Arta). Towards the east, the mountain range of Pindus marked a natural border with Macedon and Thessaly.  

Before the arrival of the Indo-European population in the Balkans, Epirus was inhabited by the semi-mythical population called Pelasgians. Then, after the coming of the Indo-European population of Greeks and Illyrians, the Pelasgians had either fled or had been enslaved and/or assimilated by the newcomers. Some Pelasgian enclaves may have continued to dwell in the highlands of Pindus even after the Indo-Europeans first took over. However, by the V century B.C.E. Pelasgians are no more present in Epirus.

In antiquity, Epirus was famous for the oracle of Dodona. Herodotus claims that before the Greeks, Dodona was a sanctuary of the Pelasgians. Even the region around it was apparently called Pelasgia. When the Greeks were migrating south into what was to become their homeland, they encountered the site of Dodona in the process. They seem to have converted it into their own oracle and even borrowed native myths for their own Parthenon. Thus, it should be no wonder when Herodotus tells that Dodona was older than all other Greek oracles, including Delphi.  

Epirus was for much time irrelevant to the Greek citizen or historian. The region was regarded as being on the fringe of the known world, beyond which laid mystical northern areas of the Giants (Hyperboreans). Others thought of the Acheron River, flowing in Epirus, as flowing into the underworld. These views can mainly be attributed to the “barbarian” character of the region. Based on this, many scholars accept the view that the inland populations of Epirus spoke a language different from the Greek language and more similar to the Illyrian and/or Macedonian language.

Herodotus is the first attested author to imply on Epirus’ barbarous character. When treating the Battle of Salamis that was fought in 480 B.C.E. between the Greek alliance and the Persians, the famous historian considers the tribes that came from the vicinities of Ambracia (Epirus southernmost area) as coming from the borders of Hellenic world. It follows that the populations that lived north of the Ambracian “border” were not Greeks. They did not support either of the sides that fought in Salamis.

Thucydides follows the tradition of Herodotus in treating Epirus as a region not really part of the Greek realm. In his account on the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides states that “barbarians” (non-Greeks) were also involved in that war, referring here to the Epirot tribes but also parts of population of Amphilocia.

Yet, Greek presence increased in the region via establishment of Greek colonies. In the VIII century, Corcyra was colonized by colons from Corinth. Sometime later, the Corinthians colonised the area around the Gulf of Arta where they established the city of Ambracia. Also, the Greeks maintained close ties with Dodona although “barbarians” inhabited the surrounding area.

Although washed by the waters of the Ionian Sea, Epirus was a very mountains region. The economy was weak and heavily based on livestock. Strong and sizeable dogs were used for hunting and protecting the flocks, the main sources of wealth. The importance of livestock and the strength and elegance of the Molossian dogs are proverbial. 

It is clear that Epirus had a low population density. It had almost no natural resources. Its society was organised in tribes and maintained archaic traditions. Their calendar, different from the Greek calendar, had seven months: Gamilios, Apelaios, Agrianos, Kraneios, Helotropios, Datyos, and Phoinikaos. Women had a reputable status, similar to those in Illyria, Thessaly, or Sparta.

Theopompus, writing in the fourth century B.C.E., states that there were in total fourteen tribes. The main and most influential tribes were the Chaonians (covered a surface of 2400 square kilometres), Thesprotians (surface of 2050 square kilometres), and Molossians (surface of 3500 square kilometres). It seems that these tribes originated from a different Indo-European branch than the Greeks; they were closer in nature to the Illyrians and the Macedonians. The Chaonians lived in the north, in the region around the Bay of Onchesmos (modern Saranda). The Thesprotians, according to Thucydides, dwelled in the area between the river Thyamis (also known as Glykys or Kalamas) and the mythical river Acheron. The Molossians covered the plain of modern Ioannina and southern lands towards the Ambracian Gulf (Gulf of Arta). 

Thesprotians were the only Epirot tribe mentioned by Homer, notably in his Odyssey. They seem to have also been the first Epirot tribe to establish control over the sanctuary of Dodona and the surrounding region, sometime well before the V century B.C.E. Apart from the coast from Thyamis and Acheron, the Thespotians seem to have had an indirect hold over the strip of land south of Acheron and into the Ambracian Gulf. This land strip was notably occupied by a tribe called the Cassopeians which seem to have been a Thesprotian subtribe. With most of the Epirot coast and the plain of Dodona under its control, the Thesprotians must have been the most prosperous tribe before the V century in Epirus. They could benefit from both the maritime trade with the Hellenic colonies along the Ionian coast and islands as well as from pilgrims making their way into Dodona.

During the Persian Wars, intertribal wars, especially between the Molossians and Thesprotians, would redraw the map of Epirus. Dodona and access to the sea meant that the stakes were high. It was the Molossians who apparently took the initiative, no doubt under the leadership of their royal house. Invading from the north, the Molossians were able to expand at the expense of the Thesprotians. By 485 B.C.E. the Molossians had achieved complete control of Dodona and its plain, and even established suzerainty over the Thesprotians. The nature of this suzerainty is uncertain but we can infer that the Molossians gained access to a small line of coast along the Ionian Sea. The Thesprotians seem to have sacrificed a coast previously under the dominion of their subtribe, the Cassopeians. This area seem to correspond to a line running from Pidima Kiras or the delta of the Arethon river in the north to Paraliako Dasos or Mitikas in the south.

Before and during these events, political institutions and societal structure remained somewhat primitive. There were virtually no proper urban centers or major ports along the region but villages and small coves. In this landscape, the relations with Hellenes remained limited allowing for the ethne to remain distinctly non-Greek or barbarous. Tribal leaders and monarchs remained distant from political affairs in the south where a Greek alliance was established to fight the Persian invasion. 

We can note an increase in the sophistication of the political functioning and a significant influence of the Hellenistic culture among the Epirote tribes only in the beginning of the V century B.C.E. Dodona, where presumably a Hellenic staff of oracles and scribes run the sanctuary must have been the main point of contact between mainland Hellas and Epirote natives, represented mostly by the Molossians who controlled the land where the oracle of Dodona stood. In 470 B.C.E., the first attested Molossian king called Admetus is mentioned, confirming the monarchical organization of the Molossians. He and his queen Phthia are known for welcoming the exiled Themistocles into his court. Admetus had previously opposed Themistocles when the latter was in charge in Athens. However, acting on complete autonomy and on some sort of code of honour towards the honorable guest, the royal family firmly resisted requests from the Athenians and the Spartants to deliver Themistocles back to them. Instead, the Molossians helped the Athenian travel safely into Pydna from where he then reached Persia.      

The event with Themistocles reflects the political distance which the Molossians had until then kept with the mainland Hellenic states. Even the original founding myths of the tribes were not linked with any Greek genealogy or mythology. Among the Chaonians, the ancient Trojans were largely regarded as predecessors or their tribe. Meanwhile, among the Molossians, a certain Pielos, a name unattested in Greek mythology, was regarded as the original ancestor of the tribe. 

The political landscape in Epirus remained diverse and dynamic. While the Molossians had established a hereditary monarchy organized into a league or koinon, the Chaonians and Thesprotians established their respective league formations without kingship. Instead, in charge of their respective leagues were two magistrates vested with executive powers. They are referred to in ancient sources as “prostates” and seem to have been elected each year among the aristocratic elite of the main tribe.

The Athenian thalassocracy that followed the Persian War was able to transmit the splendour of the Athenian civilization into other parts of the known world, including Epirus. Many non-Greek populations witnessed the sophistication and innovations that the Hellenes brought and the high-status that came with being accepted into the Greek world. The quickest way for a citizen or a family to be considered Greek and benefit from the high status that came with it, was to prove a Greek ancestry. Claiming a Greek ancestry became a powerful method to achieve important political gains; a method that the Molossian royal family seem to have later used. 

Meanwhile, there are almost no record of events in Epirus from 470-430 B.C.E. However, we can assume that during this time the Chaonian League increased their strength while the Molossian League weakened. The maritime trade played an important role in the increased prosperity of the Chaonians. Chaonian League seem to have gained the most from this sea-based trade by using their coastal ports and naval pockets of Buthrotum (Butrint), Onchesmos (Sarandë), and Chimaira (Himarë). 

By 429, the Chaonians had replaced the Molossians as suzerains of the Thesprotians. Apparently, the Chaonians had achieved some sort of hegemony in Epirus. We assume this because of an event that took place this year and that had various Epirot tribes involved in the affairs of the Peloponnesian War. Induced by Ambraciotes, the tribes from Epirus joined them and their allies Sparta in a campaign against Acarnania that sided with Athens. Chaonians, led by their prostates of that year, Photyus and Nicanor, are presented as the leaders of the whole Epirot contingent that included the Molossians and their suzerains Atintanes, and the Parauaeans accompanied by a contingent of Orestians. 

Plundering their way through Limnaea, the joint force of Spartans, Ambraciotes, and Epirotes made an effort to conquer Stratus, the main settlement in Acarnania. Under the walls of Stratus, the Chaonians led a charge without much coordination with their Hellenic allies. The Chaonian effort was repelled by a determined Acarnanian garrison. The other Epirot tribes followed the Chaonians into retreat. The defeat at Stratus would mark the fall of the Chaonian hegemony in Epirus.

While relations with Athens increased in frequency, Epirot trade followed the same orientation. Up until the fifth century, the region of Epirus had traded mostly with the city of Corinth and its colonies along the Ionian Sea. However, by the late V century B.C.E. we notice that the trade begins to involve significantly the city of Athens as well. Soon, the items produced in Athens and Attica came to dominate the domestic markets in Epirus. In exchange, Athens imported from Epirus agricultural and especially livestock products such as skin and wood supplies, items much needed in Athens.

The defeat of the Chaonians was followed by the victory of the Athenian admiral Phormion in the Corinthian Gulf and the successful campaign of Demosthenes in western Greece. We can assume that the Molossians, observing these events, realized that they could regain a leading role in Epirus by attaching themselves with Athens.

Accordingly, the Molossians broke their ties with Ambracia and as a consequence, with Sparta, and directed themselves towards Athens. They sent their young king, Tharypas, into the city of Athens to receive an Athenian education and more importantly, to seal the friendship with Athens. Tharypas had been a legitimate ruler of the Molossian League at the time of the anti-Athenian intervention in Acarnania. However, he could be easily justified as at the time he was a minor and the royal affairs had been conducted by his guardian, a certain Sabylinthus. 

The alliance with the Molossians was important for Athens as well. Through the Molossian state, the Athenians could check upon the unstable Macedonians on their back. Also, with the support of Epirus, they could keep increasing their influence in Thessaly, a region they had befriended since 433 B.C.E. Thus, the Athenians welcomed Tharypas with respect and took care of his education. In Athens, young Tharypas must have been impressed by the Greek culture, science, and political structure. He soon befriended the Athenian elite.

The royal house needed a new mythological narrative that would link the Molossians with a Greek descendance and thus rise them in geopolitical landscape. This propaganda may have been put in motion since the rule of Admetus. Accordingly, the resemblance of the name of the original ancestor Pielos with the name of Achilles’ father Peleus was used to create a new myth. According to the new version, the original Pielos’ name was Peleus, and he was a son of Neoptolemus (son of Achilles), being named after his great-grandfather. The list of descendants was filled with other appropriate generational names and the name of Admetus was placed on the bottom, thus effectively linking the Molossians with a heroic and mythical Greek genealogy. 

The Hellenisation policy among the Molossians was especially carried forward by Tharypas. It was about this time when Euripides, the famous Greek playwright, published “Andromache”. The tragedy told the story of Hectors’ widow after the fall of Troy and her new husband, Neoptolemus. It seems that initially the plot did not mention any connection between Neoptolemus as Achilles son and the Molossians. Being in Athens, Tharypas and his Athenian friends had the ability to influence a small but meaningful addition to the story. Notably, at the conclusion of the play, Thetis proclaims how the child of Andromache and Neoptolemus would establish a line of kings that would reign over the Molossians “on and on in continuous prosperity”.

The edited “Andromache” allowed Tharypas to claim an origin from the Achilles himself and prove his Greekness. Later, the Epirot was granted an Athenian citizenship, fully accepting him in the exclusive “Greek club”. The ties with Athens and the Greek world must have secured Tharypas a strong position as a ruler in Epirus.

Back in his homeland, Tharypas initiated other state-backed Hellenistic practices. He introduced Greek letters and language into the aristocratic circles and in the state administration. The ruler also financed construction projects that improved the urbanisation level at various spots in Epirus. Urban centres were developed in Greek fashion and based on Greek layout and architecture. Investments were especially focused on Passaron, the royal seat of the Molossian ruler.

Tharypas made sure to promote his heroic and royal ancestry to his subjects. At his royal palace at Passaron, he invited Euripides to put into stage his “Andromache”. The event seem to have been part of constant promotions of Hellenic arts and culture throughout Tharypas’ domain.

In about 400 B.C.E., the Molossian League becomes the first state to mint its own coins in Epirus. Following the pro-Athenian policy of Tharyppas, the coins were issued at a weight equalling those of Attica. This not only stimulated the internal economy but also eased the commercial exchanges with Athens. The Athenians had by now replaced Corinthians as the main trading partner of the Epirot tribes. 

Tharyppas ruled up until 389 or 385 B.C.E. His successor and son, Alcetas had problems securing his rule. He, as is father was a pro-Athenian and that was the source of his problems. In 289/288, the Spartans led by their king Agesilaus II achieved victories across Acarnania and reestablished Spartan influence there and in Epirus. This was followed by a rise of pro-Spartan parties across Epirus that apparently forced Alcetas into exile.

The king found refuge on the other side of the sea, in Syracuse at the court of its tyrant, Dionysus. The latter was especially interested in the trade routes that linked Magna Graecia and Sicily with eastern Adriatic and Epirus. Thus, the tyrant provided Alcetas with a considerable force to regain his throne. Accordingly, in 385 B.C.E. with the help of a combined force of Illyrians and Syracusans, Alcetas was reinstated in his throne. About 15,000 pro-Spartan Molossians were slaughtered in the process.

After returning into the Molossian throne, Alcetas reinitiated the pro-Athenian policy followed by his father. In 377 B.C.E. Alcetas supports Athens’ Second Delian League by easing Athenian manoeuvres against Sparta in the Ionian Sea. In 372 B.C.E., he also helped a contingent of 600 peltasts in service of Athens travel safely into Molossian territory and then cross into Corcyra.

With the help of strong allies of Athens, Syracusans, and Illyrians, Alcetas was able to expand the territories of his kingdom. During his reign, the Molossians regained their suzerainty over the Thesprotians and even annexed territories with sea access at the area of Kestria (modern Ciflik, north of river Thyamis). At the east, Molossian state extended as far as western Hestiodia while towards the west the state annexed the lands of the upper Acheron. Towards northeast, the Molossian rule reached the borders of Parauaea (modern region of Permet). The expansion of the Molossians into these territories is supported by an epigraphic evidence of 370-368 B.C.E., where  are listed the areas inherited by son and successor of Alcetas, Neoptolemus I.

Neoptolemus I had another brother called Arybbas. They ruled together in Epirus until 360 B.C.E. when Arybbas became the sole ruler. Arybbas married Troas, his own niece (daughter of Neoptolemus I). This marriage helped him smoothly inherit Neoptolemus’ part of Epirot possessions. 

In his accession year, Arybbas had to deal with a serious assault from the Illyrians of king Bardylis. He evacuated most of non-combatant population to Aetolia and let the Illyrians loot freely. The Illyrians gave so much into looting that their forces spread out turning into weak targets. This had been the stratagem of Arybbas who launched his Molossians into assaults against divided Illyrian contigents. The Molossians were able to kill many enemies until all Illyrians retreated from Epirus. Arybass had caused Bardylis one of his rare defeats.   

In 358 B.C.E., Epirus secured an alliance with Philip II of Macedon. This alliances served initially both rulers. At the time, Philip II was struggling to gain control of his borders so the alliance with Arybbas helped him secure his western frontier. This alliance was sealed by a marriage between Olympias, young niece of Arybbas, and Philip. Olympias’ younger brother, Alexander, followed her sister in the Macedonian court in Pella to be raised in Macedonian royal customs.  

Arybbas, as his predecessors, was a pro-Athenian and a phill-hellene. He competed in Olympic and Pythian (Delphic) games. He even won the chariot race (tethrippon) in the Delphic games. The pro-Athenian policy caused Arybbas problems with Philip II. The latter was following an expansion policy at the expense of Athens and that meant the Arybbas was siding with his enemy. Thus, in 350 B.C.E. Philip made a campaign against Epirus, drove Arybbas from his throne and established Alexander, at the time twenty years of age, as the new king of a potentially united Epirus. 


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