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[[Image:IlllyrianFootmanwithJavelins.jpg|thumb|right|150px|Depiction of a footman wearing a plumed pot helmet,Hallstatt culture Bronze belt plaque from Vačemarker, Sloveniamarker, ca. 400 BC.]]

The Illyrians ( ; or Illyri) were a group of tribes who inhabited the Western Balkans during classical antiquity. The territory the tribes covered came to be known as Illyria to Greek and Roman authors, corresponding roughly to the area of the former Yugoslavia and Albania, between the Adriatic sea in the west, the Drava river in the north, the Morava river in the east and the mouth of Vjosëmarker river in the south.The first account of Illyrian peoples comes from Periplus or Coastal passage an ancient Greek text of the middle of the 4th century BC.

These tribes, or at least a number of tribes considered "Illyrians proper", are assumed to have been united by a common Illyrian language, of which only small fragments are attested enough to classify it as a branch of Indo-European. The name Illyrians seems to be an Ancient Greek exonym and we have no way of knowing what they called themselves or if they later adopted the exonym but most Illyrians did not use this name.

Illyrians were last mentioned in 7th century . All the remaining tribes except perhaps the Romanized Vlachs were slavicised in the course of the Middle Ages, while the Albanians may represent an instance of southern Illyrian (or Thraco-Illyrian) continuity.

In the 19th century, an Illyrian national identity became significant in Croatian and to a degree Serbian nationalism. In Communist Albania, an Illyrian national identity also began to play a significant role in Albanian nationalism.

Mythological foundation

Illyrius & siblings
In Greek mythology, Illyrius was the son of Cadmus and Harmonia who eventually ruled Illyria and became the eponymous ancestor of the whole Illyrian people. Also Illyrius had six sons Encheleus, Autarieus, Dardanus, Maedus, Taulas and Perrhabeus also daughters Partho, Daortho, Dassaro and others. From these sprang Taulantii, Parthini, Dardani, Enchelaeae, Autariates, Dassaretae and the Daors. Autareius had a son Pannonius or Paeon and these had sons Scordiscus and Triballus. A later version of it is having as parents Polyphemus and Galatea that give birth to Celtus,Galas and Illyrius.The second myth could stem perhaps from the similarities to Celts and Gauls.

Origins and ethnogenesis

Ethnogenesis of the Illyrians.
The historical beginning of the peoples we later know as Illyrians is placed at approximately 1000 BC.The ethnogenesis of the Illyrians remains a problem for modern prehistorians. The consensus of the primordialists (those who take ethnicity for a basic organizing principle since ancient times) is that the ethno-linguistic ancestors of the Illyrians, labelled Proto-Illyrians, branched off from the main linguistic Proto-Indo-European trunk before the Iron Age. Current theories of Illyrian origin are based on ancient remnants of material culture found in the area, but archaeological remains alone have so far proven insufficient for a definite answer to the question of the Illyrian ethnogenesis.

When the Proto-Illyrians became a distinct group remains unclear. They emerge out of the wider Paleo-Balkans group by the Iron Age, although, since the language is not known in any detail, it is uncertain which populations should be classed as "Illyrian" on ethno-linguistic grounds, and many tribes formerly classed as Illyrian are now considered Venetic.

An autochthonous model, assuming an Illyrian ethnogenesis in the Balkans, was proposed by A. Benać and B. Čović, archaeologists from Sarajevomarker, which hypothesize that during the Bronze Age there took place a progressive Illyrianization of peoples dwelling in the lands between the Adriaticmarker and the Sava river. This theory was also proposed and supported by Albanian archaeologists for the southern Illyrian tribes, while Aleksandar Stipčević says that the most convincing model of Illyrian ethnogenesis was that of autochthony, excluding Liburnians

Identity and distribution

Illyrian sites
The name of Illyrians as applied by the ancient Greeks to their northern neighbours may have referred to a broad, ill-defined group of peoples, and it is today unclear to what extent they were linguistically and culturally homogeneous.The term Illyrioi may originally have designated only a single people that came to be widely known to the Greeks due to proximity.Indeed, such a people known as the Illyrioi have occupied a small and well-defined part of the south Adriatic coast, around Skadar Lakemarker astride the modern frontier between Albaniamarker and Montenegromarker. The name may then have expanded and come to be applied to ethnically different peoples such as the Liburni, Delmatae, Iapodes, or the Pannonii.

Pliny, in his work Natural History, applies a stricter usage of the term Illyrii, when speaking of Illyrii proprie dicti ("Illyrians properly so-called") among the native communities in the south of Roman Dalmatia. A passage within Appian's Illyrike (stating that the Illyrians lived beyond Macedonia and Thrace, from Chaonia and Thesprotiamarker to the Danube River) is also representative of the broader usage of the term.


Archaic period

Classical period

Illyria appears in Greco-Roman historiography from the 4th century BC.

Hellenistic period

Illyrian tribes (pre-Roman conquest).

The Illyrians formed several kingdoms in the central Balkans, and the first known Illyrian king was Bardyllis. Illyrian kingdoms were often at war with ancient Macedonia, and the Illyrian pirates were also a significant danger to neighbouring peoples. At the delta of Neretvamarker, there was a strong Hellenistic influence on the Illyrian tribe of Daors. Their capital was Daorson located in Ošanići near Stolacmarker in Herzegovina, which became the main center of classical Illyrian culture. Daorson, during the 4th century BC, was surrounded by megalithic, 5 meter high stonewalls (large as those of Mycenaemarker in Greecemarker), composed out of large trapeze stones blocks. Daors also made unique bronze coins and sculptures. The Illyrians even conquered Greek colonies on the Dalmatian islands. Queen Teuta was famous for having waged wars against the Romans

In the Illyrian Wars of 229 BC, 219 BC and 168 BC Rome overran the Illyrian settlements and suppressed the piracy that had made the Adriaticmarker unsafe for Italian commerce. There were three campaigns, the first against Teuta the second against Demetrius of Pharos and the third against Gentius. The initial campaign in 229 BC marks the first time that the Roman Navy crossed the Adriatic Sea to launch an invasion.

The Roman Republic subdued the Illyrians during the 2nd century BC. An Illyrian revolt was crushed under Augustus, resulting in the division of Illyria in the provinces of Pannonia in the north and Dalmatia in the south.

Roman rule

The Roman province Illyricum.

The Roman province of Illyricum or Illyris Romana or Illyris Barbara or Illyria Barbara replaced most of the region of Illyria. It stretched from the Drilon river in modern Albaniamarker to Istriamarker (Croatiamarker) in the west and to the Sava river (Bosnia and Herzegovinamarker) in the north. Salona (near modern Splitmarker in Croatia) functioned as its capital.The regions which it included changed through the centuries though a great part of ancient Illyria remained part of Illyricum as a province while south Illyria became Epirus Nova.

Under the Byzantine Empire, there was again a prefecture of Illyricum, which in the 7th century was overrun by the Slavic incursions and ultimately absorbed into the emerging Slavic states, the First Bulgarian Empire, the Serb Archonty and the Croat Duchy. And later on, from the 10th century, into parts of the early Bosnian Kingdom


The history of Illyrian warfare spans from ca. 10th century BC up to the 1st century AD in the region defined by Ancient Greek and Latin historians as Illyria. It concerns the armed conflicts of the Illyrian tribes and their kingdoms in the Balkans in Italy as well as pirate activity in Mediterraneanmarker and Adriatic seamarker. Apart from conflicts between Illyrians and neighboring nations and tribes, numerous wars were recorded among Illyrian tribes too.


Illyrians were regarded as an bloodthirsty, unpredictable turbulent and warlike peoples by Greeks and Romans.They were seen as savages on the edge of their world.We must note that this was a stereotypical view of all northern 'barbarians' and could represent a fearfull impression of the Illyrians and their tenacity after fighting them. Polybius (3rd century BC) writes that "the Romans had freed the Greeks from the enemies of all mankind".

Livy(59 BCAD 17) writes;

"the coasts of Italy destitute of harbours, and, on the right, the Illyrians, Liburnians, and Istrians, nations of savages, and noted in general for piracy, he passed on to the coasts of the Venetians"


The Illyrian town of Rhizon (Risan, Montenegromarker) had its own protector called Medauras, depicted as carrying a lance and riding on horseback. Human sacrifice also played a role in the lives of the Illyrians.

Arrian records the chieftain Cleitus the Illyrian as sacrificing three boys, three girls and three rams just before his battle with Alexander the Great. The most common type of burial among the Iron Age Illyrians was tumulus or mound burial. The kin of the first tumuli was buried around that, and the higher the status of those in these burials the higher the mound. Archaeology has found many artifacts placed within these tumuli such as weapons, ornaments, garments and clay vessels. Illyrians believed these items were necessary for a dead person's journey into the afterlife.

The apostle Paul said of himself that he had preached the gospel "from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum" , but the region is not mentioned again in the Bible.

Extinction of ethnicity and language

Ethno-linguistic groups in S.E.E c.
4th century
Little more can be said of the languages of Illyria than that they were Indo-European. It is not clear whether Illyrian languages belonged centum or satem group.

If Messapian is considered an Illyrian dialect, the vast majority of our knowledge of Illyrian is based on Messapian. The non-Messapic testimonies of Illyrian are too fragmentary to be certain whether Messapian should be considered part of Illyrian proper, but it is widely thought that Messapian was in some way related to Illyrian.

Messapian (also known as Messapic) is an extinct Indo-European language of South-eastern Italymarker, once spoken in Messapia (modern Salentomarker). It was spoken by the three Iapygian tribes of the region: the Messapians, the Daunii and the Peucetii.

The Illyrian languages have been thought connected to Venetic language but this view was abandoned later. Other scholars linked it with the adjacent Thracian language supposing an intermediate convergence area or dialect continuum, but also this view is not generally supported.

All these languages were likely extinct by the 6th century although the Albanian language may represent a remote descendant of Illyrian dialects that survived in remote areas of the Balkans during the Middle Ages. This would have happened along the boundary of Latin and Greek linguistic influence (the Jireček Line). Not enough is known of the ancient language to either prove or disprove this hypothesis (see Origin of Albanians).

Today almost nothing of it survives except for names.The Illyrians in the antiquity were subject to varying degrees of Celticization, Hellenization, Romanization and later Slavicisation.

Physical characteristics

According to the Romans the Illyrians were tall and well-built.Herodianus writes that "Pannonians are tall and strong always ready for a fight and to face danger but slow witted". Of course this could also be considered a stereotype of the Romans used for identifying Barbarians.

Prehistoric remains indicate no more than average height, male 165 cm, female 153 cm.

No major genetic study have been made so far concerning old Balkan population and their genetic affinities with current European population. This would require mitochondrial DNA on the skeletal remains of a number of old Illyrian population the Adriatic and inland regions, dating from the Bronze and Iron Age. This study would require human fossil bones of about 20 individuals dating about 3200–4100 years, from the Bronze Age, belonging to some cultures found across the region we later know as Illyria.

Famous individuals

This is a list of several important Illyrian individuals or those of partly Illyrian origin.


In the western Balkans, there are few remains to connect with the bronze-using Proto-Illyrians in Albaniamarker, Montenegromarker, Kosovomarker, Croatiamarker, western Serbiamarker, and eastern Bosnia. Moreover, with the notable exception of Pod near Bugojnomarker in the upper valley of the Vrbas Rivermarker, nothing is known of their settlements. Some hill settlements have been identified in western Serbia, but the main evidence comes from cemeteries, consisting usually of a small number of burial mounds (tumuli). In eastern Bosnia in the cemeteries of Belotić and Bela Crkva, the rites of exhumation and cremation are attested, with skeletons in stone cists and cremations in urns. Metal implements appear here side-by-side with stone implements. Most of the remains belong to the fully developed Middle Bronze Age.

During the 7th century BC, when bronze was replaced by iron, the Illyrians became an ethnic group with a distinct culture and art form, and only jewelry and art objects were still made out of bronze. Different Illyrian tribes appeared, under the influence of the Halstatmarker cultures from the north, and they organized their regional centers. The cult of the dead played an important role in the lives of the Illyrians, which is seen in their carefully made burials and burial ceremonies, as well as the richness of the burial sites. In the northern parts of the Balkans, there existed a long tradition of cremation and burial in shallow graves, while in the southern parts, the dead were buried in large stone, or earth tumuli (natively called gromile) that in Herzegovina were reaching monumental sizes, more than 50 meters wide and 5 meters high.The Japodian tribe (found from Istriamarker in Croatiamarker to Bihaćmarker in Bosnia) have had an affinity for decoration with heavy, oversized necklaces out of yellow, blue or white glass paste, and large bronze fibulas, as well as spiral bracelets, diadems and helmets out of bronze. Small sculptures out of jade in form of archaic Ionian plastic are also characteristically Japodian. Numerous monumental sculptures are preserved, as well as walls of citadel Nezakcij near Pulamarker, one of numerous Istrian cities from Iron Age.Illyrian chiefs wore bronze torques around their necks much like the Celts did.Celts had effected the Illyrians in many cultural and material aspects and some of them were Celticized, espesially the tribes in Dalmatia and the Pannonians.


Middle Ages

The Illyrians were mentioned for the last time in the Miracula Sancti Demetri during the 7th century. With the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Gothic and Hunnic tribes raided the Balkan peninsula, making many Illyrians seek refuge in the highlands. With the arrival of the Slavs in the 6th century, most Illyrians were Slavicized.A few of the Romanised Illyrians from the Adriatic coast did manage to preserve their blended culture. Many fled to the mountains, surviving as shepherds, and kept speaking their Romance language. They are referred to as Morlachs. Others took refuge inside the defended cities of the coast, where they kept Roman culture alive for many centuries, but were also eventually assimilated by the expanding Slavic population of the mainland.

The first historical mention of the Albanians appears in an account of the resistance by a Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, to an offensive by the Vatican-backed Normans from southern Italy into the Albanian-populated lands in 1081. The earliest reference to a Lingua Albanesca is from a 1285 document of Ragusa and the earliest accepted document in the Albanian language is from the 15th century. The origins of the Albanians are not definitely known, but a certain amount of Illyrian-Albanian continuity is generally assumed to be plausible.

Early Modern usage

During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the term "Illyrian" was used to describe Croats living within the territories of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italymarker, Austria, Hungary and Serbia (and in other countries abroad). However, on the territory of Venetian Albania (possessions of the Republic of Venice on the territory of Montenegro) and further southward, that term has been used to designate Albanians.

The term Illyrians was utilized in late medieval texts such as in Mazaris' Journey to Hades (a work written by Byzantine author Mazaris between January 1414 and October 1415). In Mazaris' case, the term was used to designate "Albanians" (i.e. Arvanites).

The term was revived again during the Habsburg Monarchy, but it was designated towards South Slavs. This association was based on the opinion that the South Slavs were descendants of Slavicized Illyrians.

In Nationalism

When Napoleon conquered part of the South Slavic lands in the beginning of the 19th century, these areas were named after ancient Illyrian provinces. Under the influence of Romantic nationalism, a self-identified "Illyrian movement" ( ) in the form of a Croatian national revival, opened a literary and journalistic campaign that was initiated by a group of young Croatian intellectuals during the years of 1835-1849. This movement, under the banner of Illlyrism, aimed to create a Croatian national establishment under Austro-Hungarian rule, through linguistic and ethnic unity among South Slavs. It was repressed by the Habsburg authorities after the failed Revolutions of 1848.

The possible continuity between the Illyrian populations of the Western Bakans in antiquity and the Albanians has also played a significant role as a national myth in Albanian nationalism from the 19th century until the present day. For example, Ibrahim Rugova, the first president of UN-administered Kosovo introduced the "flag of Dardania" on October 29, 2000, Dardania being the name for a Thraco-Illyrian region roughly coterminous with modern Kosovo.

See also



  • Arthur John Evans. Antiquarian researches in Illyricum, I-IV, Archaeologia. Westminster: Nichols & sons, 1883-1885. Communicated to the Society of Antiquaries of London. (The Internet Archive, full access)
  • Arthur John Evans. Illyrian Letters. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1878. (Google Books, full access) See also the 2004 reprint of this book from Adamant Media Corporation, ISBN 1402150709, ISBN 978-1402150708.
  • Benac A. 'Vorillyrier, Protoillyrier und Urillyrier' in: A. Benac(ed.) Symposium sur la delimitation Territoriale et chronologique des Illyriens a l’epoque Prehistorique, Sarajevo 1964, pp. 59–94.
  • Cabanes, P. Les Illyriens de Bardylis à Genthios: IVe – IIe siècles avant J. – C. Paris, 1988.
  • Crystal, David. The New Penguin Factfinder. Penguin, 2004. ISBN 0141011092
  • Kipfer, Barbara Ann. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology. Springer, 2000. ISBN 0306461587
  • Kohl, Philip L. and Fawcett, Clare. Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology. Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0521480655
  • Kühn, Herbert. Geschichte der Vorgeschichtsforschung. Walter de Gruyter, 1976. ISBN 3110059185
  • Mazaris: Mazaris' Journey to Hades: or, Interviews with dead men about certain officials of the imperial court. Greek text with translation, notes, introduction and index. (Seminar Classics 609). Buffalo NY: Dept. of Classics, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1975.
  • Srejovic, Dragoslav. Les Illyriens et Thraces, 1997.
  • Stipčević, Alexander. Iliri (2nd edition). Zagreb, 1989 (also published in Italian as Gli Illiri).
  • West, Martin Litchfield. Ancient Greek Music. Oxford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0198149751
  • Wilkes, J. J. The Illyrians. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1992. ISBN 0-631-14671-7
  • Miranda Vickers. The Albanians. I.B. Tauris, 1999. ISBN 1860645410

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