Albania - The Ancient Illyrians

Library of Congress Article on the Ancient Illyrians

Hagia Sophia cathedral
Hagia Sophia. shan.shihan/Moment/Getty Images

Mystery enshrouds the exact origins of today's Albanians. Most historians of the Balkans believe the Albanian people are in large part descendants of the ancient Illyrians, who, like other Balkan peoples, were subdivided into tribes and clans. The name Albania is derived from the name of an Illyrian tribe called the Arber, or Arbereshë, and later Albanoi, that lived near Durrës. The Illyrians were Indo-European tribesmen who appeared in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula about 1000 B.C., a period coinciding with the end of the Bronze Age and beginning of the Iron Age.

They inhabited much of the area for at least the next millennium. Archaeologists associate the Illyrians with the Hallstatt culture, an Iron Age people noted for production of iron and bronze swords with winged-shaped handles and for domestication of horses. The Illyrians occupied lands extending from the Danube, Sava, and Morava rivers to the Adriatic Sea and the Sar Mountains. At various times, groups of Illyrians migrated over land and sea into Italy.

The Illyrians carried on commerce and warfare with their neighbors. The ancient Macedonians probably had some Illyrian roots, but their ruling class adopted Greek cultural characteristics. The Illyrians also mingled with the Thracians, another ancient people with adjoining lands on the east. In the south and along the Adriatic Sea coast, the Illyrians were heavily influenced by the Greeks, who founded trading colonies there. The present-day city of Durrës evolved from a Greek colony known as Epidamnos, which was founded at the end of the seventh century B.C.

Another famous Greek colony, Apollonia, arose between Durrës and the port city of Vlorë.

The Illyrians produced and traded cattle, horses, agricultural goods, and wares fashioned from locally mined copper and iron. Feuds and warfare were constant facts of life for the Illyrian tribes, and Illyrian pirates plagued shipping on the Adriatic Sea.

Councils of elders chose the chieftains who headed each of the numerous Illyrian tribes. From time to time, local chieftains extended their rule over other tribes and formed short-lived kingdoms. During the fifth century B.C., a well-developed Illyrian population center existed as far north as the upper Sava River valley in what is now Slovenia. Illyrian friezes discovered near the present-day Slovenian city of Ljubljana depict ritual sacrifices, feasts, battles, sporting events, and other activities.

The Illyrian kingdom of Bardhyllus became a formidable local power in the fourth century B.C. In 358 B.C., however, Macedonia's Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, defeated the Illyrians and assumed control of their territory as far as Lake Ohrid (see fig. 5). Alexander himself routed the forces of the Illyrian chieftain Clitus in 335 B.C., and Illyrian tribal leaders and soldiers accompanied Alexander on his conquest of Persia. After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., independent Illyrian kingdoms again arose. In 312 B.C., King Glaucius expelled the Greeks from Durrës. By the end of the third century, an Illyrian kingdom based near what is now the Albanian city of Shkodër controlled parts of northern Albania, Montenegro, and Hercegovina.

Under Queen Teuta, Illyrians attacked Roman merchant vessels plying the Adriatic Sea and gave Rome an excuse to invade the Balkans.

In the Illyrian Wars of 229 and 219 B.C., Rome overran the Illyrian settlements in the Neretva River valley. The Romans made new gains in 168 B.C., and Roman forces captured Illyria's King Gentius at Shkodër, which they called Scodra, and brought him to Rome in 165 B.C. A century later, Julius Caesar and his rival Pompey fought their decisive battle near Durrës (Dyrrachium). Rome finally subjugated recalcitrant Illyrian tribes in the western Balkans [during the reign] of Emperor Tiberius in A.D. 9. The Romans divided the lands that make up present-day Albania among the provinces of Macedonia, Dalmatia, and Epirus.

For about four centuries, Roman rule brought the Illyrian-populated lands economic and cultural advancement and ended most of the enervating clashes among local tribes.

The Illyrian mountain clansmen retained local authority but pledged allegiance to the emperor and acknowledged the authority of his envoys. During a yearly holiday honoring the Caesars, the Illyrian mountaineers swore loyalty to the emperor and reaffirmed their political rights. A form of this tradition, known as the kuvend, has survived to the present day in northern Albania.

The Romans established numerous military camps and colonies and completely latinized the coastal cities. They also oversaw the construction of aqueducts and roads, including the Via Egnatia, a famous military highway and trade route that led from Durrës through the Shkumbin River valley to Macedonia and Byzantium (later Constantinople)


Originally a Greek city, Byzantium, it was made the capital of the Byzantine Empire by Constantine the Great and was soon renamed Constantinople in his honor. The city was captured by the Turks in 1453 and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks called the city Istanbul, but most of the non-Muslim world knew it as Constantinople until about 1930.

Copper, asphalt, and silver were extracted from the mountains. The main exports were wine, cheese, oil, and fish from Lake Scutari and Lake Ohrid. Imports included tools, metalware, luxury goods, and other manufactured articles. Apollonia became a cultural center, and Julius Caesar himself sent his nephew, later the Emperor Augustus, to study there.

Illyrians distinguished themselves as warriors in the Roman legions and made up a significant portion of the Praetorian Guard. Several of the Roman emperors were of Illyrian origin, including Diocletian (284-305), who saved the empire from disintegration by introducing institutional reforms, and Constantine the Great (324-37)--who accepted Christianity and transferred the empire's capital from Rome to Byzantium, which he called Constantinople. Emperor Justinian (527-65)--who codified Roman law, built the most famous Byzantine church, the Hagia Sofia, and re-extended the empire's control over lost territories- -was probably also an Illyrian.

Christianity came to the Illyrian-populated lands in the first century A.D. Saint Paul wrote that he preached in the Roman province of Illyricum, and legend holds that he visited Durrës. When the Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western halves in A.D. 395, the lands that now make up Albania were administered by the Eastern Empire but were ecclesiastically dependent on Rome. In A.D. 732, however, a Byzantine emperor, Leo the Isaurian, subordinated the area to the patriarchate of Constantinople. For centuries thereafter, the Albanian lands became an arena for the ecclesiastical struggle between Rome and Constantinople. Most Albanians living in the mountainous north became Roman Catholic, while in the southern and central regions, the majority became Orthodox.

Source [for the Library of Congress]: Based on information from R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, New York, 1970, 95; Herman Kinder and Werner Hilgemann, The Anchor Atlas of World History, 1, New York, 1974, 90, 94; and Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15, New York, 1975, 1092.

Data as of April 1992
SOURCE: The Library of Congress - ALBANIA - A Country Study