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Tribes of Epirus in antiquity.

The Molossians ( ) were an ancient Greek tribe that settled Epirus during Mycenaean times. On their northeast frontier they had the Chaonians and to their southern frontier the kingdom of the Thesprotians, to their north were the Illyrians. The Molossians were part of the League of Epirus until they sided against Rome in the Third Macedonian War (171 BC-168 BC). The result was disastrous with the vengeful Romans enslaving 150,000 of its inhabitants and annexing the region into the Roman Empire.


According to Greek mythology, the Molossians were the descendants of Molossus, one of the three sons of Neoptolemus, son of Achilles and Deidamia. Following the sack of Troymarker, Neoptolemus and his armies settled in Epirus where they joined with the local population. Molossus inherited the kingdom of Epirus after the death of Helenus, son of Priam and Hecuba of Troy, who had married his erstwhile sister-in-law Andromache after Neoptolemus' death. Plutarch tells us that according to some historians their first king was Phaethon, one of those who came into Epirus with Pelasgus. Plutarch also says, that Deucalion and Pyrrha, having set up the worship of Zeus at Dodonamarker, settled there among the Molossians.

Ancient sources

The League of Epirus, 234 BC.

Strabo tells us that the Molossians, along with the Chaonians and Thesprotians, were the most famous among the fourteen tribes of Epirus, who once ruled over the whole region. The Chaonians ruled Epirus at an earlier time and afterwards the Thesprotians and Molossians controlled the region. Plutarch tells us that the Thesprotians, the Chaonians and the Molossians were the three principal clusters of Greek-speaking tribes that had emerged from Epirus and were the most powerful among all other tribes.

The Molossians were also renowned for their vicious hounds, which were used by shepherds to guard their flocks. This is where the canine breed Molossoid, native to Greece, got its name. Virgil tells us that in ancient Greecemarker the heavier Molossian dogs were often used by the Greeks and Romans for hunting (canis venaticus) and to watch over the house and livestock (canis pastoralis). "Never, with them on guard," says Virgil, "need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back."

Strabo records that the Thesprotians, Molossians, and Macedonians referred to old men as pelioi and old women as peliai (<<A wiki_link="Proto-Indo-European_language" href="/Proto-Indo-European_language">PIE *pel-, 'grey'). Cf. Ancient Greek peleia, "pigeon", so-called because of its dusky grey color. Ancient Greek pelos meant "grey".. Their senators were called Peligones, similar to Macedonian Peliganes.

Royal House of Molossis

The most famed member of the Molossian dynasty was Pyrrhus, who became famous for his Pyrrhic victory over the Romans. According to Plutarch, Pyrrhus was the son of Aeacides of Epirus and a Greek woman from Thessaly named Phthia, the daughter of a war hero in the Lamian War. Pyrrhus was a second cousin of Alexander the Great. In the 4th century BC, they had adopted the term for office of prostates (Greek: Προστάτες) literally meaning "protectors" like most Greek tribal states at the time. Other terms for office were grammateus (Greek: Γραμματέυς) meaning "secretary", demiourgoi (Greek: Δημιουργοί) literally meaning "creators", hieromnemones (Greek: Ιερομνήμονες) literally meaning "of the sacred memory" and synarchontes (Greek: Συνάρχοντες) literally meaning "co-rulers" An inscription from the 4th century stated (referring to Alexander I of Epirus);

Dodonamarker was used for the display of public decisions. Despite having a monarchy, the Molossians sent princes to Athens to learn of democracy as they did not consider monarchy and certain aspects of democracy as opposite concepts.

Olympias, the mother of Alexander the great, was a member of this celebrated sovereign house.


In 385 BC, the Molossians were attacked by Illyrians instigated and aided by Dionysius. of Syracusemarker to place Alcetas that was a refugee in his court to the throne. Dionysius planned to control all the Ionian Sea. Spartamarker had intervened as soon as the events became known and expelled the Illyrians who were led by Bardyllis. Despite being aided by 2000 Greek hoplites and five hundred suits of Greek armour the Illyrians were defeated by the Spartansmarker led by Agesilaus but not before ravaging the region and killing 15,000 Molossians.

In 360 BC, in another Illyrian attack the Molossian king Arymbas evacuated his non-combatant population to Aetolia and let the Illyrians loot freely.The stratagem worked and the Molossians fell upon the Illyrians now encumbered with booty and defeated them.

List of Molossians


  1. Boardman, John. The Cambridge Ancient History (Volume 6). Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 433-434.
  2. Wilkes, John. The Illyrians. Wiley-Blackwell, 1995, p. 104. "Nevertheless there does seem to be evidence that these peoples between Acharnania and Illyria spoke a language akin to Greek, though this is contested by Albanians who would have them to be Illyrians."
  3. Errington, Malcolm R. A History of Macedonia. University of California Press, 1993, ISBN 0520063198. "The Molossians were the strongest and, decisive for Macedonia, most easterly of the three most important Epeirot tribes, which, like Macedonia but unlike the Thesprotians and the Chaonians, still retained their monarchy. They were Greeks, spoke a similar dialect to that of Macedonia, suffered just as much from the depredations of the Illyrians and were in principle the natural partners of the Macedonian king who wished to tackle the Illyrian problem at its roots."
  4. "Speakers of these various Greek dialects settled different parts of Greece at different times during the Middle Bronze Age, with one group, the 'northwest' Greeks, developing their own dialect and peopling central Epirus. This was the origin of the Molossian or Epirotic tribes." "[...]a proper dialect of Greek, like the dialects spoken by Dorians and Molossians." "The western mountains were peopled by the Molossians (the western Greeks of Epirus)."
  5. "That the Molossians[...]spoke Illyrian or another barbaric tongue was nowhere suggested, although Aeschylus and Pindar wrote of Molossian lands. That they in fact spoke Greek was implied by Herodotus' inclusion of Molossi among the Greek colonists of Asia Minor, but became demonstrable only when D. Evangelides published two long inscriptions of the Molossian state, set up c. 369 B.C. at Dodona, in Greek and with Greek names, Greek patronymies and Greek tribal names such as Celaethi, Omphales, Tripolitae, Triphylae, etc. As the Molossian cluster of tribes in the time of Hecataeus included the Orestae, Pelagones, Lyncestae, Tymphaei and Elimeotae, as we have argued above, we may be confident that they too were Greek-speaking."
  6. "Epirus was a land of milk and animal products...The social unit was a small tribe, consisting of several nomadic or semi-nomadic groups, and these tribes, of which more than seventy names are known, coalesced into large tribal coalitions, three in number: Thesprotians, Molossians and Chaonians...We know from the discovery of inscriptions that these tribes were speaking the Greek language (in a West-Greek dialect)."
  7. Pyrrhus by Plutarch.
  8. The Internet Classics Archive - Pyrrhus by Plutarch
  9. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott - An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon
  10. Horsley, G.H.R. New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1987, ISBN 0858375990. More recently still N.G.L. Hammond JHS 105 1985 156-160 has examined a number or Macedonian terms for office in the period 336-309 BC...prostates was the name for the senior civic official beside the king...and various tribal states like (the Molossoi and Chaonians).
  11. Hornblower, Simon. The Greek World, 479-323 BC. Routledge, 2002, p. 199, ISBN 0415163269. "Even before about 385 the Molossian tribes had combined with the neighbouring Thesprotians and Chaonians to form a Molossian state with a king and officials called prostates (president), grammateus (secretary), and tribal representatives called demiourgoi also hieromnemones some kind of cult figure. (See for all of this SGDI 1334-67; also SEG 23.471: fifteen synarchontes federal officials. This inscription shows that Orestis was part of the federal organization, that is the koinon or federation embraced an area which would later be Macedonian territory.)"
  12. Boardman, John. The Cambridge Ancient History. Cambridge University Press, 1923, p. 431, ISBN 0521233488. "The officials of the Molossian state were the king, the leader (prostates) the secretary (grammateus) and the ten demiourgoi one for each tribe that made up the group (e.g. Arctanes, Genoaei)."
  13. Brock, Roger and Hodkinson, Stephen. Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization. Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 250, ISBN 0198152205. D.13 Dodona, sanctuary of Zeus; bronze plaque 343-331? Carapanos (1878) i. 27. 3; SGDI 1335; Fraser (1954) 57 n. 13 (Attributing to the 4th century and to Alexandros I); Hammond (1967), 535-6 (restoring 'of the [Molossians]' rather than 'of the [Epeirotai]'); Cabanes (1967a) 541 no. 5."
  14. Brock, Roger and Hodkinson, Stephen. Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization. Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 257, ISBN 0198152205. Molossians use of Dodona as a noticeboard for the display of public decisions (on present evidence) the 360 onwards.
  15. Alcock, Susan E. and Osborne, Robin. Classical Archaeology. Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 392, ISBN 0631234187. "Tribes like the Molossians of Epirus claimed descent from Homeric heroes and sent princes to Athens for lessons in democracy (Plutarch, Pyrrhus 1), where some became honorary citizens."
  16. Brock, Roger and Hodkinson, Stephen. Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization. Oxford University, 2000, p. 256, ISBN 0198152205. "Whatever snooty outsiders may have thought of their level of culture and political development, the Molossians saw themselves by 370 as having a polity, membership of which could be properly denoted by the word politeia. Citizenship and monarchy were not incompatible concepts."
  17. Hammond, N.G.L. A History of Greece to 322 B.C. Clarendon Press, 1986, p. 479, ISBN 0198730969. ...Molossi, Alcetas, who was a refugee at his court, Dionysius sent a supply of arms and 2,000 troops to the Illyrians , who burst into Epirus and slaughtered 15,000 Molossians. Sparta intervened as soon as they had learned of the events and expelled the Illyrians, but Alcetas had regained his...
  18. Hammond, N.G.L. A History of Greece to 322 B.C.. Clarendon Press, 1986, p. 470, ISBN 0198730969. Sparta had the alliance of Thessaly, Macedonia, and Molossia in Epirus, which she had helped to stave off an Illyrian invasion.
  19. Diodorus Siculus. Library, Book 15.13.1.
  20. Boardman, John. The Cambridge Ancient History. Cambridge University Press, 1923, p. 428, ISBN 0521233488. Bardyllis who seize power and set himself up as king of the Dardani...Forming and alliance with Dionysius tyrant of Syracuse he killed 15,000 Molossians.
  21. Diodorus Siculus. Library. Books 14.92, 15.2, 16.2.
  22. Cabanes, L'Épire 534,1.
  23. IG IV²,1 95 line 31
  24. JSTOR: Neoptolemus at Delphi: Pindar, "Nem." 7.30 ff
  25. Cabanes, L'Épire 540,4.
  26. Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology Little Brown, 1859, p. 191. "ANTI'NOUS (Άντίνους), a chief among the Molossians in Epeirus, who became involved, against his own will, in the war of Perseus, king of Macedonia, against the Romans."

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