Ancient States & Regions
Ruins of ancient Lissus.

Lissus: Illyrians’ Sophisticated Military Base

Lissus or Lissos was an ancient city located in the current city of Lezha in northwestern Albanian coast. From the evidence on site and classical sources, the city of Lissus must have been a heavily fortified city, serving more as a military base rather than as a civic or agricultural community.

Early Establishment

Lissus occupied a strategic position: its eastern side was protected by another stronghold rising in a higher hill (mount Shëlbuem) known in antiquity as Acrolissus or Acrolissos; in the south, the Mat River (ancient Mathis or Ardaxan River) delta marked a natural border; through the old bank of the Drin River (Dreinos or Oriund), the lowest part of Lissus communicated with the sea at the pier then called Nymphaeum (modern port of Shëngjin).

The earliest events where the name of Lissus appears relate to the foundation of a Parian-Sicilian colony in the island of Pharos (modern Hvar) and the alliance of 385 B.C.E. between the Illyrian king Bardylis and Dionysius I the Elder, tyrant of Syracuse during 405 B.C.E. – 367 B.C.E. In this context Diodorus writes the following:

He [Dionysius I] had already dispatched a colony to the Adriatic not many years previously and had founded the city known as Lissus” (Diodorus, XV, 13). 

This passage has encouraged scholars to date the foundation of Lissus in the early IV-th century B.C.E. This is also the period when the first coins are struck (or brought) in Lissus bearing patterns very similar to the coins struck in Syracuse during the same time. There seems to have been a significant Sicilian influence in Lissus during the time of Dionysius and Bardylis. However, this influence must be assessed in the context of Illyrian-Sicilian alliance and Dionysius’ increased focus on cross-Adriatic affairs rather than as Lissus’ original foundation. There was already an Illyrian town over the hill of Lissus since the sixth century B.C.E., apparently from founders who descended from Acrolissus. The walls of this town covered a surface of about 2.30 ha, a surface that in the IV-th century developed into the acropolis of Lissus, a smaller surface of 1.80 ha, but was incorporated over the much larger and newly developed upper city section. 

Stone blocks that formed the walls of Lissus where construction technique is evident.

The Military Nature of Lissus

The Sicilian-Illyrian influence was the first to turn Lissus into a settlement with urban character and strong defences. This development seems to have happened fast, out of a warfare necessity. In fact, Bace (2018) puts out an interesting argument suggesting that it was in Lissus where a 2,000 strong Sicilian regiment disembarked. These troops were placed under the command of the local ruler Bardylis who launched an incursion south against Epirus and Delphi.

A year later, in 384 Dionysius intervened in the northern island colony of Pharos to support them against some neighboring Illyrian tribes. Again, the city is mentioned as a base from which “the governor of Lissus appointed by Dionysius sailed with a good number of triremes” (Diodorus, XV, 14) to go into the aid of Pharos.

The use of the settlement as a base seems reasonable, especially in the context of the alliance between Bardylis and Dionysius; yet the term “governor appointed by Dionysius” has caused problems, encouraging some to push forward the theory of Lissus as a Syracusian colony.

Layout

During the IV-III centuries, Lissus developed into a splendid city with very strong defenses. At that time, the surrounding walls, made of stone blocks from nearby quarries, reached an impressive longitude of 2,200 meters (7,218 feet), defending a surface of 20 ha. These walls run from the height of the acropolis all the way into the flat land along the Drin river bank.

The protective/outer walls of Lissus are especially impressive in their width, some 3.20-3.80 meters (10.5-12.5 feet), significantly wider than the standard width of 2-2.50 meters (6.5-8.2 feet) of other regional fortifications. With a height of 8 meters (26.2 feet) and 18 towers rising along, the walls of the settlement must have been unbreakable to foreign invaders. 

Plan of Lissus by C. Praschniker and A. Schober, Archaologische Forschungenplan (1918).

The settlement inside was organized as follows: the acropolis that we mentioned (1.8 ha), the upper city (12.8 ha), the lower city (9 ha), and the river bank fortification (1.5 ha). Over 12 gates allowed for communication in and out of the city as well as between its internal sections especially between the lower city and its most vital part, the upper city. 

Graphic reconstruction of the western gate of the riverside section of Lissus.

Roman Conquest

During 250-231, Lissus and its surrounding was conquered by the Illyrian state of the Ardiaei led by king Agron. With the Ardiaean invasion Lissus seems to have lost whatever sort of autonomy it previously enjoyed and was fully incorporated within the expanding Ardiaean kingdom. The Ardiaeans continued their expansion south threatening Hellenic colonies, intercepting the Italian/Greek trade along the Ionian Strait, and eventually leading to a Roman intervention against them in what is known as the First Illyrian War (229-228). 

After the Roman victory over the Ardiaeans, their queen Teuta was forced to sign an unfavorable treaty. This treaty legitimized the establishment of a sort of Roman protectorate in the coastal belt south of Lissus (the later remained under Ardiaean control). Also, the Ardiaeans had to not sail south of Lissus with more than two ships, even those unarmed. The treaty was followed by Teuta’s retreat from throne, with Demetrius of Pharos rising to regency position on behalf of Agron’s son, Pinnes, but apparently sharing or dividing the rule with Scerdilaidas, an Illyrian general with potential royal ancestry. 

Lissus a Buffer Port Between Rome and Macedon

In the decade that followed, Rome showed a lack of interest in the eastern Adriatic, at least as perceived by native Illyrians. Around 220 Demetrius of Pharos and Scerdilaidas sailed south of Lissus with a combined force of 90 ships (Polyb. XVI, 3: XVI, 6), assaulting southern Greek polities of Pylos and across the Cyclades. The sail south of Lissus would provide the “casus belli” for the Second Illyrian War of 219 with Romans again victorious. 

Roman expansion east of the Adriatic brought them into conflict with the Macedonian kingdom. In 213 Philip V, king of Macedon, launched an incursion against Lissus. Polybius uses the event to describe the strength of both Lissus and nearby Acrolissus:

Observing that the defences of Lissus, both natural and artificial, were admirable from land as well as sea, and that Acrolissus which was close to it owing to its height and its general strength looked as if there would be no hope of taking it by storm, he entirely renounced this latter hope, but did not quite despair of taking the town. Noticing that the ground between Lissus and the foot of Acrolissus was convenient for directing an attack from it on the town he decided to open hostilities on this side, and employ a stratagem suitable to the circumstances”. (Polyb. VIII, 3-4). 

Through a stratagem based on diversion Philip captured both Acrolissus and Lissus. With the capture of the city, Philip secured an important access into the Adriatic Sea. Yet, contrary to some opinions, the city could not serve as an effective bridgehead into Italy (so that Philip could materialize a supposed plan of taking the war against the Romans in Italian peninsula)  while the more convenient and southern ports of Dyrrachium and Apollonia were held by the Romans. The conquest of Lissus seems to have instead served Philip to insert a gap between the Romans and the Ardiaei (now Roman allies), in an effort to detach the latter from their pro-Roman position.

Capture of Lissus by Philip V of Macedon; map showing the movement of the Macedonian (red) and Illyrian (blue) forces.

Philip’s possession of Lissus was short; not only he failed to gain the support of the Ardiaeans but rendered them hostile with his direct intervention. In 308 the Ardiaean ruler Scerdilaidas (now risen into sole kingship) along with his son Pleuratus launched an incursion against the Macedonian garrison of Lissus. The Ardiaean-led troops recaptured Lissus, Acrolissus and surrounding territory. Ardiaean possession of Lissus was ratified three years later at the peace treaty of Phoenike between the Romans and the Macedonians. 

Lissus continued to be an important settlement for the Adriaean state during the rule of Gentius (180-168). It was here where Gentius, in 170 first welcomed the Macedonians envoys of the Macedonian king Perseus, inviting the Illyrian to abandon the pro-Roman approach of his father Pleuratus and join the war against the Republic. When Gentius joined the war against the Romans, he turned Lissus into his operational centre, gathering 15,000 troops here, and dispatching them accordingly. By 168 the Romans had defeated Gentius, formally destroying all the Ardiaean state and monarchy and including all their lands into the Roman possessions. 

Lissus’ Role During the Civil War Between Pompey and Caesar

To administer the newly conquered lands of the Ardiaeans, the Romans initially divided them into three separate districts or territories. One of these territories stretched from the lands near Scodra north into the Mati River south, with Lissus as its administrative center. Later, after 146 Lissus became the most southern possession of the Roman province of Dalmatia.

Lissus reappears in the events related to the civil wars of Caesar against Pompey. In pursuit of his enemy, Pompey, Caesar crossed the Adriatic and encamped in current Central Albania but still with small contingents. For this, he asked Marc Antony to cross the sea with additional units. From Brundisium, Antony began the sail towards the outlet of the Seman (Apsus) River where Caesar had set his camp but southern winds and the patrols of the hostile Rhodian fleet pushed him north into the harbour of Lissus, Nymhpaeum.

The city itself was controlled by a Pompeian garrison but when the citizens witnessed the stationing of the large Caesarian navy at Nymphaeum they forced the Pompeian garrison and commander out from the city and opened their gates to Marc Antony.

Map showing the landing of Marc Antony’s fleet at Nymphaeum and then Lissus in the course of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Graphic work: Veith, 2006.

During the ensuing battles between Pompey and Caesar around Dyrrachium, Lissus provided essential supplies for Caesar troops. Also, Caesar sent 30 pontoon-s (Gallic ships with flat base) in the river bank of Lissus where they stood as convenient transportation  in case Pompey decided to jump back in Italy (these pontoons were however all burned by Pompey’s son – Polyb. II. XXVIII).

After the war against Pompey was transferred south, Caesar placed a cohort in Lissus to maintain it under his possession. This cohort seems to have marked the establishment of a community of Roman colons in Lissus. 

Political and Administrative Organization During Roman Rule

The Roman colons settling in Lissus were mainly merchants seeking to profit from its strategic position along the coastal road from Salona to Dyrrachium and also into the rich mining lands of Dardania and Moesia. The Roman colons formed a community known as “conventus civium Romanorum” (“Council of Roman Citizens”). During Caesar’s time the walls, gates, and towers of Lissus had been reconstructed (this is especially supported by epigraphic evidence of the tabula ansata model on the stone blocks, dated to the civil war period).

Reconstruction of one of the gates of Lissus reinforced with tower.

The conventus also conducted fortification works across the city during the I century C.E. Roughly during the same period, Lissus was officially recognized as “oppidum civium Romanorum”, (“City of Roman Citizens”), apparently during the reign of Octavian (as mentioned by Pliny, NH. II. 22). This status seems to show that all the inhabitants, no matter their background, were granted Roman citizenship; a well-deserved status for a city that had actively supported Caesar. It also reflects a strong Latin influence in Lissus; the city seems to have been among the first urban areas to have been Romanized in the region. 

During Roman Imperial rule, Lissus was governed by a number of hierarchical institutions. The highest governing power was held by the ordo decuriorum, a city council dealing with most important matters of the community. The executive power was held by the diumviri quinquenalis, a council of two magistrates. The edili/aedil dealt with public constructions, city supplies, and other public works while a questor managed the treasury. Since the first quarter of the first century B.C.E., Lissus had earned the status of municipium (a city of second rank) and later the status of colonia (the highest urban rank), apparently during Octavian’s rule. During the early imperial period, the citizens formed two social classes, the “negotiatores” and “mercatores”, while various inscriptions refer to imperial and municipal properties within the city. 

Late Antiquity and Decline

Lissus appears in the “Tabula Peutingeriana”, Lissus’ geo-strategic position is confirmed, the coastal road from Salona to Dyrrachium not only went right through Lissus but the city itself marked the beginning of the road Lissus-Naissus-Ratiaria which linked the Adriatic with the Danubian frontier. During the rule of Diocletian (284-304) the city was included in the province of Praevalitana. List of Hierocles confirms the city as one of the three most important cities of Praevalitana. During IV-V-th centuries the city retracts on the surface, concentrating into the upper parts while abandoning the lower riverside part. This was apparently caused by the Drin River branch of Lissus turning idle as most of its volume supplied the other branch connected with the northern Buna River. This separated Lissus from Nymphaeum as well, preventing it from the direct, lucrative, and prosperous connection to the harbour and the sea. 

Lissus gradually fell in importance when it fell under Byzantine sphere of control and included within the Theme of Dyrrachion. Yet, during VII-VIII centuries it is mentioned by Anonymous of Ravenna as an important coastal city, along with Dyrrachium and Aulona. In 592 the Slavs who had already ravaged Illyrian lands, conquered Lissus and destroyed it almost all. 

Bibliography

Anonymous of Ravenna. Cosmography.

Brunga, L. (2017). Fortified System of Lissus: “The City of 12 Gates”. Editions Universitaires Europeennes EUE.

Diodorus Siculus. Bibliotheca Historica. XV.

Dzino, D. (2010) Illyricum in Roman Politics. Columbia University Press.

Malaj, E. (2017) Lezha gjatë periudhës së Antikitetit (Lissus during the period of the Antiquity), Studime Historike III-IV. Akademia e Studimeve Albanologjike, Instituti Historisë. 

Përzhita, L. (2007). Fortifikime të shek. IV-VI në luginën e Drinit (Via Lissus-Naissus)/Les forteresses de la basse antiquite sur le bassin de Drin (Via Lissus-Naissus). Iliria, XXXIII

Pliny. Naturalis Historia. II.

Tsetskhladze, G.R. (2008). Greek Colonisation. An Account of Greek Colonies and Other Settlements Overseas. Vol. II. Leiden, Boston.

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