Bardylis: World Class King Who Missed the Spotlight

Bardylis: World Class King Who Missed the Spotlight

Bardylis (“Bardhyll” in modern Albanian language meaning “White-Star”) was king of the Illyrians during 393-358 B.C.E. He was born around 448 B.C.E. as a member of the Illyrian tribe of the Enchelei. The Enchelei inhabited primarily the area around lake Lychnidus (Ohrid).


Although from a humble origin, Bardylis would soon become the ruler of many Illyrian tribes and form one of the strongest states in the region. It can be assumed that he was the founder of the first multi-tribal Illyrian kingdom in contrast with the previous Illyrian states that had been limited only around one specific Illyrian tribe.

The rise of Bardylis I on the Illyrian throne in 395 seems to reflect important social changes that the Illyrian society was experiencing. These changes included the move towards a slave-owning society and towards a militarized state.

The adoption of the hoplite weaponry from the Illyrian soldiers contributed to their superiority towards other regional states, including Macedon. Also, under Bardylis, the use of an Illyrian cavalry in marches and battles became frequent. The elite members of the Illyrian society may have formed the cavalry units as the Illyrian king himself led them.

Prior to his accession in kingship, in his youth, Bardylis was a collier. Later, he became the leader of a band of freebooters. As the leader of this band, Bardylis gained the respect of his followers especially because of his exceptional fairness in the division of the spoils.

During his raids, Bardylis gained valuable experience in combat tactics and military leadership. The lands of northwestern Macedon were among the targets of Bardylis’ band of freebooters. As for the dynamics of his rise to the Illyrian throne, there is no evidence describing them.

Depiction of Bardylis in a postage stamp of the Albanian Republic issued in 1990 as part of the collection named "Figura të Shquara Ilire" ("Prominent Illyrian Figures").
Depiction of Bardylis in a postage stamp of the Albanian Republic issued in 1990 as part of the collection named “Figura të Shquara Ilire” (“Prominent Illyrian Figures”).

A reasonable assumption suggests that Bardylis seized power by force. Namely, he overthrew a ruler of weak authority and/or popularity (potentially Sirras). The latter had apparently made an unfavorable treaty with Macedon, enough to rally the people to Bardylis’ cause.

The realm of Bardylis

The borders of the kingdom ruled by Bardylis are not clear. It now seems that the lands controlled by the Illyrian ruler may have been greater than it had been traditionally perceived. Pajakowksi, based on the large number of troops that Bardylis was able to deploy later against Philip II and on a fragment preserved by Kalisthenes, claims that Bardylis ruled over a vast territory.

Notably, in its zenith, his kingdom stretched from the Gulf of Rhizones (Kotor) in the northwest to the lands of the Bylliones in the south, including the important colonies of Dyrrachium and Apollonia in his domains. In the southeast, it clearly controlled the lands around Lake Lychnidus and Dassaretis whereas in the east it bordered with the lands of the Paeonians and the Dardanians.

The claim of Pajakowksi does not seem far from the truth. The recent discovery of two Illyrian royal palaces (one built before 260 B.C.E.) in what was then Rhizon (Risan in current Montenegro) confirms the presence of Illyrian royal authority in these parts. On the other hand, other modern scholars have supported the southern border proposed by Pajakowski. This borderline can be naturally placed in the lower and middle stream of the Aoos (Vjosa) River and then into southern Dassaretis.

Map showing the domain of Bardylis noted as "Illyria" and its neighbor-states, Macedon, Dardania, Paeonia, and Epirus.
Map showing the domain of Bardylis noted as “Illyria” and its neighbor-states, Macedon, Dardania, Paeonia, and Epirus.

As for the colonies of Dyrrachium and Apollonia, it cannot be stated for certain that they were put under the direct authority of Bardylis. However, the lack of literal sources regarding these colonies pertaining to the ruling period of Bardylis indicates at least the establishment of productive and peaceful relationships between these Hellenic colonies and the Illyrian kingdom.

Rule in Dardanian territory

During his rule, Bardylis was able to take into control the important Dardanian city of Damastion and its silver mines. The control over Damastion must have improved the financial prosperity of the Illyrian state and may have encouraged the Illyrian commerce with other populations and tribes of the north. Furthermore, under the example of Damastion, Bardylis founded in 365 B.C.E., another center for coin emission in Daparri of current Kosova.

The control over Damastion has led some modern scholars to view Bardylis exclusively as “king of the Dardanians”. This view should be regarded as an outdated one. Treating Bardylis as king of the Dardanians would imply that he ruled only over one particular Illyrian tribe (in this case over the Dardanians). This does not seem to have been the case. Although Dardania may have fallen under the control of Bardylis, his kingdom included other Illyrian tribes such as the Encheleii, the Dassaretae, the Taulantii/Parthini, and so on. Thus, a “king of the Illyrians” labeling is more plausible.

Fight For Lyncestis

Upon establishing himself on the Illyrian throne, Bardylis turned his attention towards Lyncestis, a region located just east of lake Lychnidus. The lands of this region had traditionally been an area of conflict between the Macedonians and the Illyrians. Both these entities aimed at ensuring their control over Lyncestis or at establishing their influence there. Furthermore, even in a broader geographical perspective, the Illyrian tribes and the Macedonians maintained a continuous hostile behavior towards each other. Bardylis was certainly aware of the power dynamics of the region and the general strength of Macedon.

Depiction of light-armed Illyrian warriors of the Classical Antiquity.
Depiction of light-armed Illyrian warriors of the Classical Antiquity.

The political crisis that had spread across Macedon after the assassination of the Macedonian king Archelaus I in 399 B.C.E. provided a striking opportunity for the Illyrians. Having apparently noticed the instability of the Macedonian state, Bardylis took the initiative in 393 B.C.E. In this year, the Illyrians stormed Macedon, apparently passing through the lands of Lyncestis and having faced no significant resistance during their march. During this incursion, the Illyrians took control of the whole of Upper Macedon and drove out of his kingdom the then king of Macedon, Amyntas II.

Taking Young Philip II as Hostage

The Illyrians established Argaeus, presumably a member of the royal house of the Lyncestae, on the throne of Macedon in the place of the exiled Amyntas. The establishment of Argaeus from Lyncestis on the Macedonian throne indicates a prior agreement between the Illyrians of Bardylis and the inhabitants of Lyncestis. This agreement seems to have included the safe passage of the troops of Bardylis through Lyncestis and additional military support.

Argaeus ruled over Macedon for two years (393-391). During this time, he must have acted as a puppet king in favor of Illyrian interests. Meanwhile, Amyntas had found refugee in Thessaly where he apparently still enjoyed support. With the help of troops from Thessaly, Amyntas managed to reenter Macedon and reclaim its throne.

A state of tension followed Amyntas’ comeback since the Macedonian king was able to reestablish himself over the throne only after having made a peace treaty with the Illyrians of Bardylis. Accordingly, Amyntas committed to paying yearly tributes to the Illyrians. Furthermore, the Macedonian king delivered his youngest son, Philip, as a hostage and peace guarantor at the hands of the Illyrians. The Illyrians were those who, after some years, delivered the young Philip (later Philip II) at the custody of the Thebans.

Portrait of Philip II who spent at least two years as a young prince in Illyria and at most ten years; later became the king of Macedon who defeated Bardylis.
Portrait of Philip II who spent at least two years as a young prince in Illyria and at most ten years; later became the king of Macedon who defeated Bardylis.

Back again against Macedon

Diodorus provides an account referring to another major incursion of the Illyrians against Macedon sometime during 383-382 B.C.E. Some have argued that this account represents merely a repetition of the campaign carried out a decade ago. However, it can well be that the account of Diodorus constitutes an authentic source referring to a second expedition of the Illyrians against Macedon. In such a case, this Illyrian invasion forced the Macedonian king Amyntas II to leave the country for a second time.

The occurrence of this expedition may have been the result of several reasons. One of them may relate to potential efforts made by Amyntas to escape from the yearly tributes owed to Bardylis. The latter, being clearly superior in military capacities, would have assaulted accordingly to reestablish the favorable terms of the peace treaty.

Around 370 the Illyrians of Bardylis conquered Upper Macedon once more. The newly crowned king of Macedon, Alexander II was forced to make large payments to the Illyrians in order to preserve his authority. Also, this was the only way for Alexander to establish e peace with Bardylis and his superior forces. However, the peace established would not continue long as in 368, Alexander II was killed by Ptolemy Aloros who in turn was killed by Perdikkas III. According to the diplomatic standards of that time, peace between two states (two kings) was in power as long as both of their kings were alive. This would explain the campaigns of Bardylis against Macedon each time a new king had come into power (393, 370, and 368 B.C.E.).

Perdikkas, unwilling to accept the tributes imposed on Macedon by Bardylis, relied on military solutions to curb down the Illyrian influence. Eventually, a major battle took place between the two sides where the Illyrians of Bardylis came up victorious. Diodorus reports this event as follows:

[Perdikkas] was defeated in a great battle by the Illyrians and fell in the action…the Macedonians…lost more than four thousand men in the battle, and the remainder…had become exceedingly afraid of the Illyrian armies and had lost courage for continuing the war” (Diodorus, XVI, II)

The Alliance with Syracuse

In between the two Illyrian campaigns against Macedon, an important development is noticed regarding the relations of Bardylis with western polities. Notably, in 385 Bardylis established an alliance with the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I the Elder (r. 405-367). This alliance was mediated by the exiled Molossian prince of Epirus, Alcetas I. The latter had found refugee in Syracuse after being forced out of his country by a pro-Spartan party in Epirus. As such, a term of the alliance between Bardylis I and Dionysius I included the establishment of Alcetas on the throne of Epirus.

From restoring the Molossian prince in the royal court of Epirus, Bardylis would keep out the Spartan and Macedonian influence in the region. On the other hand, Dionysius of Syracuse would strengthen his commercial position on both sides of the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea.

Accordingly, Dionysius sent about 2,000 of his own troops into Illyria as well as 500 units of military equipment. Alcetas crossed the sea as well to reclaim his throne. Dionysius himself did not join the expedition. An injury the tyrant had received while fighting against the Rhegines a year ago prevented him from engaging personally. Thus, the troops from Syracuse were put under direct command of Bardylis. Furthermore, Diodorus states that the troops from Syracuse were ordered by the Illyrian king to intermingle with his Illyrian troops.

The cooperation between Bardylis and Dionysius included the establishment of a Syracusan base along the Illyrian coast. Thus, a corpus of engineers and constructors from Syracuse must have crossed the sea and arrived into Lissus, the place chosen for such a base. They erected important fortifying structures around the settlement. However, soon the project of a Syracusan base in Lissus was abandoned in the upcoming years. Thus, it continued to be used by the Illyrians as their own base and urban settlement.

Campaign in Epirus

Having integrated the Sicilian contingent into his own army, Bardylis advanced into Epirus. It is reported that the Illyrian incursion was so aggressive that 15,000 Molossians (apparently part of the pro-Spartan party) were killed in combat. Alcetas was restored in the throne of Epirus while other regions along the southern border of the Illyrian kingdom were liberated. The campaign was clearly successful and it may have advanced more that it was initially planned. Ultimately, the Illyrians had to retreat after the Spartans arrived to prevent any further Illyrian advance. A direct clash between the Illyrian and the Spartans may have been undesired at this point, as Dionysius had established an important alliance with Sparta. However, the campaign of 385 had already ensured the Illyrian influence over northern Epirus.

Back again against Epirus

The Illyrians would conduct another campaign against central Epirus in 360. This time the ruler of Epirus had to rely on a planned ambush to cope with the enemy. Frontinus describes the events that ensued:

When Harrybas, king of the Molossians, was attacked in war by Bardylis, the Illyrian, who commanded a considerably larger army, he dispatched the non-combatant portion of his subjects to the neighbouring district of Aetolia, and spread the report that he was yielding up his towns and possessions to the Aetolians. He himself, with those who could bear arms, placed ambuscades here and there on the mountains and in other inaccessible places. The Illyrians, fearful lest the possessions of the Molossians should be seized by the Aetolians, began to race along in disorder, in their eagerness for plunder. As soon as they became scattered, Harrybas, emerging from his concealment and taking them unawares, routed them and put them to flight.” (Frontinus, Stratagems)

Although forced into retreat, northern Epirus continued to remain under the influence of Bardylis. The superiority of Illyrian arms implied by Frontinus would not have allowed the king of Epirus to pursue the enemy and attempt to regain the lands lost to Illyrians 25 years ago. Epirus would have to wait for the reign of Pyrrhus to revive its strength.

Macedonian Ascendancy 

Philip II ascended the Macedonian throne in 359 at a position dependent on a certain hegemony of Bardylis in the area. Aware of this Illyrian dominance and determined to first strengthen his authority domestically, Philip immediately sued Bardylis for peace. The terms of the peace recognized the Illyrian influence over Lyncestis/Lyncus and ratified the payment of a yearly tribute by the Macedonian king as with other Macedonian royal predecessors. Yet, the payment also meant the establishment of a non-aggression pact between the Illyrians and Macedonians, a pact that would give Philip enough oxygen to settle his internal affairs and lay the foundation to a stunning Macedonian state. Both parties agreed to the terms with Illyrians apparently unable to foresee Philip’s imperial and unprecedented vision. 

Only a year later it must have become clear to the Illyrians that the peace with the new king of Macedonia had been a geo-strategic and military mistake. Philip had used this time very well by rebuilding his army and reforming his military tactics. The Macedonian king had also defeated Argaeus, a claimant to the Macedonian throne, and had crushed the Paeonian during winter.

Noticing the rising strength of their eastern neighbor, Bardylis gathered large Illyrian forces and began to make preparation for an invasion of Macedonia. If successful, this Illyrian campaign would curb Philip’s attempt to create a solid and imperial Macedonian state and it could either lead to a creation of the Illyrian empire instead. The Macedonian king was determined to prevent this scenario. At the charge of his army, Philip moved from Pella to Elimiotis on the bend of the Haliacmon (Crna) River. 

Battle of the Lyncus Plain (Erigon Valley)

The Macedonians could march freely into Elimiotis since Philip had arranged an alliance with this region, sealed by a marriage with Phila, a daughter of the Elimiotian ruler. Here, Philip prepared the tactics for defeating the Illyrians in an open battle. He even reinforced his army with some more Elimiotian troops, apparently cavalry. After Philip “exhorted the men with suitable words to go to war…led his army…into the territory of the Illyrians”. Specifically, Philip crossed through the Kirli Dirven Pass and arrived on the open plain of Lyncus. 

Bardylis with his men also arrived in the Lyncus plain to meet the persisting enemy. The Illyrian king had gathered a large force of 10,000 infantry and 500 hundred cavalries. Philip controlled an equally large infantry and some 600 cavalries. The almost equality in armed soldiers and the determination to settle the rivalry in open battle promised for the ensuing of one of the most epic clashes of antiquity.  

From the available sources we can reconstruct the battle that followed: Initially, the Illyrians positioned in a linear fashion with their heavy infantry matching the phalanx’ width with even deeper files. The best Illyrian fighters occupied the center while less capable skirmishers stood on the sides. The cavalry, led by Bardylis himself, protected the flanks. On the Macedonian side, the phalangites occupied the left and center of Philips’s infantry while hypaspists stood on the right. Philip himself commanded the pezhetairoi, his newly trained Foot Companions armed with the new long sarissa, a unit called by Diodorus as the bulk of the Macedonian army. 

The Fight

The combat started with the Macedonians taking the initiative. Since the Illyrian cavalry is not reported at all in the actual fighting, we can assume that they were driven out of the field early on by the Macedonian cavalry. Left without protection from the flanks, the whole of the Illyrian infantry shifted into an unusual rectangular formation to have a front in all directions and defend itself against cavalry charges of the enemy.

Ancient sources tell about a strong resistance of the Illyrians here and of a fight that stood at a stalemate for some time. In most fights, an enemy standing at an enclosed position without cavalry support would immediately spread into retreat. The best explanation for the Illyrian stance seems to be an inherent belief among the Illyrians that they were superior to Macedonians. Bitter fighting continued between the two forces until the hypaspists caused a gap on Illyrians’ left corner which the pezhetairoi then exploited. when this box formation broke, the remaining Illyrians fled from the battlefield. 

Map of the regional states after Philip II’s expansion following his victory against Bardylis.

After the Illyrians broke in flight, Philip sent his cavalry into a determined pursuit. This was the first time that Philip followed the enemy even after having already secured the victory. This behavior seems to suggest that the Macedonian king wanted to settle the affairs with the Illyrians of Bardylis for good and/or reduce as much as possible the bargaining power of the Illyrian king in the peace negotiations that usually followed such battles. Thus, some more Illyrians were killed in flight increasing the impact of Philip’s victory. 

The Aftermath

Diodorus reports of 7,000 Illyrians who were killed in combat. This figure seems to be an exaggeration meant to illustrate more the defeat of the Illyrian heavy infantry rather than report the actual number of Illyrian casualties. And then we have a strange account of Polyaenus where Philip appears slaughtering Illyrians in violation of a post-battle truce. Polyaenus’ account seems to be an invention in an effort to rationalize the inflated figure of Illyrian victims of Diodorus. Yet, the cost of the battle to Bardylis was not small either, at “several thousand” killed according to Justin. with all accounts considered it seems that some 2,000 Illyrians fell in battle. From the Macedonians, no more than 500 soldiers were killed. 

The defeat of Bardylis marked an important event of the ancient period. It concluded forty years of Illyrian supremacy in the region and started the Macedonian progress towards being a military superpower. It clearly showed that the peltasts of Bardylis were inferior to Philip’s new phalanx and hypaspists, the Illyrian infantry being no match for the well-trained and heavily armed Macedonians. Bardylis, who seemed to have survived the battle, realized the degree of the defeat and signed a peace treaty on Macedonian terms.

Treaty between Philip and Bardylis

According to this treaty, the so-called Upper Macedonian kingdoms including Lyncus were returned to Macedonian suzerainty. It meant the Illyrian state’s border had to retract east of the Ohrid lake. The expansion northwest allowed Philip to double his manpower, a fact that would prove important in his upcoming Aegean challenges. To seal the new treaty Philip married an Illyrian princess named Audata, apparently a daughter or granddaughter of Bardylis, who took the Macedonian name, Eurydice. 

After the defeat in the Lyncus plain, the Illyrians returned their focus south. Bardylis seems to have made another attempt to challenge the Macedonian authority among the Molossians of Epirus. His forces overran the lands north of Epirus but faced strong resistance and soon retreated with no achievement. In contrast with the previous set back in Epirus, this retreat showed that Macedonia could now control the political compass of Epirus and other neighboring states as well.  

Bardylis’ Legacy

Bardylis ruling period is worth more studies along with his impact on the regional scale. He is still regarded as one of the most important kings not only of the Illyrians also of all monarchical states of the Classical Antiquity. He introduced important fighting strategies especially the combined armed strategy concept that relied on the cooperation between infantry and cavalry and the mobility of the latter unit. A focus on siege equipment may have also occurred during Bardylis’ leadership.

These effective combat styles and ideas he seemed to have adopted from the Sicilians and perfected during a time when the young Philip II of Macedon was a hostage in his domain. Philip II spent from one to ten years in Illyria observing first-hand the effectiveness of the combined arms strategy of Bardylis’ army. Most of Philip’s later military innovations are all attributed to the observations he made in Thebes during the time of Epaminondas and Pelopidas.

Yet, almost no scholar has counted Bardylis’ contribution in Philip’s II military mentality that would result in “innovative” Macedonian warfare strategies such as the Macedonian phalanx and the highly mobile cavalry.     


Frontinus. The Strategemata.

Howe, T. (2017). Plain Tales from the Hills: Illyrian Influences on Argead Military Development. History of the Argeads New Perspectives, 2017.

Ray Jr, F.E. (2012). Greek and Macedonian Land Battles of the 4th Century B.C.: A History and Analysis of 187 Engagements. McFarland & Company, Inc Publishers.

Velija, Q. (2012). Mbretëri dhe Mbretër Ilirë. West Print, Tiranë.

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