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Eagles of the Balkans

A Brief Introduction to the History of the Albanian People, Part 1

They were called the Illyrians, a multi-tribe race of peoples who settled in the Balkan Peninsula centuries before succumbing to Roman conquest. As part of the Empire, Illyrians occupied the province of Illyricum, where art, culture, and philosophy flourished, and where they retained their ethnic identity while at the same time rising to positions of prominence, even that of Emperor.


The province of Illyricum, 1st century AD.

When the Empire was divided in 395 AD, the Illyrians came under the jurisdiction of the Eastern portion (the Byzantine Empire); yet their religious affiliation was with the Church of Rome. They continued to distinguish themselves in government, achieving once again the highest seat of power: the emperors Anastasius I, Justin I, and Justinian I were all Illyrians.

Slavic invasions c. 500-700 AD. Original province of Illyricum can be seen in violet.


During the early years of Byzantine rule, the one-time province of Illyricum suffered raids from Huns, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths. In the sixth century, invasions by the Slavs began, and much of the area was assimilated by the invaders, which included Bohemians, Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs. However, the southern Illyrians managed to hold onto their racial identity and their language.

It was sometime after these invasions that the Illyrians, influenced by the many cultures of the invaders as well as their allies, underwent a change. The name "Illyria" gradually gave way to that of "Albania." The first recorded instance of its use is in an account by Emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1081. Although the connection between modern Albanians and the ancient Illyrians has been disputed, it is generally accepted by ethnographers, and Albanians have claimed a link.

Due to the Iconoclastic Controversy, Emperor Leo III removed the Albanian church from Roman jurisdiction in 732 and placed it under the patriarch of Constantinople. In 1054, when the schism between the Eastern and Western Church became final, northern Albania reverted to the jurisdiction of Rome while southern Albania remained allied to Constantinople.

In addition to this religious division, parts of (and at times, all of) Albania, never fully protected by the Byzantine Empire, came under the political control of Bulgarians, Norman crusaders, the Angevins of southern Italy, Venetians, and Serbs. In the early 13th century, Albanian chieftains joined with Michael Angelus Ducas to form the Despotate of Epirus, which became the center of Greek resistance to Latin occupation of Byzantium after the Fourth Crusade.


Bulgarian territory in the 10th c.


The Despotate of Epirus in the early 13th c.

The Principality of Albania after 1347.


The occupation of their homeland in 1347 by the Serbs, led by Stefan Dusan, caused many Albanians to migrate abroad, particularly to Greece and the Aegean islands. Not long afterward the last of the Byzantine influence withdrew from the area as the Empire shrank in reaction to invading Turks. Now the Serbs and the Albanians were just two of several Balkan groups who faced the danger of these invaders.

Please join me next time for Part Two of Eagles of the Balkans.

Note: All maps are rough estimates by your Guide based on The Times Atlas of World History. They are not meant to be definitive representations, but are instead intended to offer a general idea of political boundaries throughout history.


Additional Resources

Albania: Historical Setting
Public-domain history of Albania through the Middle Ages from a larger work on the country of Albania produced by the Library of Congress, online here at the Medieval History site.

Yugoslavia: Historical Setting
Public-domain history of the former Yugoslavia through the Middle Ages from a larger work on the country of Yugoslavia produced by the Library of Congress, online here at the Medieval History site.

Links of Interest

Balkan Cleansing
About Guide to Ancient/Classical History, N.S. Gill, provides helpful info about the history of the Illyrians and some great links to Albanian history sites.

Geographical Dictionary of the Balkans
About Guide to Geography, Matt Rosenberg, provides useful information on the geography and history of Albania, Serbia, and other Balkan countries, including maps and links.

Sources and Suggested Reading

The links below will take you to an online bookstore, where you can find more information about the book to help you get it from your local library. This is provided as a convenience to you; neither Melissa Snell nor About is responsible for any purchases you make through these links.

The Albanians: An Ethnic History from Prehistoric Times to the Present
by Edwin E. Jacques
Though covering an extensive period of time, Jacques also manages to provide significant detail and draws from substantial sources.

Kosovo: A Short History
by Noel Malcolm
Offering new evidence and some controversial theories, Malcolm takes a fresh look at this highly volatile area. Includes an excellent bibliography.

Response to Noel Malcolm's Book: Kosovo: A Short History
by Milorad Ekmecic; translated by Tihomir Vuckovic
Malcolm's book provoked this reply.

The Three-Arched Bridge
by Ismail Kadare; translated by John Hodgson
An extraordinary novel set in medieval Albania chronicles the construction of a bridge, which serves as an allegory for political developments both then and now.

The Times Atlas of World History
edited by Geoffrey Barraclough
Excellent reference work of beautifully-presented historical maps.


Eagles of the Balkans, part 1 is copyright © 1999-2003 Melissa Snell. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for personal or classroom use only, provided that the URL below is included. For reprint permission, please contact Melissa Snell.

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