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Illyria in Late Antiquity

July 18 2003 at 3:21 PM
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From "History of Albania", A. Puto, S. Pollo

Illyria until the sixth century

In the first centuries AD the Illyrian towns had experienced considerable economic growth, based on the development of commerce and crafts. That, and the vast network of roads, the most notable being Via Egnatia, contributed to the expansion of the commerce between towns and regions; slaves, animal and agriculture products, pottery, iron and silver work were among products traded. Among products intended for outside markets, we should mention the cheese made by Docleats and the Dalmatians, the gold jewelry made by Dardanians and the clothes made by the Liburnians. In the towns, as well as objects of general consumption, art objects were equally in demand. Farming implements were improving allowing intensive agriculture. In the old cities, Durrachium, Apollonia, Buthront, Scodra, Amantia, Phoinike, Bylis the commerce had gained new dynamics even by the roman conquests in the East and Africa, and those cities enjoyed a respectable international reputation. In Durrachium, one of the largest cities of the empire, the old amphitheater was enlarged, that by its dimensions and the technique of the construction made it one of the most famous of the ancient world. The local aristocracy, having acquired an enormous richness, lived in houses with interior courtyards with gardens decorated by sculptures. The easier communication also helped in bridging the gap of tribal differences, thus molding together many characteristics of the same ethnicity.

Despite the major attempts of Rome to colonize the country and to spread the roman culture, the majority of the population in the inland areas was almost shielded from romanization. In the coastal cities themselves, although many colonists were settled there, the majority of the population remained Illyrian, as was noted by Hieronymus, in AD 420. During the early centuries AD, a whole new string of cities were founded in the inland, the biggest of whom being Scampin (Elbasan), Clodiana (Peqin), Adrianopole (near Gjirokaster). Parallel with the roman art, the Illyrian art continued to develop with its distinct features, as have been proved by archealogic escavations. The Illyrians preserved their names of places as well as their costumes, the people in many sculptures being represented by their local costumes. Many of these costumes were inherited into traditional Albanian ones, the most visible ones being the white wool skullcap (qeleshe) and the pointed leather boots, with the point of the toe drawn upwards and a fuzzy pom-pom fastened to the top (opinga). Historical descripitons of Illyrians in Roman times make reference to them and the cap is still worn in Albania in some rural areas. In religious matters, too, the Romans met with resistance. If they gave Latin names to Illyrian divinities, they did not succeed in modifying their iconographic representation, nor in depriving them of their ancient attributes. In the same time Oriental cults (persian, etc) had appeared, and in the coastal cities Christianity started to spread too. New elements of Roman civilization adopted by the Illyrians - especially objects of common use like tools and ornaments - eventually took on new features during the early Middle Ages, as they become integrated with traditional elements of the indigenous Illyrian civilization.

Another aspect to be noted is the Illyrian contribution to the Roman Civilization and Society. Roman writers mention a number of Illyrian artists, sculptors, architects, and philosophers working in Rome, most of who being taken as captives. Illyrian schools also hosted many Romans that latter became important figures of Roman history. Julius Caesar sent his nephew to study in Apollonia, whose school of philosophy was celebrated in antiquity. Also, by the third century the conflict between the Senate and the army and repeated raids by Germanic tribes, gave way to the process of 'provincialization' of the Empire. Highlander Illyrians became an important asset to fulfill an urgent need for strong solders and commanders, and raised to become leaders of the army and Emperors. Gaius Decius, Claudius II "Gothicus", Aurelian, Dioclecian, Constantine the Great, Julian, Claudius Probus and Justinian I were all Illyrians and form what many historians call as "the Illyrian dynasty".

Illyria in the sixth century

At the beginning of the sixth century AD the country of Illyria, including the regions that had belonged to the Western Empire until 476, was entirely under the authority of the Eastern Empire. From an administrative point of view, the country was divided into eleven provinces, as opposed to twenty-five which Byzantium now had in the Balkans. We can find the list, with its principal towns, in Hierocle's Synkedemos, drawn up in the sixth century in the reign of Justinian. Three of these provinces, Dalmatia, Savia and the Mediterrean Noric, formed the Diocese of Western Illiricum, while lower Pannonia, first Moesia, Mediterrean Dacia, second Macedonia, and the forth southern provinces covered the present area of the Albanians, that is to say, Dardania, Prevalitania, New Epirus, Old Epirus with their respective metropolises, Scupi, Scodra, Durrachium, Nicopoli. The country was fairly heavy populated - there is an estimate that about four million people were living in the provinces, out of the seven million that were to be found throughout the Balkan peninsula. They still were slaves and colonists, but the majority was peasants and free craftsman. Despite the crisis in slave society, most of the cities, were still rich ones; the lands were well cultivated and merchants traveled the roads to their profit. This situation gave the Empire and the local aristocracy, the opportunity of having monumental buildings constructed and reconstructed. At the beginning of the sixth century AD, the Emperor Anastasius undertook to construct at Durrachium, his birthtown, a ring of fortresses with triple ramparts, with an exterior wall 7 kilometers long and a central wall so thick that if one can believe the Byzantine writer in the twelfth century, Ann Comnenus, four horsemen could travel abreast along the top of it. Remains of some remarkable pieces of work still survive: to mention a few, the paleochristian baptistery at Buthront, the basilica with fifteen hemicycles in the village of Lin and the majestic colonnades in the amphitheater discovered at Durrachium.

But these were the final decades of an old era. On the northern bank of Danube, new troops of the barbarians were massing, who aimed to pillage the riches of the Balkans and Constatinople, the capital of the Empire. To check these invasions, Justinian had a large number of castles build along the boundaries hundreds of citadels in the various provinces. His biographer, Procope of Ceasarea, has left us in his book, De Aedificiis, the list of 167 fortresses constructed or reconstructed in the four southern Illyrian provinces. In Dardania alone, Procope counted 72, one of which, called Justiniana Prima, was build at Tauresian, Justinian's birthplace. These numerous works did not however saved the Balkans from the barbarian hurricane that ravaged it with a burst of violence during and after the reign of Justinian. Just how weak the Byzantine Empire was and how it collapsed so ungloriously, is still a theme of controversy among the historians. But the primary causes must be sought in the internal diseases that were gnawing away at the very foundations of the Byzantine society.

The barbarian invasions

For the Illyria, the long reign of Justinian (AD 527-65) marked a period of internal trouble and incessant external attacks, the prelude to her ruin. The flood of barbarian invasion began against Illyria in 529 with the arrival of the Antes, then about 540 came the Huns, the Goths and the Slavs. Justinian tried to dam the barbarian invasions, but without any great success. During the course of the second half of the sixth century AD, the political situation in the Balkans become even worse, following the appearance of the Avars, who crossed the Danube in 568, and inflicted a serious defeat in the Byzantine army. If at first the barbarians did not settle in the Illyrian provinces, during the war of 579-82, which brought again the Byzantines against the Avars, a new trend appeared, with consequences which were to prove even more serious for the peninsula in general and for the Illyrians in particular. In 580 the Byzantine armies had engaged against the Avars' multitude of Slavs, whose numbers according to Menander, a contemporary, must have reached some 100,000 men when burst on to the peninsula. As John of Ephesus was to write four years latter, they "ravaged, burned, pillaged and conquered the country, and finally settled there themselves, as if in their own country, by killing or expelling the natives with vicious hostility". Northern Illyria suffered a severe blow. Byzantium was again put to test, and engaged in the same time against the Perses in the east in 582 was forced to conclude a costly peace.

The flood of barbarian invasions left terrifying devastation in their wake in the Illyrian countryside. The inhabitants had to endure dreadful suffering and extreme hardship. "I believe", wrote Procope of Caesarea, recalling the province of Illyricum in his Historia Arcana, "that we must estimate at more than 200,000 the number of people who were massacred or taken into captivity, in which of these invasions, leaving these provinces looking like the desert of Schythia."

That was only the beginning of Slav migrations into Illyrian territory and the whole of the Balkan peninsula, for during the last quarter of the century new masses of the Slavs settled within the boundaries of the Empire. Without any possibility of offering an effectual resistance, the Illyrians moved to a large number of coastal citadels, the Dalmatian islands and the high mountains. The weakening of the Eastern Empire under the troubled reign of the basileus Phocas (AD 602-10) opened even wider the gates of Illyria to the Slav invasion, for by this time, the Slavs have reached the Dalmatian coast. The Emperor Heraclius (610-40), who was engaged for twenty years in a difficult war against the Perses, was not in the position to be interested in the Balkans. According to the Miracula Sancti Demetrii, written during these decades, entire provinces of Illyria were horribly ravaged. In 617, according to the Miracula, "a new swarm of lowbred Slavs settled further down, and from there took incursions in most of Prevalitania, Dardania, New and Old Epirus and Macedonia, and making the majority of towns and provinces inhabitable". The torment continued until the ninth century when the Byzantine, pressed by the italian policy of Charlemagne and the Arab appearance in the West, took control once again of the western Balkans. During their absence, substantial changes had occurred.

What were the results? First, from the end of the sixth century, the Eastern Empire lost its control of the western provinces of the Balkan peninsula. The Slav avalanche flung the imperial provincial administration and the regular ecclesiastical institutions out of these regions, while the Byzantine military garrisons had to withdraw to Thrace. In addition, the social instability spurred endless revolts of the slaves, and the country was torn apart by Slav devastations. These events and their historical implications, were paid for dearly. Massacres, epidemics and kidnappings had reduced and weakened the Illyrian population. The northern provinces, in particular, had suffered the loss of many lives and much more taking refuge in the southern provinces, or in the high mountains. A number of inhabitants in the cities had abandoned their homes to seek refuge in other areas and most of the cities were destroyed. Some of them were razed to the ground. Libraries, works of art, theatres, aqueducts and every thing that remained from the old civilization were burned down, destroyed or pillaged. According to an account from the Abbreviator of Strabo: "Nothing was speared. The Slavs after killing whoever had remained in the city, took whatever they could, and destroyed every thing else. From the large library of Dioclea not even a book remained, after everything was burned down, not even one!" Illyrian lands were on a whole a lamentable sight. The towns that had flourished until the sixth century, were decimated and covered with debris.

Ethnic repercussions were even more accentuated than the devastation of the economy. By the tenth century the barbarian hurricane had passed, but many of the former cities did not reappear. Some of them, notably Apollonia, Buthront, Phoinike, Albanopolis, Antigonea, Epidaurus, Salona, Dioclea, Bylis disappeared for good. Since the first half of the sixth century, the refugees from Epidaurus founded Ragusa (today Dubrovnik that had a large number of Albanians up to the late 15th century), the emigrants from Salona found shelter in Spoleto, the inhabitants of Dioclea went down to Antivar, those from Apollonia moved to Pojani and Vlora, those from Albanopolis went up to Croya (today Kruja). The others, following the example of Durrachium, which still remained the principal city in the country, shut themselves into their citadels (Scodra, Scupi, Oricum, Amantia, Lissus, Drivasti, Ulcini). From other provinces as the Miracula testifies, hundreds of thousands of refugees, who had escaped from the teeth of death, left their fertile lands in Moesia, Panonnia, Mediterranian Dacia and Naissus to settle in Dardania and the mountainous regions of Prevalitania. Some of them took refuge to Thessalonca and perhaps even to Constantinople. Others went as far as the Peloponnese. Beside the scattered indigenous population, northern and eastern Illyria became populated with Slavs. Except for the southern regions of Prevalitania, Dardania, Old Epirus, New Epirus and some strips in the Dalmatian coast, in all the other areas of what once was Illyria, the indigenous population by the tenth century formed but little islands in the Slav ocean, despite of the persistence of a few of the former Illyrian people in the ninth century in Bosnia, Herzegovina, Macedonia and Dalmatia. On the other hand, the southern provinces, become extremely overpopulated, by the flows of refugees coming from the north. These, and the shattered economy, brought sickness and despair. There, boxed in the corner, the former Illyrians that now gradually started to be called Albanians by foreigners and Arberesh by themselves, struggeled for survival and managed to keep the Slavs out of those areas. What the historical documentation (that is markedly lacking during these centuries) can not tell, the oral art describes in full colors. Namely, the Kreshniks Epos, whose creation many scholars place exactly between the sixth and tenth century. Some others believe that this epos, many elements of which can be traced back since before Illyro-Roman wars, was in existence and probably dying during the sixth century, and during the times of turmoil gained new dynamism and a new role to record the earthquakes the Illyrian society was going through. Only if you read a portion of this epos, you have right there the whole picture: bloodshed, fires, mythological animals eating whole cities in a heartbeat, displaced persons with utters of despair, and titanic struggles to keep the shkjas (Slavs) out of the Albanian villages. Most of the action happens exactly in the border between Albanian population and the new Slav ones: Kotor, Nish etc.

At the end of the tenth century, the Balkans' ethnic map had changed dramatically from that of the early centuries AD. Dacians had vanished since the roman times; the once territory of Dacia was populated with descendants of the roman soldiers or colonists and the remaining Dacians were fully assimilated into the roman culture, country also to be called after the name of the new colonists roman-Romania. Thracians disappeared for good. And so did Macedonians. In Greece the population was also going through dramatic changes. During the Slav migrations, Slav tribes were settled in Thessaly and the Peloponese. What had remained from the Hellenism were the language used by the Byzantine administration and church and the populations of Asia Minor and the islands. In Illyria, the biggest part of the country, was taken from Illyrians by the Slavs, and the former were either eliminated or pushed southwards. No historical source ever mentioned the settlement of any Slav group in Southern Illyria, which was overpopulated as it was. During these centuries a new group of people started to appear in the Balkans: the Vlachs. Their existence has been recorded in the Balkans at least since the eleventh century. According to some scholars they started their nomad life spreading all over the Balkans originating from Wallachia (Rumania). Another interesting theory exist that they were nothing but the former Illyrian and Thracian populations that were assimilated into the Roman culture that during the earth-shattering events found security in the nomad life in the mountains.

If Illyrians, could've had a reason for optimism, or if they would've seen behind the clouds of the time, they would've seen that they were the only group that managed to preserve the continuity of life when death was crawling around, and they had managed to preserve also their bloodline, culture and traditions. During the 6 centuries of Roman rule and 3 centuries of Slav devastation, they had changed also; the most visible one being their religion. But change was inevitable. For the most part they withstood the test of time, while others didn't. In centuries to come other tests would be put on these people with a tormented history, and they would surpass them too, against all odds.


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