eriplus of Pseudo-Scylax, 1855 facsimile of the 13th century surviving copy of the original Greek text



The Illyrians (Ancient GreekἸλλυριοίIllyrioiLatinIllyrii or Illyri) were a group of Indo-European tribes in antiquity, who inhabited part of the western Balkans and the south-eastern coasts of the Italian peninsula (Messapia). [1] The territory the Illyrians inhabited came to be known as Illyria to Greek and Roman authors, who identified a territory that corresponds to CroatiaBosnia and HerzegovinaSloveniaMontenegro, part of Serbia and most of 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.[2] 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.[3]

The name “Illyrians”, as applied by the ancient Greeks to their northern neighbors, 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. In fact, an Illyric origin was and still is attributed also to a few ancient peoples in Italy, in particular the IapygesDauni and Messapi, as it is thought that, most likely, they had followed Adriatic shorelines to the peninsula, coming from the geographic “Illyria”. The Illyrian tribes never collectively regarded themselves as ‘Illyrians’, and it is unlikely that they used any collective nomenclature for themselves.[4] In fact, the name Illyrians seems to be the name applied to a specific Illyrian tribe, which was the first to come in contact with the ancient Greeks during the Bronze Age,[5] causing the name Illyrians to be applied pars pro toto to all people of similar language and customs.[6]

The term “Illyrians” last appears in the historical record in the 7th century, referring to a Byzantine garrison operating within the former Roman province of Illyricum.[7]

Illyrians in Greek mythologyEdit

Illyrius and siblings.

In later Greek mythology,[8] Illyrius was the son of Cadmus and Harmonia who eventually ruled Illyria and became the eponymous ancestor of the whole Illyrian people.[9]

Illyrius had multiple sons (Encheleus, AutarieusDardanus, Maedus, Taulas and Perrhaebus) and daughters (Partho, Daortho, Dassaro and others). From these, sprang the TaulantiiParthiniDardaniEncheleaeAutariatesDassaretae and the Daors. Autareius had a son Pannonius or Paeon and these had sons Scordiscus and Triballus.[6] A later version of this mythic genealogy gives as parents Polyphemus and Galatea, who gave birth to CeltusGalas, and Illyrius,[10] three brothers, progenitors respectively of Celts, Galatians and Illyrians expresses perceived similarities to Celts and Gauls on the part of the mythographe.[citation needed]


Ethnogenesis of the Illyrians.

Iron Age Glasinac culture (around 300 BC).

Even before the advent of post-modernism, scholars recognized a “difficulty in producing a single theory on the ethnogenesis of the Illyrians” given their heterogeneous nature.[11] These Pan-Illyrian theories have since been dismissed by scholars, based as they were on racialistic notions of Nordicism and Aryanism.[12]

The above 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.[13][14] Rather, archaeologists from the 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.[14] 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”.[15]

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?”.[15] 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,[16] even where ‘archaeological continuity’ can be demonstrated to Bronze Age times.[17]They rather see the emergence of historic Illyrians tribes as a more recent phenomenon – just prior to their first attestation.[16] Prior to the 5th century BC, communities in “Illyria” were small, kin-based, non-heriarchical societies; albeit ones which entertained complex social networks and possessed central fortified places (gradinas), akin to western oppida. The exception to this are the communities in Glasinac and Mati, which already showed evidence of long-distance exchange and social stratification by the 7th century BC.

Illyrian colonization of Italy (IX century BC).[18]

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’.[19] This catalyzed “the development of more complex political institutions and the increase in differences between individual communities”.[20] 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.”[21]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.[citation needed]


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 Illyrian tribes never collectively regarded themselves as ‘Illyrians’, and it is unlikely that they utilized any collective nomenclature for themselves.[4]

The term Illyrioi may originally have designated only a single people who came to be widely known to the Greeks due to proximity.[22] This occurred during the Bronze Age, when Greek tribes were neighboring the southernmost Illyrian tribe of that time in the Zeta plain of Montenegro.[5] 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 LiburniDelmataeIapodes, or the Pannonii. In any case, most modern scholars are certain the Illyrians were not a homogeneous entity.[23]

Pliny the Elder referred, in his Natural History, to “Illyrians proper” (Illyrii proprie dicti) as natives in the south of Roman DalmatiaAppian‘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.[24]

Depiction in Greco-Roman historiographyEdit

Illyrians were regarded as bloodthirsty, unpredictable, turbulent, and warlike by Greeks and Romans.[25] They were seen as savages on the edge of their world.[26] Polybius (3rd century BC) wrote: “the Romans had freed the Greeks from the enemies of all mankind”.[27] According to the Romans, the Illyrians were tall and well-built.[28]Herodianus writes that “Pannonians are tall and strong always ready for a fight and to face danger but slow witted”.[29]Livy wrote “…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”. Illyrian rulers wore bronze torques around their necks.[30]


Hellenistic periodEdit

Central and northern Illyrian tribes and neighbours during the Roman period.

Southern Illyrian tribes and northwestern Greeks prior to Roman conquest

Illyria appears in Greco-Roman historiography from the 4th century BC. The Illyrians formed several kingdoms in the central Balkans, and the first known Illyrian king was BardyllisIllyrian kingdoms were often at war with ancient Macedonia, and the Illyrian pirates were also a significant danger to 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.[31] Philip II killed 7,000 Illyrians in a great victory and annexed the territory up to Lake Ohrid.[32] Next, Philip II reduced the Grabaei, and then went for the Ardiaei, defeated the Triballi (339 BC), and fought with Pleurias (337 BC).[33]

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 Italian commerce.[34] There were three campaigns, the first against Teuta the second against Demetrius of Pharos[35]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.[36]

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.[citation needed]

Roman ruleEdit

The Roman province of Illyricum.

The Roman province of Illyricum or Illyris Romana or Illyris Barbara or Illyria Barbara replaced most of the region of Illyria.[37] 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.[37] 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.[citation needed]

After 9 AD, the remnants of Illyrian tribes moved to new coastal cities and larger and more capable civitates.[38]

The prefecture of Illyricum was established in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), existing between 376 and the 7th century. The northern half of formerly Illyrian-inhabited territory was overrun by the Slavic incursions in the 6th and 7th centuries and was ultimately absorbed into the medieval states of Serbia and Croatia.


The history of Illyrian warfare spanned from around the 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 the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas. Apart from conflicts between Illyrians and neighbouring nations and tribes, numerous wars were recorded among Illyrian tribes also.[citation needed]


The mythology and religion of the Illyrians is only known through mention of Illyrian deities on Roman Empire period monuments, some with interpretatio Romana.[39] There appears to be no single most prominent Illyrian god and there would have been much variation between individual Illyrian tribes. According to John Wilkes, the Illyrians did not develop a uniform cosmology on which to center their religious practices.[40] The Illyrian town of Rhizon (present-day Risan, Montenegro) had its own protector called Medauras depicted as carrying a lance and riding on horseback.[41]

Human sacrifice also played a role in the lives of the Illyrians.[42] 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.[citation needed]

Identities and linguisticsEdit

The Illyrians were subject to varying degrees of Celticization,[43]Hellenization,[44] Romanization,[45] and later Slavicization.

The languages spoken by the Illyrian tribes were Indo-European. It is not clear whether the Illyrian languages belonged to the centum or the satem group. The vast majority of our knowledge of Illyrian is based on Messapian, if the latter is considered an Illyrian dialect. The non-Messapic testimonies of Illyrian are too fragmentary to allow any conclusions whether Messapian should be considered part of Illyrian proper. It has been widely thought that Messapian was related to Illyrian. Messapian (also known as Messapic) is an extinct Indo-European language of south-eastern Italy, once spoken in Messapia (modern Salento). 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 but this view was abandoned.[46] 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[47]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”.[48] The ancestor dialects of Albanian would have survived somewhere along the boundary of Latin and Greek linguistic influence (the Jireček Line). There are various modern historians and linguists believe that modern Albanian language might have descended from a southern Illyrian dialect[49][50][51][52][53][54][55] whereas an alternative hypothesis holds that Albanian was descended from Thracian.[47] Not enough is known of the ancient language to completely prove or disprove either hypothesis (see Origin of Albanians).[56]


Details of the late antique cathedral complex in ByllisAlbania and the Adriatic sea in the distance.

Walls of ancient Daorson, located at Ošanići near Stolac in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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, 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.[citation needed]

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.[57]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.[citation needed] 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.[58] The Illyrians were influenced by the Celts in many cultural and material aspects and some of them were Celticized, especially the tribes in Dalmatia[59] and the Pannonians.[60] 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).[29]


Middle AgesEdit

The Illyrians were mentioned for the last time in the Miracula Sancti Demetrii during the 7th century.[61] With the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Gothic and Hunnic tribes raided the Balkan peninsula, forcing many Illyrians to seek refuge in the highlands. With the arrival of the Slavs in the 6th century, most Illyrians were Slavicized.

Early modern usageEdit

During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the term “Illyrian” was used to describe Slavs living within the territories of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Serbia (and in other countries abroad). The term was revived again during the Habsburg Monarchy, but it was designated towards South Slavs.

In nationalismEdit

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 initiated by a group of young Croatian intellectuals during the years of 1835–49.[62] 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.[citation needed]

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, Macedonia and Southern Serbia

The Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax is an ancient Greek periplus (περίπλους periplous, ‘circumnavigation’) describing the sea route around the Mediterranean and Black Sea. It probably dates from the mid-4th century BC, specifically the 330s, and was probably written at or near Athens. Its author is often included among the ranks of ‘minor’ Greek geographers. There is only one manuscript available, which postdates the original work by over 1500 years.

The author’s name is written Pseudo-Scylax or Pseudo-Skylax, often abbreviated as Ps.-Scylax or Ps.-Skylax.


Beginning of the Arrian Periplous Euxeinou Pontou of Johann Froben and Nicolaus Episcopius, Basel 1533

periplus (/ˈpɛrɪplʌs/) is a manuscript document that lists the ports and coastal landmarks, in order and with approximate intervening distances, that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along a shore.[1] It served the same purpose as the later Roman itinerarium of road stops; however, the Greek navigators added various notes, which if they were professional geographers (as many were) became part of their own additions to Greek geography. In that sense the periplus was a type of log.

The form of the periplus is at least as old as the earliest Greek historian, the Ionian Hecataeus of Miletus. The works of Herodotus and Thucydides contain passages that appear to have been based on peripli.[2]


Periplus is the Latinization of the Greek word περίπλους (periplous, contracted from περίπλοος periploos), is “a sailing-around.” Both segments, peri- and -plous, were independently productive: the ancient Greek speaker understood the word in its literal sense; however, it developed a few specialized meanings, one of which became a standard term in the ancient navigation of PhoeniciansGreeks, and Romans.

Known peripliEdit

Several examples of peripli that are known to scholars:




  • The Massaliote Periplus, a description of trade routes along the coasts of Atlantic Europe, by anonymous Greek navigators of Massalia (now Marseille, France), possibly dates to the sixth century BCE, also preserved in Avienius[6]
  • Pytheas of Massilia, (fourth century BCE) On the Ocean (Περί του Ωκεανού), has not survived; only excerpts remain, quoted or paraphrased by later authors, including Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Pliny the Elder and in Avienus’ Ora maritima.[7]
  • The Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax, generally is thought to date to the fourth or third century BCE.[8]
  • The Pleriplus of Nearchus surveyed the area between the Indus and the Persian Gulf under orders from Alexander the Great. He was a source for Strabo and Arrian, among others.[9]
  • On the Red Sea by Agatharchides. Fragments preserved in Diodorus Siculus and Photius.[10]
  • The Periplus of Scymnus of Chios is dated to around 110 BCE.[11]
  • The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea or Red Sea, was written by a Greek of the Hellenistic/Romanized Alexandrian in the first century CE. It provides a shoreline itinerary of the Red (Erythraean) Sea, starting at the port of Berenice. Beyond the Red Sea, the manuscript describes the coast of India as far as the Ganges River and the east coast of Africa (called Azania). The unknown author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea claims that Hippalus, a mariner, was knowledgeable about the “monsoon winds” that shorten the round-trip from India to the Red Sea.[12]Also according to the manuscript, the Horn of Africa was called, “the Cape of Spices,” [13] and modern day Yemen was known as the “Frankincense Country.” [14]
  • The Periplus Ponti Euxini, a description of trade routes along the coasts of the Black Sea, written by Arrian (in Greek Αρριανός) in the early second century CE.


Persian sailors had long had their own sailing guide books, called Rahnāmag in Middle Persian (Rahnāmeh رهنامه in Modern Persian).[15]

They listed the ports and coastal landmarks and distances along the shores.

The lost but much-cited sailing directions go back at least to the 12th century. Some described the Indian Ocean as “a hard sea to get out of” and warned of the “circumambient sea,” with all return impossible.[16]

Tactic of naval combatEdit

periplus was also an ancient naval manoeuvre in which attacking triremes would outflank or encircle the defenders to attack them in the rear




There remains one primary manuscript, Parisinus suppl. gr. (Supplément grec) 443 (also known as the Pithou MS after its 16th-century owner, Pierre Pithou); it dates to the thirteenth century AD and is the original of those upon which the first printed edition of 1600 was based. Two later copies of this manuscript, which is notoriously corrupt, add nothing of substance. The principal manuscript was inaccessible to scholars for over two centuries until the 1830s, when it was bought by the Bibliothèque Nationale of France.


The narrative attributed to this “Pseudo-Scylax” simulates a clockwise circumnavigation of the Mediterranean and Black Sea, starting in Iberia and ending in West Africa, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar.

The NW African section is sometimes claimed to have been derived from the earlier Periplus of Hanno the Navigator, but a close comparison makes the differences between the two texts apparent. Rather than the record of a voyage like Hanno‘s, or a compilation of eye-witness accounts of voyages, the Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax is probably an attempt at a quasi-scientific geographical account of the parts of the world accessible to Greeks in the 4th century BC. It can plausibly be associated with philosophical and scientific activities at Athens under Plato‘s successors in the Academy; the author was perhaps directly in contact with Plato’s successors and with Aristotle and Theophrastos, in the years leading up to the foundation of Aristotle’s school, the Peripatos or Lyceum. One of the aims of the work seems to be to calculate a total sailing length for the coasts of the Mediterranean and Black Sea, a geographical undertaking in which Aristotle’s pupil Dikaiarchos of Messana went further, perhaps explicitly building upon the work of our unknown author.

Early printing historyEdit

The Periplus of Scylax, along with other minor ancient Greek geographers, was first published in Augsburg in 1600 by David Hoeschel. In Amsterdam, the Periplus was published by Gerardus Vossius in 1639 and then by John Hudson in his Geographi Graeci Minores. In Paris, the Periplus was published in 1826 by Jean François Gail and in Berlin it was published in 1831 by Rudolf Heinrich Klausen.


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