Ancient States & Regions

Illyria and Illyrians

The history of the Illyrians and Illyria, variously understood in modern scholarship, is divided into different phases, of which the first, lasting until the collapse of the Illyrian kingdom, may be explained in terms of (varying) alliances of tribes and peoples of common or similar ethnic background, speaking similar languages. Some extreme theses, such as that of “panillyrism” (Krahe 1955), which recognized the Illyriansas bearers of the Urnfield culture, have been abandoned.

To judge from the first occurrence of the name in ancient authors, the word designates a league of peoples; but the existence of an original eponymous people may be reflected in the legend of KADMOS and Harmonia and their son Illyrios, as well as in the Illyrii proprie dicti of Pliny (HN 3.144) and Pomponius Mela (2.3.56). Pliny located them in the conventus of Narona, between Epidaurum and Lissus, where the first contacts between Greek merchants (or explorers) and the inhabitants of a region called “Illyria” could have occurred. However, the Illyrians were hardly known to the Greek world, because the Greek colonization of the eastern Adriatic was either limited (EPIDAMNOS/DYRRHACHION and Apollonia) or late (colonization of Dionysios of Syracuse, notably ISSA).

Linguistically, almost nothing but personal and geographical names have remained from the Illyrians, and it is uncertain whether the Illyrian language(s) belonged to the kentum or satem linguistic group. In Hesychius only one word is defined as Illyrian, while over a hundred are Macedonian. There are great differences in the onomastics and material culture of individual peoples; those living along the coast reached a higher stage of development. Several distinct onomastic regions have been delimited; one of them comprises Illyrian names attested in the southeast of the eastern Adriatic and its hinterland (the only group that may be defined as Illyrian), which is different from the middle Dalmatian and northern Adriatic onomastic regions (Katicˇic´ 1976).

The Illyrians are first mentioned by Hecataeus of Miletos (FGrH 1 frs. 98–101) and by Herodotus (1.196; 4.49), but more data about Illyrian peoples are contained in the Periplus of Pseudo-Skylax (ca. 330 BCE: GGM 1: 26ff.) and in Pseudo Skymnos (second century BCE; ibid., 211ff.). According to the emendation of the corrupted text of PseudoSkylax, the territory of the Illyrians would have begun east of the Enchelei, extending as far as the Chaones. Of the interior peoples, only the Autariatai are considered Illyrian (Papazoglu 1978). Already by the fifth century BCE Illyrian kingdoms were powerful, the name Illyrian becoming eponymous for a number of neighboring peoples and tribes. The kings of the earlier dynasties (Bardylis, Grabos, Kleitos, Glaukias) are mainly known as the enemies of the Macedonian kingdom, particularly from the time of king Amyntas onwards (Cabanes 1988). The best known is the Ardiaean Dynasty of AGRON and TEUTA, as well as the kingdom with its center among the Labeatai and the last Illyrian king, GENTHIOS.

The Illyrian kingdoms had a bad reputation because of piracy, which threatened Greek, Italian, and Roman merchants, and even the coast of Greece. The Romans conquered them in three wars (see ILLYRIAN WARS). The first, in 229 BCE, was directed against Teuta’s and Agron’s son Pinnes; the second, in 219, mainly against DEMETRIOS OF PHAROS; while the capture of Genthios in the third and last Illyrian War (168) marked the beginning of Roman dominion in the eastern Adriatic (Cavallaro 2004). Illyria, which the Romans established in 167, dividing it in three parts (Livy 45.26.15), should be regarded as the origin of the Roman concept of “Illyricum.” During subsequent Roman conquests, the northern coastal regions and the Dalmatian hinterland were gradually added to Illyria. Administratively, several peoples who were not ethnically related, such as the Liburni and Iapodes, were included in Illyricum and called “Illyrian” merely on this account. Greek and Latin authors of the Late Republican and imperial periods used the name “Illyrian” in terms of administrative organization of the Balkans, or else in the geographical sense, since by their time a great deal of the northwestern part of the peninsula belonged to Illyricum (Wilkes 1992).

The Illyris known to Strabo was a country stretching from the upper reaches of the Adriatic down to the Rhyzonic Gulf and the Ardiaei, between the sea and the Pannonian peoples (7.5.3 C 314); not much different are the descriptions in Appian (Ill. 1) and Cassius Dio (12 Zonar. 8.19.8). Military campaigns were conducted by the Romans mainly from their bases on the Italian side of the Adriatic. Simultaneously, the Roman army operated also from Cisalpine Gaul, extending its boundaries in the direction of Illyricum, notably over the Histrians, who had been conquered in 177 BCE. From AQUILEIA the Romans advanced across the Ocra Pass and founded Nauportus as an Aquileian outpost. Under Augustus, the regions beyond Emona and the Arsia River in Histria belonged to Illyricum (Sasel Kos 2005).

Vatinius, appointed by Caesar, was probably the first to have governed only over Illyricum (45–43 BCE), while Caesar had been proconsul of both Galliae (Gallia Cisalpina and Gallia Narbonensis) and of Illyricum (59–49 BCE). After the Pannonian–Dalmatian rebellion of 9 CE, Illyricum may have been divided into superius and inferius – parts officially called DALMATIA and PANNONIA at the latest under Vespasian; after this division, no Roman province bore the name Illyricum. The degree of acculturation of various peoples within these two provinces greatly varied; however, the unifying factor was mainly one of ROMANIZATION and urbanization, which followed local trends, their intensity differing from region to region.

Already by the Augustan age Illyricum no longer had anything to do with the original Illyrian territory in southern Dalmatia and northern ALBANIA; the term denoted most of the northern and central Balkans. The name “Illyrian” was applied to other administrative units, such as the Illyrian customs, which covered a vast area from RAETIA to the Black Sea (App. Ill. 6). Under Septimius Severus it began to designate the army stationed in the Balkan and Danubian provinces and, later, the emperors originating from there. In the time of Diocletian Illyricum was the unofficial name for the “diocese of the Pannonias” (dioecesis Pannoniarum), which included four Pannonias, two Norican provinces and Dalmatia. Under THEODOSIUS I the prefecture of Illyricum, which comprised the Dacian and Macedonian dioceses, partly corresponded to the former eastern Illyricum.

Author: Marjeta Šašel Kos. Originally published in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, 2012.

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Cabanes, P. (1988) Les Illyriens de Bardylis a Genthios (IVe –IIe siecles avant J.-C.). Paris.

Cambi, N., Cace, S., and Kirigin, B., eds. (2002) Grcki utjecaj na istocnoj obali Jadrana [Greek influence along the East Adriatic coast]. Split.

Cavallaro, M. A. (2004) Da Teuta a Epulo: interpretazione delle guerre illyriche e histriche tra 229 e 177 a. C. Bonn.

Katicic, R. (1976) Ancient languages of the Balkans, vol. 1. The Hague.

Krahe, H. (1955) Die Sprache der Illyrier, part 1: Die Quellen. Wiesbaden.

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Papazoglou, F. (1978) The central Balkan tribes in pre-Roman times: Triballi, Autariatae, Dardanians, Scordisci and Moesians. Amsterdam.

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