History: The Illyrians

Why must one be interested in the land he comes from? Perhaps, it is self-evident. The place you come from holds secrets to your identity. I think this is what draws people to learn about their roots, the discovery of themselves. In life, we are born without identity and as we grow, we seek to discover it; the ultimate discovery is that of the self. Thus an expat is drawn to visit his homeland or at least to learn of its history. What has happened to his ancestors, one thinks, must have some impact on his own destiny. Thus, here I am, teaching myself Albanian history, to learn about my roots and thus myself.

The illyrians, the predecessors to modern Albanians, first footsteps in the Balkans dates back to 1000 BC. Their neighbors to the north were the Celts, who at this time, had yet to migrate to the outer fringe of Europe. To the south, lay Macedon and Greece. Thrace lay to the East, where Romania, and Bulgaria is today. The Slavs were still in North eastern Europe and would not arrive in the Balkans for over 1600 years. Today, of these ancient people, only the Illyrians-now we are called Albanians-and the Greeks have survived. The Macedonians and Thracians have been assimilated.

The first evidence is archaeological. We do not have any written texts in Illyrian. If they had great thinkers, or writers, they probably wrote in Greek or Latin. The Illyrians did not rise into an early civilization. No Parthenon, or Colosseum was on their lands. Moreover, they had problems with a lack of unity, factionalism and even civil war between the various tribes. But owing to a fortuitous location, neighboring Greece and Rome, they must have benefited in culture and trade. Indeed they played a sometimes major role in the Roman Empire.

They had their little settlements, tribes and small kingdoms, such as those of Kings Bardhylis, Clitus, and Glaucus in the 4th century BCE along the eastern coast of the Adriatic sea. But they were not a military power beyond their own kind, other than winning or losing land to their immediate neighbors.  They won Durres from the Greeks and lost land near Lake Ohrid in the east to Macedon under Phillip II, Alexander’s the Great’s father, and later to Alexander himself. However, oppression was accompanied by opportunity; many Illyrian leaders and soldiers joined Alexander’s army on his conquest of the east, a major event in world history. 

After 700 years of independent self-rule, the Illyrians were conquered by Rome something they provoked by attacking settlements on both coasts of the Adriatic and Greek colonies as far as Sicily.  Rome sent a large fleet and took over the coastal Illyrian settlements of Queen Teuta in 228 BC. 11 years later a second Roman expedition was sent to capture the interior. The Illyrians became allied with the Macedonians and the war between the two sides lasted 51 long years. Genthius, the last Illyrian king surrendered in 168 BCE. 

At the end of the war, the whole Balkan Peninsula became Roman territory. The Romans called Illyria the provence of Illyricum; it stretched all the way to Istria, modern Slovenia in the North down to the river Drin, in central Albania in the south; its capital city, Salona, was in modern Croatia, near today’s Split. Dalmatia and Pannonia were its two states.

The Romans held Illyria for four centuries. While there they brought much civilization such as the construction of the Via Ignatia, the army road, aqueducts and an ampitheatre, still standing today. They heavily influenced the population, by colonizing the coast. I myself am half Arumunian, (Vlach) of the very people descended from the Roman colonists. Today. the Arumunians are a large Balkan minority whose language is derived from Latin.

Many Illyrian soldiers joined the Roman legion and distinguished themselves reaching the high ranks of the Praetorian guard and a few even entered history as Roman emperors, such as Claudius II, Aurelian, Diocletian, and Constantine the  Great, the first Christian emperor and founder of Byzantium, and later Byzantine emperor Justinian who built the Hagia Sophia, the model for all Greek Orthodox churches. St Paul himself preached in Illyricum, and though Albania today is thought of as predominantly Muslim, historically, it was Christian for over 1000 years.

Selected Sources:

  • The Albanians: A Country Study, Robert Elsie / Walter Iskaw
  • Encyclopedia Brittanica: Illyria
  • Wikipedia: Illyria