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Ancient tribe Illyrians - Ancestry and origin


The term Illyrians is understood differently and used inconsistently. In the period from the beginnings until the collapse of the Illyrian kingdom, the Illyrians showed themselves in varying alliances with tribes of common or similar origin and language. But only the southeastern regions of the Adriatic coast with hinterland can be rightly called Illyrian.
The name of the Illyrians became the name for many neighbouring tribes that were only loosely connected with them. The Roman conquest of the Balkan Peninsula and the establishment of the province of Illyricum accelerated the indiscriminate use of the name Illyrians.
The term "Illyria" was also used in late antiquity to describe the western Balkan peninsula. A central research problem is the question of an Illyrian tribe, because from the beginning the word "Illyrians" has been used by the ancient authors in the meaning of a tribal association. However, the Illyrians were hardly known in the Greek world, because the Greek colonization on the East Adriatic coast started only very limited or late.
Because of their semi-legendary character, the Illyrians were well suited as a starting point for national identity building. Since the 1830s there have been efforts in the Balkan Peninsula to trace the origins of their own people back to ancient peoples. The proponents of the South Slavic national movements (especially among Croats) claimed that their people were descended from the Illyrians and propagated the cultural, ethnic and political unity of all South Slavs. Illyrian linguistic endeavours led to the emergence of the Serbo-Croatian language, Serbo-Croats and Yugoslavs respectively.

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The Illyrian tribes and their distribution area

The term "Illyrians" is a collective name for an Indo-European group of peoples in the countries of the eastern Adriatic coast from Epirus to the Morawa and the middle Danube and in the northwest of the Adriatic Sea the Illyrian Venetes, which are divided into many individual tribes and are related to the Thracians.

The distribution area of the Illyrians extended in the northwest of the Balkan region, from the Adriatic coast of Dalmatia to Macedonia. The archaeological legacy shows the highest settlement density of Illyrian population groups for the area of today's Albania and Bosnia. The tribes of that region are described in the reports of Roman writers as "Illyrians in the true sense".

The Illyrians were not an ethnically homogeneous people, but a confederation of different tribes. Among them were the Dalmatians in central Dalmatia, the Liburnians (northwest Dalmatia), Taulantians (northern Albania), Breukians (on the lower course of the Sava, Sirmies), Japods (western Bosnia), Paeonians (northeast of Macedonia), and others.

North of the core area of Illyrian settlement, tribes were widespread which were also attributed to the Illyrians, but which also show characteristics of other ancient peoples. The Dardanians, for example, are thought to have been a Thracian tribe whose culture was transformed by the Illyrian one.


In the northwest of the Balkan region, local cultures with characteristic features known as proto-Illyrian developed from the 3rd millennium BC onwards. Pre-Indo-Germanic populations were involved in the process of Illyrian ethnogenesis, which entered into a union with the oldest Indo-Germanic immigrants. During the Bronze Age certain techniques of pottery production and burial forms (burials) spread from the Balkans to southern Italy.

Since about 1000 BC local cultures developed with continuity into the Iron Age (8th-6th century BC). The geographical distribution of these regional cultures reflects the differentiation of the Illyrian tribes.

The pre-Roman history

The earliest mentions of the Illyrians are found in Hecataios of Miletus (5th century B.C.). But already in the "Iliad" of Homer (8th century B.C.) the Illyrian peoples Dardani and Paeones are mentioned as allies of the Trojans. Since time immemorial the Illyrians have appeared as opponents and competitors first of the Greeks and later of the Macedonians. With the Celts in the Balkans there were also warlike conflicts, but in some regions also mixed populations.

Trade and traffic of the Greeks with the Illyrians, feared by them as barbarian and pirate, took place since the 6th century BC via the two Greek cities in the Illyrian region: Apollonia and Epidamnos. Greek imported goods from this time (metal goods, weapons, ceramics) are proven by Illyrian grave finds. In South Illyria an Illyrian kingdom was established in the 5th century BC. In general, the Illyrians were enemies of the Macedonians since they had invaded Macedonia around 393 BC. Since the 3rd century BC there were also constant conflicts between Illyrians and Romans. The Illyrians challenged the Romans with their Adriatic fleet in 229 BC. The conflicts dragged on for a long period of time and only in 168 BC did the Illyrian kingdom capitulate. But the conquest of the whole area inhabited by Illyrians lasted even longer.

The protectorate, which the Romans established in 167 B.C. over part of the Illyrian territory, was called "Illyria" in Latin. After the defeat of King Perseus of Macedonia in 168 BC, it was incorporated into the province of Macedonia. This protectorate was probably the origin of the Roman conception of Illyria. All subsequent Roman conquests, first the rest of the Illyrian kingdom, then the northern coastal regions and the Damaltine hinterland, were gradually added to Illyria.

Administratively, numerous tribes and peoples who had no ethnic connection to the Illyrians (Liburni, Histri) were classified as Illyricum and called Illyrian because they lived in Illyria. Greek and Latin writers of the time after the foundation of the protectorate of Illyricum, who mentioned Illyria and/or the Illyrians, did so only with regard to the administrative organization of the Balkans or in the geographical sense, because the northwest of the peninsula belonged mostly to Illyricum.

"Illyris" (as the Greek name suggests) was, according to Strabon (around 20 B.C.), a land that stretched from the upper parts of the Adriatic region down to the Rhyzonian Gulf and the land of the Ardiaei, between the sea and the Pannonian peoples.

The Romans conducted their campaigns mainly from their bases on the Italian Adriatic coast, but also from the Gallia Cisalpina. These attacks were directed against various tribes and peoples who later entered the province of Illyricum, especially the Histri, who were already subjugated in 177 BC. In general, the entire territory south of Formio was known as Illyria; under Augustus, probably between 18 and 12 B.C., Histria Illyricum was conquered and, together with Venetia, incorporated into the 10th region.

Illyria was economically attractive because of its mineral resources, which included precious metals such as gold, silver and copper, as well as iron and the forests.

The Roman province of Illyricum

It is not possible to give an exact date of the establishment of the province of Illyricum: according to Theodor Mommsen the province of Sulla might have been created.

The Senate Province of Illyricum included large parts of the later province of Dalmatia and parts of Pannonia. When under Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD) the provinces Dalmatia and Pannonia were formed from Illyricum, none of the newly formed provinces retained the old name.

Already under Augustus (63 B.C. - 14 A.D.) the name Illyricum no longer had anything to do with the originally Illyrian territory in the south of Dalmatia; since 32 B.C. it rather denoted the whole northern and central Balkan - from the Rhaetian Alps to Macedonia. Illyria comprised a larger territory than Pannonia and Dalmatia combined, probably including the territories that had been conquered by the proconsuls of Macedonia in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, and more or less coincided with the future province of Moesia. The name Illyricum was now used for other administrative units.

The term Illyria was probably the only one available with the necessary range of meaning to cover even approximately the areas under consideration; it is certain that this term paved the way for the late antique use of the word, as "Illyrian" under Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD) described the army stationed in the Balkans and later several emperors who came from the Balkans. The series begins with Decius (249-251 AD), but essentially comprises the emperors Claudius Gothicus (268-270), Aurelian (270-276), Probus (276-282), Diocletian (284-305), Maximianus (286-305) and Constantine (306-337). Even in antiquity, little education was attributed to these rulers, but on the other hand, familiarity with military service and excellent aptitude for state administration. As a rule, they owed their rise to their military prowess and, through internal reforms and successes in foreign policy, contributed greatly to resolving the crisis of the third century.

"Illyrian" here was not an ethnic attribution, but denoted the regional origin. In fact, the ancestors of the Illyrian emperors belonged - as far as can be seen from the written sources - to the more or less strongly Romanised provincial population of the Danube countries. Only in some of them are there indications of belonging to long-established peoples of the region. In the course of the 3rd century the Danube region had become one of the most important recruitment areas for the imperial army.

In the 4th century three dioceses of the new territorial-administrative structure of the Roman Empire were created in the Pannonian Balkan region (Pannonia, Moesia, Thracia): they belonged to the Illyricum, one of the four prefectures created by Emperor Constantine. In the Notitia dignitatum (around 395 A.D.) the prefecture of Illyricum orientale includes the dioceses of Macedonia (with Greece) and Dacia, while the diocese of Illyricum occidentale is part of the prefecture of Italia, with the two provinces of Noricum, the four of Pannonia and Dalmatia, but without Praevalitana.

When in the last quarter of the 6th century the Danube region was devastated by Slavic, Avaric and Hunnish attackers and finally escaped imperial control for a long time, the area lost its importance as a recruitment area for the army. From then on, most of the army commanders came from Asia Minor, and the time of the Illyrian emperors had also come to an end.

The Romanization of the Illyrians

For more than 7 centuries Illyrians and Romans (i.e. Italian colonists, Roman administrators and merchants) were in contact.

Following the failed "Pannonian revolt" (8 AD), an intensive Romanisation of the towns in Illyria began. The Illyrians on the Adriatic coast gradually acculturated, adopted Roman ways of life and, in the course of generations, also made a change of language to Latin. By the time of Late Antiquity, the Illyrian inhabitants of the Adriatic coast were largely Romanised.

The Albanians as successors of the Illyrians?

The relationship of the ancient Illyrians to the Albanians is controversial in research. Above all Albanian, but also some non-Albanian researchers are of the opinion that the Albanian language is the successor of Illyrian. Since there are only very few sources, exclusively short inscriptions as well as individual place, people and person names for the Illyrian language, a proof is very difficult. The hypothesis of Illyrian descent is based on the assumption that there is a remaining Illyrian population in the Albanian highlands, which survived the upheavals of the migration of peoples (4th to 6th century). It is based mainly on similarities between Illyrian and Albanian language and the high density of old Balkan toponyms in the region in question.

The hypothesis of Dacian descent assumes that the ancestors of the Albanians immigrated from the north-east and that they are hardly romanized Dacians. The proponents of this theory base this on some lexical and grammatical similarities between the Romanian and Albanian languages, which can be traced back to an Old Balkan substrate.

According to a third hypothesis, Albanian is the continuation of an Old Balkan idiom, which is not the same as Illyrian or Thracian, but a third language that has not been handed down. Most likely, although the Illyrians are related to the Albanians of today, they are only one of several elements of the ethnogenesis of this people.

The fact is, since the early Middle Ages, the neighbourhood of the Romanised coastal inhabitants has been inhabited by people from the interior who had retained their Illyrian mother tongue and culture. From this settlement symbiosis, in the area of northern Albania, the Albanian people emerged, in whose collective ethnicity the traces of Illyrianism have been preserved.

The ethnogenesis of the Albanians took place until the first mention of the ethnic group at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries in the western border area between the Bulgarian and the Byzantine Empire. For a long time, this area was not really dominated by either empire and thus offered opportunities for the development of an independent culture. The northern Albanian mountainous region had remained untouched by the Slavic land grab at the end of the migration period (from the 6th century).

The cultural and linguistic symbiosis between the Romanized Illyrians on the Adriatic coast and the Illyrian inhabitants of the mountainous interior, who had asserted their native traditions against the pressure of the Roman world, still appears in the Albanian language today. The legacy of the Romanized Illyrians are more than 600 loan words of Latin origin in the Albanian vocabulary.

Albanian is an Indo-Germanic language, which represents a branch of the language in its own right. Historical influences on Albanian came from Latin, Greek, the southern Slavic contact languages and Turkish.

The Illyrian language

Illyrian is an Indo-European language, and is closest related to Messapian in southern Italy (Puglia). The language of the Venetians, who are widespread in northeastern Italy, is also closely related.

Almost nothing is known about the Illyrian language; in Hesychios only one word is defined as Illyrian, while over 100 are defined as Macedonian. Only personal names and geographical names remain of them; it is not even certain whether the Illyrian languages belonged to the Kentum or Satem group.

The culture of the Illyrians

There are great onomastic and cultural differences between the different peoples in Illyria. Some reached a higher level of development: the difference in civilization was particularly great between the coastal peoples and the tribes in the interior. The unifying factor was mainly the locally varying degree of Romanisation.

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