Alexander III “the Great”.

Before Conquering the World: Four Distinguished Personalities Who Matured in Ancient Albania

Illyria, especially the part corresponding to Albania, was in antiquity constantly involved in the affairs of other states. Because of their geostrategic position, Illyrian lands often hosted famous personalities in search of glory. In many cases, such personalities used the territory of Albania as a way to jumpstart their military careers. The following are the four most distinguished personalities of antiquity who were “Albanized” before conquering the world. 

Philip II of Macedon- 

Period He Resided in Albania: 379 – 369 B.C.E.

In 393 B.C.E., the Illyrians led by their king Bardylis I launched a full invasion of Macedon. The Macedonian kingdom was then vulnerable and the invasion forced the ruling king Amyntas II out of the country. The exiled king found refuge in Thessaly and managed to reclaim his throne with Thessalian aid only two years later.

However, the Illyrian threat over Macedon remained present, likely forcing Amyntas out of his kingdom again. Eventually, Amyntas had to recognize Illyrian suzerainty over Macedon in the form of yearly tributes. To guarantee Amyntas’ compliance, his youngest son Philip was sent into Illyria as a hostage. 

Young Philip spent at least two years (379-376) in Illyria and at most ten years (379-369); from 3 to 13 years of age or from 11 to 13. In Macedonian tradition, these were the most important years in the maturity of men. Philip’s stay in Illyria happened at a key time when Bardylis, then king in Illyria, was reforming and expanding his army. Rather than a prisoner in chains, Philip’s captivity was symbolic; he stayed in Illyria as an honorable guest free to learn and practice his royal activities. 

Even if we assume Philip stayed at the court of Bardylis for only two years, this was enough time for him to learn the effectiveness of Illyrians using cavalry in combination with the infantry. As such, Philip’s stay in Illyria had at least the same profound effect on the young prince as his more famous stay in Thebes did. When in southeast Albania, Philip observed firsthand the effectiveness of Bardylis infantry-cavalry combination against the hoplite formations of the Molossians, then enemies of Bardylis. 

The Macedonian king adopted the same tactics against his neighbors and the Greeks during his expansive rule. His first major win in battle was precisely against Bardylis, in 358. This win marked the beginning of the Macedonian hegemony. The rest is history; with Illyrian experience on defeating hoplite formations (and adaptation of phalanx formation), Philip became the most powerful leader of his time. 

Philip II of Macedon - Illustration by Joan Francesc Oliveras Pallerols.
Philip II of Macedon – Illustration by Joan Francesc Oliveras Pallerols.

Alexander III “the Great” –

Period He Resided in Albania: 337- 336 B.C.E.

In 337 B.C.E., prince Alexander of Macedon sensed a threat to his inheritance when his father Philip II married Cleopatra/Eurydice. In the marriage symposium, Alexander assaulted the uncle of the spouse causing the irritation of Philip with him. After the incident, Alexander went into a self-imposed exile in Illyria while his mother Olympias went into Epirus. 

The exact location of Alexander’s residence in Illyria/Albania remains obscure. He likely stayed as an honorable guest at the court of king Glaucias of Taulantii, in central Albania. In Illyria, Alexander got to witness firsthand the military tactics of the Illyrians; the Macedonian prince also accustomed himself to the rough terrain of the Illyrian countryside. All this insight proved valuable in Alexander’s first year on the throne when he took an expedition in southeastern Illyria.  

Alexander’s campaign in Illyria occurred during the summer of 335; his second military campaign as a king after that against Thrace. This was also one of Alexander’s toughest campaigns ever ran or conducted. The young king met the Illyrians somewhere in the upper Devoll River, south-east Albania. His army was nearly obliterated along the narrow gorge by the Illyrians striking from above. Alexander’s cool head and familiarity with the rough Illyrian terrain saved him and his army from disaster. Alexander eventually concluded his campaign against the Illyrians of Cleitus and Glaucias with a victory. However, the previous loss in the gorges influenced his decision not to advance inland. The king even got a serious wound during the intense fighting; a wound that spread dangerous rumors of him having been killed. 

To settle the rumors, Alexander quickly moved against the unsettled Thebans; a campaign he concluded by razing Thebe to the ground sending a strong message of his presence. He would then continue to conquer Persia and most of the known world with the same courage and persistence that saved him from the Illyrians. He even deployed the same tactics against the mountain people from Areia, Bactria, and Sogdiana as those deployed in Albania.

Alexander III “the Great”- Illustration by Joan Francesc Oliveras Pallerols.
Alexander III “the Great”- Illustration by Joan Francesc Oliveras Pallerols.

Pyrrhus of Epirus “the Eagle” – 

Period He Resided in Albania: 317-306 B.C.E.

Most people know Pyrrhus I of Epirus from the epic battles he waged against the Romans. Little do they know about Pyrrhus’ childhood and life before the Roman adventure. Although Pyrrhus was born in the royal house of the Molossians, he suffered from severe threats since he was six years old. At that time (317 B.C.E.), his father Aeacides was expelled from his kingdom by agents of the Macedonian king Cassander. The Macedonian sent people to kill the infant son too. However, with the help of a few loyal, the child was saved and sent north to the Illyrian court of king Glaucias. 

The Illyrian king, moved by the child’s misfortunes, accepted him at his household and reared him as his own son; eventually, his natural father was killed in battle in 313 leaving Glaucias as his only guardian. Attempts of Cassander to bribe Glaucias into delivering up the boy were futile. Pyrrhus remained under the guardianship of Glaucias for eleven years. 

In 306, when Cassander was suffering from Antigonid assaults to his domain, Glaucias sensed an opportunity for restoring Pyrrhus to his throne. The Illyrian took the field with his army, entered Epirus, and established the 12-year-old boy on the Epirote throne. 

The Epirote did not forget his adoptive family and kept close ties with the Albanian-based monarchy. In 302, Pyrrhus returned to Illyria to celebrate the wedding of Glaucias’ son, Bardylis II. This short absence from his domain cost Pyrrhus his throne. With the influence of Cassander, the Epirote ousted their king. Exiled again from his domain, Pyrrhus joined Demetrius the Besieger in his adventures. Ironically, this further shaped the character of the Epirote turning him into the most skilled commander of his time. 

“Child Pyrrhus imploring king Glaucias of Illyria for asylum” - Painting by Angelica Kauffmann. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
“Child Pyrrhus imploring king Glaucias of Illyria for asylum” – Painting by Angelica Kauffmann. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Gaius Octavius “Augustus” – 

Period He Resided in Albania: 45-44 B.C.E.

By 45  B.C.E., Julius Caesar had defeated all his political enemies and become the sole ruler of Rome. At this time, he sent his adopted son (and his great-nephew) Gaius Octavius to Apollonia to receive a prestigious education. Octavius (i.e. Octavian) spent a quiet time in Apollonia, a mighty city corresponding to the current Albanian village Pojan. In the pastoral and gentle slopes of Pojan, the 17-year-old Octavian focused on studying politics, philosophy, rhetoric, and literature. The famous rhetorician Apollodorus of Pergamon taught at the time in Apollonia. Octavian became one of the notable pupils of Apollodorus and befriended his teacher.

Another interesting episode of Octavian in Albanian lands was when he visited the observatory of the astrologer Theogenes. He was accompanied by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, both of them seeking to know their fortune based on zodiac signs. Theogenes predicted amazing things to Agrippa which made Octavian, who was next, hesitant. Yet, when he, at last, revealed his birth date, Theogenes immediately was amazed and threw himself into his feet. This event gave Octavian so much confidence that he declared publicly his zodiac sign, the Capricorn. 

On March 44, Octavian was in Apollonia when he learned that Caesar had been assassinated. After weighing his options, Octavian ultimately decided to return to Rome determined to claim the legacy of Caesar. Armed with the lessons learned in Apollonia, Octavian Augustus became the first Roman emperor. He was a master of political propaganda as much, if not more, as he was of warfare. It was due to wise political actions rather than brute force that Octavian Augustus won the loyalty of legions, senators, and citizens.

Depiction of emperor Octavian Augustus - Detail from “The Emperor Augustus Rebukes Cornelius Cinna For His Treachery” by Etienne-Jean Delécluze, 1814, The Bowes Museum.
Depiction of emperor Octavian Augustus – Detail from “The Emperor Augustus Rebukes Cornelius Cinna For His Treachery” by Etienne-Jean Delécluze, 1814, The Bowes Museum.

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