Illustrious Post-Macedon Illyria and the Roman Illyrian Wars
The legendary and illustrious tribal kingdoms of Illyria were located in current-day Albania and Montenegro, just across the Adriatic from Italy. The Illyrian world was also an important strategic ally for the Greeks and Romans in ancient times. Illyria was inhabited from the 10th century BC by the Illyrians, an Indo-European population that were often separated into various tribes and factions. During the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, the Illyrians achieved the height of their power and became a major threat to Rome in the process. Illyria’s proximity and close relationship with the much older kings of Macedonia, Rome’s nemesis, and their skills at piracy put them squarely on Rome’s agenda, as it worked to stabilize the frontiers of the young Roman Empire.
What was Illyria and Who Were the Illyrians?
Illyrians had an average life expectancy of 39 years, which was long in ancient times, and were well known for the tattoos that covered their body and their clean-shaven looks. The usual outfit of an Illyrian man was a tunic worn with a heavy cloak. Women typically donned an undergarment that reached their feet in combination with an upper garment and a cloak.
Some depictions of Illyrian women even show them using a traditional Balkan headscarf. On festive occasions, women sported a wide array of jewelry and ornaments with men preferring their magnificent decorative swords.
Illyrians, especially their legendary kings Agron and Genthius, were well known for their impressive drinking binges and overindulgence and consumed vast quantities of wine and a local barley beer called sabaium. The Roman emperor Valens (ruled 364-378 AD), came from an Illyrian family, and loved his native beer so much he was given the nickname ‘sabaiarius’ meaning ‘beer man,’ as a kind of slur.
Illyrians liked to hunt, fish, farm, and practice herbal medicine. The Illyrian iris for example, was renowned even in the Roman world for its use in perfume, and its stem could treat headaches, boils, and even induce abortion.
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The main industry in Illyria was metalwork, a practice introduced to their shores by the arrival of the Celts from the north in the 4th century BC. Illyria was a land rich in silver, and from the Roman period became an important center for silver mining, providing material for the production of imperial coins.
In addition to silver, Illyrians exported natural products such as animal skins, cereals, and even slaves. Archaeological evidence from burial mounds have revealed that Illyrians were very fond of amber imported from the Baltic regions. It was likely revered as a protective and magical charm against evil, and most people liked to wear it as an amulet or necklace.
Upon death, an Illyrian’s body would be placed in a burial mound in a crouched position and heaped with stones and earth. The size of the mound and the quality of the funeral offerings was an accurate determiner of the rank of the deceased in life. The burial mounds of leaders and respected figures in society were often joined in death with their warriors and servants. These memorials were maintained alongside ritual clay hearths, which acted as additional shrines to the dead.
Illyrians worshipped a variety of gods, including some Roman deities such as Diana, as well as a pantheon of local spirits such as Anzotica, Latra, Sentona, and the nymph Ica, all of which are only known through their mention in Roman inscriptions.
Venus Anzotica, Museum of Nin Antiquities. (Tripadvisor)
The Build Up to the Illyrian Wars
The classical Illyrian kingdom was formed in the chaos left behind after the wars for Alexander the Great’s succession, starting in 323 BC. Decades of conflict significantly weakened the Greek’s hold in the south-east Adriatic coast, and local Illyrian chieftains rose up as the Greeks lost power.
The first empire to rise in the absence of Greek overlords was the Epirote Kingdom of the Molossians, whose most famous ruler, Pyrrhus, was deeply connected to the people of southern Illyria. By the 280s, Pyrrhus’ bloodline held supremacy over the other Illyrian noble houses. His son and successor, Alexander II, continued the family’s push for dominance by defeating Mytilius, an Illyrian aristocrat and pretender to the throne who had attempted to challenge their power base at Molossia.
After Alexander’s death the empire fell once again into disorder, only stabilizing in 232 BC after the Epirote Kingdom was transformed into a federation called the Aetolian League. The league, however, did not last long, and soon after the machinations of the Ardiaei, a leading Illyrian noble family, tore apart the fragile union of Illyrians.
From 231 BC, King Agron began stamping his authority over the other Federation’s members and expanding his influence as far as the central Adriatic and the Peloponnese. Agron enjoyed the unwavering support of King Demetrius II of Macedon, who encouraged the Illyrian monarch to forge an independent kingdom. After the Illyrian conquest of Phoenice and an unsuccessful attempt to besiege Issa, a steadfast ally of Rome, in 230 and 229, the Romans began take notice of Illyrian developments.
By the late 3rd century BC, Rome possessed full jurisdiction over Italy. As a result, they were constantly looking to stop anything from toppling their hard-won status. By the 230s the Illyrians were becoming a dangerous presence. Although located on the other side of the Adriatic, the aggressive momentum of the Illyrians was starting to affect the security of Roman commerce. The Illyrians were funding their growing power with piracy, which was interfering with the trade networks of Rome’s Italian and Greek partners.
Even more worrisome, Illyria was forging closer ties with the Kingdom of Macedonia, and Romans were worried that they were seeing the beginnings of a new anti-Roman coalition. The Illyrian and Macedonian kingdoms had enjoyed relations before, in the period between 393 and 359 BC, with King Phillip II of Macedon even spending time at the Illyrian court in his youth. Romans believed that a revival of this close allegiance was clearly possible, and a potential threat to their very existence.
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Queen Teuta, wife of King Agros of the Illyrian Ardiaei tribe, orders two Roman ambassadors to be killed causing outrage in Rome, which led to the First Illyrian War. (Augustyn Mirys / Public domain)
The Illyrian Wars
The First Illyrian War commenced following the assassination of two members of a joint Roman-Issaean delegation sent to King Agros and his wife, Queen Teuta, to discuss the issue of piracy. Imperial diplomat Coruncanius alongside Kleemporos of Issa, Rome’s friend and King Agros’ political adversary, were both murdered in the court of the Ardiaei, sparking a furious Roman response.
Shortly after, the Roman consuls Cnaeius Fulvius Centumalus and Aulus Postimius, with 200 ships, 20,000 foot-soldiers, and 2000 horsemen, set sail to bring the Illyrians to heel and to restore Roman prestige. Retribution was quick and effective, King Agron was slain, and the Illyrians were soon defeated without any major casualties suffered by the Romans.
Possessing the upper-hand in negotiations, the Roman peace treaty stipulated that Rome was to receive the cities of Corcya, Issa, Pharu, and Epidamnus. The Illyrians were only given back a few of their former territories after the treaty was signed. They were also barred from sailing their ships south of the Lissus (present-day northeastern Albania) with more than two warships and were compelled to pay tribute to the Roman Empire. Replacing King Agros, the Romans made Agron’s young child Pinnes king and his stepmother Teuta, Queen regent.
After chastising the Illyrians, the Romans set up a system of alliances in the Adriatic with the powers that had helped them out during the First Illyrian War. In a classic divide and rule strategy favored by later British imperialists, the Romans aimed to politically fragment the region to prevent further outbursts of violence. Within their sphere of influence was King Demtrius, a king of Macedonian stock who had wisely submitted to the Romans during the First Illyrian War.
But Demtrius had other plans, bolstering his authority by marrying the mother of the infant King Pinnes, Triteuta, and assuming Ardiaei power. Next he breached the peace with the Romans, sending 50 warships south of the Lissus in violation of the Ardiaei-Roman agreement.
The Romans were forced to intervene in the region again, this time against Demetrius and his co-conspirators, the Histria, who occupied the western coast of the Black Sea. Both powers had teamed up to attack trade ships supplying Roman armies fighting in Gaul. The first Histrian War broke out in 221 BC, ending in a crushing defeat for the Histrians.
Rome quickly moved to subdue the Illyrians under Demetrius’ command in the same year. The Macedonian’s hordes were soundly beaten, and the status quo restored. Although Demetrius was punished, Rome refrained from disciplining the other Illyrian people, steadying their hand because of the continued fear that Illyria and Macedonia would unite against them.
By 218 BC Rome had the allegiance of the Illyrian monarchs Scredilaidas and Pleuratus, which made it much easier for the Roman Empire to deal with its enemies in Egypt and Carthage. (Goran tek-en / CC BY-SA 4.0)
In the interval between the Second Illyrian War in 221 BC and the Third Illyrian War in 168 BC, the Illyrian monarchs Scredilaidas and then Pleuratus reinforced their bonds with Rome, standing by them during their battles against the Macedonians. Scredilaidas followed a policy of non-intervention in the First Macedonian War, kept Illyria neutral for the time being.
However, during the Second Macedonian War between 200 and 198 BC, his successor Pleuratus was more forthcoming, pledging his support more vigorously for the Roman cause. Maintaining a good friendship with Illyria would become an important consideration in Roman east Mediterranean policy, especially in the geopolitical game they were playing against the Macedonians. Illyria benefited much from better relations with its Latin neighbor, becoming a more centralized and stable polity as a result.
However, relations began to sour with the accession of Genthius to the Illyrian throne in 180 BC. The first signs of trouble occurred when a Roman praetor, Lucius Duronius, complained that the Illyrians were mistreating the citizens of Rome and her Latin allies and allowing piracy to once again flourish, an accusation that Genthius was quick to deny. However, it is likely that Genthius was powerless to stop the mayhem caused by the pirates, who were most often independent brigands the Illyrian king could not control.
When Rome fought the third and final Macedonian War in 171, the Illyrians remained neutral, a political stance that made the Romans uneasy and distrustful, having enjoyed Illyrian support for many decades prior. Perhaps a motivating factor in Genthius’ initial decision to not choose a side was the debacle in that same year, when Roman commander Cassius Longinus lost his way enroute to Macedonia. Longinus plundered and looted Illyrian territory on his way back to Rome, compelling Illyrian envoys to complain to the Senate.
Nevertheless, Genthius changed his mind in 169, joining the Macedonian’s efforts against the Romans after its leader, Perseus, offered the Illyrian potentate 300 talents for their aid at a time when Rome’s legions were at their weakest point. This was a huge sum considering that a gold talent represented a person’s weight in gold, which was a fortune.
It would prove to be a disastrous choice, as the Romans rapidly recovered and overpowered Perseus and Genthius. Before news of the start of the war had even reached the ear of the Roman Senate, Genthius had already been utterly crushed by the battalions of Roman general Lucius Anicius Gallus.
In 167 BC the Illyrian realm was divided up into three parts, with only the communities of Daorsi, Taulantii, and Pirustae given independent status as a reward for sticking with the Romans during the conflict. The other two areas were made subordinates of Rome and were forced to pay tribute to their imperial masters henceforth.
A relief commemorating the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, which Emperor Augustus handily won against Mark Anthony and Cleopatra with the help of the Illyrians. A processional scene, dating from 14-37 AD, discovered in Avellino, southern Italy. (Following Hadrian / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Illyria: From Bitter Roman Enemy to Faithful Servant of Rome
After brave resistance against Rome, Illyria would share the same fate as countless other states unlucky enough to incur the wrath of the Italian behemoth. Illyria was pummeled into submission, its hopes and aspirations dashed by a kingdom with a zero-tolerance policy towards upstart kingdoms.
In 167 BC, the Romans would finish the job, incorporating the Albanian coastal territories into the new province of Illyricium. Illyrians were Romanized and in time became loyal servants and even emperors.
Thanks to the efforts of Illyrian sailors for instance, Augustus would achieve a stunning victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, trouncing the combined fleets of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra.
In the 3rd century AD Rome would crown a string of emperors from Illyria including Aurelian, Probus, and Diocletian. But Illyrians also kept many of their traditions, as the persistence of their native names on Roman inscriptions attest.
Main image: The Nymphaeum of Illyria at the ancient city of Apollonia, Albania fed by underground water sources, built in the middle of the 3rd century BC. It is the biggest and best-preserved Apollonia monument covering an area of 1,500 square meters or 16,146 square feet. Source: Carole Raddato / CC BY 2.0
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
Britannica. n.d. Illyria. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Illyria .
Dzino, D. 2010. Illyricium in Roman Politics 229 BC -AD 68. Cambridge University Press.
Wilkes, J. 1992. The Illyrians. Blackwell.