The Illyrians (Ancient Greek: Ἰλλυριοί, Illyrioi; Latin: Illyrii or Illyri) were a group of Indo-European tribes in antiquity, who inhabited part of the western Balkans. The territory the Illyrians inhabited came to be known as Illyria to Greek and Roman authors, who identified a territory that corresponds to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Montenegro, Kosovo[a] and most of central and northern Albania, between the Adriatic Sea in the west, the Drava river in the north, the Morava river in the east and the mouth of the Aoos river in the south. The first account of Illyrian peoples comes from the Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax, an ancient Greek text of the middle of the 4th century BC that describes coastal passages in the Mediterranean.
The name "Illyrians," as applied by the ancient Greeks to their northern neighbors, may have referred to a broad, ill-defined group of peoples. The Illyrian tribes never collectively identified as "Illyrians," and it is unlikely that they used any collective nomenclature at all. Illyrians seems to be the name of a specific Illyrian tribe who were among the first to encounter the ancient Greeks during the Bronze Age. The Greeks later applied this term Illyrians, pars pro toto, to all people with similar language and customs. Historians have been unable to determine to what extent the Illyrians were linguistically and culturally homogeneous. Illyric origin was and still is attributed also to a few ancient tribes residing in Italy: the Dauni, the Peuceti and Messapi (collectively known as Iapyges), who are thought to have most likely followed Adriatic shorelines to the Italian peninsula from the geographic "Illyria".
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 Illyrian tribes never collectively regarded themselves as 'Illyrians', and it is unlikely that they utilized any collective nomenclature for themselves.
The term Illyrioi may originally have designated only a single people who came to be widely known to the Greeks due to proximity. This occurred during the Bronze Age, when Greek tribes were neighboring the southernmost Illyrian tribe of that time in the Zeta plain of Montenegro. Indeed, such a people known as the Illyrioi have occupied a small and well-defined part of the south Adriatic coast, around Skadar Lake astride the modern frontier between Albania and Montenegro. The name may then have expanded and come to be applied to ethnically different peoples such as the Liburni, Delmatae, Iapodes, or the Pannonii. In any case, most modern scholars are certain the Illyrians were not a homogeneous entity.
Pliny the Elder referred, in his Natural History, to "Illyrians proper" (Illyrii proprie dicti) as natives in the south of Roman Dalmatia. Appian's Illyrian Wars employed the more common broader usage, simply stating that Illyrians lived beyond Macedonia and Thrace, from Chaonia and Thesprotia to the Danube River.
Different versions of the genealogy of the Illyrians, their tribes and their eponymous ancestor, Illyrius existed in Greek mythology. Such are recorded by Euripides and Strabo. These represent stories which would be presented in detail in Bibliotheca of PseudoApollodorus (1st to 2nd century AD). In them, Illyrius was the son of Cadmus and Harmonia, whom the Enchelei had chosen to be their leaders. He eventually ruled Illyria and became the eponymous ancestor of the whole Illyrian people. In one these versions, Illyrius was named so after Cadmus left him by a river named the Illyrian, where a serpent found and raised him. The fact that there were many versions of the story of Illyrius was recorded by Appian, who writes that his version is one among many, which he chose because it seemed to be the most correct one. Appian's genealogy of tribes is not complete as he writes that other Illyrian tribes exist, which he hasn't included. Appian probably recorded his genealogy from the ancient Greek colonists that lived in Epidamnus or Apollonia, who composed such stories through their close contact with Illyrian tribes that lived in the area.
According to Appian, Illyrius had multiple sons (Encheleus, Autarieus, Dardanus, Maedus, Taulas and Perrhaebus) and daughters (Partho, Daortho, Dassaro and others). From these, sprang the Taulantii, Parthini, Dardani, Encheleae, Autariates, Dassaretae and the Daors. Autareius had a son Pannonius or Paeon and these had sons Scordiscus and Triballus. A later version of this mythic genealogy gives as parents Polyphemus and Galatea, who gave birth to Celtus, Galas, and Illyrius, three brothers, progenitors respectively of Celts, Galatians and Illyrians expresses perceived similarities to Celts and Gauls on the part of the mythographe.
Scholars have long recognized a "difficulty in producing a single theory on the ethnogenesis of the Illyrians" given their heterogeneous nature. Modern scholarship is unable to refer to the Illyrians as a unique and compact people and agrees that they were a sum of ill-defined communities without common origins that never merged to a single ethnic entity. According to linguist Robert Elsie, "the term 'Illyrian' probably referred initially to the tribe with which the ancient Greeks first had contact, but it was later used as a collective term for a wide range of tribes in the region, although they may not have been culturally or linguistically homogenous at all."
Older Pan-Illyrian theories are now generally dismissed by scholars, based as they were on racialistic notions of Nordicism and Aryanism. The specific theories have found little archaeological corroboration, as no convincing evidence for significant migratory movements from the Luzatian culture into the west Balkans have ever been found. Rather, archaeologists from former Yugoslavia highlighted the continuity between the Bronze and succeeding Iron Age (especially in regions such as Donja Dolina, central Bosnia-Glasinac, and northern Albania (Mat river basin)), ultimately developing the so-called "autochthonous theory" of Illyrian genesis. The "autochthonous" model was most elaborated upon by Alojz Benac and B. Čović. They argued (following the "Kurgan hypothesis") that the 'proto-Illyrians' had arrived much earlier, during the Bronze Age as nomadic Indo-Europeans from the steppe. From that point, there was a gradual Illyrianization of the western Balkans leading to historic Illyrians, with no early Iron Age migration from northern Europe. He did not deny a minor cultural impact from the northern Urnfield cultures, however "these movements had neither a profound influence on the stability.. of the Balkans, nor did they affect the ethnogenesis of the Illyrian ethnos".
Aleksandar Stipčević raised concerns regarding Benac's all-encompassing scenario of autochthonous ethnogenesis. He points out "can one negate the participation of the bearers of the field-urn culture in the ethnogenesis of the Illyrian tribes who lived in present-day Slovenia and Croatia" or "Hellenistic and Mediterranean influences on southern Illyrians and Liburnians?". He concludes that Benac's model is only applicable to the Illyrian groups in Bosnia, western Serbia and a part of Dalmatia, where there had indeed been a settlement continuity and 'native' progression of pottery sequences since the Bronze Age. Following prevailing trends in discourse on identity in Iron Age Europe, current anthropological perspectives reject older theories of a longue duree (long term) ethnogenesis of Illyrians, even where 'archaeological continuity' can be demonstrated to Bronze Age times. They rather see the emergence of historic Illyrians tribes as a more recent phenomenon - just prior to their first attestation.
The impetus behind the emergence of larger regional groups, such as "Iapodes", "Liburnians", "Pannonians" etc., is traced to increased contacts with the Mediterranean and La Tène 'global worlds'. This catalyzed "the development of more complex political institutions and the increase in differences between individual communities". Emerging local elites selectively adopted either La Tène or Hellenistic and, later, Roman cultural templates "in order to legitimise and strengthen domination within their communities. They were competing fiercely through either alliance or conflict and resistance to Roman expansion. Thus, they established more complex political alliances, which convinced (Greco-Roman) sources to see them as ‘ethnic’ identities." Contemporary perspectives again highlight that the term "Illyrian" was a 'catch-all' exonym used by the Greeks and Romans to denote diverse communities beyond Epirus and Macedonia. Each was differentially conditioned by specific local cultural, ecological and economic factors; none of which fall into a compact, unitary "Illyrian" narrative.
It is generally assumed that the Illyrians originated from an Indo-European group of nomadic tribes some time prior to the second millennium BC. Depending on the complexity of the diverse physical geography of the Balkans, arable farming and livestock rearing had constituted the economic basis of the Illyrians during the Iron Age.
The structure of Illyrian society during classical antiquity was characterised by a conglomeration of numerous tribes and realms ruled by warrior aristocracy, a situation similar like that in most other societies at that time. The Illyrian kingdoms frequently came into conflicts with the neighbouring Ancient Macedonians, and the Illyrian pirates were also seen as significant threat to the neighbouring peoples.
At the Neretva Delta, there was a strong Hellenistic influence on the Illyrian tribe of Daors. Their capital was Daorson located in Ošanići near Stolac 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, 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.
After Philip II of Macedon defeated Bardylis (358 BC), the Grabaei under Grabos became the strongest state in Illyria. Philip II killed 7,000 Illyrians in a great victory and annexed the territory up to Lake Ohrid. Next, Philip II reduced the Grabaei, and then went for the Ardiaei, defeated the Triballi (339 BC), and fought with Pleurias (337 BC).
During the second part of the 3rd century BC, a number of Illyrian tribes seem to have united to form a proto-state stretching from the central part of present-day Albania up to Neretva river in Herzegovina. The political entity was financed on piracy and ruled from 250 BC by the king Agron. He was succeeded by his wife Teuta, who assumed the regency for her stepson Pinnes following Agron's death in 231 BC.
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 Adriatic unsafe for Roman 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.
Prior to the Roman conquest of Illyria, the Roman Republic had started expanding its power and territory across the Adriatic Sea. The Romans came nevertheless into a series of conflicts with the Illyrians, equally known as the Illyrian Wars, beginning in 229 BC until 168 BC as the Romans defeated Gentius at Scodra.
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 Albania to Istria (Croatia) in the west and to the Sava river (between Bosnia and Herzegovina and northern Croatia) in the north. Salona (Solin near modern Split 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.
In 395 AD, the Roman Empire was split upon the death of Theodosius I into an Eastern and Western Roman Empire, in part due to the weakening and increasing pressure from threats during the Barbarian Invasions, therefore, Illyria remained in the eastern empire which was later referred to as the Byzantine Empire.
The early Byzantine Empire was predominantly ruled by emperors from the Balkan Peninsula with Byzantine emperors of Illyrian origin, amongst them Constantine the Great, Jovian, Valentinian I, Anastasius I Dicorus, Justinian I and their descendants from the Constantinian dynasty, Valentinian dynasty and Justinian dynasty.
From the 6th century ongoing into the 7th century, the Slavs crossed the Danube and started to absorb the indigenous Illyrians alongside the Ancient Greeks, Dacians and Thracians into the emerging medieval states of the Slavs such as that of the Croats and Serbs. The term Illyrians last appears in the historical record in the 7th century AD, referring to a Byzantine garrison operating within the former Roman province of Illyricum.
The history of Illyrian warfare and weaponry spanned from around the 10th century BC up to the 1st century AD in the region defined by the Ancient Greek and Roman historians as Illyria. It concerns the armed conflicts of the Illyrian tribes and their kingdoms in the Balkan Peninsula and the Italian Peninsula as well as their pirate activity in the Adriatic Sea within the Mediterranean Sea.
The Illyrians were a notorious seafaring people with a strong reputation for piracy especially common during the regency of king Agron and later queen Teuta. They used fast and maneuverable ships of types known as lembus and liburna which were subsequently used by the Ancient Macedonians and Romans. Livy described the Illyrians along the Liburnians and Istrians as nations of savages in general noted for their piracy.
Illyria appears in Greco-Roman historiography from the 4th century BC. Illyrians were regarded as bloodthirsty, unpredictable, turbulent, and warlike by Greeks and Romans. They were seen as savages on the edge of their world. Polybius (3rd century BC) wrote: "the Romans had freed the Greeks from the enemies of all mankind". 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". Illyrian rulers wore bronze torques around their necks.
Apart from conflicts between Illyrians and neighbouring nations and tribes, numerous wars were recorded among Illyrian tribes also.
The languages spoken by the Illyrian tribes are nowadays an extinct and poorly attested Indo-European languages and though it is not clear whether the languages belonged to the centum or the satem group. The Illyrians were subject to varying degrees of Celticization, Hellenization, Romanization and later Slavicization which possibly lead to the extinction of their languages.
The vast majority of knowledge of Illyrian is based on the Messapian language if the latter is considered an Illyrian dialect. The non-Messapian testimonies of Illyrian are too fragmentary to allow any conclusions whether Messapian should be considered part of Illyrian proper, although it has been widely thought that Messapian was related to Illyrian. An extinct Indo-European language, Messapian was once spoken in Messapia in the southeastern Italian Peninsula. It was spoken by the three Iapygian tribes of the region, the Messapians, the Daunii and the Peucetii.
The Illyrian languages were once thought to be connected to the Venetic language in the Italian Peninsula but this view was abandoned. Other scholars have linked them with the adjacent Thracian language supposing an intermediate convergence area or dialect continuum, but this view is also not generally supported. All these languages were likely extinct by the 5th century AD although traditionally, the Albanian language is identified as the descendant of Illyrian dialects that survived in remote areas of the Balkans during the Middle Ages but evidence "is too meager and contradictory for us to know whether the term Illyrian even referred to a single language".
The ancestor dialects of the Albanian language would have survived somewhere along the boundary of Latin and Ancient Greek linguistic influence, the Jireček Line. There are various modern historians and linguists who believe that the modern Albanian language might have descended from a southern Illyrian dialect whereas an alternative hypothesis holds that Albanian was descended from the Thracian language. Not enough is known of the ancient language to completely prove or disprove either hypothesis, see Origin of the Albanians.
The Illyrians, as most ancient civilizations, were polytheistic and worshipped many gods and deities developed of the powers of nature. The most numerous traces—still insufficiently studied—of religious practices of the pre-Roman era are those relating to religious symbolism. Symbols are depicted in every variety of ornament and reveal that the chief object of the prehistoric cult of the Illyrians was the Sun, worshipped in a widespread and complex religious system. The solar deity was depicted as a geometrical figure such as the spiral, the concentric circle and the swastika, or as an animal figure the likes of the birds, serpents and horses. The symbols of water-fowl and horses were more common in the north, while the serpent was more common in the south. Illyrian deities were mentioned in inscriptions on statues, monuments, and coins of the Roman period, and some interpreted by Ancient writers through comparative religion. There appears to be no single most prominent god for all the Illyrian tribes, and a number of deities evidently appear only in specific regions.
In Illyris, Dei-pátrous was a god worshiped as the Sky Father, Prende was the love-goddess and the consort of the thunder-god Perendi, En or Enji was the fire-god, Jupiter Parthinus was a chief deity of the Parthini, Redon was a tutelary deity of sailors appearing on many inscriptions in the coastal towns of Lissus, Daorson, Scodra and Dyrrhachium, while Medaurus was the protector deity of Risinium, with a monumental equestrian statue dominating the city from the acropolis. In Dalmatia and Pannonia one of the most popular ritual traditions during the Roman period was the cult of the Roman tutelary deity of the wild, woods and fields Silvanus, depicted with iconography of Pan. The Roman deity of wine, fertility and freedom Liber was worshipped with the attributes of Silvanus, and those of Terminus, the god protector of boundaries. Tadenus was a Dalmatian deity bearing the identity or epithet of Apollo in inscriptions found near the source of the Bosna river. The Delmatae also had Armatus as a war god in Delminium. The Silvanae, a feminine plural of Silvanus, were featured on many dedications across Pannonia. In the hot springs of Topusko (Pannonia Superior), sacrificial altars were dedicated to Vidasus and Thana (identified with Silvanus and Diana), whose names invariably stand side by side as companions. Aecorna or Arquornia was a lake or river tutelary goddess worshipped exclusively in the cities of Nauportus and Emona, where she was the most important deity next to Jupiter. Laburus was also a local deity worshipped in Emona, perhaps a deity protecting the boatmen sailing.
It seems that the Illyrians did not develop a uniform cosmology on which to center their religious practices. A number of Illyrian toponyms and anthroponyms derived from animal names and reflected the beliefs in animals as mythological ancestors and protectors. The serpent was one of the most important animal totems. Illyrians believed in the force of spells and the evil eye, in the magic power of protective and beneficial amulets which could avert the evil eye or the bad intentions of enemies. 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. The rich spectrum in religious beliefs and burial rituals that emerged in Illyria, especially during the Roman period, may reflect the variation in cultural identities in this region.
There are few remains to connect with the Bronze Age with the later Illyrians in the western Balkans. Moreover, with the notable exception of Pod near Bugojno in the upper valley of the Vrbas River, 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 the cemeteries of Belotić and Bela Crkva (sr), 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, the beginning of the Iron Age, the Illyrians emerge as an ethnic group with a distinct culture and art form. Various Illyrian tribes appeared, under the influence of the Halstatt 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 Istria in Croatia to Bihać 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 Pula, one of numerous Istrian cities from Iron Age. Illyrian chiefs wore bronze torques around their necks much like the Celts did. The Illyrians were influenced by the Celts in many cultural and material aspects and some of them were Celticized, especially the tribes in Dalmatia and the Pannonians. In Slovenia, the Vače situla was discovered in 1882 and attributed to Illyrians. Prehistoric remains indicate no more than average height, male 165 cm (5 ft 5 in), female 153 cm (5 ft 0 in).
The Illyrians were mentioned for the last time in the Miracula Sancti Demetrii during the 7th century. With the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Gothic and Hunnic tribes raided the Balkan peninsula, forcing many Illyrians to seek refuge in the highlands.
Since the Middle Ages the term "Illyrian" has been used principally in connection with the Albanians, although it was also used to describe the western wing of the Southern Slavs up to the 19th century, being revived in particular during the Habsburg Monarchy.
At the beginning of the 19th century, many educated Europeans regarded the South Slavs as the descendants of ancient Illyrians. Consequently, when Napoléon conquered part of the South Slavic lands, these areas were named after ancient Illyrian provinces (1809–1814). After the demise of the First French Empire in 1815, the Habsburg Monarchy became increasingly centralized and authoritarian, and fear of Magyarization arouse patriotic resistance among Croatians. 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 initiated by a group of young Croatian intellectuals during the years of 1835–49. This movement, under the banner of Illlyrism, aimed to create a Croatian national establishment under Austro-Hungarian rule but was repressed by the Habsburg authorities after the failed Revolutions of 1848.
The possible continuity between the Illyrian populations of the Western Balkans in antiquity and the Albanians has played a significant role in Albanian nationalism from the 19th century until the present day. For example, Ibrahim Rugova, the first President of Kosovo introduced the "Flag of Dardania" on October 29, 2000, Dardania being the name for a Thraco-Illyrian region including parts of eastern Kosovo, the Republic of North Macedonia and Southern Serbia.