This article analyzes the
ancient Illyrian and Epirot inhabitants of ancient Albania.
Also included is an a discussion of the modern controversial
debate of whether or not the Albanians of today descend from
the ancient Illyrians as illustrated by nationalistic websites
and video debates on Youtube. It is interesting to any reader
because it shows how cultures use nationalism and history
to create (falsely or not) an identity for their proud people.
Map courtesy CIA World Factbook
The history and culture
of the ancient Illyrians and Epirots, possible descendents
Many cultures, in the interest
of creating a justification for statehood and in order to
espouse the ancient and glorious qualities of their ancestors,
create social myths. Alexander claimed to descend from Zeus,
Harald Fairhair of Norway from Odin, and the Bulgarians from
the ancient Thracian masters
of gold. Some of these foundational myths may or may not
be true. The Albanian people, an incredibly proud, resilient,
and unique people of Europe, claim to descend from an ancient
tribe called the ILLYRIANS from the ancient Roman era. Many
of their streets, national movements, writings, sporty shirts,
and even newspapers are named after Illyria to prove that
the Albanians are an ancient people with a radiant heritage.
This myth has in part been intended to prove that the Albanians
have a righteous claim to a Greater Albania despite bitter
hatred from the Macedonians, Serbs, and Greeks who presently
control territory claimed by the Albanian minority.
The Illyrians were a mysterious
tribe of obscure ethno-racial origins that settled in present-day
Albania, northwestern Greece, possibly Kosovo, Montenegro,
and southern Bosnia as early as 1000BCE. They were a tribal
people with a number of clans, some warring and others engaged
in tribal confederacies and alliances. Most ancient sources,
such as those of the Roman Plutarch, describe the region and
its people as actively independent and engaged in war and
piracy against Roman and Greek shipping. The details of their
religion and language are obscure, but it appears that both
are entirely unique and of native Illyrian origin. "Illyrian"
today is classified as a language under the Indo-European
family that is separate from all other groups. They did not
have a written language of their own, and instead their verbal
language was occasionally expressed in Greek script. Their
religiosity appears to have involved a great emphasis on sacrifice,
war, equestrian lifestyle, and nature. Their culture was likely
influenced by the Greeks, as evidenced by archeological discoveries
of ancient Illyrian sculptures and other works of art. The
Illyrians, if not completely Greek themselves, inherited much
religious and cultural influence from sea-borne trade with
the Greeks and Romans. Images and bronzework depicting the
llyrians seems very reminiscent of Greek warrior imagery.
Unfortunately, so little
is known about Illyrian religion, ethno-racial origin, language,
and culture that any assertion is pure theory and is actively
disputed. It appears indisputable, however, that the Illyrians
forged a highly independent and unique cultural and religious
ethos of their own by the Roman period.
During the very early Roman
Republic period, Illyria and neighboring Epirus became formidable
and powerful regions, both with a number of centralized polities
of their own that greatly irritated Roman shipping and maritime
interests when Rome was still only a marginal power. View
the map below for a geographic comparison of "Albania"
(Illyria) to Epirus, Macedonia, and Rome. The majority of
Albania was ruled by the kingdom of Illyria. The neighboring
state of Epirus to the south, which many
Albanian nationalists today claim was ethnically Albanian,
straddled what are now Albania and Greece. As a result, Albanian
minorities in "South Epirus" -- today part of Greece
-- have consistently warred against the Greek government for
merger with Albania to no avail. Nonetheless, Epirus during
its written history was, unlike Illyria, definitively Greek
in culture and language despite the enduring Albanian claims.
During the 3rd century BCE, Epirus was a powerful despotate
ruled by the Greek general Pyrrhus, who almost
leveled Rome to the brink of collapse during the Pyrrhic War
from 280-275BCE, but he lost so many men that his victory
came at too high a price (a "Pyrrhic victory").
As a result, Rome crushed Epirus and quickly began its annexation
of the entire Balkan peninsula (including Illyria). Many Albanians
consider Pyrrhus an example of ancient Albanian history and
its triumphant military glory, whilst Greeks intently claim
that he is their hero.
A map showing the ancient nations and peoples, including the
Epirots and Illyrians in comparison with ancient Macedon and
the Roman Republic. A screenshot from the very accurate PC
game Europa Universalis: Rome (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
During the 3rd century BCE,
the kingdom of Illyria (what Albanians will call Albania)
was unified by King Agron, whose face is proudly on an Albanian
coin. After he died of alcohol poisoning, his wife Queen Teuta
-- considered a lion in Albanian heritage --employed pirate
tactics and crushed a number of Roman shipping fleets. This
piracy strengthened the independence and wealth of the Illyrian
state, although Teuta insisted that piracy was part of Illyrian
culture and not under her control. The growing Roman Republic,
which had by then obliterated "Albanian" Epirus'
military and conquered the rest of southern Italy to become
a major power, sent its legions to Illyria to demand the submission
of the Illyrians. Teuta's armies were crushed, and Illyria
was forced to submit to the Roman Empire as it remained for
the duration of the entire Roman Empire until its collapse
in the 5th century after Christ. All of what is now Albania
was now Roman-dominated for the next more than 500 years.
The modern debate of an
Illyrian origin of the Albanian people with nationalist websites
and Youtube videos
Despite the more than 2,200
years since the Illyrian people, their culture, their language,
and their religion even exited, the great majority of Albanians
proudly lionize their possible ancient Illyrian heritage.
Rather than being dismissed as a backward minority of drug
dealers, prostitutes, Muslims, and unemployed welfare recipients
as a great bulk of modern Greeks, Serbs, Macedonians, and
Italians consider them, the Albanians insist that they have
a longstanding and ancient heritage that must be respected.
It is easy to see the role of myth in these claims, but it
is also impossible to disprove them. Many modern groups in
the Balkans claim an ancient heritage, including the Romanians
and the Bulgarians (from the Dacians
and Thracians, respectively).
The Albanians, however, arguably have the most feasible claim
to their ancient origin. The Albanian tribes have lived in
a relatively isolated territory despite their proximity to
major civilized powers. Most Albanians were tribals who lived
in hills and mountains even as late as the Communist period
of Albania's brutally-isolated dictatorship of Enver Hoxha
from 1945 until the 1980's. Although Slavs invaded Albania
along with the rest of the Roman-ruled Balkans from the 6th
century onward, Albanian tribes remained rather isolated.
The region has very little agricultural or fiscal benefit
as well, and thus its population has enjoyed a great degree
of physically independence for most of the last 2,000 years.
So too, the Albanian language is one of the most unique in
the world, and no linguists have been able to trace it to
any other language. As a result, it is theoretically possible
that the modern Albanian language (Shqip) is related to the
ancient Illyrian language, which also has not been traced
to any other parentage.
My personal photo in Albania of an ancient synagogue in Albania
that was destroyed by settling Slavs who absorbed former Roman
territory. This is, in the mind of many non-Albanian Slavs,
evidence that the Albanians are not Illyrian but the descendents
of settled Slavs.
Albanians today actively
emphasize their independent racial, cultural, and linguistic
distinction from the rest of their neighbors. Many call themselves
Illyrians as often as they call themselves Albanians. Many
demand that Epirus and "all Illyria" (Macedonia,
Kosovo, etc.) must be taken by force and returned to the Illyrians
(Albanians). Serbs and Greeks angrily eschew even the mere
mention of "Albanian Illyria" as a bygone history
that has nothing to do with the modern Albanians.
The nationalist Albanian website Illyrians.org
encourages the return of all ancient Illyria (now spread across
many Slavic nations) by force. The "Illyria"
newspaper describes itself as the newspaper of Albanian-Americans.
Many arguments by Albanians over their Illyrian heritage
can be studied on Youtube, as seen below. Please
read the Youtube comments to see the intense hatred and disagreements
between each of the ethnic groups that claim the former Yugoslav
territories. The EHL does not support any of these views.
James Mayfield is a historian
and the Chairman of the European Heritage Library. I have
a Cum Laude BA in History with a Minor in Germanic Studies
(language and history), am presently working for my Masters
in History, and plan to immediately progress to my PhD Doctorate.
I have a special academic interest in Europe's diverse ethnic
identities, languages, and cultures, and the political struggles
of native European and immigrant minority identities. See
my staff entry for more information.
Personal travels, observations,
and interviews in Albania
The respective owners of
the displayed Youtube videos, who do not reflect our opinions
See links and courtesy throughout
CIA World Factbook
The PC game Europa Universalis:
Rome, by Paradox Interactive
Copyright ongoing since 2008-,
European Heritage Library®. www.euroheritage.net.
All Rights Reserved. The European Heritage Library is a non-profit academic
organization owned by
Chairman James Mayfield.
No email addresses or personal information is redistributed. No articles
or content on this site may be redistributed without approval or a
full citation and credit to the EHL as the original source.