Author: John Wilkes
108 Cowley Rd., Oxford, OX4 1JF, UK
238 Main St., Cambridge, MA 02142
Reviewed by Dr. Neritan Ceka, Professor of Archeology, Tirana University, Tirane, Albania
(Translated from the Albanian Language by Arben Kallamata)
Anglo-Saxon scholarly studies have never shown any lack of interest in the ancient and large Illyrian populations although a complete and general work about them had never been published. That void is now filled in a very fundamental manner with the publication in 1992 of “The Illyrians” by John Wilkes, professor at University College of London. Prof. Wilkes, a well-known authority in this field especially because his previously published book “Dalmatia” (1969) – an important work on this Illyrian province of the Roman Era – has now been able to provide, combined with this latest book, the most complete synthesis of Illyrian culture and history available to date.
The book examines the origin of the Illyrians (The Search for Illyrians), their history in the framework of the Hellenic World (Greek Illyrians), their place and role in the Roman Empire, and, finally, the ethnic and cultural inheritance of the Illyrians during the Middle Ages to the present (Roman Illyrians). For the author, the first task was to establish the Illyrians as a large population that spread all over the Central and Western Balkans during ancient times. Prof. Wilkes criticizes, in a very objective way, existing theses that attempt to describe the Illyrians against the framework of contemporary political thought that either understates them through identification with an older concept of Illyrians as an undefined group of tribes, or by their ethnic and cultural unification over the entire period that they are mentioned in ancient times.
The diversity and unity of the Illyrian world is now explained in a more detailed manner by the author based on Illyria’s colorful and geographic identity in ancient times. It is this period, oriented towards a symetric division from the Danube, the Egean and the Adriatic Sea, that the author has been able to trace the different cultural groups that begin to take shape in an ethnogenetic process (beginning with the close of the Eneolitic period) to become quite distinct in almost twenty units during the Iron Age.
Based on the results of archeological research of what were identified as Illyrian regions over these last 100 years, a detailed study of the ancient onomasticis has been compiled by the author. His view, the distinction between a Venetian – not Illyrian – linguistic and cultural province as opposed to two large regions with Illyrian characteristics in the Central and Southwestern Balkans between Drava and the Adriatic Sea, is now presented. Within this work, the author also includes the largest part of Dardania in a discussion which is generally based on existing political biases.
The historical synthesis of the Illyrians is short and quite easy to comprehend. One can grasp the true meaning by comparing the historical geography of the Illyrian regions and tribes to the most significant events and characters. By their integration within this framework, the archeological data about Illyrian economies and the populated cities help define the historical and social basis in which the Illyrian state functioned previously, from the time of Bardylis to Gentius.
The section entitled Illyrians under Roman Rule , one of the most comrehensive parts of the book, focuses mainly on the northern parts of Illyria. Here, too, through archeological analytical studies, conclusions are highlighted thus making it possible to comprehend some of the most important aspects of the social and political organization in the north of Illyria during the pax-romana. Various aspects of Illyrian life are also revealed including dress, food, women, wine, and economic activities based on archeological documentation during the Roman Empire.
One of the most interesting chapters is how Illyria became integrated into the Roman Empire where its most significant result was the series of famous Roman Emperors who were of Illyrian origin such as Aurelianus, Diocletian, Constantine, and others.
The chapter “Medieval and Modern Illyrians” concludes with the historical destiny of the Illyrians where the author deals with the ethnic continuity of the Illyrians to the present day Albanians based mainly on the archeological findings of the Koman-Kruja cultural group.
It is only natural that such a broad overview of the Illyrians, which at times includes deep and competent analyses, is not always able to escape some shortcomings. In general, however, the weight of documentation derived from studies of the northern parts of Illyria (that are better known by the author) is more substantial although they have not always been the determining factors of Illyrian history and culture. As a consequence, a somewhat spontaneus explanation of historical events, influenced in part by an exaggeration of the role of Illyrian piracy, is more heavily stressed.
Also, Greek colonization is more closely examined through sites in the North than through the resistance and eventual integration processes of Dyrrhachium and Apolonia. In this vein even Gajtan, a prehistoric tribal center, is erroneously transplanted as representative of the settlements of the IV-III centuries (p.127), a period that was identified by civilian settlements such as Bylis, Dimalo, Lissus etc. to which the author accords a proper place in his book (pp.133-136). On the other hand, the association of Illyrian cities with the activities of Pyrrhus (V. Garasanin, Moenia, Aeacia, Starinar 17, 1966) is simply an exaggeration of an unproven concept. Similiarly, the invasion of Dyrrhachium by a Dardanian king called Monounios around 280 BC should be regarded as a factually unfounded hypothesis. It should suffice to mention certain other points where this rich material has eluded critical evaluation and absorption by the author. Despite these shortcomings, Prof. Wilkes’ book, enhanced and supported by many illustrations and a selective bibliography, has undisputable value as an important and fundamental history of the Illyrians.