Illyrians: Appian of Alexandria (mid-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Illyrians: Appian of Alexandria (mid-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 14, 2023,

Ancient author: Appian of Alexandria, Roman Matters: Illyrian Book 10.1.1-6 (link)

Comments: We know very little about Appian beyond that he was a Greek from Alexandria, spent time as a lawyer in Rome, belonged to the equestrian order, and likely took a position as procurator. Appian’s work on Roman Matters is an important source not only for the Roman civil wars but also for Rome’s engagements with other peoples (the so-called “Foreign Wars” section of the work), including the peoples that the Romans and Greeks grouped together under the label “Illyrians.” Much like “Thracians” and “Scythians,” the category “Illyrians” was a designation for a variety of different peoples who lived on the Balkan peninsula between Epeiros in the southeast and Pannonia in the northwest, extending northeast up to the Danube (ancient Istros) river. Appian himself is very much aware that “Illyrians” was an outsider designation rather than a self-identification.  Even though less than comprehensive, Appian supplies the most extensive discussion of the peoples in this region that we possess.

Source of the translation: H. White, Appian’s Roman History, volume 2, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1912), public domain, adapted by Harland.


Book 10

[Origins of the “Illyrians”]

1 (1) The Greeks call those people “Illyrians” who occupy the region beyond Macedonia and Thrace from Chaonia and Thesprotia [both in Epeiros in central western Greece] to the river Istros [Danube; i.e. the Balkan peninsula, including most of modern Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo and portions of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Slovenia]. This is the length of the country. Its breadth is from Macedonia and the mountains of Thrace to Pannonia [north of “Illyria”] and the Ionian sea [Adriatic] and the foothills of the Alps. Its breadth is five days’ journey and its length thirty, as the Greek writers say. The Romans measured the country and found its length to be upward of 6,000 stadium-lengths and its width about 1,200 stadium-lengths.

(2) They say that the country received its name from Illyrios, the son of Polyphemos. For the kyklops Polyphemos and his wife, Galateia, had three sons, Celtos, Illyrios, and Galas, all of whom migrated from Sicily. Those called Celts, Illyrians, and Galatians took their origin from them. Among the many myths prevailing among many peoples this seems to me the most plausible.

Illyrius had six sons, Encheleus, Autarieus, Dardanos, Maidos, Taulas, and Perrhaebos, also daughters, Partho, Daortho, Dassaro, and others, from whom sprang the Taulantians, Perrhaebians, Encheleans, Autariensians, Dardanians, Parthenians, Dassaretians, and Darsians. Autarieus had a son Pannonios, or Paion, and the latter had sons, Scordiskos and Triballos, from whom peoples (ethnē) bearing similar names were derived. But I will leave these matters to those who talk about ancient times (archaiologoi).

[Illyrian descent groups or tribes]

(3) The Illyrian descent groups (genē) are many, as is natural in so extensive a country. Still celebrated now are the names of the Scordiskians and the Triballians, who inhabited a wide region and destroyed each other by wars to such a degree that the remnant of the Triballians took refuge with the Getaians on the other side of the Istros [Danube]. Although the Triballians flourished until the time of Philip and Alexander, they are now extinct and the name is hardly known in the regions they once inhabited.

The Scordiskians, having been reduced to extreme weakness in the same way, and having suffered much at a later period in war with the Romans, took refuge in the islands of the same river. In the course of time, some of them returned and settled on the confines of Pannonia. So it is that a tribe of the Scordiskians still remains in Pannonia. In a similar manner the Ardiaians, who were distinguished for their maritime power, were finally destroyed by the Autariensians, whose land forces were stronger, but whom they had often defeated.

The Liburnians, another Illyrian descent group, were next to the Ardiaians as a maritime people. Liburnians engaged in sea-banditry in the Ionian [Adriatic] sea and islands with their light, fast-sailing vessels, for which reason the Romans to this day call their own light, swift ships with two-banks of oars “liburnidas.”

(4) The Autariensians were overtaken with destruction by the vengeance of Apollo. Having joined Molostimos and the Celtic people called Kimbrians in an expedition against the temple of Delphi, most of them were destroyed by storm, hurricane, and lightning just before the sacrilege was committed. Upon those who returned home there came a countless number of frogs, which filled the streams and polluted the water. The noxious vapors rising from the ground caused a plague among the Illyrians which was especially fatal to the Autariensians. At last they fled from their homes, and as the plague still clung to them (and for fear of it nobody would receive them), they came, after a journey of twenty-three days, to a marshy and uninhabited district of the Getaians, where they settled near the Bastarnians. The god visited the Celts with an earthquake and overthrew their cities, and did not ease off on the disaster until these also fled from their homes and made an incursion into Illyria among their fellow culprits, who had been weakened by the plague. While robbing the Illyrians they caught the plague and again took to flight and plundered their way to the Pyrenees mountains.

[Romans’ early interactions with peoples of Illyria and with Celts]

When the Romans were returning to the east, they were mindful of their former encounters with the Celts and afraid of the possibility that the Celts would cross the Alps and invade Italy. So the Romans sent against the Celts both consuls, who were annihilated with the whole army. This disaster for the Romans brought great dread of the Celts upon all Italy until Gaius Marius, who had lately triumphed over the Numidians and Mauritanians, was chosen commander and defeated the Kimbrians repeatedly with great slaughter, as I have related in my “Gallic History.” Being reduced to extreme weakness and, for that reason, excluded from every land, they returned home, inflicting and suffering many injuries on the way.

(5) Such was the punishment which the god visited upon the Illyrians and the Celts for their impiety. But they did not desist from temple robbing. For, in conjunction with the Celts, certain Illyrian descent groups, especially the Scordiskians, Maidians, and Dardanians again invaded Macedonia and Greece together. They plundered many temples, including that of Delphi, but lost many men this time also. The Romans, thirty-two years after their first encounter with the Celts, having fought with them at intervals since that time, now, under the leadership of Lucius Scipio, made war against the Illyrians, on account of this temple robbery, as the Romans now held sway over the Greeks and the Macedonians.

It is said that the neighbours, remembering the disaster that happened to all the Illyrians on account of the crime of the Autariensians, would not give aid to the temple robbers. Instead, they abandoned them to Scipio, who destroyed most of the Scordiskians, with the remainder fleeing to the Istros river and settling in the islands of that river. Scipio made peace with the Maidians and Dardanians, accepting from them part of the gold belonging to the temple. One of the Roman writers says that this was the chief cause of the numerous civil wars of the Romans after Lucius Scipio’s time till the establishment of the empire. So much by way of preface concerning the peoples whom the Greeks called Illyrians.

(6) These peoples, and also the Pannonians, the Rhaetians, the Norikans, the Mysians of Europe, and the other neighbours who inhabited the right bank of the Istros, the Romans distinguished from one another just as the various Greek peoples are distinguished from each other. They call each people by its own name, but they consider the whole of Illyria as embraced under a common designation. Where this idea began I have not been able to find out, but it continues to this day. For they farm the tax of all the peoples from the source of the Istros river to the Pontic sea [Black Sea] under one category, and call it the “Illyrian tax.” Why the Romans subjugated them and what the real causes or pretexts of the wars were, I acknowledged that I had not discovered (when I was writing about Crete), and I called on those who were able to tell more to do so. I will only write down what I know.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *